Christie’s welcomes work of Christos Tsirogiannis shock

My colleague Christos Tsirogiannis suggests two objects that were offered for sale in the 12 April Christie’s New York Antiquities auction had most likely passed through the hands of convicted antiquities dealers.

Photograph of hydria found in possession of Giacomo Medici

Photograph of hydria, found in possession of Giacomo Medici

Lot 36: A Greek black-glazed hydria, with an estimate of $8,000 – $12,000. The catalogue entry states that this hydria is from the collection of Charles Brickbauer of Baltimore, who bought it from Royal Athena Galleries of New York in 1988. Before that, it had been sold at Sotheby’s London on 10 December 1987 (lot 243). Christos discovered a photograph of the hydria among those seized from convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici. Christie’s subsequently withdrew the lot from sale.

Photograph of head found in the possession of Gianfranco Becchina

Photograph of head, found in the possession of Gianfranco Becchina

Lot 70: A Roman marble janiform Herm head, with an estimate of $40,000 – $60,000. The catalogue entry describes the head as the ‘property of a lady’, with a provenance ‘New York, Boston & Texas, acquired prior to 1995; thence by descent to the current owner’. Christos identified the head on a photograph seized from the convicted antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina. Christie’s subsequently withdrew the lot from sale.

Interpol, the Italian Carabinieri, and relevant US authorities have all been notified.

By coincidence, Mike Pitts has just published an article in the May-June issue of British Archaeology about other identifications made by Christos. The article draws attention to an on-line piece written by a Christie’s specialist which suggests that ‘The ideal provenance traces the movement of an object from the point of excavation, sometimes as early as the 16th century, to the present day’. That hardly ever happens, of course. As the British Archaeology article shows, most objects offered for sale at auction have a provenance that can be traced back to between 1970 and 2000 but no further.

The date of 2000 is an important one. It is an open secret that Christie’s and perhaps other auction houses have adopted 2000 as a provenance cut-off, and are offering for sale objects with a collecting or trading history that can be demonstrated to stretch back to sometime before that date, but with no attempt being made to reconstruct a complete provenance. The danger of adopting the 2000 cut-off is that Christie’s leaves itself vulnerable to accepting objects that have been traded by Medici, Becchina or others of their ilk. Perhaps the company believes that the appearance of a couple of questionable objects in an occasional sale causes very little financial or reputational harm and considers it an acceptable cost of doing business. If that is the case, it is a poor reflection on its idea of ‘corporate social responsibility’, whereby it claims to support ‘the honourable and legal market in ancient art’. Christos will be pleased to learn, however, that Christie’s does see his own work as indispensable for the creation of a ‘legal market’, when it says that ‘we positively welcome and encourage scrutiny of our catalogues by museums, archeologists, collectors, law enforcement and government agencies’. Christie’s will surely join me in saying ‘thank you Christos, for your continuing efforts in creating a legal market and cleaning up the antiquities trade’.

David Gill has asked whether Charles Brickbauer will be returning the hydria to Italy, while Lynda Albertson has discussed the identifications in the context of statements made by representatives of the art market at a recent UNESCO meeting.

Evidence, innuendo, and policy

People such as myself who favour an evidence-based approach to public policy are being criticized for our belief that some reports of Daesh profiting from the antiquities trade are exaggerated and unhelpful. People who should know better accuse us of downgrading the Daesh threat, and when they cannot produce any evidence to contradict us, they resort instead to innuendo. Even if we are right, they say, and the claims being made are indeed exaggerated, the antiquities trade is still funding terrorism. The implication is that by arguing against what we believe are unfounded claims, we are suggesting that the antiquities trade is not funding terrorism, that no action should be taken, and that in consequence we are somehow aligning ourselves with Daesh. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In view of this innuendo, I thought I should make my position crystal clear. Yes, Daesh is profiting from the antiquities trade, it is wrong, and it should be stopped. Equally, other terrorist groups are profiting too. It is equally wrong, and should also be stopped. But the exaggerated reports of Daesh profiting direct policy attention towards Daesh and away from other terrorist groups, leaving them free to profit and continue their campaigns of violence.

Look at the Taliban, for example. Nancy Hatch Dupree first reported in 1998 that the Taliban governor of Badghis Province was exacting a 20 per cent tax on all looted antiquities [1]. In 2009, I pulled together a short account of what was then known about the antiquities trade funding crime and terrorism in Afghanistan [2]. In 2010, Gretchen Peters reported that the Taliban-associated Haqqani Network was extorting money from Afghan antiquities traders resident in the UAE [3]. The Haqqani Network also taxes trade passing through its territory, much in the manner of Daesh, and it would be surprising if it is not taxing the antiquities trade. Yet I have looked in vain for any whisper of a suggestion that action should be taken to prevent the Taliban profiting from the antiquities trade. And that is the problem. Unfounded and probably exaggerated claims of Daesh profiting draw attention away from the more generally pervasive problem of terrorist funding. Daesh is not the first terrorist organization to draw income from the antiquities trade, it is not the only organization to do so, and unless we adopt a more realistic approach to policy formation and implement some appropriate actions, it will not be the last one to do so. To wipe out terrorist funding, we need more reliable evidence and less innuendo.

References

  1. Dupree, Nancy Hatch, 1998. Museum under seige: the plunder continues, Archaeology on-line, 26 May.
  2. Brodie, Neil, 2009. Consensual relations? Academic involvement in the illegal trade in ancient manuscripts. In Simon Mackenzie and Penny Green (eds), Criminology and Archaeology: Studies in Looted Antiquities. Oxford, Hart, at 49-51.
  3. Peters, Gretchen. 2010. Crime and Insurgency in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. West Point, Combating Terrorism Center, at 36-37.