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.

Ongoing trade in cuneiform tablets

TimeLine Auctions has been doing a brisk trade in Iraqi cuneiform tablets this year. In its February sale, it offered and sold 14 cuneiform-inscribed objects for a total of £38,088 at an average price of £2,721. In its June sale, it offered 20 objects, selling 18 for a total of £36,810 at an average price of £2,045. A further 10 objects are offered in its forthcoming September sale. The tablets generally are of singular interest and look to be derived from one or more private collections. Provenance descriptions are vague as usual, usually anonymous, though often providing a date range to indicate the approximate timing of an object’s arrival in a private collection outside Iraq. The dating breakdown for 43 objects is as follows:

Provenance datingNumber of objects
1935-19651
1975-19851
Late 1980s–early 1990s24
Before 19922
1990-20004
1990s2
19981
Before 20001
No date7

Provenances can be invented and fabricated, but taking these TimeLine provenance dates at face value, only two objects can be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990, the date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661. UNSCR 661 placed a trade embargo upon Iraqi goods, including cultural objects, and the embargo on cultural objects is still in force. It was reaffirmed in May 2003 by UNSCR 1483. Article 7 of UNSCR 1483 specifically states that the trade in Iraqi cultural objects would be prohibited when ‘reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed’ from Iraq since the adoption of UNSCR 661. On 14 June 2003, UNSCR 1483 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 objects moved out of Iraq after that date must be surrendered to an appropriate law enforcement agency.

The TimeLine tablets that cannot definitively be placed outside Iraq before 6 August 1990 (all but two) were quite obviously not surrendered to law enforcement, presumably because it was impossible to prove that they actually did move out of Iraq after that date (which isn’t to say that they didn’t). Thus unless TimeLine has documentation with more precise dating information that it has decided not to share, the provenance dates provided for most objects straddle the 6 August 1990 threshold and are useless for determining the legitimacy of a piece according to UK law. Perhaps the objects concerned did all leave Iraq before 6 August 1990 – there is no way of knowing.

Having said that, three objects do look particularly suspect. The first is lot 259 sold for £16,000 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a rare Jemdet Nasr pictographic tablet that according to its provenance was published in 2016 by Salvatore F. Monaco as no. 131 in Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections. Monaco commented that the texts published therein had been taken from photographs of tablets sold on the Internet that:

all come from Illicit excavations, which, although carried out by looters since the middle of the nineteenth century, had recently attained, as a consequence of the political situation, an unprecedented level of growth (Monaco 2016: 1).

The second is lot 242 sold for £2,800 in June 2020 with a provenance dated to the late 1980s-early 1990s. It is a New Babylonian foundation brick from Larsa carrying an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar. Nearly a decade ago now, I drew attention to similar bricks appearing on the market, showing how they had been cut down from their original size, presumably to facilitate transport (Brodie 2011: 125-126). Since then, I have been sporadically monitoring the market and I have now logged more than 30 examples of similar cut-down bricks. Although some have unconfirmed provenance dates stretching back to the 1960s, none was documented publicly before 2003 and the suspicion persists that these bricks were all looted from Larsa in the early 2000s.

Finally, there is lot 175 in the forthcoming September 2020 sale, which is a large Ur III administrative tablet attributed to Adad-tillati of the site of Garšana. There is no date included in the provenance description. Garšana is notorious as a site looted sometime during the 1990s and the source of a large archive of Adad-tillati tablets, most of which are in the possession of Cornell University (Owen and Mayr 2007; Molina 2020: 325-327).

The sale of these three objects calls into question TimeLine’s due diligence. If I can discover suspicious uncertainties about their provenance, anyone can. Does TimeLine simply take the consignor’s word at face value, or does it conduct its own provenance research or validation? Apparently, it leaves responsibility (and any culpability) with the (anonymous) consignor. In its extremely small print terms and conditions, TimeLine has this to say:

TimeLine do 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.

No guarantee or duty of care regarding provenance. Caveat emptor. The small print continues:

in submitting any Lot for sale, the Seller warrants and represents to TimeLine the matters set out in the Property Acceptance/Receipt and Seller’s statement of provenance.

