Monday, May 31, 2010

Bernheimer and the "critical break-off date"

Max Bernheimer of Christie's has been interviewed for Apollo (Lucian Harris, "Collectors' focus", Apollo April 24, 2010).

Harris introduces the interviews with this statement:
More recent attitudes have focused attention on the negative aspects of the antiquities trade – the looting of sites, the funding of the international trade in drugs and weapons, the proliferation of restitution claims and the continuing appearance of sophisticated fakes. Within the archaeological community in particular there exists a vocal minority in opposition to any trade in antiquities. Dealers are at pains to point out the entirely legitimate trade in objects that have been neither looted nor smuggled and which are in as much demand as ever.
It should be noted that Harris did not bother to get an alternative view and presents a misleading view of those concerned about looting. Archaeologists are calling for restrictions on the trade in recently surfaced antiquities to address the genuine problem of destroyed archaeological contexts.

Harris quotes Ruper Wace:
‘Good Egyptian antiquities with good provenance are selling really well’, says London dealer Rupert Wace.
It would have been interesting for Harris to have asked Wace about the Middle Kingdom alabaster duck.

Harris then turns to Christie's:
According to Max Bernheimer, head of Christie’s Ancient Art and Antiquities department, the critical break-off date for the sale of antiquities is 1983, the year that Egypt declared its country’s antiquities to be property of the state and their sale abroad unlawful. At the top end of the market, most objects demand a level of scholarship and experience that can only come through long involvement in the fileld. For this reason, private collectors and museum curators alike will often cultivate relationships with established and trustworthy dealers who not only have the best access to rare works but are often better suited to negotiating the auction room pitfalls associated with this market.
What are the pitfalls associated with the market? Are trustworthy dealers those who do not deal with recently-surfaced antiquities?

And if 1983 is such a crucial date for Bernheimer (though it could be that he was only talking about Egyptian antiquities), he should have no difficulty in deciding what do do with antiquities that first surfaced in 1984, 1992 and 1994.

I have suggested that 1970 would be a much better "benchmark" date for those dealing with antiquities. Perhaps Harris would like to write about that possibility.


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