There are several points worth noting:
- "The stigma of association with one of these convicted antiquities traffickers is often enough to result in its withdrawal". This was not the case with either Bonhams in October 2010 or Christie's in June 2010; both auction-houses proceeded with the sales. However this was true for Bonhams in October 2008, and April 2010. (For seizures at Christie's in 2009 see here.)
- "The larger issue, however, is that US collectors, dealers, auction houses, and museums are compelled to research the provenance of any prospective purchase to ensure it is not recently looted". The issue is that it is appropriate for vendors and buyers to conduct a rigorous due diligence process. In some recent cases the objects had passed through London sales that had included material already returned to Italy. On a minor note this is not just an issue for US collectors etc.
- "The objective is to make the antiquities trade more transparent". This is why it is important for auction houses and galleries to provide documented collecting histories to demonstrate that the objects on offer can be traced back to the period before 1970 (and the UNESCO Convention). And note the word documented: the collecting history needs to be verifiable.
- "If a collector could go to a public archive (the Art Loss Register, for example), and determine whether a prospective purchase was questionable, the object would likely remain unsold". If the aim is to return material removed illicitly from archaeological contexts in Italy then objects recognised from (say) the Becchina Archive may not resurface in case they are seized. Is Witschonke right to suggest that the ALR does not have access to part of the Medici Dossier?
- There is a more important issue to note. Bonhams appears to have presented a misleading collecting history for both piece: "European private collection, formed between the 1960s and early 1990s" and "Swiss private collection formed in 1960s-1970s". Yet if the Polaroids are to be believed the two items were passing through the Swiss market in the 1970s or later. This is not the only time that the Bonhams collecting histories have not been entirely straightforward. And it appears that Christie's "forgot" to divulge a key part of the collecting history of a recently discussed object that appeared at auction earlier this year.
Witschonke is a curatorial associate of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and Co-Director of the ANS Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.
For a further comment on the Art Newspaper letter with a response from Witschonke see here.
Witschonke at the ANS Graduate Seminar.