That is the summary of TimeLine’s due diligence: requesting the consignor to sign off on provenance. TimeLine is protecting itself but not the buyer.

Contrast TimeLine’s policy of absent due diligence to the more proactive one advocated by the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in its code of conduct:

Members undertake to carry out Due Diligence, as set out under this Code, to ensure, as far as they are able, that objects in which they trade were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property and are lawfully on the market for sale.

Members will make all reasonable enquiries to ascertain earlier ownership history of any object they are considering purchasing, mindful that the illicit removal of archaeological objects from their original context is damaging to our knowledge and understanding of the past.

The ADA subscribes to the tenets of the Hague Convention and will pay particular attention to items that may have originated from conflict zones.

In these instances further documentation should be sought from the seller demonstrating they have been in circulation outside the conflict zone prior to conflict.

The ADA is also governed by the following: Objects originating from Syria are subject to restrictions as required by (EU) Council Regulation No. 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013 amending (EU) Council Regulation No. 36/2012 of 18 January 2012 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria. The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 prohibits the importation or exportation of any cultural property illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990.

Thus for objects from Iraq, the ADA requires its members to seek ‘further documentation’ supporting an object’s legitimacy, not simply to secure a warranty. TimeLine is not a member of the ADA and so is not in contravention of the ADA’s code. TimeLine is a member of the Association of International Dealers (AIAD), which states in its own more limited code of conduct:

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.

8. The Member agrees not knowingly to deal in any cultural objects that have left Iraq after 6/8/90, in compliance with The Iraq (U.N. Sanctions) Order 2003 (S.I. 2003/1519).

According to its small print terms and conditions, TimeLine interprets ‘reasonably achievable’ as meaning nothing at all. And if it isn’t actively looking for evidence of illegal trading it will not find it and cannot knowingly deal in cultural objects that have left Iraq since 6 August 1990, even if they have. This looks a lot like wilful avoidance of disagreeable and commercially damaging evidence of wrongdoing. It casts doubt upon the integrity of TimeLine, and because it is in full accord with the AIAD code of conduct, upon the AIAD itself.

Prominently displayed on the TimeLine website is the logo of the Art Loss Register (ALR). I have complained previously about the ALR badging TimeLine, and the logo now qualifies that:

All lots with an upper estimate value of £1,000 and above, and all Western Asiatic lots are searched against the Art Loss Register database.

So, all these cuneiform tablets (Western Asiatic lots) will have been searched against the ALR database. This is necessary but not sufficient provenance research. ALR certificates state that they do not provide a clean bill of health for antiquities, merely that searched antiquities have not been reported stolen. For looted antiquities, clandestinely excavated, that can never be the case. For cuneiform tablets of the type being discussed here, a search is practically worthless. it obviously failed to uncover anything untoward about the three suspect objects I have highlighted. So the prominent placement of the ALR logo, while technically and legally correct, might give the impression to a naïve customer that the provenance of an object being offered for sale has been well researched, which is not in fact the case. The logo provides the appearance but not the substance of appropriate due diligence. It does more to protect TimeLine’s reputation than it does to ensure its commercial probity. It remains the case that the ALR needs to reconsider its association with a company openly failing to conduct its own provenance research and placing itself outside generally accepted standards of professional practice as advertised by the ADA.  

If any or all of the cuneiform tablets offered by TimeLine were taken from Iraq after 6 August 1990, which seems possible if not likely, it demonstrates how after a period of time spent languishing in anonymous private collections they can be sold openly without fear of any police or legal action. The objects are in effect ‘gray’, as in Mackenzie and Yates’ second sense of the term. Three are very dark gray indeed – almost black.

References

Brodie, Neil, 2011. Academic involvement in the market in Iraqi antiquities, in Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property, edited by Stefano Manacorda and Duncan Chappell. New York: Springer, 117-133.

Molina, Manuel, 2020. The looting of Ur III tablets after the Gulf Wars, in Dealing with Antiquity: Past, Present & Future, edited by Walter Sommerfeld. Münster: Ugarit, 323-352.

