The Rihani ‘provenance’

In May 2016, I wrote about objects with a Rihani provenance being sold by TimeLine Auctions of London. I have now had time to look more closely at other Rihani objects sold at past TimeLine sales, and the results are unsettling, though hardly surprising.

Ghassan Rihani was a Jordanian citizen and resident who died in 2001. At some point in time, he exported a large collection of antiquities to his daughter who was then resident in London. The official Jordanian authorisation for this export, written in Arabic, is dated 19 September 1988, though the English translation is dated 12 October 1992, so it is thought likely that the export took place sometime after the date of the English translation. As I wrote last May, this export authorisation ‘legitimizes the export of Jordanian material from Jordan, but not the export of material originating in other countries’, though the Rihani provenance is routinely applied to objects that most likely originated in Iraq, Syria or other neighbouring countries. At best in such cases, it would provide a terminus ante quem – a date before which an object was out of its country of origin. For Iraq, it would post-date United Nations Security Council Resolution of 6 August 1990 which prohibited the trade of illegally-exported Iraqi objects. Thus a Rihani provenance, even if genuine, does not necessarily legitimise an object.

As can be seen, the Jordanian document 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 authorized for export with those now sold in London with a Rihani provenance. From its own records, over the past few years TimeLine has offered for sale 84 objects with a Rihani provenance, including 34 stone cylinder seals, a further 18 stone objects, 6 small metal figurines, 17 pots, and an assortment of other small ceramic objects. So that is a total of 52 stone objects and 6 metal objects. More cylinder seals and metal objects have been sold by Artemission and Ancient and Oriental. The Jordanian authorisation makes no mention of metal objects, and so when the Rihani provenance is attached to a metal object it is demonstrably false. The cylinder seals are problematical too. Yes, they are made of stone, but it is strange that cylinder seals are not specified on the authorisation. In any case, even if it is assumed that every single stone object of the 50 authorised for export was a cylinder seal, it still leaves more than two cylinder seals with a fictitious provenance. In reality, it is probably the case that the Rihani provenance for most if not all of the cylinder seals is false, attached to disguise the sale of material that has most likely been moved illegally out of Iraq or perhaps Syria.

TimeLine itself is not inventing these provenances, nor is it accepting any responsibility for them. As I pointed out last time, its terms and conditions of business include the following small-print statement:

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 the Rihani provenances are being attached to objects before being offered by Timeline, but by whom and at which point in the trading chain? Attaching a false provenance to an illegally-exported object constitutes fraud, an offence which as the Metropolitan Police have shown us is easier to prosecute than theft.

Rihani might be the least of TimeLine’s problems. In its 21 February 2017 sale my Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis identified three objects which had passed through the hands of known traffickers, all described with the same provenance as ‘Property of a London gentleman; acquired from a major Mayfair gallery; acquired on the London art market before 2000’. Christos sourced two of the objects to Robin Symes and one to Giacomo Medici.

I pointed last May to the 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), the Harwich Port Authority, and the Art Loss Register (ALR). These days, the CBI and the Harwich Port Authority have been replaced by Brentwood Chamber of Commerce. The AIAD is still there. Among other things, the AIAD’s code of conduct specifies that:

2) The Member agrees to conduct his business at all times with due regard to all pertinent current legislation and with utmost good faith. The Member further agrees to establish the identity of the vendor, that the vendor has legal title to the material and (where applicable) that the item has been exported or imported in conformity with local laws.

4) PROVENANCE. The Member agrees to maintain full and accurate records of relevant sales and purchases. Provenance of any item offered for sale is to be established to the extent that this is reasonably achievable, and the description thereof is to be as full and accurate as possible.

Timeline’s description on the AIAD website is:

TimeLine Originals offers a selection of genuine ancient coins and antiquities as collectibles and works of art. We supply all periods of ancient coins, antiquities, related accessories and books. We are one of Britain’s leading web-based coin and ancient art galleries. All items are fully researched, guaranteed genuine and sold with an illustrated certificate of authenticity. Absolute discretion and confidentiality assured.

So what is the truth of the matter? Are all objects ‘fully researched’ by TimeLine, as the AIAD description claims, or does in fact TimeLine undertake ‘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’, as its own terms and conditions state. Are all objects ‘guaranteed genuine’ as the AIAD would lead us to believe, or does TimeLine ‘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’. This contradictory information is confusing, more so given that TimeLine’s director is also a director of AIAD, so you would think he would be able to get his story straight. It is a mess.

It is disappointing to find the ALR still openly endorsing TimeLine. Openly endorsing a clearly stated policy of caveat emptor, the sale of poorly-researched material with demonstrably fraudulent use of the Rihani provenance, and the sale of material that has passed through the hands on known traffickers. By allowing its logo to be openly displayed on the TimeLine website, the ALR creates for the nervous customer a mistaken reassurance that everything is above board, when in fact it is a mess. By continuing to associate itself with a mess, the ALR will increasingly come to look like a mess itself.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Acquired from Spink & Son, Ltd., London by 1999

Asia Week New York has kicked off in good style. On 11 March, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents seized two objects from Christie’s New York auction house. The objects, lots 61 and 62 of the scheduled 15 March sale of ‘The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern’, are believed to have been smuggled out of India.

