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Five lots offered by Christian McCann in November had been withdrawn by Bonhams in 2008.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|
Squires, Nick, 2008. Suspicions that Roman artefacts were illegally traded, Daily Telegraph, 16 October.