Monaco Salvatore F., 2016. Archaic Cuneiform Tablets From Private Collections, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 31). Bethesda: CDL.

Owen, David I. and Rudolf H. Mayr, 2007. The Garšana Archives, (Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 3). Bethesda: CDL.

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.

Last week, the Art Loss Register was endorsing …

Paul Barford has just drawn our attention to TimeLine Auctions, and especially to the small print of their terms and conditions. I have been looking at the small print myself, and more besides.

TimeLine Auctions holds regular auction sales of antiquities and ancient coins from around the world. Bidding can be done electronically on their own or associated websites, or in person on the day at their hall in London. They hold about four auctions a year, each of a few days duration. Most recently, 2,729 lots were auctioned over four days from 24 to 27 May.

The May auction included many small antiquities originally found in Iraq, Syria or a neighbouring country. As usual, it was not possible to make specific determinations, or to count how many were from Syria and how many were from Iraq. It seems obvious though that many of the objects offered in the category Western Asiatic Antiquities would have been found in one of those countries, and probably a good proportion too of those in Byzantine, Islamic, and even Roman, Greek and Christian. I took the time to look more closely at what is going on at TimeLine by tabulating information about lots offered in the Byzantine, Western Asiatic and Islamic categories (antiquities only, not coins).

Altogether in these three categories, 399 lots were offered and 191 lots (48%) were sold. Each lot could comprise one or more objects. The total sales revenue (including buyer’s premium) was £93,389, with a mean price of £489 per lot, a high price of £8,680 and a low price of £6. TimeLine charges a buyer’s premium of 24% and a seller’s commission of 18%, so that from the total of £93,389, the company would have taken £31,632. The breakdown by category is shown in the table below. Within individual categories, there was some variation. Thus within Western Asiatic, for example, 38 out of 47 (81%) cylinder seals sold, many of which must have been found in Iraq, though the equivalent figure for ceramic containers was only 2 out of 27 (7%).

Timeline table

Most lots were offered for auction with a provenance, though the ‘provenance’ rarely comprised more than a year or range of years, by which time the lot was said to have been in London, the UK, or wherever. Out of its country of origin at least. Most dates were from the 1960s through to the 1990s. The range is shown in the histogram below.

Timeline

Thus most of the lots offered for sale did not have a provenance date placing them outside their country of origin when laws were first passed vesting ownership of newly found antiquities in the state: 1963 in Syria and 1936 in Iraq. The dates do seem to place most lots outside their country of origin before the August 1990 date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661, which embargoed trade with Iraq, and which was recognized in the UK retrospectively by the June 2003 Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 (SI 2000/1519).

Sometimes a name was provided in the provenance description. Thus 25 lots were said to be from the ‘Rihani family collection; acquired before 1991’. The Rihani collection is actually quite a well-known provenance. The collection (if it was indeed a collection) belonged to Ghassan Rihani, a Jordanian citizen resident in Amman who died in 2001. He is said to have maintained several storage facilities in London. The Jordanian export licence (in Arabic) authorizing his export of material is dated 19 September 1988, but the English translation is dated 12 October 1992. So the actual export of material to which the licence applies might have been in 1988, but seems more likely to have happened in or after 1992, when the English version would have been available for viewing by customs officers not able to read Arabic. In any event, the issuing date of an export licence is not the same thing as a date of export. So a provenance ‘Rihani family collection; acquired before 1991’ is not quite as secure as it sounds. It might hide material from Iraq, for example, smuggled out of Iraq after the August 1990 date of UNSCR 661, and imported into the UK sometime later.

There is a lot more to be said about the Rihani provenance. The export licence legitimizes the export of Jordanian material from Jordan, but not the export of material originating in other countries. Lots 1515 to 1518 in the May sale, for example, were described as ‘Western Asiatic Tell Brak eye idols’, with a footnote explaining that ‘Hundreds of these figurines were found in a monumental building known as the ‘Eye Temple’ in Tell Brak, north-eastern Syria’. Eye idols such as these are listed on the ICOM Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk. When the TimeLine examples moved out of Syria and into Jordan is not stated. Almost certainly before the February 2015 imposition of trade controls by UNSCR 2199, but there is nothing to say that it was not after 1963, the date of the Syrian vesting legislation. Clearly, a Jordanian export licence does not and cannot legitimize their earlier export from Syria, no matter when that was.

