Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Selling antiquities: "Trying to get a brand new take"

I am still thinking about the radical proposal on Archaeological Development Bonds suggested by the Milken Institute ("Financial Innovations to Curb Looting and Preserve Cultural Resources").

It made me go back through my notes. In March 2007 the Aboutaams were featured in an interview for the New York Times (Ron Stodghill, "Do You Know Where That Art Has Been?", New York Times, March 18, 2007). The article was in part about the implications for the market caused by the return of antiquities from Boston and the Getty.
The new wariness of collectors, both public and private, to buy or exhibit works that do not have the most rigorously documented history jeopardizes the business of even the most established dealers. So the Aboutaams are remaking themselves and their business. In a trade that has been full of grave robbers and forgers adding patina to new objects, they are busy digging up documentation for everything they sell in an effort to polish their reputation.
Tracing the collecting histories of pieces has become important as the supply of freshly-surfaced antiquities has come under increasing scrutiny.

So it is not surprising that Hicham Aboutaam has begun supporting the bans. He envisions that the market for antiquities, which he says are currently undervalued, will resemble that of old masters or Impressionist paintings, which have increased sharply in value of late.

''The more questionable works entering the antiquities market, the less their value and the larger the dark cloud that hangs over the field,'' Mr. Aboutaam said. ''That affects prices negatively. I think we could put an end to the new supply, and work comfortably with what we have.''

Under such a moratorium, the Aboutaams and other established antiquities dealers would enjoy a significant advantage over newer competitors.

So where does the market go from here?

Stodghill continued his report:

Mr. Aboutaam is working with the Milken Institute, the economic research organization in Santa Monica, Calif., on a conference to be held in June to discuss the disparities in international treaties and laws affecting provenance and the antiquities market. Jared Carney, director of marketing and program development at the institute, said that discussing the woes of the art market is not standard fare for the organization.

''But what is right down the middle for us is looking at issues of social capital and the challenges of protecting intellectual property, and protecting assets and the pressure to preserve heritage,'' Mr. Carney said. ''You've got to give it to Hicham for trying to get a brand new take on things and coming at his challenges in a different way.''

In the end, Mr. Aboutaam said his efforts were simply to preserve the past for a world that should have access to it through beautiful cultural objects.

To what extent is this initiative from the Milken Institute being prompted from within, and for the benefit of, the market?

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