Licensed for sale?

Phoenix Ancient Art is currently offering for sale two previously unpublished Palmyran funerary reliefs, one depicting a noblewoman and child (no. 6767), the other a woman with her mother (no. 19103). Each relief has the provenance ‘Ex-private collection, Lebanon, collected in the 1960’s’. Nothing is offered to verify this provenance, but if true it gives both pieces a clean bill of health as regards United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2199, which prohibits the trade of cultural objects that left Syria after 15 March 2011. Questions of title might arise from the date of export from Syria, which established state ownership of cultural objects in October 1963, but that was a long time ago and presumably since then the ownership trails of the reliefs have been confounded by one or more good faith transactions so that now their private ownership is secure.

Unusually, for one piece, the noblewoman and child (no. 6767), Phoenix has made available pdfs of some relevant provenance documents. They comprise a UK export licence dated July 1997, a translation of the relief’s inscription dated July 2000, an Art Loss Register certificate dated December 2004, and an e-mail from UNESCO dated June 2015 confirming that sale of the relief would not be in contravention of UNSCR 2199. Thus the earliest verified date of the relief’s presence outside Syria is provided by the July 1997 UK export licence, and nothing is offered to support its presence in Lebanon in the 1960s. But leaving Lebanon to one side, the interesting thing about the documentation is what it tells us about the history of trafficking out of Syria and the failure of regulatory measures to exert any kind of control.

The July 1997 UK export licence was issued in compliance with Council Regulation (EEC) No 3911/92 of 9 December 1992. But close inspection shows the licence to be a flimsy piece of evidence, as there is nothing to associate it definitively with the relief. The licence describes a ‘Palmyran stone bust of a woman 2nd century AD’, which may or may not be the noblewoman and child, and the descriptive fields provided for object identification have been left blank. Now I am not an expert in customs law, but is an incomplete licence a valid one? Not the fault of Phoenix of course, and in any case the other documents are enough to prove that the noblewoman and child was out of Syria before 2011. The licence does, however, call into question the rigour of the UK licensing authority (which back then was the Department of National Heritage, now Department of Culture, Media and Sport), and perhaps also raises questions about the UK’s concern to fulfil the material intention rather than simply satisfy the appearance of export control.

The presence of the two previously unknown reliefs on the market shows that Palmyra was suffering from theft and trafficking before the outbreak of conflict in 2011, maybe as long ago as the 1960s. The Phoenix reliefs are not alone. In December 2016, Swiss authorities announced the seizure of several objects in Geneva Freeport, including two Palmyra reliefs. The material was said to have reached Switzerland from Qatar sometime between 2009 and 2010. The Art Newspaper reported that a criminal investigation into their import had closed with no convictions. No information was revealed about the identities of the Swiss importer or Qatari exporter. (There is nothing to connect this case with Phoenix Ancient Art).

The provenance documents accompanying the noblewoman and child also throw disturbing light upon the utility of UNSCR 2199 – asking is it fit for purpose? UNSCR 2199 was passed on 12 February 2015, condemning ‘unambiguously the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria’, and prohibiting cross-border trade in objects removed from Syria since 15 March 2011 (the date generally recognised to have marked the start of the civil uprising in Syria that ultimately led to war). This threshold date of March 2011 ignores the fact that Syrian ownership of cultural objects found on its territory was established by its Legislative Decree #222 (the ‘Antiquities Law’) of 26 October 1963. It is anybody’s guess why UNSCR 2199 did not adopt that earlier 1963 date as the appropriate threshold for prohibition, but worries about the unsettling effect of retroactivity upon material already outside Syria and in private ownership cannot be the answer as the specified 2011 date is retroactive in itself. Whatever the reason, UNSCR 2199 cannot be called upon to control the trade of objects that left Syria before October 2011. More worrying is that UNSCR 2199 might actually be used to ‘launder’ objects taken out of Syria between 23 October 1963 and 15 March 2011 by creating the mistaken impression among market participants that such objects are legally in circulation, when in fact lawful ownership would depend upon transactional and jurisdictional histories and would probably need to be established on a case by case basis for each piece.

