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Are these antiquities looted?

September 4, 2012

Catalogue page showing some of the antiquities for sale at Hampel’s September 20-21, 2012, auctions. Most of the antiquities offered have no dated provenance.  The catalogue does say the works have been checked against The Art Loss Register – however, the register covers works documented as stolen, not previously unrecorded works that have been looted.

Souren Melikian’s September 2012 Art & Auction article “How UNESCO’s 1970 Convention Is Weeding Looted Artifacts Out of the Antiquities Market” would seem to indicate the appetite for antiquities lacking pre-1970 provenance is abating.  The article details how several antiquities with secure provenance dating back before “the UNESCO Convention for the protection of cultural property, approved on November 14, 1970” did very well at auction – in some cases selling for multiples of the high estimate. The increasing recognition of the UNESCO convention by dealers, collectors and institutions is “reconfiguring the market” for  antiquities.  [Another factor has been Italy’s muscular, high profile and successful attempts to repatriate looted antiquities from the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and many other institutions.]

This shift, says Melikian, means, “costly antiquities first bought after 1970 will become hard if not impossible to sell, and their commercial value will nosedive.” The article closes:

Give it another 10 years, and undocumented antiquities, not just from Italy but from anywhere in the world, will turn into such hot potatoes that few professionals will want to touch them, and even fewer investment-conscious collectors will hold on to them. At that point, the massive looting that devastates the world’s common heritage buried underground will dwindle to a trickle. Caveat emptor.

Agreed, antiquities buyers should beware, but what about the auction houses, antiquities dealers and other sellers?  Can they continue to offer up works lacking pre-1970 histories of ownership until buyers no longer countenance the practice? Don’t sellers have a responsibility to reject such works – both to discourage looting and protect clients from acquiring works that in the future “will become hard if not impossible to sell” because “their commercial value will nosedive” – or is that like basing an immigration policy on the concept of self-deportation?

The upcoming sale at Hampel, the Munich, Germany-based auction house, contains 47 antiquities – most come from private collections in England, Germany and elsewhere, though some have no listed provenance whatsoever.  Of the three works with dated provenance – only one putatively has a pre-1970 provenance: lot 629, an Etruscan Stamnos whose provenance is listed as Schweizer Privatbesitz (1961 – 2000), i.e. Swiss private collection (1961-2000).  The catalogue does include the following: “All antiquities in this catalogue, as far as they are uniquely identifiable have been checked against the database of the Art Loss Register prior to the auction.”  The Art Loss Resister of documented stolen works is of great value – as its Web site notes, it is “the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectables.” However, it does not include previously unrecorded works that have been looted.

A recent post on this blog noted that seven of the top ten (by estimate) stone sculptures in Christie’s September 12, 2012 sale of Indian & Southeast Asian Art lack a pre-1970 provenance.  All told, there are some 40 stone sculptures without a pre-1970 provenance.

Lot 522. An important parcel gilt and polychromed gray schist figure of the Teaching Buddha
Gandhara, 2nd/3rd century.  This work from Christie’s forthcoming sale of Indian & Southeast Asian art has a published provenance only dating back to the 1990’s.

Melikian also writes:

Proof that auction houses have become acutely aware of the problem is provided by the policy that is quietly followed at one of the two international companies dominating the auction market. A few months ago, as I congratulated Florent Heintz, international head of the antiquities department at Sotheby’s, about the number of ancient Roman sculptures ensconced in the cultural past of Europe that he has been handling of late, the expert replied, “This is what we are looking for right now.” The latest antiquities sale held at Sotheby’s New York, on June 7, certainly bears out Heintz’s words.

It would have been helpful to note that 23 of the 79 lots in Sotheby’s June 7, 2012, sale did not have a published, pre-1970 provenance (and another three were vague on dating) – that’s roughly a one-third of the lots offered.  Seventeen of those 23 lots found buyers (along with two of the three with vague dating).  Let’s not get too congratulatory with “the expert” just yet.

As for the private galleries – the current exhibition (through September 30, 2012) at Phoenix Ancient Art in New York, Warrior Ancient Arms and Armor, contains 21 antiquities of which only four have pre-1970 provenance (and another is listed as pre-1971) – what about the remainder?

One of the antiquities offered by Phoenix Ancient Art that does not have a published, pre-1970 provenance.

All of the works discussed in this blog post may well have secure provenance  dating before the November 14, 1970 UNESCO accord (or other corroborating evidence) – but if that’s the case, why isn’t it being provided? Melikian is right – caveat emptor – buyers need to demand secure provenance that dates before the UNESCO accord for any antiquities they contemplate buying.  However, sellers – including auction houses and private galleries – also have a responsibility.  And, it would be helpful if the media, when covering the sales, also mention the number of lots lacking that all important pre-1970 provenance.

Melikian writes that we should “give it another 10 years” – that’s not a long time, but it could mean a lot of looting.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Cranwell permalink
    September 4, 2012 2:56 PM

    Good to see this kind of exposure coming to light, it is easy to find things to sale without good provenance even at the best Auction rooms. Feel’s like an age, but this was the basis of my thesis at uni (over 10 years ago now) – the reading should still be relevant: if you are interested.

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