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Will Lack of Pre-1970 Provenance Spook Antiquities Buyers?

November 22, 2014
Cover image of Christie's Antiquities Auction in New York, December 11, 2014.  The object show, Lot 140, a 1st century AD Roman marble portrait of Alexander the Great, has a provenance dating only to 1986. Click on image to enlarge.

Cover image of Christie’s Antiquities Auction in New York, December 11, 2014. The object shown, Lot 140, a 1st century AD Roman marble portrait of Alexander the Great, has a provenance dating only to 1986.
Click on image to enlarge.

UPDATE: In a December 5, 2014 email Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a Research Assistant in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, identified three works in the Christie’s sale that were connected to dealers and collectors who had handled looted works.  In an email on December 11, 2014 Dr. Tsirogiannis said all three had been withdrawn from sale. He had previously identified another work as suspect, this, too, a Sardinian stone idol, was withdrawn (see below):

LOT 51: AN EGYPTIAN ALABASTER FIGURAL JUG, estimated at $150,000 – $250,000. The object appears in the same condition in the Symes-Michaelides archive. The dealers are not mentioned in the collecting history supplied by Christie’s.

LOT 95: AN ATTIC RED-FIGURED COLUMN-KRATER, estimated at $60,000 – $90,000. The object is depicted in the same condition in the images that have been confiscated by the American authorities from the antiquities dealer David Swingler, among hundreds of antiquities which were repatriated to Italy, after it was found that they were smuggled. Swingler’s name is not included in the collecting history supplied by Christie’s.
LOT 139: A ROMAN MARBLE COLUMN CAPITAL, estimated at $80,000 – $120,000. The object appears in Christie’s catalogue with its surface cleaned, unlike its appearance in the Symes-Michaelides archive. The dealers are not mentioned in the collecting history supplied by Christie’s.

 

ORIGINAL POST: In recent years, numerous American museums – including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Art and the Getty in Los Angeles – have been forced, after protracted legal battles, to return looted antiquities to their host countries. Not wanting further legal trouble, and the attendant bad publicity, museum curators are more circumspect and their acquisitions more carefully considered. Private collectors, on the other hand, would appear to have fewer qualms despite a New York Times article that reports some  are having a harder time disposing of works – either through sale or donation – of non pre-1970 works:

Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, is … [a]n antiquities collector … eager to sell an Egyptian sarcophagus he bought from Sotheby’s in the early 1990s. But he is stymied, he said, because auction houses are applying tighter policies to the items they accept for consignment.

Which auction houses are we talking about? Are collectors being sent mixed messages?

In the upcoming New York antiquities auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, there are at least 90 works that lack a pre-1970 provenance, including the two highest estimated works at Christie’s December 11, 2014 sale. More than one-third of the 192 lots at Christie’s and eighteen of the 49 lots offered at Sotheby’s December 12, 2014 sale have no pre-1970 provenance.

The “pre-1970″ refers to the date of an internationalUNESCO convention aimed at halting the looting of antiquities. As one New York Times article reported, “In 2004 the Association of Art Museum Directors declared ‘member museums should not acquire’ any undocumented works ‘that were removed after November 1970, regardless of any applicable statutes of limitation.’” I would argue that private collectors should adopt a similar policy.

This is not to say the works in these sale are looted, but how do you explain that more than one-third of the works cannot be sourced earlier than 1970?  Are collectors willing to “roll the dice” and hope such works are legitimately out of their source countries? Should the auction houses adopt a policy that precludes the acceptance of non pre-1970 works (which would infuriate a lot of clients)?

While you ponder those questions, here are several objects, including Christie’s cover lot, that reasonably raise concerns about where they came from and, more importantly, when?

Lot 85. A SARDINIAN MARBLE FEMALE IDOL OZIERI CULTURE, CIRCA 2500-2000 B.C. 13 ¾ in. (34.9 cm.) long Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. Provenance with Harmon Fine Arts, New York. with The Merrin Gallery, New York, 1990 (Masterpieces of Cycladic Art, no. 27). Acquired by the current owner, 1997.

Christie’s Lot 85. A SARDINIAN MARBLE FEMALE IDOL
OZIERI CULTURE, CIRCA 2500-2000 B.C.
13 ¾ in. (34.9 cm.) long
Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000.
Provenance
with Harmon Fine Arts, New York.
with The Merrin Gallery, New York, 1990 (Masterpieces of Cycladic Art, no. 27).
Acquired by the current owner, 1997.

Image of the Sardinian idol from the Medici archive (provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)

Image of the Sardinian idol from the Medici archive (provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)

According to a posting on the Web site of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, Lot 85 (above) has been linked to an item in the photographic archives of looted antiquities maintained by Giacomo Medici, an art dealer convicted in 2004 of dealing in looted antiquities and the subject of the 2006 book The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums: “The object appears in the Medici archive, smashed in 6 pieces, missing the upper left part of its head,” according to Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a Research Assistant in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. “The Steinhardt collection [from which this piece is being sold] has been previously connected with the acquisition of questionable antiquities.”

The Web site Looting Matters has additional commentary about Dr. Tsirogiannis’ discovery.

UPDATE: David Gill writes in Looting Matters: “It appears that officials in Sardinia have asked US Ambassador Phillips (in Rome) that the Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie’s in December should be returned to Italy.”

UPDATE: The Web site of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art reports that the Sardinian idol has been withdrawn from sale.  The work no longer appears on Christie’s Web site. Below is the description that appeared online before the item was withdrawn.

