Christie’s. The year at auction: 2014.

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.

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:


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

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


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.

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.


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.

Acquired from Spink & Son, Ltd., London by 1999

Asia Week New York has kicked off in good style. On 11 March, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents seized two objects from Christie’s New York auction house. The objects, lots 61 and 62 of the scheduled 15 March sale of ‘The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern’, are believed to have been smuggled out of India.

The seizures were made as part of Operation Hidden Idol, an ongoing investigation into the business of former New York dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is currently under arrest and on trial in India. The ICE release does not specifically say that the seized objects passed through the hands of Kapoor, but the New York Times reports that they were recognized from images recovered during a raid on Kapoor’s New York premises in 2012.

The ICE press release states that lot 61 appears to have been sold sometime between 2006-2007 by Oliver Forge to London–based Brandon [sic] Lynch Ltd. Oliver Forge and Brendon Lynch are joint proprietors of art dealership Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd. Forge and Lynch left Sotheby’s London in 1997 when the company stopped its London sales of antiquities after allegations of malpractice made by Peter Watson in his book Sotheby’s: Inside Story. Thus the implication is that the objects were smuggled out of India to Kapoor, and that one of them passed through the hands of Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd, before being acquired by the Lahiri Collection and consigned for sale at Christie’s.

The provenances provided in the Christie’s catalogue are for lot 61 ‘Acquired in London by 1999’ and for lot 62 ‘Acquired from Spink & Son, Ltd., London by 1999’. So both pieces are claimed to have been in London prior to 1999, with one and perhaps both acquired from Spink. Did Kapoor have dealings with Spink? It seems not. The press release states that ‘HSI special agents were able to determine that both of these artifacts had come from a specific smuggler and supplier of illicit cultural property in India’. Is Spink a false provenance? Maybe so. The ICE release goes on to state that ‘HSI special agents have tracked many false provenances and this has been one of the pillars of Operation Hidden Idol’. If Spink is a false provenance, it would be interesting to know how Christie’s attempted to verify it during their due diligence procedure.

The London-based company Spink & Son often turns up in the provenance listings of Asian objects. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Spink was a clearinghouse for Asian antiquities, once described as a ‘department store’ type of a dealer [1], offering a retail experience for customers to browse and buy. Some at least of the material sold through Spink was of dubious provenance, including the Koh Ker athlete offered for sale at Sotheby’s in March 2011 with a provenance of ‘Spink & Son 1975’, which was returned to the ownership of Cambodia in 2013. But Spink never published comprehensive, illustrated catalogues of the type offered by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, so that now it is difficult to ascertain whether or not an object was ever sold at Spink. Perhaps there are internal records of transactions, but if so, their location is not publicly known.

Christie’s bought Spink & Son in 1993, and ended Spink’s Asian sales in February 2000 before selling off what remained of the company in 2002. Today, Spink no longer sells Asian material. So, if any records of Spink’s Asian sales still exist, Christie’s must hold them. Perhaps Christie’s was able to verify the Spink provenance of lot 62 internally using these records, though it has issued no statement to that effect. A Christie’s spokesperson did, however, complain that evidence known to HSI agents is not available to support the company’s due diligence procedures. She was quoted as saying that the absence of publicly available records is ‘one of the difficulties the art market faces in vetting antiquities’. Quite so. That is something we can all agree upon. Perhaps to help remedy the situation Christie’s would like to make publicly available what records it retains of Spink’s Asian sales, and if it does not possess such records, explain where they are or why they no longer exist. Surely a resource of such importance for reconstructing and verifying provenance would not be shredded for reasons of space or economy – unless of course commercial companies are not as keen to ‘vet antiquities’ as they claim to be.


  1. Moncrieff, Elspeth, 2000. Death of the oldest art dealership in the world, Art Newspaper no. 101: 34.

Jason Felch now has more information availble on his blog Chasing Aphrodite.