Christie’s partners art trafficking shock!

I have recently come across the report of a UNESCO meeting held in Amman Jordan in February 2013 to discuss the looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural objects. Titled Regional Training on Syrian Cultural Heritage: Addressing the Issue of Illicit Trafficking, it is noticeable that although the meeting was held to discuss illicit trade, most of the discussion concerned law and archaeology. There was hardly any discussion of the trade itself or of the market or market actors. In fact, the sole market “expert” present was a representative of Christie’s auction house. It is worth reproducing the text of the UNESCO report as it presents the Christie’s contribution:

Christie’s Auction House presented the perspective of the art market. The representative from Christie’s stressed that his company condemns illicit trafficking of art and actively discourages it, e.g. by insisting on providing recent history of objects to eliminate looted artefacts. The need for cooperation and information exchange was emphasized. From this perspective, Christie’s deplored the relatively little engagement with the art market on the part of stakeholders, as auction houses should not be seen as enemies, but partners in regard to the illicit trafficking of art.

This was February 2013 remember, a year before Christie’s embarked upon selling the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Hobby Lobby. So, in Amman, Christie’s was claiming to insist that vendors should provide the ‘recent history of objects’. From what we know of the Gilgamesh Tablet case, this statement is factually accurate. The US attorney reports that Christie’s did reach out to the US dealer who had purchased the tablet in London in 2003. What Christie’s didn’t do was to make public the dealer’s opinion that the tablet’s provenance ‘would not hold up to scrutiny’ (presumably because he had invented in himself). And indeed, looking at the UNESCO text, Christie’s doesn’t actually say what it would do with awkward information received about provenance. The wording of the text leaves it for the reader to imagine that Christie’s would act upon information in such a way as to discourage illicit trade. The Gilgamesh Tablet case suggests otherwise – Christie’s would ignore or suppress any potentially incriminating evidence. It is a mystery why UNESCO didn’t invite experts in illicit trade to speak at the Amman meeting, but it is illuminating to read at the end of the UNESCO text that Christie’s considers itself to be a partner in regard to the trafficking of art. An inadvertent admission perhaps?

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet

I have previously written about how in September 2019 US law enforcement agents seized the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet from the possession of the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, though at the time I didn’t say much about the tablet itself. On 18 May 2020 the US Attorney’s Office opened civil proceedings to forfeit the tablet for return to Iraq and on the same day Hobby Lobby sued Christie’s auction house to recover the tablet’s purchase price together with associated interest, fees and costs. The court documents associated with these two cases have much to say about the movement of the Dream Tablet after its purchase in London in 2003, though sadly, nothing much about how it reached London in the first place.

The US attorney’s complaint records that in or before 2001, an unnamed US dealer visited London to view a group of cuneiform tablets in the possession of Jordanian dealer Ghassan Rihani. In spring 2003, the US dealer returned to London in the company of a ‘cuneiform expert’ and paid a Rihani family member $50,350 for a group of cuneiform tablets, which included what would come to be known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet. Once the tablets were in the USA, the cuneiform expert recognised the tablet for what it was, and in March 2005 shipped it to Princeton New Jersey for study and publication by Andrew George, who was at the time visiting professor there.

In February 2007, the US dealer sold the Gilgamesh Tablet accompanied by a preliminary translation prepared by the cuneiform expert to two unnamed buyers for $50,000. When requested, the US dealer supplied as provenance a letter stating falsely that the tablet had been purchased in 1981 as part of lot 1503 at a Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco. The catalogue described the lot as comprising a ‘box of miscellaneous bronze fragments’ – there was no mention of a cuneiform tablet. The letter further stated that the tablet had been deaccessioned from a small museum.

George’s translation was published in 2007, stating that the owner of the tablet, presumably the US dealer, wished to remain anonymous. George also noted that the tablet had been offered for sale by bookseller Michael Sharpe. Sharpe’s catalogue priced the tablet at $450,000, observing that it had been ‘professionally conserved according to established archival standards’. It noted that the text was to be published by Andrew George. It also offered some preliminary textual analysis by Renee Kovacs and finished by stating that Kovacs had supplied an authentication and ‘clear provenance’. The mention of Kovacs has caused speculation that she was the ‘cuneiform expert’ mentioned in the DA’s complaint.  

By late 2013, the Gilgamesh Tablet was in the possession of Tel Aviv resident Joseph David Hackmey, who approached the London office of Christie’s to discuss selling it. He had purchased the tablet from a presently unknown person who had in turn bought it from Sharpe.

The US attorney alleges that in December 2013 Christie’s contacted the US dealer who had purchased the tablet from the Rihanis asking about provenance, but he replied by warning that the Butterfield’s provenance would not hold up to scrutiny in a public auction. Christie’s decided in consequence to opt for a private rather than public sale. (Christie’s denies these allegations). Christie’s then contacted Hobby Lobby about a possible purchase, and in March 2014 a representative of Hobby Lobby viewed the tablet in London. Christie’s provided Hobby Lobby with a specially-prepared illustrated sale catalogue, which included the following provenance information:

PROVENANCE:

Butterfield and Butterfield, San Francisco, 20 August, 1981, lot 1503.

with Michael Sharpe Rare and Antiquarian Books, Pasadena, California.

PUBLISHED:

A.R. George, “The civilizing of Ea-Enkidu: an unusual tablet of the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic”, Revue d’assyriologie et d’archeologie orientale, vol. 101, 2007, pp. 59–80.

The catalogue also included a translation of the tablet’s text and discussed George’s published findings.

By 15 July 2014, Christie’s had shipped the tablet to New York. Around 23 July 2104, Hobby Lobby asked Christie’s to amend the supplied invoice to include the tablet’s approximate date of production and Iraq as its country of origin. Christie’s responded accordingly. Christie’s also supplied copies of the Butterfield’s and Michael Sharpe catalogues and on 24 July e-mailed Hobby Lobby the revised invoice, stating that:

Here is the revised invoice for the Gilgamesh tablet, stating its place of creation and date.

Regarding earlier provenance:

We can safely say it left Iraq before 1981 as that is the date it was sold in a Butterfield’s auction in San Francisco. The person who bought it in the Butterfields sale told us it was part of lot 1503 and that it was heavily encrusted with salts and unreadable. [He or She] also mentioned that at the time, it was said to have been de-accessioned from a small museum, and so in all likelihood it was in the US well before 1981. Unfortunately Butterfields no longer have their consignor records so we could not corroborate this further. It was subsequently with Michael Sharp[e].

Receiving this communication, Hobby Lobby agreed to purchase the tablet and on 30 July paid Christie’s $1,674,000. In September 2014, Christie’s flew the tablet from New York to Oklahoma City for delivery to Hobby Lobby. After purchase, Hobby Lobby transferred the Gilgamesh Tablet to the Museum of the Bible for display at the museum’s opening in November 2017.