Training in Beirut

I will be spending January and February working with Lebanese NGO Biladi to offer a training course on international law and law enforcement as regards the theft and illegal trade of cultural objects. The primary aim of the course is to improve understanding among Lebanese and Syrian culture heritage professionals about the evidential and procedural requirements of European and North American law enforcement when dealing with cases of trafficked cultural objects. The secondary aim is to improve national and international communication and cooperation in this area. The intended outcome is to improve rates of detection, recovery and return of stolen and illegally exported cultural objects, thereby deterring further theft and illegal excavation.

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Syrian participants will be drawn from the DGAM in Syria and from universities in Europe. Lebanese participants will include DGA staff, lawyers, and university academics. The course will extend over two one-week sessions in Beirut, from 20-25 January and 17-22 February. Presentations and interactive sessions will be provided by visiting international experts in cultural heritage law and law enforcement under the overall supervision of myself and my Biladi colleague Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly. The course enjoys the support and approval of the Lebanese DGA, the Lebanese office of UNESCO and the Syrian DGAM. It has been made possible by a generous grant from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Beirut and is accredited by Blue Shield. Joanne and I both feel strongly that the illegal trade is demand-led, and we believe that this course will empower cultural heritage professionals in Lebanon and Syria to take more effective action against the market in Europe and North America.

Christos in Germany

Christos Tsirogiannis has identified four objects in the forthcoming Gorny & Mosch auction to be held in Munich on 14 December 2016 that appear in the confiscated image archives of Robin Symes and Gianfranco Becchina. They are:

 

lot-19-symes

 

Lot 19. An Etruscan bronze figure of a youth (mid-fifth-century BC). Provenance: R.G. collection Germany; Royal-Athena Galleries, New York, catalogue 21, 2010; Sotheby’s London, 13 July 1981, lot 341.

Christos first recognised this figure in the Symes archive back in January 2011, when it was on offer at Royal-Athena Galleries, though clearly no action was taken by the relevant authorities as it has now reappeared on the market. David Gill has more to say about the figure’s provenance, showing among other things that it had been offered previously by Royal-Athena Galleries in 1985.

 

lot-87-in-becchina

Lot 87. An Apulian red-figure situla of the Lycurgus Painter (360–350 BC). Provenance: James Stirt collection, Vevey, Switzerland, acquired 1997 from Heidi Vollmöller, Zurich.

This piece appears covered with soil and salt encrustations on a Becchina image, alongside other objects in the same condition. A handwritten note indicates that the images were sent from Raffaele Montichelli, a convicted antiquities trafficker, to Becchina on 18 March 1988.

 

lot-88-in-becchina

Lot 88. An Apulian red-figure bell-krater of the Dechter Painter (350–340 BC). Provenance: Antike Kunst Palladion gallery, Basel; Borowzova collection, Binnigen, Switzerland, acquired 1976 from Elie Borowski, Basel.

Antike Kunst Palladion was Becchina’s gallery in Basel. The krater appears on an image from the Becchina archive looking freshly excavated with soil and salt encrustations. The date printed on the image reads ‘APR 4 ’89’ (4 April 1989), raising questions about the alleged ownership of Elie Borowski 13 years earlier in 1976. The Gorny & Mosch provenance also notes that the krater was attributed to the Dechter Painter by A.D. Trendall.

 

lot-127-in-becchina

Lot 127. A Gnathia ware squat alabastron with the bust of a winged woman with sakkos, and said to be from the White Sakkos Painter (Apulia, 320–310 BC). Provenance: Christie´s London, 15 April 2015, lot 113; Hans Humbel collection, Switzerland, acquired from the Galerie Arete, Zürich in the early 1990s.

This alabastron appears on an image sent to Becchina by Raffaele Montichelli, alongside several other objects, dating to 24 September 1988. Christos previously identified this alabastron a year and a half ago as one of two vases comprising lot 113 in the Christie’s London 15 April 2015 sale. The alabastron was one of four identifications made by Christos in the Christie’s sale and subsequently withdrawn. Lynda Albertson adds that the provenance provided in the 2015 Christie’s catalogue entry states that the piece had been acquired by the consignor from the Petit Musée, Montreal, in 1998.

