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Sabratha head sold in London

Source: The Art Newspaper
The Art Newspaper has reported that a Roman portrait head, removed from a statue at Sabratha, was sold for £91,250 at Christie's in London (lot 261) (Martin Bailey, "Head sold at Christie’s stolen from Libya", November 2011). The portrait head was apparently stolen in 1990.

It is significant that Christie's appears to have sold the portrait with a falsified collecting history: "private collection, Switzerland, circa 1975; acquired by the present owner in Switzerland in 1988". It was thus placed in Switzerland long before it had been stolen in Libya.

This raises some key issues. How did the staff at Christie's conduct a due diligence process for this statue? What documentation had they seen? What made them convinced that the Swiss collecting history was accurate?

And Christie's has a responsibility to disclose to police authorities who had consigned the portrait to them. Has any additional material been consigned by the same source?

This is not a "one off" for Christie's in London, see, for example, a head from Butrint. And Christie's itself has been handling disputed material in recent years. (See also an earlier overview.)

Why is Christie's appearing so frequently in such cases? Perhaps those in senior positions in the auction house should start to ask some searching questions about their department of ancient art.

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kyri said…
hi david,its not hard to forge documents.the people who stole this head could have easily created a false provenance and sold it off to some unsuspecting dealer or collector.i bet you that the person who consignd this piece to christies genuinely believed the provenance which accompanied the piece.forging provenance for looted material is almost as important to the criminals who stole the piece, as the piece itself.old colection lables and invoices from old antiques dealers that closed decades ago are hard to investigate.if this was a looted piece, other than a stolen one,it would have gone under the radar and once sold by christies the provenance would have been legitimised,that is the sad fact.
kyri said…
of course,if paul barford is right and the consigner claimd ownership prior to the head being stolen,than he[or she] may be in hot water but i know from my own experience when consigning that sometimes the auction house leaves out my ownership alltogether and just gives the provenance prior to mine.
Paul Barford said…
Ummm, but it says: "acquired by the present owner in Switzerland in 1988". Well it cant have been can it if it was still in Sabratha in 1990... So that date "1988" offered by the consignee was the one that was false. The information that he had it from a "private collection, Switzerland, circa 1975" must also be as dodgy as a three pound note.

Surely the point here is that this is information that should only be offered by somebody like Christie's if it is verified, and not just made-up numbers. And please do not tell me that in "1988" nobody bothered about provenances enough to keep an invoice, and for insurance purposes? It just does not wash Kyri.

Christie's was caught out because it was selling something the collecting history of which they had been unable to verify. But they went ahead with the sale anyway. Reportedly they went ahead with the sale also when they were informed beforehand (again, according to Bailey) that there were "doubts" about the origin of this piece (Bailey in fact says that Christie's were informed the object was stolen, where it had come from and when that happened - is that true? If it is, that's pretty damning).
Marc Fehlmann said…

This case has been made public by Dr. Dorothy Lobel King in July:

And it was her who informed Christie's of the issue with this piece. Maybe you could give her that credit rather than wait until an old story gets polished by a paper that is primarily paid by the trade.

Regarding Christie's: I get more and more the impression that their Antiquities Department has become less reliable since Sarah Hornsby has left. The new ladies seem to be under much pressure. I fully agree with you that the senior management might want to rethink the general policy in that department.
kyri said…
paul,your right,with an important piece like this there had to be some paperwork.but if this paperwork consisted of an invoice from a dealer dated 1977 and the dealer ceased trading in 1982 it is near imposible for the auction house to verify anything.its not allways black and white.
mark,your right about dorothy king,hers is one of the few blogs i keep tags on.she knew this head was dodgy and did inform christies where she was totally ignored.she does deserve alot of credit and she says on her blog that she tried to sort out this debacle behind the scenes and christies where having none of it.
there has been an increase in dodgy provenances since sarah hornsby has left but i dont think we can shift all the blame on to mrs aitken.i met georgiana aitken a few times when she was at bonhams and allways found her very knowledgable and very conscientious of the importance of provenance,i personally believe that their is great preasure from above for sales/results ,which is leading to her own personall stadards falling.she has only been there a couple of years and has big shoes to fill,im not excusing her just giving my interpretation of why these things are the long run their reputation will become tainted so they are better off declining pieces.apart from this being the right thing to do,it will allso look from the outside that they are taking the morall high ground.a win win situation where the only loosers are the looters.

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