It wasn’t me!

The forthcoming February TimeLine auction offers 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects. Only five have a provenance putting them out of Iraq before August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661, which placed trade sanctions on any goods exported from Iraq including cultural objects such as cuneiform tablets. The provenances of the remainder are chronologically indeterminate. UNSCR 661 was reaffirmed for cultural objects in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483, which in June 2003 was implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8(2) of the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order requires that:

Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable.

Article 8(4) defines ‘illegally removed Iraqi cultural property’ as:

Iraqi cultural property and any other item of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance illegally removed from any location in Iraq since 6th August 1990.

Thus, the date threshold in the UK for discriminating between Iraqi cultural objects legally and illegally on the market remains 6 August 1990. Any object moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency. What about the TimeLine objects of indeterminate provenance date? Unless the company has more information about provenance which it has decided not to make public, it cannot be said with any certainty from what has been made public when the objects in question were moved out of Iraq. The uncertainty doesn’t seem to be deterring customers though. At time of writing, eight of the indeterminate objects had between them received 36 bids. The deterrent effect of the Sanctions Order is hardly appreciable.

The most interesting object in the sale is lot 0235, described as a “Western Asiatic Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel”. Not an Iraqi Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel, which would be a more accurate description, but a “Western Asiatic Babylonian Sin-Iddinam Cuneiform Barrel”. Anyhow, that is not really the point. The point is the provenance:

Ex central London gallery; acquired August 1999 from a UK dealer; acquired by them from an Oxford academic, from a UK collection formed before 1992; this lot has been checked against the Interpol Database of stolen works of art and is accompanied by AIAD certificate number no. 10324-166483.

So, if the provenance is correct, the barrel is first known to have been in the UK by 1999 after acquisition by a UK dealer sometime before then. In other words, the barrel is said to have been in the UK by 1999 at the latest and who knows when at the earliest. There is nothing to establish that the barrel was in the UK before the 1990 date required by the Iraq (UN Sanctions) Order.

The TimeLine object description doesn’t include a translation of the barrel’s inscription. This is strange, because normally the inscription on an object such as this one that has been in circulation for 20 years or more will have been translated. Perhaps it has, and just not published by TimeLine, though the company normally does include translations when they are available (see for example lot 0238 in the same sale). If in fact the inscription records Sin-iddinam dredging the Tigris, which seems likely, the barrel will be one of many that have appeared on the market or in private collections since 1990. Before that date, only three were known. In 2011, Andrew George listed 21 recently-appeared examples, suggesting a probable find spot of Larsa, Adab or Zabalam (George 2011: 99). The most likely explanation for the proliferation of these barrels is that they were looted and trafficked from Iraq during the 1990s, making it all the more important for TimeLine to secure a provenance dating back to before 1990.

But what about “acquired from an Oxford academic”? Who was the Oxford academic? I can tell you now it wasn’t me. There is always Dirk Obbink, of course, who arrived at Oxford in 1995. According to the allegations swirling about (Higgins 2020; Sabar 2020), by 2010 he was selling papyri to the Hobby Lobby corporation, including some said to have been stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society. After 2010, he was also active in two antiquities dealerships: Oxford Ancient and Castle Folio. So, if the provenance is to believed, the barrel was acquired from an Oxford academic by 1999 at the latest, at which time Obbink was in post but a few years before the first evidence of his involvement with antiquities trading. Was he already dabbling in the antiquities market in the late 1990s, and would Obbink, who is a papyrologist, have been interested in a cuneiform barrel? Perhaps not. Perhaps Obbink wasn’t the only mucky-fingered academic active in Oxford at the time. And remember, ‘Oxford academic’ doesn’t necessarily mean a University of Oxford academic. I know many academics living in Oxford who are not employed by the University of Oxford. Perhaps it was one of them.

References

George, Andrew (ed.), 2011. Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 17). Bethesda: CDL.

Higgins, Charlotte, 2020. A scandal in Oxford: the curious case of the stolen gospel, Guardian, 9 January. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/jan/09/a-scandal-in-oxford-the-curious-case-of-the-stolen-gospel

Sabar, Ariel, 2020. A Biblical mystery at Oxford, Atlantic, June. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/museum-of-the-bible-obbink-gospel-of-mark/610576/

A Sumerian problem?

