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Should auction houses adopt 1970 when dealing with archaeological material?

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property provides a convenient benchmark when discussing recently surfaced archaeological material. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has adopted this date when considering new acquisitions. The objects returned to Italy from North American museums have included objects that were acquired during the 1970s.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, speaking in the House of Lords last week, drew attention to the October 2008 sale of archaeological material at Bonham's in London when several lots had to be withdrawn. These controversial lots all surfaced after 1970.

There is now news that two further pieces, an Apulian situla and an Attic pelike, have been seized in New York. It seems that they passed through an auction in New York City in June this year. Both appear to have surfaced through a Beverly Hills Gallery.

On 1 June this year a Corinthian column-krater was seized at Christie's. It apparently surfaced at a London auction. Items that featured in the same London auction back in the 1980s have also been returned to Italy.

Would auction-houses and dealers be wise to adopt the 1970 date for handling archaeological material?

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Marc Fehlmann said…

Nobody denies that there is still an awful lot of material on the market that obviously has been illegally exported from its source country after 1970. But I would like to suggest that a more pragmatic, less orthodox approach to material without publication record prior to 1970 might be morally acceptable in those cases where circumstantial evidence clearly indicates that the piece had already left its country of origin prior to 1970.

Such circumstantial evidence would be a photograph that can be clearly dated to the 1920s or early 1930s and that shows the interior of a collector’s home with identifiable antiquities. I mention the example of Gottlieb Friedrich Reber’s Château de Béthusy in Lausanne. Reber is best known for having owned the largest private collection of works by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Georges Braque prior to 1930. The photograph (publ. in M. Fehlmann & T. Stooss (ed.), Picasso und die Schweiz, exh. catalogue Museum of Fine Arts Berne, 2001, p. 53, ill. 17) shows on the French chest of drawers under Picasso’s “Saltimbangue” a large bronze bowl of the “Coptic” type, but probably of Lombard craftsmanship. The antiquities from the Reber collection were only published in parts and this bronze bowl was not among the published objects.

The aforementioned bronze bowl was sold by Reber’s descendants in a Swiss sale in 2007 and had no publication record prior to that date. Why therefore should such a piece be treated in the same way as the recently seized Greek vases in New York, which apparently were identified through photographic records as being from a recent source? The situation concerning the trade in antiquities is not as black and white as the 1970 line suggests, and common sense rather than ideology should rule our judgment. Not every piece without a publication record prior to 1970 should in my opinion be rendered “toxic” for the art market.

What should one do with all the pieces that are still sitting in museums and private collections around the world? Ship them back to the source countries? But who decides which source country is entitled to get them? In the case of Reber’s bronze bowl the heirs have indicated that Reber had bought it in Italy in 1928, but a similar piece was discovered at Sutton Hoo in 1939, and several comparable bowls have been found in Egypt and Italy…

To cite another example: Not all Vases in the Casle Ashby Collection were published by Beazly prior to 1970, and more significantly, all Campanian and Apulian material was only published in 1979 in Sir John Boardman’s CVA. Are these to be considered “toxic” as well?

I am curious to know what, in your opinion, one should do with all these antiquities on the open market that have no publication record prior to 1970, but for which there is clear circumstantial evidence for having been out of their country of origin prior to that date.



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