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?