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Five lots offered by Christian McCann in November had been withdrawn by Bonhams in 2008.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

 

Interesting times

In the UK, the Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill, which aims to ratify and implement the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two Protocols, is working its way through Parliament. Already, one shortcoming of the Convention reproduced in the new Bill has become apparent. The preventive measures regarding illegal trade of cultural objects from occupied territories do not apply to territories occupied by non-state actors. So although recent government support for the Bill was prompted by the illegal trade funding Daesh and other insurgency groups, the Bill offers nothing in response. That is surprising and disappointing, particularly when it is remembered that the 1999 Second Protocol was drafted with the post-WWII experience of civil wars very much in mind. Looking back to a much earlier time, the new Bill derives its meaning of the term ‘occupation’ from the 1907 Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land.

Another problem with the Bill, again reflecting a shortcoming of the Convention, is that it takes no account of the increasing prevalence of aerial bombardment as an instrument of war, particularly by the US and its various allies, including the UK. Since the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, there have been several bombing campaigns, aimed ostensibly at degrading economic infrastructure, eliminating weapons manufacturing capabilities and destroying defence installations, but perhaps too with the covert intention of fomenting civil unrest and anger against incumbent enemy regimes. Iraq, Serbia and most recently Syria have all been targeted. There has been widespread civilian suffering and deprivation, and it is not surprising in such circumstances when impoverished people turn to looting cultural sites as part of a coping response. And yet the Hague Convention does nothing to discourage it. Thus the economic sanctions and episodic bombing inflicted upon Iraq through the 1990s and early 2000s must take some responsibility for the widespread looting of cultural sites and museums around the country, which looks to have already peaked before the March 2003 Coalition ground invasion. The subsequent occupation lasted until the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004. Iraq had been party to the Hague Convention and its First Protocol since 1967, but the preventive measures available in the new Bill would apply only to material illegally traded out of Iraq during the relatively limited occupation window of March 2003 to June 2004. They would not apply to material exported illegally before (or after) that time. In practical terms, it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to discriminate on the market between objects exported illegally during the bombing and those exported illegally during occupation.

In view of these two identified deficiencies of the Hague Convention and its two Protocols, both caused by the changing character of modern warfare, perhaps it is time for the international community to consider a Third Protocol, with more explicit attention paid to the twenty-first century realities of looting and illegal trade in times of civil and proxy conflict and aerial bombardment.

The Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill might not be the only piece of new legislation needed in UK. On 23 June, in a referendum held to decide future membership of the European Union (EU), the UK electorate voted narrowly in favour of leaving. The campaign leading up to the vote was characterized by dishonesty, denial and deception on both sides, and it left the government in disarray, riven through with recrimination and dissension and engaged in brutal combat over leadership. The constitutional implications of the referendum decision have still to be decided, but if the UK does leave the EU, there are two important pieces of EU legislation concerning the illegal trade in cultural objects that will need to be replaced by UK equivalents.

Council Regulation (EC) No 116/2009 of 18 December 2008 on the export of cultural goods provides licensing control at all EU borders for the export of cultural objects. This control needs to be maintained in some form, or else the UK will become a marketplace for objects illegally exported out of the EU. It might be a good opportunity to review export control more generally in the context of global trade, particularly given the shortcomings noted above of the Cultural Property (Armed Conflict) Bill.

Council Directive 2014/60/EU of 15 May 2014 on the return of cultural goods makes provision between EU member states for the recovery and return of illegally traded cultural objects. It was enacted in UK law as SI 1926/2015 the Return of Cultural Objects (Amendment) Regulations 2015. If the Directive is about to disappear from the UK statute book, perhaps the time is ripe for another look at the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. The Unidroit Convention complements the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (accepted by the UK in 2002) by introducing rules and procedures for the return of stolen and illegally traded cultural objects.

Last week, the Art Loss Register was endorsing …

Paul Barford has just drawn our attention to TimeLine Auctions, and especially to the small print of their terms and conditions. I have been looking at the small print myself, and more besides.

TimeLine Auctions holds regular auction sales of antiquities and ancient coins from around the world. Bidding can be done electronically on their own or associated websites, or in person on the day at their hall in London. They hold about four auctions a year, each of a few days duration. Most recently, 2,729 lots were auctioned over four days from 24 to 27 May.

The May auction included many small antiquities originally found in Iraq, Syria or a neighbouring country. As usual, it was not possible to make specific determinations, or to count how many were from Syria and how many were from Iraq. It seems obvious though that many of the objects offered in the category Western Asiatic Antiquities would have been found in one of those countries, and probably a good proportion too of those in Byzantine, Islamic, and even Roman, Greek and Christian. I took the time to look more closely at what is going on at TimeLine by tabulating information about lots offered in the Byzantine, Western Asiatic and Islamic categories (antiquities only, not coins).

