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.

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’.

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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.

Christie’s welcomes work of Christos Tsirogiannis shock

My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis suggests two objects that were offered for sale in the 12 April Christie’s New York Antiquities auction had most likely passed through the hands of convicted antiquities dealers.

Photograph of hydria found in possession of Giacomo Medici

Photograph of hydria, found in possession of Giacomo Medici

Lot 36: A Greek black-glazed hydria, with an estimate of $8,000 – $12,000. The catalogue entry states that this hydria is from the collection of Charles Brickbauer of Baltimore, who bought it from Royal Athena Galleries of New York in 1988. Before that, it had been sold at Sotheby’s London on 10 December 1987 (lot 243). Christos discovered a photograph of the hydria among those seized from convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici. Christie’s subsequently withdrew the lot from sale.

Photograph of head found in the possession of Gianfranco Becchina

Photograph of head, found in the possession of Gianfranco Becchina

Lot 70: A Roman marble janiform Herm head, with an estimate of $40,000 – $60,000. The catalogue entry describes the head as the ‘property of a lady’, with a provenance ‘New York, Boston & Texas, acquired prior to 1995; thence by descent to the current owner’. Christos identified the head on a photograph seized from the convicted antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina. Christie’s subsequently withdrew the lot from sale.

Interpol, the Italian Carabinieri, and relevant US authorities have all been notified.

By coincidence, Mike Pitts has just published an article in the May-June issue of British Archaeology about other identifications made by Christos. The article draws attention to an on-line piece written by a Christie’s specialist which suggests that ‘The ideal provenance traces the movement of an object from the point of excavation, sometimes as early as the 16th century, to the present day’. That hardly ever happens, of course. As the British Archaeology article shows, most objects offered for sale at auction have a provenance that can be traced back to between 1970 and 2000 but no further.

The date of 2000 is an important one. It is an open secret that Christie’s and perhaps other auction houses have adopted 2000 as a provenance cut-off, and are offering for sale objects with a collecting or trading history that can be demonstrated to stretch back to sometime before that date, but with no attempt being made to reconstruct a complete provenance. The danger of adopting the 2000 cut-off is that Christie’s leaves itself vulnerable to accepting objects that have been traded by Medici, Becchina or others of their ilk. Perhaps the company believes that the appearance of a couple of questionable objects in an occasional sale causes very little financial or reputational harm and considers it an acceptable cost of doing business. If that is the case, it is a poor reflection on its idea of ‘corporate social responsibility’, whereby it claims to support ‘the honourable and legal market in ancient art’. Christos will be pleased to learn, however, that Christie’s does see his own work as indispensable for the creation of a ‘legal market’, when it says that ‘we positively welcome and encourage scrutiny of our catalogues by museums, archeologists, collectors, law enforcement and government agencies’. Christie’s will surely join me in saying ‘thank you Christos, for your continuing efforts in creating a legal market and cleaning up the antiquities trade’.

David Gill has asked whether Charles Brickbauer will be returning the hydria to Italy, while Lynda Albertson has discussed the identifications in the context of statements made by representatives of the art market at a recent UNESCO meeting.