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Dr Elie Borowski: sources for his collection

The 2000 Christie's sale in New York presented 'Ancient Greek Vases Formerly in the Private Collection of Dr. Elie Borowski'. He is described by G. Max Bernheimer in the catalogue as 'renowned scholar, collector and connoisseur of ancient art'.

Borowski is not without interest. His name appears in the famous 'organigram' found in the appartment of Danilo Zicchi (and presented in The Medici Conspiracy). And the sale itself receives a paragraph there.

But what are the sources for these pots? What did Christie's feel able to disclose? (My research has shown that sometimes 'known' information can be left out of the catalogue entry perhaps for commercial reasons.) Only 21 pieces can be provided with a history. Several were purchased from German (2 pieces), North American (3 pieces), Swiss (4 pieces), or UK (9 pieces) galleries or auction-houses. Three other pieces came from either German or Swiss private collections. Interestingly the Attic black-figured amphora (no. 43) is stated as coming from the Samuel Schweizer [sic.] collection. Is this the same 'collection' that has been used as a mask for looted antiquities and which features in the material due to be returned by the Getty to Italy? The remaining 86% of the pots 'just' surfaced in the Borowski collection.

What about find-spots? Not a single piece from the 157 lots has a stated find-spot, i.e. 100% of the lots have appeared to have lost their archaeological context. In fact this is not quite true. The Nolan amphora attributed to the Phiale painter (no. 104) appears on the Beazley Archive database with the findspot of Gela (and with the previous owner given as Salvatore Nocera). (This piece was known in the early 1960s.)

What other information is missing from the sale catalogue? Two Attic black-figured pots, a column-krater (no. 50) and a neck-amphora (no. 52), were purchased from the Edward H. Merrin Gallery in 1977. (The Attic red-figured column-krater [no. 86] was purchased from the same source and at the same time.) An Attic red-figured column-krater (no. 89) had previously been in an anonymous private collection in Lugano. But it is the absence of information in the entries that is more interesting - and disturbing.

When did the pieces surface? If we use the Gill and Chippindale cut off point of 1973 (assuming that the resolution of the Archaeological Institute of America brought the issue of looted antiquities to academic and public attention) then 92% of the collection could not be purchased by responsible museums (or for that matter published for the first time in responsible places like the American Journal of Archaeology). But if we use the UNESCO Convention cut off point of 1970, then only three pieces (i.e. less than 2%) could be purchased with a clear conscience.

Selling antiquities is big business. The Borowski sale raised over US$7 million. (Compare that with the US6.4 million for Attic pots from Sotheby's over the period 1998-2007).

The damage to the archaeological evidence is likely to have been equally immense.


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