 

Lynda Albertson has also very helpfully provided a German-language description of the material.

 

Geddes surfacings

On 20 November 2016, Christian McCann Auctions of Melbourne, Australia offered for sale the fine and decorative art collection of Stewart Macciolli. The collection included a range of Classical Greek and South Italian pottery. Some of the pottery had been seen before in the catalogue of the Bonhams London 15 October 2008 auction of the collection of Melbourne-based dealer Graham Geddes. The day before the sale was due to go ahead, however, Bonhams withdrew 13 pieces from auction.

Five lots offered by Christian McCann in November had been withdrawn by Bonhams in 2008. They were:

Lot 331. An Attic red-figure bell krater, attributed to the Retorted Painter, circa 380–360 BC. (Sold 36,000 AUD).

Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 20 May 1985, lot 383.

Exhibited: Borchardt Library, La Trobe University, Melbourne, March 1995–April 2008.

The krater was lot 9 in the 2008 Bonhams sale.

Lot 332. An Attic black-figure column krater, attributed to the Swing Painter, circa 530 BC. (Passed).

Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 13–14 July 1987, lot 440.

Exhibited: Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne, March 1988–February 1994; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, April 2005–April 2008.

The krater was lot 6 in the 2008 Bonhams sale.

Lot 335. A Campanian red-figure neck amphora, attributed to near the Chequer and Dirce Painters, circa 380 BC. (Sold 16,200 AUD).

Provenance: Amati Collection London, mid-1970s.

Exhibited: Melbourne University, March 1988–July 2003; Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities, Monash University, Melbourne, November 2005–April 2008.

The amphora was lot 36 in the 2008 Bonhams sale.

Lot 336. A Campanian red-figure bell krater, circa 335 BC. (Sold 6,400 AUD).

Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 22 May 1989, lot 199.

Exhibited: Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities, Monash University, Melbourne, November 2005–April 2008; University of Melbourne, March 1995–July 2003.

The krater was lot 26 in the 2008 Bonhams sale.

Lot 337. An Apulian red-figure pelike, circa fourth century BC. (Sold 9,200 AUD). 

Provenance: Ex Haley’s, Melbourne, 2003.

Exhibited: University of Melbourne, Australia, March 1995–July 2003.

The pelike was lot 150 in the 2008 Bonhams sale. The Bonhams provenance made no mention of Haley’s but said the piece had been acquired in England in 1979.

None of the provenance entries for the Christian McCann auction made mention of the 2008 Bonhams catalogue. Someone was clearly aware of it, as the object descriptions are closely similar. Take Christian McCann lot 336, for example, which was described as:

‘Enlivened with added white, side (a) showing the figure of a male acrobat, his body bent backwards into an arch, wearing a tight short patterned kilt with a spotted waistband, a beaded band around his head, with ivy leaves in the field, side (b) depicting a swan in profile to the right, with a rosette and ivy leaves in the field, each scene flanked on either side by a split palmette, with small palmettes under the upturned handles, a wave pattern baseline below, a band of laurel beneath the exterior rim’.

In the 2008 Bonhams catalogue, it was described as:

‘Enlivened with added white, side (a) showing the figure of a male acrobat, his body bent backwards into an arch, wearing a tight short patterned kilt with a spotted waistband, a beaded band around his torso, bracelets at his wrists and ankles, a laurel wreath around his head, with ivy leaves in the field, side (b) showing a swan in profile to the right, with a rosette and ivy leaves in the field, each scene flanked on either side by a split palmette, with small palmettes under the upturned handles, a wave pattern baseline below, a band of laurel under the exterior rim’.

The Christian McCann sale of this pottery raises many questions. In the first place, why was the pottery withdrawn from sale by Bonhams in 2008? It was reported at the time in the Daily Telegraph that ‘Bonhams made the last minute decision not to auction the artefacts after being told by the Italian embassy in London that some of them were probably stolen and illegally exported from Italy’ (Squires 2008). But either the Italian authorities did not follow up their allegations or were not able to prove them. Either way, the pottery ended up with Macciolli. Given the Melbourne connection between Geddes and Macciolli, the most likely course of events is that Bonhams returned the material to Geddes, who subsequently sold it to Macciolli. That does not exclude the possibility that Bonhams took a more active role in arranging the sale between Geddes and Macciolli. But was Macciolli made aware of the Bonhams history? Did he receive any reassurances? Was Christian McCann made aware of the Bonhams history? If so, why was it not included in the individual provenance entries? Finally, four of the five pieces offered by Christian McCann sold. Were the buyers made aware of the Bonhams history at time of purchase?