While I have been looking at cuneiform tablets offered for sale by TimeLine Auctions, it seems the British Museum has been looking at other Iraqi artefacts. It was reported on Sunday that part of an Early Dynastic III (Sumerian) votive wall plaque is to be returned to Iraq. One of the BM’s curators recognised the plaque when it appeared in the catalogue of the May 2019 TimeLine sale and notified the Metropolitan Police. TimeLine then relinquished possession to the police. The plaque is believed to have been looted, though no corroborating evidence has been published. Perhaps it was handed over because of deficient provenance. The catalogue entry stated that the plaque belonged to a private collection formed in the 1990s. TimeLine said the collector had acquired it some years ago in Germany. So, it sounds as though there was nothing to show that the plaque had been out of Iraq before 6 August 1990, as required by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483, implemented in the United Kingdom as the Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. Article 8 of the Iraq Sanctions Order requires that “Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable”. Perhaps that is why TimeLine gave it up. Worth noting though that the Iraq Sanctions Order doesn’t say a person must only cause the transfer of an object when a constable shows up on their doorstep, but perhaps I am being pedantic. All the same, it shows pretty poor due diligence on the part of TimeLine. The plaque passed the Art Loss Register check of course.

Interestingly, a British Museum curator was quoted as saying “We’re used to coming across tablets, pots, metalwork, seals and figurines on the art market or in seizures that have been trafficked. But it’s really exceptional to see something of this quality”. Confirmation if any is needed that the bulk of the antiquities trade now comprises low-value objects – the bulk of the visible trade coming through the UK at least. But it also seems to imply that action is only thought necessary for high-value pieces such as the Sumerian plaque. A problematical policy if true.

Christie’s says: ‘Bigger is generally better’!

What determines the price of an antiquity? Its quality, measured by its artistic or art historical importance, or its provenance? And if it is provenance, is it the prestige and reputation of a previous owner that adds most to price, or evidence that the antiquity has been in circulation long enough to have passed a legal or ethical threshold of acceptable ownership? Recent received wisdom is that antiquities with a provenance stretching back to before 1970 command a price premium, 1970 being the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The idea of a pre-1970 price premium has gained traction since 2008, when the Association of Art Museum Directors adopted 1970 as a provenance threshold for determining the acceptability of an acquisition. Going forward, collectors wanting to gift or bequest antiquities to museums would need to be careful about this 1970 threshold, and make their purchasing decisions accordingly. Over time, this accumulating customer preference for a pre-1970 provenance would promote a market in well-provenanced antiquities and suppress the market in recently stolen and illegally-traded ones, something I have called autoregulation. Or at least, that is how the argument goes. Reliable statistics making the case for provenance one way or another are hard to come by.

What do art market professionals themselves have to say on the subject? During the run-up to its 25 April 2017 New York Antiquities sale, Christie’s specialist Laetitia Delaloye offered her thoughts on what determines the price of an antiquity. First and foremost, she said, it is a matter of size – ‘As a rule, larger pieces in good condition will sell for the highest prices, while smaller pieces are more likely to survive and are therefore more common on the market’. Then, obviously perhaps, she also highlighted the importance of condition – the extent to which a piece has been repaired or restored. A signed piece is always good too. For provenance, she believes it is the name or reputation of previous owners that is likely to add ‘significant value’ to a piece, and she did not mention any legal or ethical advantages of a pre-1970 provenance, or any positive effect such a provenance might exert upon price.

Delaloye’s post was prefacing the sale on 25 April of a collection Greek figure-decorated pottery from a ‘Manhattan Private Collection’, which included 15 Attic black-figure vessels. Lot 202, a hydria, had an impeccable provenance that could be traced back to the collection of Reverend John Hamilton-Gray and Elizabeth Caroline Hamilton-Gray, which was sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in 1888. It passed next through the possession of the Pitt Rivers family before moving through Geneva to join the Manhattan collector. Lot 206, a trefoil oinochoe, also had a long provenance, first seen at Drouot in 1903 and featured in several publications since then. Alongside these two pieces with a published provenance that could be traced back to before 1910, lot 207 had been first published in 1962, six vessels had been first published later than 1970, and six had not been published at all.

