Skip to main content

"Provenance ... has become paramount"

G. Max Bernheimer, International Head of Antiquities at Christie's has given a timely interview (May 24, 2010). Among the questions asked was this:
In recent years, the issue of repatriation has garnered attention as institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum have returned artifacts to their source countries. Where does the issue stand today, and what impact does this have on your collectors?

Provenance has always been important, and in light of recent repatriation issues, it has become paramount. In a way these issues have helped the auction business because of the transparency of our operations; buyers can have complete confidence when buying at auction. Everything we do is published, and source countries have the opportunity to review our catalogues long before the date of sale.

Remember that this interview was issued subsequent to the report by Theo Toebosch on May 15.

I have long-argued that provenance is a misused term. Christopher Chippindale and I would argue for the term "collecting history". However, provenance is a term much used by those engaged in the antiquities market. Last June Bernheimer was quoted in a Christie's press release: “Today’s [sc. June 3, 2009] strong results show that wonderful objects with clear provenance continue to perform exceedingly well at auction.” In the accompanying list of the "Top Ten" pieces in the June 2009 auction was lot 120, "An Attic red-figured Pelike, attributed to the Aegisthus painter, circa 480-460 B.C.", that sold for $80,500. Yet subsequent to the sale lot 120 was apparently seized by ICE agents. A second lot, an Apulian situla was seized at the same time; a Corinthian krater had been seized immediately before the sale. How are we to understand Bernheimer's definition of "clear provenance"?

It would be interesting to know the reaction of the buyers of the two pieces (the Apulian situla and the Attic pelike) when they were seized. The events of 2009 rather undermine Bernheimer's statement: "buyers can have complete confidence when buying at auction".

Bernheimer emphasises "the transparency of our [sc. Christie's] operations". He adds "source countries have the opportunity to review our catalogues long before the date of sale". The characteristic of transparency was stated by a spokesperson from Christie's in the wake of the seizure of the two pieces. Indeed the Corinthian krater was seized from Christie's just before the June 2009 sale. It appears that the krater matched an image found in the Medici Dossier.

And in December 2008 a piece of gold jewellery was withdrawn by Christie's after claims had been made by Iraq. John Morton of ICE made the specific point when the jewellery was returned: "These are precisely the types of treasures that ICE's Cultural Property Art and Antiquities unit was established to identify, investigate and return to their rightful owners. We will continue to be vigilant about finding and prosecuting those who would rob a nation for personal gain.".

The December 2008 sale was also reported to have contained Egyptian antiquities that appear to have been removed from the Long Island University's Art Museum.

And a portrait of Marcus Aurelius that was offered by Christie's in June 2004 appeared to have been stolen from Algeria. Looking further back there was the head of Asklepios from Butrint that had apparently passed through Christie's London in 1996.

Antiquities from the Bijbels Museum in Amsterdam were seized from an unspecified New York auction-house in 2009; Sotheby's made it clear that they were not involved while Christie's "were unable to confirm this".

Let me return to transparency. The Christie's catalogue for June 2010 has prompted the possible identification of three pieces with objects illustrated in the Medici Dossier. If provenance is "paramount", as Bernheimer has claimed only this week, please could Christie's state the collecting histories for the three lots? Bernheimer wants "buyers" at Christie's to "have complete confidence when buying at auction". Doubts will remains if he fails to provide "clear provenance" for these three pieces.

Image
From the Medici Dossier

Bookmark and Share so Your Real Friends Know that You Know

Comments

Larry Rothfield said…
Great post!

One has to wonder if the police are able legally to compel the auction houses to disclose to them al they know about the seller and putative chain of ownership, and if so, whether the surfacing of this material at auction might present an opportunity for law enforcement to walk the dog back and uncover a smuggling network or two.

Popular posts from this blog

Codename: Ainsbrook

I have been watching (UK) Channel 4's Time Team this evening. The programme looked at an undisclosed field (under a potato crop) where a Viking burial had been found. The location in Yorkshire was so sensitive that it was given a codename: Ainsbrook. Here is the summary:
In late 2003 two metal detectorists were working in a field in Yorkshire. They found 'treasure' buried just beneath the surface – a collection of Viking material next to a body. Although they had been detecting on the site for a number of years, during which time they had made large numbers of finds, nothing they had uncovered previously compared with this. They decided to share their discovery with archaeologists.The programme explored the tension between metal-detectorists and the English Heritage sponsored archaeologists putting six trenches into the field based on a geo-physical survey. Finds made by the metal-detectorists did not easily map onto the archaeological features.

Part of the programme had an …

George Ortiz collection to be displayed in London

Christie's is due to display part of the former collection of the late George Ortiz in London in a non-selling show to mark the 25th anniversary of the exhibition at the Royal Academy. There is a statement on the Christie's website ("The Ortiz Collection — ‘proof that the past is in all of us’"). Max Bernheimer is quoted: ‘Ortiz was one of the pre-eminent collectors of his day’.

We recall the associations with Ortiz such as the Horiuchi sarcophagus, the Hestiaios stele fragment, the marble funerary lekythos, and the Castor and Pollux.

Bernheimer will, no doubt, wish to reflect on the Royal Academy exhibition by reading Christopher Chippindale and David W. J. Gill. 2000. "Material consequences of contemporary classical collecting." American Journal of Archaeology 104: 463-511 [JSTOR].

Bernheimer will probably want to re-read the two pieces by Peter Watson that appeared in The Times: , "Ancient art without a history" and "Fakes - the artifice b…

Tutankhamun, Christie's and rigorous due dligence

It was announced today that the Egyptian authorities would be taking legal action against Christie's over the sale of the head of Tutankhamun ("Egypt to sue Christie's to retrieve £4.7m Tutankhamun bust", BBC News 9 July 2019).

The BBC reports:
Egypt's former antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, said the bust appeared to have been "stolen" in the 1970s from the Temple of Karnak. "The owners have given false information," he told AFP news agency. "They have not shown any legal papers to prove its ownership." Christie's maintain the history of the piece as follows:
It stated that Germany's Prince Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis reputedly had it in his collection by the 1960s, and that it was acquired by an Austrian dealer in 1973-4. However the family of von Thurn und Taxis claim that the head was never in that collection [see here].

Christie's reject any hint of criticism:
"Christie's would not and do not sell any work whe…