Saturday 30 April 2011

Polaroids and unresolved issues

Over the last five years some 130 antiquities have been returned to Italy from North American public and private collections. We know that more than 130 antiquities were identified in those museums and private collections that co-operated with Italian authorities. In addition, several objects have been identified at auction houses and galleries in New York and London.

However there are still unresolved cases. One of the most pressing is the krater in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), in Europe Copenhagen and the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid have yet to sort out the claims against some of its objects, and the Miho Museum in Japan has been placed under pressure.

Over the next few months another European museum (or rather the private collectors behind it) will be shown to have acquired material that has been identified from the Polaroid archives.

LM will keep you informed of these developments.

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Wednesday 27 April 2011

Due Diligence and Auction Houses: the Italian Dimension

Over the last few years there have been several instances from both sides of the Atlantic when auction houses and dealers have offered antiquities for sale that have been identified from images seized in police raids in Switzerland and Greece. The auction houses will no doubt claim, and indeed have claimed, that they have conducted an appropriate due diligence search. Yet it is clear that the procedures followed by the auction houses lack appropriate rigour. They rely on searching databases that will indicate objects stolen from recent collections but not items removed illicitly in recent years from archaeological contexts.

So how can auction houses and dealers avoid offering objects that have surfaced in recent years? Here are three suggestions:
a. Check and authenticate collecting histories (so-called "provenance"). Collecting histories can be fabricated so the paper trail needs to be researched with care.
b. Can the collecting history be traced back to the period prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention? If not, how can the gap be explained?
c. Contact the relevant authorities in source countries.

I observe that three separate organisations have pressed ahead with sales even when they were aware that there were issues relating to objects. Are those concerns being passed to potential vendors?

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Saturday 23 April 2011

A view from Princeton: "render unto Egypt what is Egypt’s"

There has been an interesting debate about cultural property in the Daily Princetonian. This is particularly significant given the return of antiquities from the Princeton University Art Museum to Italy as well as the apparent Italian investigation into acquisitions derived from Edoardo Almagià.

Aaron Applbaum started the debate with a review of historic acquisitions ("Keep the artifacts as they are", April 12, 2001). The focus is on monuments such as the Parthenon marbles, although there is mention of more recent claims on Egyptian material in European collections. Applbaum resorts to the argument of precedent.
Essentially, returning these artifacts would be doubly detrimental: it would set a precedent that could lead to the liquidation of the collections of museums, and, by decentralizing these important artifacts, would leave the world culturally poorer. Returning artifacts would place them in geographical and cultural ghettos, whereby Greek sculptures could only be viewed in Greece, or Egyptian mummies in Egypt.
Yet Applbaum does not seek to differentiate between these older acquisitions and objects that surfaced since the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Lily Yu (who held an internship with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities) has responded with a more nuanced piece ("The obligation to repatriate", April 20, 2011).
While the majority of curators and collectors purchase conscientiously, checking for legal export documents and clean provenances, many do not. When a looted item is purchased, even if the transaction occurs in good faith and with due diligence, there is an ethical and legal obligation to repatriate.
The one thing that the Medici Conspiracy has taught us is that museums, private collectors, dealers and auction-houses turned a blind eye to significant looting to supply the market. Yu reminds us of the position of Princeton in this sad tale. Indeed it needs to be remembered that Italy did not insist on the return of every object identified by photographs and documentation. (It should be noted that Princeton has not disclosed the collecting histories of the objects unlike Boston's MFA or the J. Paul Getty Museum.)

Yu closes in a strong way:
In this postcolonial world, we must recognize the sovereignty of other states not only in self-government but also in the management of their cultural patrimonies. While recognizing the importance of the legal acquisition of antiquities by museums, we cannot forget our obligations to those countries that have been plundered of their pasts, and we ought, where it is legally or ethically required of us, to repatriate — to render unto Egypt what is Egypt’s.

Will Princeton be resolving the issue over the Almagià antiquities?

And what about disclosing the collecting history for the silver plaque with a Nike?

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Wednesday 20 April 2011

Italian antiquities seized at Swiss border

Earlier this month antiquities were seized by the Carabinieri at the border between Italy and Switzerland (report, Il Mattino April 7, 2011). Apparently the objects, dating to the fourth century BC had been hidden in the boot of a car. The driver was Swiss-Italian, aged 43 years. His family came from Serino in Italy, just to the east of Naples. Paperwork was also seized.

