Christie’s says: ‘Bigger is generally better’!

What determines the price of an antiquity? Its quality, measured by its artistic or art historical importance, or its provenance? And if it is provenance, is it the prestige and reputation of a previous owner that adds most to price, or evidence that the antiquity has been in circulation long enough to have passed a legal or ethical threshold of acceptable ownership? Recent received wisdom is that antiquities with a provenance stretching back to before 1970 command a price premium, 1970 being the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The idea of a pre-1970 price premium has gained traction since 2008, when the Association of Art Museum Directors adopted 1970 as a provenance threshold for determining the acceptability of an acquisition. Going forward, collectors wanting to gift or bequest antiquities to museums would need to be careful about this 1970 threshold, and make their purchasing decisions accordingly. Over time, this accumulating customer preference for a pre-1970 provenance would promote a market in well-provenanced antiquities and suppress the market in recently stolen and illegally-traded ones, something I have called autoregulation. Or at least, that is how the argument goes. Reliable statistics making the case for provenance one way or another are hard to come by.

What do art market professionals themselves have to say on the subject? During the run-up to its 25 April 2017 New York Antiquities sale, Christie’s specialist Laetitia Delaloye offered her thoughts on what determines the price of an antiquity. First and foremost, she said, it is a matter of size – ‘As a rule, larger pieces in good condition will sell for the highest prices, while smaller pieces are more likely to survive and are therefore more common on the market’. Then, obviously perhaps, she also highlighted the importance of condition – the extent to which a piece has been repaired or restored. A signed piece is always good too. For provenance, she believes it is the name or reputation of previous owners that is likely to add ‘significant value’ to a piece, and she did not mention any legal or ethical advantages of a pre-1970 provenance, or any positive effect such a provenance might exert upon price.

Delaloye’s post was prefacing the sale on 25 April of a collection Greek figure-decorated pottery from a ‘Manhattan Private Collection’, which included 15 Attic black-figure vessels. Lot 202, a hydria, had an impeccable provenance that could be traced back to the collection of Reverend John Hamilton-Gray and Elizabeth Caroline Hamilton-Gray, which was sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in 1888. It passed next through the possession of the Pitt Rivers family before moving through Geneva to join the Manhattan collector. Lot 206, a trefoil oinochoe, also had a long provenance, first seen at Drouot in 1903 and featured in several publications since then. Alongside these two pieces with a published provenance that could be traced back to before 1910, lot 207 had been first published in 1962, six vessels had been first published later than 1970, and six had not been published at all.

This first chart plots the maximum dimension of each vessel sold (measured in centimetres) against its realised price (in USD). In graphic confirmation of Delaloye’s belief that ‘bigger is generally better’, there is a strong correlation between size and price. The three largest vessels achieved the three highest prices, and not one had a provenance that could be traced back to before 1970. Size is without doubt the primary determinant of price. On the other hand, there is a suggestion that within their size class the well-provenanced lots 202 and 206 performed better than their more poorly-provenanced fellows. Thus there is evidence here that when corrected for size, so that like is compared to like, a long provenance does indeed carry a price premium. By itself, however, this would not be enough to exert a decisive influence on the market. Auction houses would be keen to sell the highest-price vessels possible, and so would discriminate in favour of size, not provenance.  The Manhattan collector acquired four vessels (lots 205, 207, 215 and 216) from Nicolas Koutoulakis in the 1980s. Koutoulakis has been described as the ‘dean of all antiquities dealers active in the Arab world and beyond’ [1]. He figured centrally on the organigram seized by the Italian Carabinieri in 1995 and his name has been associated with the histories of several illegally-traded antiquities. The discussion of due diligence in article 4(4) of the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects recommends among other things that ‘regard shall be had to all the circumstances of the acquisition, including the character of the parties’. Thus any names of suspect dealers appearing in the provenance of an object should raise red flags, and discourage its purchase, though that does not seem to have happened here. The prices realised by the Koutoulakis vessels were in accordance with their size. They offer further evidence that a questionable provenance does not unduly discourage purchase nor does it have a serious negative impact on price.

[1] Krosney, Herbert, 2006. The Lost Gospel. Washington DC: National Geographic, at page 66.

 

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.

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.