Monday, 7 June 2010

Christie's, the Medici Dossier and William G. Pearlstein

Kimberly Alderman ("Is Italy “Asking For It” By Refusing to Release the Medici Photographs? Three items at Christie’s raise questions", The Cultural Property and Archaeology Law Blog June 6, 2010) wanted to have a different view on the story carried in the Wall Street Journal last week [see here with quotes from original article]. She contacted New York attorney William G. Pearlstein who "represents collectors, dealers and auction houses in transactions, disputes and regulatory matters involving fine art and antiquities, including purchases and sales of fine art and antiquities, regulatory issues relating to the antiquities market; attribution, authenticity and provenance". He is also the Director of the Cultural Property Research Institute (CPRI) and spoke at the review of the MOU with Italy. Pearlstein appears to have views on "quasi-socialists" and, if a Washington lobbyist is to be believed, an acquired taste in music.

Pearlstein has called for the publication of the Medici Dossier. Yet he does not mention the view of a Christie's spokesperson (commenting on what Christie's described as "stolen artifacts") that the publication of images from a public auction allow for transparency and give opportunity for concerns to be raised. It is still not clear why Christie's left out a key piece of collecting history for lot 139 - a key piece of collecting history known to Christie's. (And is "diligence" really a verb? "so that US market participants could ... diligence their purchases" [emphasis mine].)

Pearlstein confuses two separate issues in his emailed comments to Alderman. He cites the case of "an Egyptian duck that was stolen from a government warehouse, never reported (perhaps never inventoried) and then seized when it came up on at auction 25 years later–after being consigned by a foreign purchase who took good title under local law". In this case the duck appears to have been removed from the store at Saqqara in Egypt; its excavation location is known. In the case of material featured in Polaroids from the Medici Dossier the detail relating to the archaeological contexts is not known. There is a difference between material removed from an archaeological store and objects ripped from archaeological contexts.

Does an incident in Egypt have a bearing on material from Italy? And what does it mean for "American purchasers" of archaeological material to act "in good faith"? Collectors, museums and cultural property lawyers have been aware of the ethical issues relating to archaeological material since the 1970 UNESCO Convention. And North American collectors, museums and cultural property lawyers are unlikely to have missed the 1973 AIA declaration. [For some of the issues see here.]

Pearlstein has strong views:
What the Italians are doing is outrageous. They are deliberately withholding the Medici files from the public, allowing hot pieces to remain in circulation and then playing up every seizure for maximum publicity value. They continue to play the role of victim when actually they have became cynical predators on American institutions that want nothing more than to do the right thing.
What is "the right thing"? Why have North American museums recently adopted 1970 as a benchmark for acquiring archaeological material? Why have some 130 objects been returned to Italy from North American public and private collections in recent years? Is it "outrageous" for officials of a country to be outraged by the deliberate destruction of thousands of archaeological contexts to supply objects for the antiquities market?

Pearlstein calls for "market participants to police the integrity of their collections and [be] held accountable for their failure to do so". One of the key indicators for concern is a collecting history (or "provenance") that points to a certain auction-house in London in the 1980s and early 1990s (see a selection of pieces here). "Market participants" need to conduct rigorous due diligence searches if the collecting history includes those sales. And when that collecting history is "overlooked", questions need to be asked about the reason why.

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rickwitschonke said...

Why don't you respond to Pearlstein's question? Why doesn't Italy release the Medici photos? If you have them, why don't you release them?

Rick Witschonke

David Gill said...

What is the main issue here? Why do three lots due to be auctioned this week appear to feature in the Medici Dossier?
Best wishes

seatsonthestreets said...

Dr. Gill,

There seem to be two main conflicting interests here: that of the auction house to be able to sell pieces free from other claims, and that of Italy's government to find all the pieces that Giacomo de Medici's tomboleri ripped out of archaeological sites. Italy's argument, as I understand it, is that if they were to publicly release the photos in the Dossier, the pieces would then never appear again on the market. Please correct me if I am wrong here.
Christie's, on the other hand, may be feeling like they're not being treated fairly, as they are being publicly assaulted for putting something on the market with a claim against its title that they would have no way of discovering, no matter how much money or time they spend performing the proper diligence on the item. I believe that this is where the outrage and calls of entrapment are coming from.
To anticipate an argument; yes, they could avoid this by not putting something on the market without a collecting history prior to 1973. But because no legislation has been put forth in the U.S. yet officially recognizing 1973 as the official deadline, compliance rules remain ambiguous.

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