Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Christie's: "having to prove provenance"

Readers of LM will know that I find the word "provenance" as obsolete. Why not use the terms archaeology ("this krater was found in tomb 56 of the Fikellura cemetery"; "we do not know where this statue was found") or collecting history ("formerly in the Hope collection"; "auctioned on the New York market"; "property of an anonymous Belgian gentleman")? I have written on this topic and the key article from the Journal of Art Crime can be found here.

I see that William Robinson, International Head of Group at Christie's, has written about the forthcoming December sales, including antiquities (that takes place this week). He comments:
Each individual area has had particular challenges. For me this year, many have been directly or indirectly related to the questions of cultural property and provenance. We have not been able to sell any Pre-Columbian Art in 2014, as we have not been presented with any that has had provable provenance dating back to before the bilateral agreements that various countries have made. I sincerely hope that we will be able to successfully sell items in this field in the coming year. This issue of having to prove provenance on items, with its implied assumption of ‘guilty unless proven innocent’, is an attitude which I detest but reluctantly have to agree is sensible in the current atmosphere. Strong provenance is also becoming more and more reflected in the prices that are achieved in the sales. The flip side to this is that our attitude towards provenance was also a major factor in our winning the most important collection that came onto the market in 2014 (due to be sold in 2015). At the same time I have worked internally as one of the members of the Cultural Property Committee to try to modify Christie’s approach towards works of art where there are anomalies in our regulations, or situations that lead to unnecessarily rigid application.
Yet the antiquities team under Robinson's care did not manage to spot the issues surrounding the Steinhardt Sardinian figure and it had to be withdrawn from sale. There remains the case of the Swingler krater as well as two other items that passed through the hands of Robin Symes. Earlier in the year the London department was offering material identified from the Medici Dossier (and attracted major coverage in The Times of London).

I have suggested elsewhere that Christie's needs to adapt its due diligence process to make it more rigorous. And this is where the word "provenance" is meaningless. The Christie's catalogue entry needs to map out the authenticated collecting history of the object. Perhaps Robinson will read this and encourage his antiquities team to make the appropriate changes.

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