Despite the questionable provenance of the pieces, prices achieved at the Christian McCann sale held up well. The following table compares the achieved prices at Christian McCann with the Bonhams estimates (all prices in USD). Direct comparison is misleading because of the time lapse, but still, there is little evidence of questionable provenance having a serious negative impact on price, as is often claimed.

Christian McCann lot Christian McCann price Bonhams estimate
331 26,280 32,000-44,000
335 16,200 13,000-19,000
336 4,698 2,500-3,800
337 6,753 2,500-3,800

 

Reference

Squires, Nick, 2008. Suspicions that Roman artefacts were illegally traded, Daily Telegraph, 16 October.

Bonhams under the Christoscope

My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis has identified two polaroid images in the Medici archive which appear to show an Etruscan terracotta antefix offered at Bonhams London as lot 14 in its forthcoming 30 November Antiquities sale. The provenance provided by Bonhams is ‘James Chesterman Collection (1926-2014), formed in the UK in the 1970s-2000. With À la Reine Margot, Paris, acquired in December 1986’.

christoscope

christoscope-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the polaroid images is attached to a Hydra Gallery form, with the handwritten ‘v. Londr’ indicating the piece was intended for sale in London. Medici opened the Geneva-based Hydra Gallery in 1983, so presumably he sold the antefix sometime between 1983 and 1986.

Bonhams has withdrawn the piece from sale.

Civil society action

OjoPúblico is a consortium of Peruvian journalists working to expose crime and corruption, in whatever form they take. First established in Peru in 2014, its work is presented on an eponymous digital platform. Its latest venture is Memoria Robado (Stolen Memory), a web-resource devoted to art and antiquities trafficking throughout Latin America, with databases of stolen and recovered objects and in-depth investigative reports. Definitely worth consulting. It shows once more the important though often unacknowledged role of journalists and other members of civil society in tackling the problem. It is not always about law enforcement agencies and international NGOs. A comparable example is the work of the recently established India Pride Project, looking to recover material stolen and trafficked out of India over the past half century. I have mentioned only two projects here, and I know there are more I should have mentioned, but haven’t. My only excuse is that I am advertising some new arrivals. The work of people involved in these projects is making a real difference and is worthy of more international recognition and support.

Christos never sleeps

christos-sleeps-1My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis has just revealed that lot 92 in the forthcoming 25 October Antiquities sale at Christie’s New York appears in the Robin Symes archive of confiscated photographs. Greek police seized the photographs during a 2006 raid on Robin Symes’ villa on the island of Schinoussa. Described as a Roman marble draped goddess, the provenance provided for the piece by Christie’s says only that it is property ‘from a distinguished private collection’ and that it was acquired by the current owner from the Perpitch Gallery, Paris, sometime before 1991.

Before accepting an object for sale, Christie’s requires documentary evidence that it was out of its country of origin before a specified date. The date is that of an MOU with the USA, the start of a conflict, or 2000, whichever is most appropriate. Thus for the present piece, presumably the company’s due diligence was limited to establishing the pre-2000 date of acquisition, and failed to uncover the earlier involvement of Symes.

Christie’s has withdrawn the piece from sale.

Market transparency? Seeing through Christie’s

SAFE has recently published the text of an interview with the Senior Vice-President and General Counsel for Dispute Resolutions and Legal Public Affairs at Christie’s. The interview presents Christie’s views on how the transparency and general legitimacy of the antiquities trade could be improved. The company believes that the biggest obstacle to investigating the provenance and thus title of objects to be sold is shortage of information because of the limited availability of reference databases, regretting the ‘tremendous’ amount of private documentation that exists but is kept secret. The example of the Giacomo Medici polaroids is highlighted, which are believed to comprise a visual record of hundreds if not thousands of illegally-traded antiquities.

