Monday, 5 November 2007

"Buying good things with a legitimate provenance"

In the wake of the returns to Italy from Boston, Malibu, New York, and Princeton, the market in antiquities is said to be unsettled.

Ariel David ("Italy cracks down on art looting", October 20, 2007, AP) presents several interesting comments.

First from Pietro Casasanta, one time tombarolo in Tuscany, and finder of the ivory mask handled by Robin Symes. This was said to have been found in an imperial Roman complex near Lake Bracchiano (Cecilia Todeschini and Peter Watson, "Familiar route out of Italy for looted ivory head", Culture Without Context 12, Spring 2003). He claims that there is less interest in looting archaeological sites:
There are no more young recruits, it's become more difficult to dig and to sell, the whole network of merchants has disappeared.
This seems to be confirmed by comments in a second interview with Gen. Giovanni Nistri of the Italian Carabinieri. David reports, "in 2006 [Nistri's] unit discovered fewer than 40 illegal digs. In the late 1990s that figure could soar to more than 1,000 a year."

So what are the sources for the thousands of antiquities that surface on the market each year? Mieke Zilverberg, chair of the International Association of Dealers of Ancient Art (IADAA) and proprietor of a gallery in Amsterdam, is quoted as saying
Over the last years the crackdown has been felt on the legal art market, with buyers concentrating more on objects coming from private collections or other legitimate sources.
Where did buyers acquire objects before the "crackdown"? Were they somehow less legitimate?

Zilverberg is bullish about the market and continues:
Prices will never go down now. It already was a quietly up-going market, and now with the hassle the Italians made everybody is focused on buying good things with a legitimate provenance, which means prices go up.
Zilverberg is unwilling for dealers or potential clients, collectors or museums, to shoulder responsibility for the looting. Instead, the "blame" for looting is laid at the feet of the "authorities" for failing to "monitor what was happening in their own archaeological backyards".

Members of the IADAA are at the Basel Ancient Art Fair at the moment. Zilverberg is right to stress that objects are coming from private collections --- anonymous private collections. Zilverberg perhaps needs to be reminded that members of the IADAA handled some of the antiquities that have been returned to Italy from Boston and the Getty (though one of the two dealers has recently left the IADAA), and another member returned a Middle Kingdom Egyptian duck to Egypt. The duck was said to have come from "a private collection in France" though in reality it appears to have been stolen from an archaeological store at Saqqara.

Perhaps Zilverberg needs to tighten the Code of Ethics for the IADAA. Do her members need to be more rigorous in their due diligence process? Perhaps the IADAA needs to put its own house in order before it starts blaming others for the widespread destruction of archaeological sites.

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