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Antiquities from the Villa Rufolo at Sotheby's: Update

Yesterday I noted the concerns of "Ravello Nostra" about the sale of antiquities once displayed in the Villa Rufolo. Sotheby's has now issued a statement refuting the suggestion that the pieces were "stolen" in 1974.

Statement from Sotheby’s
December 8, 2008

Sotheby’s is aware of a report in the Positano News alleging that three objects (Lots 50, 58 and 94) in Sotheby’s Antiquities auction, to be held in New York on December 10, 2008, supposedly were taken out of Italy improperly from the Villa Rufolo in Ravello, Italy in 1974 when the Italian villa was sold to the Ente Provinciale per il Turismo di Salerno. The allegations cannot be squared with the results of the extensive due diligence and research Sotheby’s conducted in connection with the consignment of the three objects, and while Sotheby’s will consider any specific evidence that is presented to us, it is important that the record be clear.

A Sotheby’s specialist personally inspected the three objects in Paris in June 2008 with the consignor present. The appearance of all three objects was consistent with having been part of an old collection and out of the ground for a long time. The consignor told us that she and her mother had lived in and owned the Villa Rufolo, located in Ravello, Italy, and that they were forced to leave Italy in or about 1939 by the fascist regime of Mussolini. When the family fled Italy, they took many of their household belongings with them, including the three objects at issue. The consignor further told Sotheby’s that these objects remained in France with the family continuously ever since.

In keeping with Sotheby’s standard practice and procedure with respect to ancient artifacts offered for sale, Sotheby’s conducted further due diligence and research into the history of the objects.

As to the provenance of the objects, the specialist conducted independent research documenting the pieces as out of the ground for hundreds of years. The provenances for the vase (Lot 58) and the sarcophagus (Lot 50) date back to the 1800’s. Through independent research, Sotheby’s located a publication of the urn (Lot 94), in a book dated 1724. Sotheby’s published this history in detail in the catalogue, and there is no question that these objects have been above ground and in private collections for hundreds of years. They have what is considered an impeccable ownership history for archeological objects.

Also in keeping with Sotheby’s standard practice, the specialist asked the consignor for any documents or other evidence to support what she told us about the history of the objects, in particular how and when they were taken out of Italy. The consignor reported that her family brought the pieces to France in or about 1939; the consignor also produced a letter, dated 1957, written at the request of her mother by a family friend, Ellen Lubszynski, who resided in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. At the consignor’s mother’s request, Ms. Lubszynski wrote a letter to an Australian scholar specializing in Southern Italian vase painting, Dale Trendall, seeking Mr. Trendall’s opinion regarding the vase and asking if any institutions would be interested in acquiring it. The consignor showed the specialist the original letter, dated 1957, that Mr. Trendall wrote in response. In this letter, Mr. Trendall acknowledged that the vase was “once” in the family collection at Villa Rufolo, in Ravello Italy, and that it had been published in Dionisio, VIII, 1939, Page 162. In addition, the consignor produced copies of photographs of the vase that Ms. Lubszynski sent to Trendall in 1957. The photographs are dated May 1954 and have the French photographer’s address on the back (Phatam, 125 Boulevard du Général Koenig, Neuilly-sur-Seine). In addition, the entry for the same vase in Dale Trendall’s 1987 book on Paestan vases (referenced in Sotheby’s catalogue), mentions the vase as “Once Ravello, Tallon-Lacaita coll., then Neuilly-sur-Seine, Ellen Lubszinsky.” All of this documentation, taken together with the consignor’s inherently credible and corroborated tale of fleeing the fascist Mussolini regime, fully corroborates that the vase left Italy prior to the 1974 sale of the villa.

Sotheby’s research into the history of Lot 50, the sarcophagus fragment, also confirms that the piece left Italy with the owner in 1939, not in 1974 as the recent allegations state. Sotheby’s researched the piece and learned that Lot 50 was first published in 1904 as being in the Villa Rufolo, Ravello, and was last published in 1975 in a book by Dr. Guntram Koch. The entry in the 1975 publication (referenced in our catalogue) describes the sarcophagus fragment as “once Ravello, Palazzo Rufolo. Not found by H. Sichtermann on his visit in 1972.” (emphasis added) This publication thus corroborates the consignor’s statement that the fragment came with the family to France, as it was not in the villa in 1972 when a scholar went there to examine such fragments. This publication also confirms that the fragment was not taken out of Italy in connection with the 1974 sale, as it was not there in 1972.

If there is any specific evidence to contradict the research and documentation Sotheby’s uncovered concerning these items as part of our regular due diligence process, we will be very interested to see it as soon as possible. However, Sotheby’s believes that the results of its due diligence process have produced substantial evidence that these ancient artifacts, that have belonged to one family for generations and have been in private antiquities collections for hundreds of years, may now be legally and properly be put up for auction.
The objects were clearly known from the 19th century and their early collecting history is not in doubt.

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