This first chart plots the maximum dimension of each vessel sold (measured in centimetres) against its realised price (in USD). In graphic confirmation of Delaloye’s belief that ‘bigger is generally better’, there is a strong correlation between size and price. The three largest vessels achieved the three highest prices, and not one had a provenance that could be traced back to before 1970. Size is without doubt the primary determinant of price. On the other hand, there is a suggestion that within their size class the well-provenanced lots 202 and 206 performed better than their more poorly-provenanced fellows. Thus there is evidence here that when corrected for size, so that like is compared to like, a long provenance does indeed carry a price premium. By itself, however, this would not be enough to exert a decisive influence on the market. Auction houses would be keen to sell the highest-price vessels possible, and so would discriminate in favour of size, not provenance.  The Manhattan collector acquired four vessels (lots 205, 207, 215 and 216) from Nicolas Koutoulakis in the 1980s. Koutoulakis has been described as the ‘dean of all antiquities dealers active in the Arab world and beyond’ [1]. He figured centrally on the organigram seized by the Italian Carabinieri in 1995 and his name has been associated with the histories of several illegally-traded antiquities. The discussion of due diligence in article 4(4) of the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects recommends among other things that ‘regard shall be had to all the circumstances of the acquisition, including the character of the parties’. Thus any names of suspect dealers appearing in the provenance of an object should raise red flags, and discourage its purchase, though that does not seem to have happened here. The prices realised by the Koutoulakis vessels were in accordance with their size. They offer further evidence that a questionable provenance does not unduly discourage purchase nor does it have a serious negative impact on price.

[1] Krosney, Herbert, 2006. The Lost Gospel. Washington DC: National Geographic, at page 66.

 

Sotheby’s carries on where it left off?

In 1997, Sotheby’s stopped holding regular antiquities sales in London. The final sale was held in November 1997. Sotheby’s announced its decision had been prompted by the declining profitability of its London operation when compared New York, but it was widely believed the decision owed more to allegations that Sotheby’s was selling trafficked material. Last year, Sotheby’s looks to have revived its London antiquities sales, an indication if any is needed of the increasing importance of London as an antiquities marketplace. This year the company has scheduled for 12 June its sale of ‘Ancient Marbles: Classical Sculpture and Works of Art’.

The ever vigilant Christos Tsirogiannis has discovered in the confiscated archive of Italian dealer Gianfranco Becchina images and documentation that seemingly relate to lot 8 in the forthcoming sale, described as ‘An Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele, circa 350-340 BC’. Sotheby’s provides the following provenance:

John Hewett, Bog Farm, Kent, 1960s; New York art market, acquired from the above on 3 November 1980; American private collection; American family trust (Sotheby’s New York, 10 December 2008, lot 28), acquired by the present owner at the above sale.

The stele was also offered at Christie’s London, 24 October 2013, lot 32, but did not sell. John Hewett was a leading antiquities dealer in post-war London, friendly with Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s and advisor to the Sainsbury Collection. He was also friends with collector George Ortiz.

From his research, Christos believes the stele was most likely discovered in Greece, and that it was in Becchina’s possession from 1977 until 1990, when it was sold to George Ortiz, who died in October 2013.

It is noticeable that the name of Gianfranco Becchina, who has been tried in Italy on charges relating to antiquities trafficking, does not appear in the Sotheby’s provenance. Did Sotheby’s choose not to include him, or did they not know about his previous possession of the piece? Either way, there are problems. The proposed sale of the stele calls into question Sotheby’s policies as regards acceptable provenance and appropriate publication of provenance, or else its due diligence procedures when researching provenance.

The Rihani ‘provenance’

In May 2016, I wrote about objects with a Rihani provenance being sold by TimeLine Auctions of London. I have now had time to look more closely at other Rihani objects sold at past TimeLine sales, and the results are unsettling, though hardly surprising.