Christie’s is correct. Transparency is indeed the surest route to legitimacy, and transparency can only be improved by the release into the public domain of privately held information about the collecting and trading histories of circulating antiquities. And one can understand the concern of Christie’s, caught, as it is, offering for sale (unknowingly) objects that had passed through Medici’s hands. But surely Christie’s and its associated auction houses and trade organisations could impress upon Medici the importance of making his archive public? What is the problem? Why is he so reluctant to help the market when he was once such an enthusiastic beneficiary?

Christie’s itself is not above criticism. Provenance entries in its catalogues often appear incomplete, and the suspicion is that the company is withholding information. Client confidentiality would no doubt be its reply – the right of a consignor to protect his or her privacy. But if that is the case, come out and say so. It is part of the problem, something to be tackled, not something to be ignored. And as explained in an earlier post, Christie’s is in possession of the original records of London’s Spink auction house, a repository of information crucial for investigating the provenance of Asian objects.

If Christie’s is serious in its professed commitment to market transparency, there are two things it should do. First, it should construct a publicly-accessible, free-to-use database of all lots previously offered for sale by the company, together with associated provenance information. At the very least, it should make its old catalogues available for viewing on-line. Second, and as a matter of some urgency, it should also make the Spink archive available on-line or otherwise accessible to interested researchers and members of the public.

Trafficking out of Syria

The civil war in Syria that started in 2011 is now in its sixth year. During that time, archaeological and other cultural sites including museums have been destructively looted of their saleable contents. It is widely believed that the looted artifacts have been moved illegally out of Syria for sale in Europe and North America. To date, however, there have been few if any verifiable reports of (post-2011) trafficked Syrian objects appearing there.

The scale of the destruction caused by looting and trafficking has been demonstrated by projects such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Oxford University’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA). These projects have used satellite imagery to identify looted sites, assign them to likely zones of combatant control, assess the extent and severity of damage caused to individual sites, and establish a tentative timeline. Jesse Casana, for example, has reported that since 2011, 23 per cent of all archaeological sites in Syria have been damaged by looting [1]. The bare statistics do not do full justice to the stark reality of the situation, however, hiding the fact exposed by satellite imagery that some important sites such as the Hellenistic-Roman towns of Apamea and Dura Europas have been largely obliterated by illegal digging. The problem is ongoing. In April 2016, the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives project reported looting at the Roman sites of Bosra and Palmyra. Looting has occurred in territories controlled by all combatant factions, though has been more severe in territory controlled by Daesh.

There have been many seizures of trafficked Syrian objects in the neighbouring ‘transit’ countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but nothing comparable in the ‘market’ countries of Western Europe and North America. Suspicions have been voiced that criminal entrepreneurs are warehousing material until such time as the trading environment is more conducive for onwards sale, or are trading it out of sight on the Dark Web. An alternative and simpler explanation is that trafficked material is being sold openly in Europe and North America, but is not being recognized for what it is. Expectations as to what types of object might be looted and trafficked have been conditioned by what is known of material moved out of Syria before 2011. Several examples of large, culturally and monetarily valuable pieces left Syria illegally and were recovered in the 1990s and 2000s. But these objects were moved out of Syria at a time of relative stability, and there is evidence of regime connivance that would have provided the necessary transport and allowed border controls and other legal obstacles to be bypassed [2]. Since 2011, this type of condoned or tolerated trade of large objects will have become increasingly untenable. Media reports from the border area of southern Turkey show instead the trafficking of coins, jewellery and other small objects that can be easily concealed and transported. Similarly, when on 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of Daesh’s administrative section for the supervision of excavation and trade of cultural objects, many of the cultural objects recovered in his possession were coins from Syria and Iraq, as well as electronic images of gold coins and jewellery.