The objects are listed:

  • 5 clay amphorae with geometric patterns and figure-decorated scenes 
  • a clay container with geometric patterns 
  • a black-glossed clay jug
  • a clay egg-shaped object
  • a fishplate decorated with fish and shellfish
  • 3 pairs of gold and silver ear-rings
The pieces appear to have been found in the region of Avellino and Salerno in southern Italy.

The house belonging to the man's father was searched and a number of Roman coins were recovered as well as a Spanish-made pistol. 

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Monday 18 April 2011

The Staffordshire Hoard Symposium

Papers from the Staffordshire Hoard Symposium (March 2010) are now available from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) website.
A Symposium was held at the British Museum in March 2010. Twenty seven papers were delivered and there was much useful discussion. Summaries of many of the papers, together with some of the discussion and subsequent thoughts, will be added to this page over the next few months. In some cases, the embedded images have been processed to allow for a zooming image interface.

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TEFAF Maastricht 2011: reflecting on sales

Dr Jerome Eisenberg has been talking about the sale of antiquities at TEFAF Maastricht 2011  ("Big-money still being spent on works of art despite world's traumas", The National March 24, 2011).
At Royal-Athena Galleries, the American antiquities dealer Jerome Eisenberg said business was good. Clients were buying Greek and Etruscan vases from the collection of Patricia Kluge (widow of the movie mogul John Kluge), he noted. "Right now a lot more interest is in the investment benefit because of the phenomenal prices in the auctions last year," he said. He said that new clients included a museum of ancient art in Mougins, France, and a private collector in an undisclosed Gulf state who bought €2.8m worth of vases in January. Interest was also high in Egyptian objects, said Eisenberg, pointing to a relief of Arsinoe II from the Ptolemaic period that he sold the first night of the fair for €52,600.
The Kluge collection was discussed by Fabio Isman in the Italian press earlier this year.

The Mougins Museum of Classical Art will be opening in May 2011. The director is Dr Mark Merrony, the editor-in-chief of Minerva. And as the website of Minerva tells us, "the Mougins Museum of Art [sic.] (MMoCA) is a unique museum from the publisher of Minerva ..." And the most recent number of Minerva has an article on the new museum by Merrony.

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Saturday 16 April 2011

The Lewis Chessmen

Lewis Chessmen © David Gill
BBC Radio Scotland has broadcast an interview about the Lewis Chessmen. A local councillor, Norman A. MacDonald, from the island's Uig ward argues that some should remain on permanent display at Stornoway. He makes the point that Lewis was the final (archaeological) context. Interestingly the interviewer uses the "universal museum" point that more people would see the chessmen in London and Edinburgh ("given their importance").

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The Zahi Look

One of feeds delivered to my reader is from the ever entertaining (and informative) Archaeopop written by Daniel Shoup of the University of Bologna. The latest entry is on the Zahi Hawass range of clothing.

I am sure LM readers will be interested.

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Raising an Eyebrow over an Apulian Fishplate

Apulian fishplate before and after restoration apparently in 1998.
I was very interested in the images of an Apulian fishplate in the files of a Swiss-based dealer. The fishplate is shown before and after restoration. There is clearly damage on the face of the striped perch, on the body of the bream, and next to one of the scollops. There are small details to notice like the comma-shaped patch in the central recess for the fish sauce.

The fishplate was apparently restored soon after March 14, 1998 (and apparently before February 10, 1999).

It is remarkable that this fishplate appears to be the same one, attributed to the Eyebrow painter, that was sold at Christie's for £3750 earlier this week (April 14, 2011, lot 242). The Christie's fishplate has a declared collecting history:
With Eduard Burkhard, Basle, 1976.
Walsch Collection, Germany.
I presume that Eduard Burkhard is the same as Eduard Burkhardt Antiken of Basle.

And this raises a question. Who consigned the fishplate for restoration?

Did Eduard Burkhardt Antiken send it for repair 22 years after acquiring it? Or was it when it was in the Walsch collection in Germany? But then why would the fishplate appear in the file of another Swiss-based dealer who is unmentioned in the Christie's collecting history? Indeed, why should this additional dealer note the apparent price of the fishplate (70 Swiss Francs)?

The fishplate was one of three pieces from the Walsch collection that were sold at Christie's this week. The other two are:

  • Lot 221 An Attic black-figured neck-amphora, attributed to the Dot Band class. £7500. Previous collecting history: "With Maxburg Galerie Antiken, Munich, Germany, 1970."
  • Lot 243 Apulian red-figured askos attributed to the White Sakkos group. £11,875. Previous collecting history: "With Eduard Burkhand, Basle, Switzerland, 1977."