Ghassan Rihani was a Jordanian citizen and resident who died in 2001. At some point in time, he exported a large collection of antiquities to his daughter who was then resident in London. The official Jordanian authorisation for this export, written in Arabic, is dated 19 September 1988, though the English translation is dated 12 October 1992, so it is thought likely that the export took place sometime after the date of the English translation. As I wrote last May, this export authorisation ‘legitimizes the export of Jordanian material from Jordan, but not the export of material originating in other countries’, though the Rihani provenance is routinely applied to objects that most likely originated in Iraq, Syria or other neighbouring countries. At best in such cases, it would provide a terminus ante quem – a date before which an object was out of its country of origin. For Iraq, it would post-date United Nations Security Council Resolution of 6 August 1990 which prohibited the trade of illegally-exported Iraqi objects. Thus a Rihani provenance, even if genuine, does not necessarily legitimise an object.

As can be seen, the Jordanian document authorizes the export of 2000 ‘pottery utensils’ and 50 ‘various stone pieces’ as shown in ‘attached pictures’. The attached pictures have never been made public, assuming they actually existed, so it is not possible to compare objects authorized for export with those now sold in London with a Rihani provenance. From its own records, over the past few years TimeLine has offered for sale 84 objects with a Rihani provenance, including 34 stone cylinder seals, a further 18 stone objects, 6 small metal figurines, 17 pots, and an assortment of other small ceramic objects. So that is a total of 52 stone objects and 6 metal objects. More cylinder seals and metal objects have been sold by Artemission and Ancient and Oriental. The Jordanian authorisation makes no mention of metal objects, and so when the Rihani provenance is attached to a metal object it is demonstrably false. The cylinder seals are problematical too. Yes, they are made of stone, but it is strange that cylinder seals are not specified on the authorisation. In any case, even if it is assumed that every single stone object of the 50 authorised for export was a cylinder seal, it still leaves more than two cylinder seals with a fictitious provenance. In reality, it is probably the case that the Rihani provenance for most if not all of the cylinder seals is false, attached to disguise the sale of material that has most likely been moved illegally out of Iraq or perhaps Syria.

TimeLine itself is not inventing these provenances, nor is it accepting any responsibility for them. As I pointed out last time, its terms and conditions of business include the following small-print statement:

The Buyer is obligated to make all and any enquiries he wishes as to the accuracy and authenticity of any sale description and the principle of caveat emptor applies except where expressly excluded by operation of law. TimeLine does not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere

So the Rihani provenances are being attached to objects before being offered by Timeline, but by whom and at which point in the trading chain? Attaching a false provenance to an illegally-exported object constitutes fraud, an offence which as the Metropolitan Police have shown us is easier to prosecute than theft.

Rihani might be the least of TimeLine’s problems. In its 21 February 2017 sale my Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis identified three objects which had passed through the hands of known traffickers, all described with the same provenance as ‘Property of a London gentleman; acquired from a major Mayfair gallery; acquired on the London art market before 2000’. Christos sourced two of the objects to Robin Symes and one to Giacomo Medici.

I pointed last May to the endorsement logos lined up at the bottom of the TimeLine homepage: the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD), the British Numismatic Trade Association (BNTA), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Harwich Port Authority, and the Art Loss Register (ALR). These days, the CBI and the Harwich Port Authority have been replaced by Brentwood Chamber of Commerce. The AIAD is still there. Among other things, the AIAD’s code of conduct specifies that:

2) The Member agrees to conduct his business at all times with due regard to all pertinent current legislation and with utmost good faith. The Member further agrees to establish the identity of the vendor, that the vendor has legal title to the material and (where applicable) that the item has been exported or imported in conformity with local laws.

4) PROVENANCE. The Member agrees to maintain full and accurate records of relevant sales and purchases. Provenance of any item offered for sale is to be established to the extent that this is reasonably achievable, and the description thereof is to be as full and accurate as possible.

Timeline’s description on the AIAD website is:

TimeLine Originals offers a selection of genuine ancient coins and antiquities as collectibles and works of art. We supply all periods of ancient coins, antiquities, related accessories and books. We are one of Britain’s leading web-based coin and ancient art galleries. All items are fully researched, guaranteed genuine and sold with an illustrated certificate of authenticity. Absolute discretion and confidentiality assured.