The seizures were made as part of Operation Hidden Idol, an ongoing investigation into the business of former New York dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is currently under arrest and on trial in India. The ICE release does not specifically say that the seized objects passed through the hands of Kapoor, but the New York Times reports that they were recognized from images recovered during a raid on Kapoor’s New York premises in 2012.

The ICE press release states that lot 61 appears to have been sold sometime between 2006-2007 by Oliver Forge to London–based Brandon [sic] Lynch Ltd. Oliver Forge and Brendon Lynch are joint proprietors of art dealership Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd. Forge and Lynch left Sotheby’s London in 1997 when the company stopped its London sales of antiquities after allegations of malpractice made by Peter Watson in his book Sotheby’s: Inside Story. Thus the implication is that the objects were smuggled out of India to Kapoor, and that one of them passed through the hands of Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch Ltd, before being acquired by the Lahiri Collection and consigned for sale at Christie’s.

The provenances provided in the Christie’s catalogue are for lot 61 ‘Acquired in London by 1999’ and for lot 62 ‘Acquired from Spink & Son, Ltd., London by 1999’. So both pieces are claimed to have been in London prior to 1999, with one and perhaps both acquired from Spink. Did Kapoor have dealings with Spink? It seems not. The press release states that ‘HSI special agents were able to determine that both of these artifacts had come from a specific smuggler and supplier of illicit cultural property in India’. Is Spink a false provenance? Maybe so. The ICE release goes on to state that ‘HSI special agents have tracked many false provenances and this has been one of the pillars of Operation Hidden Idol’. If Spink is a false provenance, it would be interesting to know how Christie’s attempted to verify it during their due diligence procedure.

The London-based company Spink & Son often turns up in the provenance listings of Asian objects. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Spink was a clearinghouse for Asian antiquities, once described as a ‘department store’ type of a dealer [1], offering a retail experience for customers to browse and buy. Some at least of the material sold through Spink was of dubious provenance, including the Koh Ker athlete offered for sale at Sotheby’s in March 2011 with a provenance of ‘Spink & Son 1975’, which was returned to the ownership of Cambodia in 2013. But Spink never published comprehensive, illustrated catalogues of the type offered by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, so that now it is difficult to ascertain whether or not an object was ever sold at Spink. Perhaps there are internal records of transactions, but if so, their location is not publicly known.

Christie’s bought Spink & Son in 1993, and ended Spink’s Asian sales in February 2000 before selling off what remained of the company in 2002. Today, Spink no longer sells Asian material. So, if any records of Spink’s Asian sales still exist, Christie’s must hold them. Perhaps Christie’s was able to verify the Spink provenance of lot 62 internally using these records, though it has issued no statement to that effect. A Christie’s spokesperson did, however, complain that evidence known to HSI agents is not available to support the company’s due diligence procedures. She was quoted as saying that the absence of publicly available records is ‘one of the difficulties the art market faces in vetting antiquities’. Quite so. That is something we can all agree upon. Perhaps to help remedy the situation Christie’s would like to make publicly available what records it retains of Spink’s Asian sales, and if it does not possess such records, explain where they are or why they no longer exist. Surely a resource of such importance for reconstructing and verifying provenance would not be shredded for reasons of space or economy – unless of course commercial companies are not as keen to ‘vet antiquities’ as they claim to be.

Reference

  1. Moncrieff, Elspeth, 2000. Death of the oldest art dealership in the world, Art Newspaper no. 101: 34.

Jason Felch now has more information availble on his blog Chasing Aphrodite.

Antiquities at auction (1)

The Art Newspaper is reporting that for the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s ‘Higher-volume, lower-priced business in the middle market could be the saleroom mantra for 2016’ as profits from the high-end market are squeezed. It reminds us that the auction houses are active commercial agents. They are not in business simply to facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers – they are in business to make a profit. With that rather obvious fact in mind, it is illuminating to look back over Sotheby’s New York sales records for non-Islamic antiquities from 1985 to 2013. The following series of graphs shows quite clearly how Sotheby’s has played the market.