Did the staff at Christie's conduct a rigorous due diligence search on the fishplate? Was there a documented (and authenticated) collecting history?

Interestingly I have noted that objects that passed through the hands of the same Swiss dealer have been provided with creative collecting histories. And this raises a further serious point. Are the collecting histories as stated in the sale catalogue entries accurate? Are they no more than reported "provenances"? How do such creative collecting histories corrupt the corpus of knowledge?

Did Christie's check with the Italian authorities as part of their "incredibly thorough" due dilgence process? If not, why not? (And Christie's were aware of concerns prior to the sale.)

And if Christie's due diligence is so thorough, why did nobody spot that that two adjacent lots apparently from the same German collection have similar but not the same [note spelling] collecting histories? ("With Eduard Burkhard, Basle, 1976"; "With Eduard Burkhand, Basle, Switzerland, 1977"). [See also a Roman bronze jug apparently from this same source - "ex. Swiss private Collection, acquired from Eduard Burkhardt Antiken, Basel, 1970" - that passed through Medusa Ancient Art.]

All this suggests that staff at auction houses need to improve and strengthen their procedures. Failure do so will see toxic antiquities undermining confidence in the market.

I am grateful to Christos Tsirogiannis for his contribution to this identification.

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Friday 15 April 2011

A Corinthian olpe from a (recent) Swiss "collection"

In March I commented on a story from the Wall Street Journal. The interview included quotes from Max Bernheimer of Christie's.
"Buying through an auction house, where due diligence is incredibly thorough and everything is openly published in the catalogue, limits the possibilities over ownership and repatriation issues later on."
Yesterday Christie's held a sale of antiquities in London.

What was the collecting history for the Corinthian olpe (lot 197), that sold for £32,450 (est. £20,000-£30,000)? It is said to have been "Acquired on the Swiss art market in 1996". Were senior figures at Christie's aware of any indication of its previous "owner"? Had they checked with the Italian authorities as part of their due diligence process? If the answer is "no", does this undermine Bernheimer's claim that Christie's "due diligence is incredibly thorough"?

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Thursday 14 April 2011

Auction results: Christie's in London

I note that the results of the sale of Antiquities at Christie's South Kensington have now appeared (April 14, 2011). A total of £5,245,175 was achieved.

This is one of the highest achieving sales of antiquities for Christie's in London in recent years.

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Lewis Chessmen on Stornoway

Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum © David Gill
It is good to see that some of the Lewis Chessmen will be on show in Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway (15 April-12 September 2011). Some of the pieces from Edinburgh and the British Museum will be on display.

This raises several interesting issues. Should the pieces be displayed in the Outer Hebrides where they were found? Or in the British Museum, far removed from their findspot? Or in Edinburgh? 

And do they belong culturally to Scandinavia?

Whatever the issues, it is a momentous decision to see the pieces back in the Hebrides.

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Friday 8 April 2011

Contradictory Collecting Histories

One of the issues surrounding one of the lots due to be auctioned shortly relates to its collecting history. The catalogue entry claims to give a history stretching back over several decades to what appears to be a named Swiss private collector (though apparently a Swiss based dealer). However documentation suggests that the piece in question was only undergoing restoration in the 1990s.

Has a flawed collecting history been supplied? Was it created by the vendor? Who is the vendor?

At least the auction house now knows the truth. But will the sale of the lot proceed?

Collecting histories matter and it is becoming increasingly common for them to be fabricated.

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Thursday 7 April 2011

Polaroids and the Market

At the end of March I contacted the local head of the ancient art department of a major international auction house. It appears that two pieces in a forthcoming sale appear to feature in two separate photographic archives seized in Switzerland. This brings into question the collecting history of one of the pieces, and confirms the nature of the 'Swiss private collection' of the other.

As the pieces continue to be on offer we can assume that the auction house has contacted the Italian authorities. Or is that too much to expect?

Uncertainties like this can only serve to undermine the Market.

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Friday 1 April 2011

Looting Matters Celebrated

Later this morning a Blue Plaque will be unveiled on the north side of Gordon Square, London to mark the venue of a landmark lecture presented through the Heritage Studies Research Group. Blue Plaques are a feature of London's cityscape and they are placed to note important historical and cultural locations in the capital.

Looting Matters is honoured to have been selected for this treatment.

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Another Bubon bronze head likely to be repatriated

It appears that a bronze head acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum from Nicolas Koutoulakis has been removed from display and appears to be...