Lot 85. Description. Click on image to enlarge.

Lot 85. Description. Click on image to enlarge.

Lot 91. AN ATTIC BLACK-FIGURED TYRRHENIAN AMPHORA ATTRIBUTED TO THE CASTELLANI PAINTER, CIRCA 550 B.C. 18 in. (45.7 cm.) high Estimate: $120,000-180,000. Provenance P. Conradty, Nuremburg, 1980.  with Galleria Serodine, Ascona, 1998. with Charles Ede, London, 2005. with Royal-Athena Galleries, New York 2008 (Art of the Ancient World, vol. XIX, no. 109).

Christie’s Lot 91. AN ATTIC BLACK-FIGURED TYRRHENIAN AMPHORA
ATTRIBUTED TO THE CASTELLANI PAINTER, CIRCA 550 B.C.
18 in. (45.7 cm.) high
Estimate: $120,000-180,000. This lot sold for $125,000.
Provenance
P. Conradty, Nuremburg, 1980.
with Galleria Serodine, Ascona, 1998.
with Charles Ede, London, 2005.
with Royal-Athena Galleries, New York 2008 (Art of the Ancient World, vol. XIX, no. 109).

Lot 105. A GREEK BRONZE SITULA HELLENISTIC PERIOD, CIRCA LATE 4TH CENTURY B.C. 9 5/16 in. (23.6 cm.) high Estimate: $50,000-70,000 Provenance with Phoenix Ancient Art, Geneva, 1997.

Christie’s Lot 105. A GREEK BRONZE SITULA
HELLENISTIC PERIOD, CIRCA LATE 4TH CENTURY B.C.
9 5/16 in. (23.6 cm.) high
Estimate: $50,000-70,000. This lot sold for $60,000.
Provenance
with Phoenix Ancient Art, Geneva, 1997.

Lot 105. Detail.

Lot 105. Detail.

Lot 140. A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT CIRCA 1ST CENTURY A.D. 12 in. (30.4 cm.) high Estimate: $700,000-900,000. Provenance Antiquities, Sotheby's, London, 14 July 1986, lot 163. with Andre Emmerich, New York, 1987.

Christie’s Lot 140. A ROMAN MARBLE PORTRAIT OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
CIRCA 1ST CENTURY A.D.
12 in. (30.4 cm.) high
Estimate: $700,000-900,000. This lot sold for $2,045,000.
Provenance
Antiquities, Sotheby’s, London, 14 July 1986, lot 163.
with Andre Emmerich, New York, 1987.

Lot 144. A ROMAN SILVER SKYPHOS CIRCA LATE 1ST CENTURY B.C. TO 1ST CENTURY A.D. 3 7/16 in. (8.8 cm.) high Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Provenance Acquired by the current owner on the Zurich market, 1988. Click on image to enlarge.

Christie’s Lot 144. A ROMAN SILVER SKYPHOS
CIRCA LATE 1ST CENTURY B.C. TO 1ST CENTURY A.D.
3 7/16 in. (8.8 cm.) high
Estimate: $30,000-50,000. This lot failed to sell.
Provenance
Acquired by the current owner on the Zurich market, 1988.
Click on image to enlarge.

Sotheby's Lot 6. AN EGYPTIAN DIORITE FIGURE OF A PRIEST OF THE TEMPLE OF MUT, LATE 25TH/EARLY 26TH DYNASTY, CIRCA 670-610 B.C. Height 12 1/4 in. 31.1 cm. Estimate: $400,000-600,000. Provenance private collection (Christie's, London, April 27th, 1976, no. 135, illus.) Galerie Khnoum, Geneva, 1992 Drouot-Richelieu, Paris, October 1st, 1996, no. 462, illus. Safani Gallery, New York Jack Josephson Collection (Sotheby’s, New York, June 5th, 2008, no. 57, illus.)

Sotheby’s Lot 6. AN EGYPTIAN DIORITE FIGURE OF A PRIEST OF THE TEMPLE OF MUT, LATE 25TH/EARLY 26TH DYNASTY, CIRCA 670-610 B.C.
Height 12 1/4 in. 31.1 cm.
Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This lot failed to sell.
Provenance
private collection (Christie’s, London, April 27th, 1976, no. 135, illus.)
Galerie Khnoum, Geneva, 1992
Drouot-Richelieu, Paris, October 1st, 1996, no. 462, illus.
Safani Gallery, New York
Jack Josephson Collection (Sotheby’s, New York, June 5th, 2008, no. 57, illus.)

Sotheby's Lot 29. A MARBLE HEAD OF APHRODITE, ALSO KNOWN AS SAPPHO, ROMAN IMPERIAL, CIRCA LATE 1ST/EARLY 2ND CENTURY A.D. Height 13 3/4 in. 34.9 cm. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Provenance Galerie de Bayser, 30, rue de Varenne, Paris acquired by the present owner from the above on June 17th, 1978

Sotheby’s Lot 29. A MARBLE HEAD OF APHRODITE, ALSO KNOWN AS SAPPHO, ROMAN IMPERIAL, CIRCA LATE 1ST/EARLY 2ND CENTURY A.D.
Height 13 3/4 in. 34.9 cm.
Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This lot sold for $93,750.
Provenance
Galerie de Bayser, 30, rue de Varenne, Paris
acquired by the present owner from the above on June 17th, 1978

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