So what is the truth of the matter? Are all objects ‘fully researched’ by TimeLine, as the AIAD description claims, or does in fact TimeLine undertake ‘no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine’, as its own terms and conditions state. Are all objects ‘guaranteed genuine’ as the AIAD would lead us to believe, or does TimeLine ‘not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price’. This contradictory information is confusing, more so given that TimeLine’s director is also a director of AIAD, so you would think he would be able to get his story straight. It is a mess.

It is disappointing to find the ALR still openly endorsing TimeLine. Openly endorsing a clearly stated policy of caveat emptor, the sale of poorly-researched material with demonstrably fraudulent use of the Rihani provenance, and the sale of material that has passed through the hands on known traffickers. By allowing its logo to be openly displayed on the TimeLine website, the ALR creates for the nervous customer a mistaken reassurance that everything is above board, when in fact it is a mess. By continuing to associate itself with a mess, the ALR will increasingly come to look like a mess itself.

Christos in Germany

Christos Tsirogiannis has identified four objects in the forthcoming Gorny & Mosch auction to be held in Munich on 14 December 2016 that appear in the confiscated image archives of Robin Symes and Gianfranco Becchina. They are:

 

lot-19-symes

 

Lot 19. An Etruscan bronze figure of a youth (mid-fifth-century BC). Provenance: R.G. collection Germany; Royal-Athena Galleries, New York, catalogue 21, 2010; Sotheby’s London, 13 July 1981, lot 341.

Christos first recognised this figure in the Symes archive back in January 2011, when it was on offer at Royal-Athena Galleries, though clearly no action was taken by the relevant authorities as it has now reappeared on the market. David Gill has more to say about the figure’s provenance, showing among other things that it had been offered previously by Royal-Athena Galleries in 1985.

 

lot-87-in-becchina

Lot 87. An Apulian red-figure situla of the Lycurgus Painter (360–350 BC). Provenance: James Stirt collection, Vevey, Switzerland, acquired 1997 from Heidi Vollmöller, Zurich.

This piece appears covered with soil and salt encrustations on a Becchina image, alongside other objects in the same condition. A handwritten note indicates that the images were sent from Raffaele Montichelli, a convicted antiquities trafficker, to Becchina on 18 March 1988.

 

lot-88-in-becchina

Lot 88. An Apulian red-figure bell-krater of the Dechter Painter (350–340 BC). Provenance: Antike Kunst Palladion gallery, Basel; Borowzova collection, Binnigen, Switzerland, acquired 1976 from Elie Borowski, Basel.

Antike Kunst Palladion was Becchina’s gallery in Basel. The krater appears on an image from the Becchina archive looking freshly excavated with soil and salt encrustations. The date printed on the image reads ‘APR 4 ’89’ (4 April 1989), raising questions about the alleged ownership of Elie Borowski 13 years earlier in 1976. The Gorny & Mosch provenance also notes that the krater was attributed to the Dechter Painter by A.D. Trendall.

 

lot-127-in-becchina

Lot 127. A Gnathia ware squat alabastron with the bust of a winged woman with sakkos, and said to be from the White Sakkos Painter (Apulia, 320–310 BC). Provenance: Christie´s London, 15 April 2015, lot 113; Hans Humbel collection, Switzerland, acquired from the Galerie Arete, Zürich in the early 1990s.

This alabastron appears on an image sent to Becchina by Raffaele Montichelli, alongside several other objects, dating to 24 September 1988. Christos previously identified this alabastron a year and a half ago as one of two vases comprising lot 113 in the Christie’s London 15 April 2015 sale. The alabastron was one of four identifications made by Christos in the Christie’s sale and subsequently withdrawn. Lynda Albertson adds that the provenance provided in the 2015 Christie’s catalogue entry states that the piece had been acquired by the consignor from the Petit Musée, Montreal, in 1998.

 

Lynda Albertson has also very helpfully provided a German-language description of the material.

 

Geddes surfacings

On 20 November 2016, Christian McCann Auctions of Melbourne, Australia offered for sale the fine and decorative art collection of Stewart Macciolli. The collection included a range of Classical Greek and South Italian pottery. Some of the pottery had been seen before in the catalogue of the Bonhams London 15 October 2008 auction of the collection of Melbourne-based dealer Graham Geddes. The day before the sale was due to go ahead, however, Bonhams withdrew 13 pieces from auction.

