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.