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.

Robin Symes loses his heads

My Trafficking Culture colleague Christos Tsirogiannis has just identified three pieces appearing in the Medici Archive of photographs among material returned to Italy from Switzerland.

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Male sarcophagus in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois

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Female sarcophagus in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois

On 14 January 2016, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva announced the return to Italy of ‘two Etruscan earthenware sarcophaguses and numerous other priceless works and fragments’ to Italy. The mainly Etruscan and Roman material was discovered in 45 crates during an April 2014 search of a Geneva Freeport warehouse belonging to disgraced British antiquities dealer Robin Symes. The material had been there for more than 15 years. The return was enabled by Switzerland’s ratification in 2003 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

This Geneva material is only a small part of Symes’s known stock [1]. In February 2001, Symes’s holdings were frozen by order of a civil court, and by January 2002 it was known he stored material at 33 different locations around the world. According to Symes’s own documentation, a total of 17,000 objects was valued at £125 million. Symes was declared bankrupt in 2003 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in January 2005 for contempt of court. His present whereabouts is unknown. His assets remain frozen.

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Medici photograph of male head.

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Medici photograph of female head

Between 1979 and 1986, Symes conducted at least 29 transactions with convicted Italian dealer Giacomo Medici. He also sold material through Sotheby’s London. Christos has now discovered images of two heads, one from each of the returned sarcophagi, in the Medici Archive, showing that before reaching Symes they had passed through the hands of Medici. Christos also observes that the heads in the Medici photographs appear to have been broken off from the sarcophagi, meaning that an expert conservator must subsequently have restored them. The identity of this putative conservator is unknown. Christos has also identified a fresco.

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Fresco in Geneva warehouse. Image © Ministère public genevois.

 

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Medici photograph of fresco.

Reference

Watson, Peter and Cecilia Todeschini, 2007. The Medici Conspiracy. New York: PublicAffairs, at 248-264.