Five lots offered by Christian McCann in November had been withdrawn by Bonhams in 2008. They were:

Lot 331. An Attic red-figure bell krater, attributed to the Retorted Painter, circa 380–360 BC. (Sold 36,000 AUD).

Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 20 May 1985, lot 383.

Exhibited: Borchardt Library, La Trobe University, Melbourne, March 1995–April 2008.

The krater was lot 9 in the 2008 Bonhams sale.

Lot 332. An Attic black-figure column krater, attributed to the Swing Painter, circa 530 BC. (Passed).

Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 13–14 July 1987, lot 440.

Exhibited: Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne, March 1988–February 1994; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, April 2005–April 2008.

The krater was lot 6 in the 2008 Bonhams sale.

Lot 335. A Campanian red-figure neck amphora, attributed to near the Chequer and Dirce Painters, circa 380 BC. (Sold 16,200 AUD).

Provenance: Amati Collection London, mid-1970s.

Exhibited: Melbourne University, March 1988–July 2003; Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities, Monash University, Melbourne, November 2005–April 2008.

The amphora was lot 36 in the 2008 Bonhams sale.

Lot 336. A Campanian red-figure bell krater, circa 335 BC. (Sold 6,400 AUD).

Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 22 May 1989, lot 199.

Exhibited: Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities, Monash University, Melbourne, November 2005–April 2008; University of Melbourne, March 1995–July 2003.

The krater was lot 26 in the 2008 Bonhams sale.

Lot 337. An Apulian red-figure pelike, circa fourth century BC. (Sold 9,200 AUD). 

Provenance: Ex Haley’s, Melbourne, 2003.

Exhibited: University of Melbourne, Australia, March 1995–July 2003.

The pelike was lot 150 in the 2008 Bonhams sale. The Bonhams provenance made no mention of Haley’s but said the piece had been acquired in England in 1979.

None of the provenance entries for the Christian McCann auction made mention of the 2008 Bonhams catalogue. Someone was clearly aware of it, as the object descriptions are closely similar. Take Christian McCann lot 336, for example, which was described as:

‘Enlivened with added white, side (a) showing the figure of a male acrobat, his body bent backwards into an arch, wearing a tight short patterned kilt with a spotted waistband, a beaded band around his head, with ivy leaves in the field, side (b) depicting a swan in profile to the right, with a rosette and ivy leaves in the field, each scene flanked on either side by a split palmette, with small palmettes under the upturned handles, a wave pattern baseline below, a band of laurel beneath the exterior rim’.

In the 2008 Bonhams catalogue, it was described as:

‘Enlivened with added white, side (a) showing the figure of a male acrobat, his body bent backwards into an arch, wearing a tight short patterned kilt with a spotted waistband, a beaded band around his torso, bracelets at his wrists and ankles, a laurel wreath around his head, with ivy leaves in the field, side (b) showing a swan in profile to the right, with a rosette and ivy leaves in the field, each scene flanked on either side by a split palmette, with small palmettes under the upturned handles, a wave pattern baseline below, a band of laurel under the exterior rim’.

The Christian McCann sale of this pottery raises many questions. In the first place, why was the pottery withdrawn from sale by Bonhams in 2008? It was reported at the time in the Daily Telegraph that ‘Bonhams made the last minute decision not to auction the artefacts after being told by the Italian embassy in London that some of them were probably stolen and illegally exported from Italy’ (Squires 2008). But either the Italian authorities did not follow up their allegations or were not able to prove them. Either way, the pottery ended up with Macciolli. Given the Melbourne connection between Geddes and Macciolli, the most likely course of events is that Bonhams returned the material to Geddes, who subsequently sold it to Macciolli. That does not exclude the possibility that Bonhams took a more active role in arranging the sale between Geddes and Macciolli. But was Macciolli made aware of the Bonhams history? Did he receive any reassurances? Was Christian McCann made aware of the Bonhams history? If so, why was it not included in the individual provenance entries? Finally, four of the five pieces offered by Christian McCann sold. Were the buyers made aware of the Bonhams history at time of purchase?