Thus it is possible that the pattern of illegal trade post-2011 has shifted from small quantities of large, high-value objects to larger quantities of predominantly smaller, lower-value objects. The illegal excavation of large numbers of small, relatively low-value objects would be more damaging to archaeological sites than the illegal excavation of fewer, larger, high-value objects. This possible change in strategy is in accordance with the evidence of extensive digging that is captured on satellite imagery. Large numbers of small, low-value objects would still in aggregate generate appreciable profits for those involved in trafficking. But although it is reasonably easy to demonstrate the sale in Europe and North America of small objects that might have been found in Syria, it is harder to identify objects that really were without doubt found in Syria, and not in a neighbouring country. Thus it is difficult to confirm this suggested shift in trafficking strategy

Coins from mints of known location offer one possible way forward. In September 2015, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who is executive director of the American Numismatic Society, presented a paper on Syrian coins at a meeting held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to discuss the looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural objects. She suggested ‘the strong probability that a significant number of certain types of coins on today’s market likely originated in Syria’. She showed, for example, that the average number of radiate coins of Zenobia and her son Vabalathus struck during the year AD 272 appearing each year on the market after 2011 was nearly double the equivalent figure for the previous three decades.

Jack Nurpetlian has recently made publicly available the text of his February 2013 PhD thesis entitled Coinage in Late Hellenistic and Roman Syria: The Orontes Valley (1st Century – 3rd Century AD). In it he presents a comprehensive catalogue of all Roman provincial coins known to him by the end of June 2012 that were minted in the towns of the Orontes Valley between 64 BC and AD 253, including coins in private and museum collections and present on the market during his period of study. The catalogue provides invaluable baseline data for further study of the market in Syrian coins. Looking, for example, at silver tetradrachms minted in the town of Emesa (modern Homs) during the reigns of emperors Caracalla and Macrinus (AD 198 to AD 218). The catalogue records 112 tetradrachms in collections, with a further 116 on the market. The time span of the market study is not provided, but looks to have run from 2005 to 2012. So, on average, during the seven-year period ending in 2012, 17 new tetradrachms were appearing on the market each year. Since the catalogue was compiled, a further 91 examples have appeared on the market, or on average 23 new tetradrachms per year. This increase is smaller though broadly in line with those presented by Wartenberg Kagan. During the entire period in question (2005 to 2016), the lowest priced tetradrachm sold for $33 and the highest priced for a surprising $3,250, with a mean price of $263. Although the tetradrachms were minted in Emesa, they enjoyed a wide circulation, and there have been documented finds on sites throughout Syria, including 13 at Dura Europos, as well as some in Israel and Palestine. Thus the examples arriving on the market after 2012 could conceivably have come from anywhere in Syria, though a possible origin in Israel and Palestine where the looting and trafficking of ancient coins has also been a problem cannot be excluded.

The coin data do suggest the increasing arrival on the market of small objects moved out of Syria post-2011, and that they are going largely unrecognized – or at least unreported. It adds credence to the idea that other small objects of Syrian origin have been arriving on the market. If that is the case, then the presently established suppositions about the organization of trafficking will be mistaken, and there will be consequences for crime control policy and practical law enforcement. A low-volume trade of large, expensive objects presupposes the participation of a limited number of criminals, perhaps acting in long-term cooperation, and exercising a good degree of control over the organization and operation of trafficking. It would be vulnerable to targeted law enforcement aiming to disrupt trade by apprehending offenders. A higher-volume trade of smaller, cheaper objects would be harder to tackle. It would most likely be dispersed, involving a larger number of people, and more loosely organized. It would be flexible and opportunistic and able to survive the occasional removal of participating criminals. Furthermore, the small amounts of money involved in individual transactions would diminish the apparent seriousness of crimes and reduce the public interest requirement for committing adequate resources to their investigation and prosecution. Thus the case for and effectiveness of targeted law enforcement would both be weakened.

Crime control policy and its practical implementation need to be sensitive to the organization of the illegal trade they are intending to prevent. It is a matter of some urgency that the nature and organization of the post-2011 trade out of Syria should be properly characterized so that appropriate and effective countermeasures can be planned and implemented.

References

  1. Casana, Jesse, 2015. Satellite imagery-based analysis of archaeological looting in Syria, Near Eastern Archaeology 78(3): 142-52.
  2. Brodie, Neil, 2015. Syria and its regional neighbors: A case of cultural property protection policy failure? International Journal of Cultural Property 22: 317-35.