Thursday, 20 May 2010

"The transparency of the public auction system led to the identification of stolen artifacts"

Three antiquities that had apparently featured in the Medici Dossier were recovered from Christie's New York during 2009. A Corinthian krater, that apparently had surfaced at Sotheby's London in 1985, was recovered just prior to the June sale. (Material that passed through Sotheby's 1985 sales have included two pieces returned from a New York gallery and a New York private collector; a further piece was withdrawn from a sale at Bonham's in London.)

Two pieces that passed through the June sale at Christie's were seized later in the year. They appear to have been an Attic pelike attributed to the Aegisthus painter that had surfaced through the Summa Galleries in the mid-1980s (lot 120), and an Apulian situla that had followed the same route but slightly earlier in 1977 (lot 132). Together they had realised over $120,000.

I later posted the comment from Christie's:
Sung-Hee Park confirmed that "the transparency of the public auction system combined with the efforts from the U.S. ICE and foreign governments, in this matter, led to the identification of two stolen artifacts".
In December 2009 I wrote:
It is a matter of concern that two auction-houses --- Christie's and Bonham's --- have been willing to offer material from sales that are known to have contained material supplied by Medici and his associates. Why did their due diligence processes fail to identify the potential problem with this particular "provenance"? Auction-houses need to be very wary of antiquities that first appeared at Sotheby's in London during the 1980s and 1990s.
Since then, Bonham's decided to withdraw one ex-Medici piece from its April 2010 sale (as well as three limestone busts featured in the Symes archive). Now three more pieces from the Medici Dossier (an Apulian rhyton, a Canosan terracotta, and a marble statue of a youth holding a cockerel) seem to be similar to three lots in the upcoming June sale at Christie's. (Two surfaced at Sotheby's in London, and one in New York.)

Christie's have responded to Theo Toebosch after he made an enquiry over the apparent association: "we do not sell works that we have reason to believe are stolen".

Toebosch also asked (and I repeat the questions here with his permission):

  • Do you consider 'Japanese private collection 1980s' or 'London art market 1990s' as sole provenance well provenanced? If so, why? If not, why do you accept antiquities with this kind of provenance?
  • What are your criteria to accept or refuse antiquities for auction?
  • What do you consider due diligence?

Staff at Christie's need to ask themselves some questions.
  • Why did ICE agents seize three pieces in 2009? 
  • How did Giacomo Medici form his stock of antiquities? 
Composite of three pots apparently seized in New York by ICE agents during 2009.

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Lysias said...

I notice there is an increasing business in Greek vases on ebay. None of it is museum quality IIRC, but you have to wonder at the provenance of them. Perhaps pedlars of loot are turning to that to avoid the oversight of Christie's specialists?

Marc Fehlmann said...

It is wonderful, that pieces can be identified as stolen thanks to the Medici-files. May I ask what happens with the objects after they have been withdrawn by Christie's, Bonham's or whoever?

Are they being returned to the seller?

And are the auction houses legally bound to reveal the consignor's name?

Assuming that in the 1980s, most collector's could still buy from Sotheby's "in good faith", because the findings of Peter Watson were not widely known before 1997, we should also respect the rights of those private individuals who were "bona fide" purchaser.

The Swiss Cultural Property Transfer Act of 2004 respects their rights. Whoever acquires cultural property in good faith and must return it, has a claim for compensation at the time of repatriation, oriented to the purchase price as well as necessary useful expenses for protecting and maintaining the said cultural property ...

To return to the initial question: if a piece gets withdrawn (such as the Lydian silver vessel at Bonham's in fall 2007) and if it is returned to the consignor, is it not likely to enter a "black" market?

David, do you actually know what happened to that silver vessel?

David Gill said...

Thank you for your comment. The subsequent histories of the pieces are not always disclosed - though in the case of the pieces seized in New York we know that some were handed over to Italy (see here). Private collectors, auction-houses or dealers with a modicum of integrity would return the pieces to the country where they appear to have been found.
Some present proprietors are hidden behind a veil of anonymity ("another property", "a Belgian gentleman", "a Kansas private collector"). And we also know that dealers can sometimes be presented as collectors (see here).
Christopher Chippindale and I have tended to use 1973 as a benchmark. This was the year that the AIA passed a resolution on recently-surfaced antiquities. It is usual for bodies such as the AAMD to use the 1970 UNESCO Convention as a key marker. Private collectors who purchased "in good faith" during the 1980s were ignoring the warning signs (see here).
Switzerland has had a less than honourable role in the handling of recently surfaced antiquities.
So let me return to the real issues. How can we reduce the destruction of archaeological sites? How can we encourage dealers and auction-houses to refrain from selling recently-surfaced antiquities?
I am sure that responsible galleries will want to play their part.
Best wishes

Paul Barford said...

if a piece gets withdrawn [...] and if it is returned to the consignor, is it not likely to enter a "black" market?
What is the difference between a piece of dubious provenance sold in one antiquity shop and one sold in another one? How do you define a "black market" when the market as a whole is remarkably undiscriminating - as the recent withdrawals of pieces from auction shows.

I too would like to ask how we go from these illustrations of how the indiscriminate market at all levels conceals looting to how we go about protecting the sites by making looted items from their commercial exploitation much more difficult to sell than they obviously are today.

Marc Fehlmann said...

To Paul Barford

I totally agree that the main objective should be to protect the sites. Making tainted antiquities "unsalable" may be a solution and it surely is an admirable goal.

Living in a so-called "source country", I may have become disillusioned by what I perceive as the norm. It seems to me that individual greed is usually stronger than a collective sense of responsibility or even a sense of collective "ownership". While one thing seems certain, that is that public museums in consumer countries became generally more scared to purchase antiquities without a clean history of ownership and proper documentation, all national laws and international agreements are not enough to stop antiquities trafficking and the trade of tainted antiquities in private hands.

I would like to draw a comparison to the trade in illegal drugs. If all those tough laws on drug abuse and drug trafficking that were universally implemented and if all those international cooperation that politicians like to celebrate would really work, then there would no longer be drugs on the streets. This is clearly not the case. International drug trafficking organizations have never respected nor accepted national boundaries or laws. So why should those trafficking antiquities be any different?

I therefore propose to let the "addicts" have their piece ("shot"), but one which is under control. Don't ask me how to implement this, as I would need more time. Some ideas on new regulations, giving access to finds and leasing antiquities have already been discussed before. But try to see it this way: The three big auction houses and respectable dealers could become a sort of "Pharmacy" for collector's while the trade "on the streets" would become less attractive.

Marc Fehlmann said...


An open market is in my opinion a market where auction houses and dealers publish their material with (possibly) a complete history of previous ownership. It would become similar to the market in old master paintings and drawings. An open market is transparent.

A "black market" is to me a market where some individuals do not publish their material and where "exceptional objects" are only offered to "exceptional clients" (from Shanghai, Saint Petersburg or wherever), and where they are only shown to certain scholars. These individuals may have a gallery in New York or Geneva or London, and they may get in and out anything they want, because they are well connected. There is of course also the "lower black market" (the "street workers"), these are more likely to be those on e-bay!

Just another idea: If every cat and dog in the EU and Switzerland has to be registered and needs a microchip or a tattoo with a valid passport when crossing the border, why not register antiquities?

An amphora attributed to the manner of the Princeton painter

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