TimeLine might not have seen the relevant export licence, but I have. It 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 now said to have been in the Rihani collection with those authorized for export. The descriptions themselves are vague. What comprises ‘pottery utensils’ and ‘stone pieces’? Would eye idols have been considered as ‘utensils’? Maybe. Maybe not. But what of other types of object? Of the lots offered with the Rihani provenance, 14 were cylinder seals, many most likely from Iraq. The licence makes no mention of cylinder seals. Perhaps cylinder seals were included among the 50 ‘various stone pieces’? In the May sale, two other stone pieces were sold with a Rihani provenance. In its 2015 auctions, TimeLine sold a further nine cylinder seals and five other stone objects with a Rihani provenance. So over the past couple of years, TimeLine has sold 30 stone objects with a Rihani provenance. That would be 30 out of the original 50 stone objects licensed for export, assuming of course that cylinder seals should be included in that number, an assumption I personally find hard to make. In September 2015, TimeLine sold two bronze figures with a Rihani provenance. There is no mention of bronze objects on the export licence. To me, the name Rihani is more of a red flag than a provenance, a provenance of convenience perhaps, signalling buyer beware. It seems equally clear, however, that buyers are not always aware of that fact, or at least do not share my opinion.

Moving on from Rihani, how reliable are all the other provenance dates offered? Can they be trusted? How diligent is TimeLine in verifying them? Paul Barford advises us to look closely at the small print. And well he might. TimeLine is not breaking any law that I am aware of, but its business model certainly leaves something to be desired. This is what the small print says:

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, in actual fact, are the provenance dates pretty meaningless? TimeLine offers no guarantee or duty of care as regards provenance. Caveat emptor it says. Buyer beware. (Though buyers are still expected to pay the 24% buyer’s premium). Does TimeLine simply repeat what a seller tells it without any attempt at independent verification? It certainly seems that way. So how can we we trust that everything said to be in circulation before 1990 really was in circulation? And yet despite TimeLine’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards provenance (and, let us note, authenticity), the buyers continue to buy. Why is that?

In uncertain markets of this kind, customers look for reassurance and support to the advice and approval of independent experts, or at least to the sign of expert advice and approval. That is why there are 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) (!), something in blue I can’t make out that looks like the Harwich Port Authority (unlikely, I know), and the Art Loss Register (ALR).

It is surprising to find the ALR’s logo there. The ALR is probably the world’s leading private sector stolen art search and recovery organisation. It maintains a large database of stolen art, and will for a fee search its database to check an art object’s legitimacy prior to sale or purchase, issuing a certificate stating the result of the search. Antiquities are tricky for the ALR though. There is no prior photographic documentation of most stolen or illegally traded antiquities, so they are not likely to appear on the ALR’s database. The ALR is aware of that fact, and makes clear on its certificates that they do not constitute a clean bill of health. Fair enough. But something different is happening here. The ALR logo by itself, without any qualification or reservation, presents an unconditional seal of approval to all material being offered at auction. Lots offered with provenance dates that do not establish legal export from country of origin? OK for the ALR. A sketchy and perhaps non-existent policy of due diligence as regards provenance verification? OK for the ALR. In fact, what the ALR is actually endorsing is TimeLine’s principle and practice of caveat emptor. Is that really what the world leader in stolen art recovery wants to be doing? Surely its founding rationale was to help eradicate such business practices.

TimeLine is not forcing people to buy antiquities at auction. The customers are choosing to buy them. Presumably, many of the customers are well meaning, and given the right information would choose not to buy objects of uncertain and therefore dubious provenance. If TimeLine labelled every lot honestly and accurately as ‘provenance unknown to us but possibly tainted’, would they sell as well? Intentionally or not, the ALR’s endorsement of TimeLine with its small print warning of caveat emptor is helping create a sales context that frustrates customer participation in a more transparent and ethically compliant market. The ALR should either persuade TimeLine to up its game or else stop the endorsement.