Despite the questionable provenance of the pieces, prices achieved at the Christian McCann sale held up well. The following table compares the achieved prices at Christian McCann with the Bonhams estimates (all prices in USD). Direct comparison is misleading because of the time lapse, but still, there is little evidence of questionable provenance having a serious negative impact on price, as is often claimed.

Christian McCann lot Christian McCann price Bonhams estimate
331 26,280 32,000-44,000
335 16,200 13,000-19,000
336 4,698 2,500-3,800
337 6,753 2,500-3,800

 

Reference

Squires, Nick, 2008. Suspicions that Roman artefacts were illegally traded, Daily Telegraph, 16 October.

Bonhams under the Christoscope

My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis has identified two polaroid images in the Medici archive which appear to show an Etruscan terracotta antefix offered at Bonhams London as lot 14 in its forthcoming 30 November Antiquities sale. The provenance provided by Bonhams is ‘James Chesterman Collection (1926-2014), formed in the UK in the 1970s-2000. With À la Reine Margot, Paris, acquired in December 1986’.

christoscope

christoscope-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the polaroid images is attached to a Hydra Gallery form, with the handwritten ‘v. Londr’ indicating the piece was intended for sale in London. Medici opened the Geneva-based Hydra Gallery in 1983, so presumably he sold the antefix sometime between 1983 and 1986.

Bonhams has withdrawn the piece from sale.

Christos never sleeps

christos-sleeps-1My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis has just revealed that lot 92 in the forthcoming 25 October Antiquities sale at Christie’s New York appears in the Robin Symes archive of confiscated photographs. Greek police seized the photographs during a 2006 raid on Robin Symes’ villa on the island of Schinoussa. Described as a Roman marble draped goddess, the provenance provided for the piece by Christie’s says only that it is property ‘from a distinguished private collection’ and that it was acquired by the current owner from the Perpitch Gallery, Paris, sometime before 1991.

Before accepting an object for sale, Christie’s requires documentary evidence that it was out of its country of origin before a specified date. The date is that of an MOU with the USA, the start of a conflict, or 2000, whichever is most appropriate. Thus for the present piece, presumably the company’s due diligence was limited to establishing the pre-2000 date of acquisition, and failed to uncover the earlier involvement of Symes.

Christie’s has withdrawn the piece from sale.

Market transparency? Seeing through Christie’s

SAFE has recently published the text of an interview with the Senior Vice-President and General Counsel for Dispute Resolutions and Legal Public Affairs at Christie’s. The interview presents Christie’s views on how the transparency and general legitimacy of the antiquities trade could be improved. The company believes that the biggest obstacle to investigating the provenance and thus title of objects to be sold is shortage of information because of the limited availability of reference databases, regretting the ‘tremendous’ amount of private documentation that exists but is kept secret. The example of the Giacomo Medici polaroids is highlighted, which are believed to comprise a visual record of hundreds if not thousands of illegally-traded antiquities.

Christie’s is correct. Transparency is indeed the surest route to legitimacy, and transparency can only be improved by the release into the public domain of privately held information about the collecting and trading histories of circulating antiquities. And one can understand the concern of Christie’s, caught, as it is, offering for sale (unknowingly) objects that had passed through Medici’s hands. But surely Christie’s and its associated auction houses and trade organisations could impress upon Medici the importance of making his archive public? What is the problem? Why is he so reluctant to help the market when he was once such an enthusiastic beneficiary?

Christie’s itself is not above criticism. Provenance entries in its catalogues often appear incomplete, and the suspicion is that the company is withholding information. Client confidentiality would no doubt be its reply – the right of a consignor to protect his or her privacy. But if that is the case, come out and say so. It is part of the problem, something to be tackled, not something to be ignored. And as explained in an earlier post, Christie’s is in possession of the original records of London’s Spink auction house, a repository of information crucial for investigating the provenance of Asian objects.

If Christie’s is serious in its professed commitment to market transparency, there are two things it should do. First, it should construct a publicly-accessible, free-to-use database of all lots previously offered for sale by the company, together with associated provenance information. At the very least, it should make its old catalogues available for viewing on-line. Second, and as a matter of some urgency, it should also make the Spink archive available on-line or otherwise accessible to interested researchers and members of the public.