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?

Celebrating despair

It is fifty years since UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to counter the illicit trade in cultural objects. The Art Newspaper reports a bizarre advertising campaign commissioned by UNESCO from the agency DDB Paris to support its celebration of UNESCO action against illicit trade since then. Titled The Real Price of Art, the campaign features (or featured – it has been taken down) a series of five montages presenting an “illicit antiquity” against a background of what is imagined to be a collector’s home, together with a text describing the sordid provenance of the antiquity in question. Unfortunately, it turns out the antiquities are not illicit. The images appear to have been lifted from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online database and are of objects that entered the Met’s collection legitimately many decades ago. This really is pathetic. There are people all over the world who have spent years or even decades documenting the illicit trade, often at their own personal expense, and their efforts have been completely ignored. How much money did UNESCO waste paying DDB Paris for this embarrassment? It would have been much better spent supporting people who are doing serious documentation.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the Art Newspaper also reports that UNESCO is quoting long discredited figures about the value of the illicit trade, stating that it is “estimated to be worth nearly $10 billion each year”. Whose estimates? UNESCO doesn’t say. Certainly not mine. I was co-author of a recent European Union report that debunked such outlandish figures (pages 78-96). UNESCO should be supporting good quality evidence-led research into the trade of a type that is sorely needed but in short supply, not wasting money on glitzy media presentations. And it should be reading the results of research when it does exist, not ignoring it.

In these populist days of fake news and alternative facts, scaremongering campaigns just don’t cut it. As the Art Newspaper reports demonstrate, they are badly counterproductive as they can be used to undermine more realistic assessments of the illicit trade and the damage it causes. Reliable documentation and research are key for effective policy and action.

And let us be clear, fifty years after the adoption of the UNESCO Convention the persistence of illicit trade is not a cause for celebration, it is a cause for reflection and despair.