On 30 July 2014, Christie’s auction house in London brokered the private sale of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Hobby Lobby for $1,674,000. Nothing was known about this sale until the US Attorney’s 2020 complaint revealed all. Well, to more accurate, the complaint revealed quite a lot. Crucially, it didn’t disclose the name of the US ‘antiquities dealer’ who imported the piece into the USA in 2003, nor of the ‘auction house’ that sold it to Hobby Lobby. It took the Hobby Lobby complaint to identify Christie’s as the ‘auction house’. The identity of the ‘antiquities dealer’ remains a mystery.
While the Christie’s folk in London were busy hoovering up $1,674,000 from Hobby Lobby, they also sold 287 lots through their regular (and public) April and October antiquities auctions, for a total sales revenue of approximately $8,759,876. The contribution of the Gilgamesh sale to annual profit must have been significant. And we only know about the Gilgamesh Tablet because of the US Attorney’s complaint. Perhaps there were more private sales we know nothing about, and perhaps Christie’s annual revenue was many times higher than what can be calculated from publicly-available auction results. This is a problem because many estimates of the overall value of the antiquities market start from the published results of the major auction houses, which, if the Gilgamesh Tablet is anything to go by, might be serious under-estimates.
But Christie’s wasn’t selling everything secretly back in 2014. In July’s Exceptional Sale, with great fanfare, it knocked down a limestone statue of Sekhemka dating to the Egyptian Old Kingdom for $27,001,163, which was more than double the top end of the pre-sale estimate. So, Christie’s isn’t shy about selling high-end antiquities at public auction when it wants to. If the Sekhemka statue is anything to go by, public auctions are a good way of driving up price. Maybe the vendor of the Gilgamesh Dream tablet should feel aggrieved that Christie’s didn’t go public with his antiquity. But then maybe it had good reason not to. The Sekhemka statue had what in the antiquities world is regarded as a good provenance. The second Marquess of Northampton originally acquired the statue in Egypt in 1849-50 and one of his descendants had gifted it to Northampton Museum by 1880. The US dealer bought the Gilgamesh Tablet in a shady transaction in a London apartment in 2003. Perhaps if the Gilgamesh Tablet’s provenance had matched that of the Sekhemka statue it too would have been sold openly at public auction. Unfortunately, it didn’t and it wasn’t.
But in 2014 that’s not all that was going on at Christie’s in London. Lot 173 in its April sale’s catalogue listed a Greek core-formed glass oinochoe with a provenance ‘Anonymous sale; Sotheby’s, London, 11 July 1988, lot 198’. Antiquities sleuth Christos Tsirogiannis recognised it among the Medici polaroids, and thus in all probability looted and smuggled out of Italy. Christie’s withdrew the oinochoe from sale and a spokesperson stated that:
We take illicit trade extremely seriously and work with all the international agencies to ensure that we sell only works of art which are legal to sell. … This is a rare incident where additional information regarding provenance, previously not accessible to our researchers, has come to light. Therefore we have withdrawn the work.
Hmmm. So how was Christie’s working with international agencies about the legitimacy of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet? Nothing on record that I can see. And when additional information about the provenance of the Gilgamesh Tablet did become available, in the form of the US antiquities dealer saying it would not stand up to scrutiny, did Christie’s withdraw the piece? Not a bit of it. The US Attorney alleges that Christie’s told the dealer it would sell the piece through private sale rather than by public auction.
It is hard to know what is more unreliable about Christie’s, its provenance research or its statements about provenance research. And lest we forget, this was the company representing the antiquities trade at a UNESCO-sponsored meeting in 2013. Does Christie’s really represent the trade? Let us hope not.