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.


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.