Altogether in these three categories, 399 lots were offered and 191 lots (48%) were sold. Each lot could comprise one or more objects. The total sales revenue (including buyer’s premium) was £93,389, with a mean price of £489 per lot, a high price of £8,680 and a low price of £6. TimeLine charges a buyer’s premium of 24% and a seller’s commission of 18%, so that from the total of £93,389, the company would have taken £31,632. The breakdown by category is shown in the table below. Within individual categories, there was some variation. Thus within Western Asiatic, for example, 38 out of 47 (81%) cylinder seals sold, many of which must have been found in Iraq, though the equivalent figure for ceramic containers was only 2 out of 27 (7%).

Timeline table

Most lots were offered for auction with a provenance, though the ‘provenance’ rarely comprised more than a year or range of years, by which time the lot was said to have been in London, the UK, or wherever. Out of its country of origin at least. Most dates were from the 1960s through to the 1990s. The range is shown in the histogram below.

Timeline

Thus most of the lots offered for sale did not have a provenance date placing them outside their country of origin when laws were first passed vesting ownership of newly found antiquities in the state: 1963 in Syria and 1936 in Iraq. The dates do seem to place most lots outside their country of origin before the August 1990 date of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 661, which embargoed trade with Iraq, and which was recognized in the UK retrospectively by the June 2003 Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003 (SI 2000/1519).

Sometimes a name was provided in the provenance description. Thus 25 lots were said to be from the ‘Rihani family collection; acquired before 1991’. The Rihani collection is actually quite a well-known provenance. The collection (if it was indeed a collection) belonged to Ghassan Rihani, a Jordanian citizen resident in Amman who died in 2001. He is said to have maintained several storage facilities in London. The Jordanian export licence (in Arabic) authorizing his export of material is dated 19 September 1988, but the English translation is dated 12 October 1992. So the actual export of material to which the licence applies might have been in 1988, but seems more likely to have happened in or after 1992, when the English version would have been available for viewing by customs officers not able to read Arabic. In any event, the issuing date of an export licence is not the same thing as a date of export. So a provenance ‘Rihani family collection; acquired before 1991’ is not quite as secure as it sounds. It might hide material from Iraq, for example, smuggled out of Iraq after the August 1990 date of UNSCR 661, and imported into the UK sometime later.

There is a lot more to be said about the Rihani provenance. The export licence legitimizes the export of Jordanian material from Jordan, but not the export of material originating in other countries. Lots 1515 to 1518 in the May sale, for example, were described as ‘Western Asiatic Tell Brak eye idols’, with a footnote explaining that ‘Hundreds of these figurines were found in a monumental building known as the ‘Eye Temple’ in Tell Brak, north-eastern Syria’. Eye idols such as these are listed on the ICOM Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk. When the TimeLine examples moved out of Syria and into Jordan is not stated. Almost certainly before the February 2015 imposition of trade controls by UNSCR 2199, but there is nothing to say that it was not after 1963, the date of the Syrian vesting legislation. Clearly, a Jordanian export licence does not and cannot legitimize their earlier export from Syria, no matter when that was.

TimeLine might not have seen the relevant export licence, but I have. It authorizes the export of 2000 ‘pottery utensils’ and 50 ‘various stone pieces’ as shown in ‘attached pictures’. The attached pictures have never been made public, assuming they actually existed, so it is not possible to compare objects now said to have been in the Rihani collection with those authorized for export. The descriptions themselves are vague. What comprises ‘pottery utensils’ and ‘stone pieces’? Would eye idols have been considered as ‘utensils’? Maybe. Maybe not. But what of other types of object? Of the lots offered with the Rihani provenance, 14 were cylinder seals, many most likely from Iraq. The licence makes no mention of cylinder seals. Perhaps cylinder seals were included among the 50 ‘various stone pieces’? In the May sale, two other stone pieces were sold with a Rihani provenance. In its 2015 auctions, TimeLine sold a further nine cylinder seals and five other stone objects with a Rihani provenance. So over the past couple of years, TimeLine has sold 30 stone objects with a Rihani provenance. That would be 30 out of the original 50 stone objects licensed for export, assuming of course that cylinder seals should be included in that number, an assumption I personally find hard to make. In September 2015, TimeLine sold two bronze figures with a Rihani provenance. There is no mention of bronze objects on the export licence. To me, the name Rihani is more of a red flag than a provenance, a provenance of convenience perhaps, signalling buyer beware. It seems equally clear, however, that buyers are not always aware of that fact, or at least do not share my opinion.