Auctions 1

This first graph (above) shows how starting in 2001 Sotheby’s began offering fewer lots for sale annually, until about 2009, when the figure averaged out at just under 200 per year. Before then, in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of lots offered for sale annually had fluctuated in the region of 600 to 800. (It is interesting that the number of lots offered annually did not increase appreciably after the cessation of Sotheby’s London antiquities sales in 1997). At the same time, catalogues began including more information about provenance. By 2008, some information was included for nearly every lot offered for auction. That is not to say that the information provided was always useful for tracing back the ownership history and thus legitimacy of the lot offered for sale. Quite often, the ‘provenance’ might consist only of a name or a date. These minimal provenances might be interpreted as an honest attempt by Sotheby’s to meet customer concerns about provenance, or looked upon more cynically as an example of creative compliance, creating the appearance of meeting customer concerns while in reality carrying on business as usual. Either way, they do offer some reassurance to customers mildly worried about provenance, and maybe that is the point. But while such limited information might be of little use for investigating the legitimacy of a lot, it should not be dismissed out of hand. A false provenance is a fraudulent provenance, and fraud is a criminal offence. So any increase in provenance information does increase risk for an auction house, and is a step in the right direction towards a transparent, legitimate market. The nature of this provenance information will be explored further in a future post.

Auctions 2

The second graph shows that as the number of lots offered annually has declined, the mean price per lot sold has increased in real terms (all monetary values are standardized to 2005). Perhaps Sotheby’s has been been selling a smaller number of better quality objects. That would make sense. It might also mean though that the objects themselves were increasing in value through time as the market was increasing in value. That would also make sense. These two alternatives will be investigated further in a future post. (The 2007 price ‘spike’ is due to the sale on 7 June of a Late Hellenistic/Early Roman Imperial bronze statue of Artemis and the Stag for $28,600,000 (lot 41) and on 5 December of the Elamite ‘Guennol Lioness’ for $57,161,000. The 2010 price ‘spike’ is due to the sale on 7 December of a Roman Imperial bust of Antinous for $23,826,500).

Auctions 3

The third graph is particularly interesting. It examines the relationship between pre-sale price estimates provided by Sotheby’s in its catalogues and actual achieved prices. If the estimates were unbiased, it would be expected that achieved prices would distribute normally around estimate prices. This does seem to have been the case until about 2001, when the number of lots offered annually begins to decline. After 2002, a progressively higher number of lots achieve prices higher than the estimate. It is hard to believe that this is happening by chance, or that Sotheby’s specialists are consistently and accidentally undervaluing material. It seems more likely that estimates are being intentionally kept low to draw in potential buyers. ‘Come-hither’ estimates are an old-established auction practice to drum up custom. Once the potential buyers are bidding of course, they pay little attention to the estimate. But why would Sotheby’s want to attract more buyers?

Auctions 4

Traditionally, auction houses made their money from charging a seller’s commission, effectively a service charge levied on a seller. In 1975, in addition to the seller’s commission, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s began charging a buyer’s premium – a service charge levied on a buyer. From 1975 to 1992 the buyer’s premium remained steady at 10%. From 1993, however, Sotheby’s (and Christie’s) began to increase it, and to charge proportionately more for lower-priced lots. By 2013, Sotheby’s was charging 25% on prices up to $50,000, 20% on prices between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12% on prices in excess of $1 million. The fourth graph shows the effect of the increasing buyer’s premium from 1985 to 2013 on two notional lots priced respectively at $10,000 and $500,000. The auction houses have been forced to increase the buyer’s premium because in a competitive marketplace they are vulnerable to potential consignors ‘shopping around’. With auction houses keen to secure business, consignors can negotiate a deal to reduce or even dispense with seller’s commission. Auction house costs then have to be recovered from the buyers, who are less willing or able to negotiate.

Auctions 5

Graph number five shows the increasing revenue to Sotheby’s derived from the buyer’s premium. Notice the linear trend line increasing from about $350,000 in 1985 to about $4 million in 2013 (standardized to 2005 values).

Auctions 6

Finally, the sixth graph shows that the increasing value through time of lots being sold is real, and not just a function of the increasing buyer’s premium. (All sales data analyzed are from auction house results sheets, which incorporate the buyer’s premium into published prices).

This series of graphs strongly suggests that the changing configuration of auction sales through time is an outcome of a deliberate commercial strategy on Sotheby’s part to increase profitability by (1) reducing the number of lots offered, thereby decreasing associated handling costs; (2) drawing in more buyers with better provenanced lots and come-hither estimates, probably to increase prices by more competitive bidding; and (3) charging buyers progressively higher premiums.

This pattern is indicative of Sotheby’s sales strategy more generally, which since 2002 has been to focus more on the high end of the market [1]. Between 2002 and 2007, across the company, it halved the number of auction transactions and shed staff. Over that period, in a broader reflection of the antiquities sales data discussed here, the mean price per lot sold for all categories of object increased from $35,000 to $50,000. If the Art Newspaper is to be believed, however, we might be about to see this trend put into reverse.

Scholars (such as myself) who would like to use time series auction data as a proxy measure of illicit trade or regulatory impact would do well to take full account of the fact that auction houses are active commercial agents and it might be their commercial agency that is primarily structuring the data.

Reference

  1. Thompson, Don, 2008. The $12 million Stuffed Shark. New York: Palgrave, at 100.