Moving on from Rihani, how reliable are all the other provenance dates offered? Can they be trusted? How diligent is TimeLine in verifying them? Paul Barford advises us to look closely at the small print. And well he might. TimeLine is not breaking any law that I am aware of, but its business model certainly leaves something to be desired. This is what the small print says:

The Buyer is obligated to make all and any enquiries he wishes as to the accuracy and authenticity of any sale description and the principle of caveat emptor applies except where expressly excluded by operation of law. TimeLine does not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including condition, quality, provenance, authenticity, background, style, period, age, origin, value and estimated selling price. TimeLine undertakes no obligation to examine, investigate or carry out any tests either in sufficient depth or at all to establish the accuracy or otherwise of any description or opinions given by TimeLine whether in the catalogue or elsewhere.

So, in actual fact, are the provenance dates pretty meaningless? TimeLine offers no guarantee or duty of care as regards provenance. Caveat emptor it says. Buyer beware. (Though buyers are still expected to pay the 24% buyer’s premium). Does TimeLine simply repeat what a seller tells it without any attempt at independent verification? It certainly seems that way. So how can we we trust that everything said to be in circulation before 1990 really was in circulation? And yet despite TimeLine’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards provenance (and, let us note, authenticity), the buyers continue to buy. Why is that?

In uncertain markets of this kind, customers look for reassurance and support to the advice and approval of independent experts, or at least to the sign of expert advice and approval. That is why there are endorsement logos lined up at the bottom of the TimeLine homepage: the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD), the British Numismatic Trade Association (BNTA), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) (!), something in blue I can’t make out that looks like the Harwich Port Authority (unlikely, I know), and the Art Loss Register (ALR).

It is surprising to find the ALR’s logo there. The ALR is probably the world’s leading private sector stolen art search and recovery organisation. It maintains a large database of stolen art, and will for a fee search its database to check an art object’s legitimacy prior to sale or purchase, issuing a certificate stating the result of the search. Antiquities are tricky for the ALR though. There is no prior photographic documentation of most stolen or illegally traded antiquities, so they are not likely to appear on the ALR’s database. The ALR is aware of that fact, and makes clear on its certificates that they do not constitute a clean bill of health. Fair enough. But something different is happening here. The ALR logo by itself, without any qualification or reservation, presents an unconditional seal of approval to all material being offered at auction. Lots offered with provenance dates that do not establish legal export from country of origin? OK for the ALR. A sketchy and perhaps non-existent policy of due diligence as regards provenance verification? OK for the ALR. In fact, what the ALR is actually endorsing is TimeLine’s principle and practice of caveat emptor. Is that really what the world leader in stolen art recovery wants to be doing? Surely its founding rationale was to help eradicate such business practices.

TimeLine is not forcing people to buy antiquities at auction. The customers are choosing to buy them. Presumably, many of the customers are well meaning, and given the right information would choose not to buy objects of uncertain and therefore dubious provenance. If TimeLine labelled every lot honestly and accurately as ‘provenance unknown to us but possibly tainted’, would they sell as well? Intentionally or not, the ALR’s endorsement of TimeLine with its small print warning of caveat emptor is helping create a sales context that frustrates customer participation in a more transparent and ethically compliant market. The ALR should either persuade TimeLine to up its game or else stop the endorsement.

 

Rich and powerful collectors (1)

I have on file on my computer about a dozen or so scholarly papers presenting ethnographies of illegal or ‘subsistence’ digging of archaeological sites. Many of the authors preface their research findings with an observation that by looking at diggers rather than at collectors they are breaking with convention and offering a new and radical perspective. In reality, there is no such convention and they are doing no such thing. I do not have any ethnographies of up-market collectors in their native habitats of Beverly Hills, Manhattan, Kensington, or wherever. Rich and powerful collectors are accustomed to protecting their privacy and are well able to do so. They are lawyered-up. Poor diggers on the ground are not so privileged and are in consequence more open to investigation by scholars – and by police.

I also have on file on my computer (and backed-up elsewhere) a series of e-mails dating to 2000 that seemingly details the planning and organization of a smuggling operation intended to move material from Middle Eastern countries through London and on to a wealthy private collector in the US. The network included a curator of a major museum acting in an advisory capacity. One operation involved the illegal export from Syria of an assemblage of Byzantine silver.

In 2006, I decided to go public with this information and – foolishly as it turned out – contacted the US collector for comment. The reply when it arrived was from his lawyers threatening legal action. My publisher decided to drop the paper and I was none too keen myself to have the threat of a libel suit hanging over my head. So that was me – firmly silenced.

Still, going forward, who knows what might happen. I am currently revisiting this material and trying to work up a corroborating source. In the meantime, I will keep investigating diggers. Not because it is somehow radical or breaking with convention. It is not. It is simply the easier option.