Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Export Ban on "Mirror of Recluses"



Mirror of the art market?
An Oxford academic stands to gain from the sale of an artefact important for the nation, reports Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian (21 Jan 2020). Dr Dirk Obbink, associate professor in papyrology and Greek at Christ Church, runs two businesses marketing artefacts, controversially for a figure in academia, where involvement in the market may be regarded as a conflict of interest. antiquarian books and documents, Castle Folio and Oxford Ancient operate 'in an office above a branch of TK Maxx in Oxford'. They are now controversially mixed up in the sales of ancient Greek documents to Hobby Lobby, who also bought manuscripts dating from between 1100 and 1600 from Obbink. Obbink's firm is the owner of another object, a unique book dating from around 1414. The only other known copy belongs to the British Library, and is incomplete. Obbink had bought it at an auction at Christie’s in London four years earlier, on 16 July 2014. At that time, the hammer price was £182,500. When he sold it in 2019 it fetched just £135,000.
The arts minister, Helen Whateley, has announced a temporary export bar on the precious Myrowr of Recluses, or “Mirror of Recluses”, a Middle-English volume of advice addressed to female anchorites and religious hermits. Last summer, Obbink put it up for sale at Bloomsbury Auctions in London where, on 2 July, it was sold to an overseas buyer. The temporary export bar has now been placed on the item because of its outstanding importance for British history and culture. It is a measure that gives UK buyers the chance to fundraise to purchase the item. A UK buyer would have to raise £168,750 by 13 April to save it for the nation.
thus leading to the unusual scenario of a civic institution raising funds from the public to acquire an item from Dr Obbink.
One senior academic has said: “Given that there is a police investigation [into Dr Obbink] it seems reasonable to question whether any of the activities Obbink has been involved with should be allowed to proceed. The process should be suspended.” [...] A DCMS spokesman said: [...] We are not aware of any evidence of wrongdoing in relationship to the manuscript.”
The timing of all this is interesting, and I would be very interested to know whether Hobby Lobby was at all interested in acquiring this document. It was sold by Bloomsbury Auctions on 2nd July 2019 for less than the seller had paid for it (a figure that could have been known to bidders, though the estimate was: £70,000 - £90,000). Mr Holmes was circulating details of Hobby Lobby's (note NOT the MoB's) dealings with Obbink in April 2019 and then on 4th June released copies of the invoices. Quite possibly (even though Obbink's ownership of the manuscript was in theory a trade secret), possibly the questions this raised may have depressed bidding on the "Mirror of Recluses". Was that intended? Obbink claims that the documents supplied by the MoB "have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career”.


Monday, 20 January 2020

"Compromise" on the Antiquities - by Legalising Tomb-Robbing?


'Anyone can do archaeology...'
Antique furniture restorer Clinton R. Howell is owner of 'Clinton Howell Antiques, dealers in high end English Antique Furniture' in New York  and current president of the International Federation of Dealer Associations, representing art trade organisations. In  the latter guise, he was moved to write a 'statement' in response to something Trump said... 'Trump’s Threat to Attack Cultural Sites Raises Broader Questions, " Cultural Conservation of Objects – Will it be history too?" January 18, 2020.

We may leave aside the issue of whether the irresponsibly spontaneous and infantile rantings of the narcissist in the White House raise any more questions broader than the motives of the millions of Americans who chose him as the representative of their nation.

Howell, however, suggests that the MAGA-ideology of Trump himself has become the national credo: “win at all costs” and asks what this means for global heritage conservation efforts.  He seems to regard that as some kind of civilisational norm: "winning at all costs has infected our (American) society in all sorts of ways and it has seeped into Europe".  Howell's argument is, however, merely clumsy and is based on depicting those who oppose current modes of operation of the antiquities market as displaying such a "win at all costs" attitude. In doing so, he demonstrates that he does not really understand the issues when it comes to so-called portable antiquities. I think he's been listening too much, and too uncritically, to the distortions of the likes of Peter Tompa.
Mr Howell
The main thrust of his argument comes from depicting those that oppose the way the current market works that facilitates trade in illicit artefacts as "non-compromising zealots". He then moralises:
 It isn’t hard to see that compromise and collaboration are a far more desirable route to achieving one’s goals. [...] if you wish to shut down the illegal trade on websites, don’t think that shutting down the legitimate trade is going to end that practice. 
He seems to fall into the self-serving rhetorical game as the lobbyists of the antiquities market that argue, circularly, that calls to cut out the trade in illicit artefacts are no less than a call to destroy the antiquities market as a whole, while loudly proclaiming at the same time that the 'legitimate' market is quite separate from that which deals in the illicit artefacts.

The rest of us do not see any such problem here. The compromise is to take effective steps to make that separation physical, get rid of the cowboy traders in illicit artefacts, leaving the guys who play fair a free hand to trade ethically with items that can be shown to be licitly obtained. The problem is that the dealers in dugup portable antiquities - for some reason - seem afraid of doing that. They prefer instead to pretend that the preservation lobby "wants the impossible" and most of all "wants" to get rid of the market as a whole. Having set it out like that, and demonised the preservationists, they then declare that they are justified in having no intention of working to cull the illicit antiquities sales. Mr Howell does not diverge from this time-worn formula for inaction.

As president of an antiques dealing federation, he takes the view that 'objects are just as important as sites—indeed, they give meaning to sites'. Both in furniture as in archaeology, that's pretty questionable on all counts. In the context that he is discussing, it could almost be taken as meaning that the 'sites' can be destroyed, and yet if the objects remain, not all is lost. The sites need the meaning given by the objects, but even if the sites are gone, the meaning in the object remains. And those objects are 'preserved' by collectors and dealers, the real saviours of the day. Is that it?

I take exception to a used furniture salesman telling us that:
Sovereign states that would like to see the eradication of the antiquities trade (sic) could take a page from the book of compromise. If one looks at how the United Kingdom (sic) has approached the unearthing of historical objects as an example, there is a rough template for how to deal with tomb robbing and/or illegal excavations [I presume he means the Treasure Act and PAS]. 
What, make it legal, and then let it go on, on the proviso that the artefact hunters voluntarily show us a little of their haul? So in the case of the looting of the average Etruscan cemetery, what 'objects that give the site meaning' would the furniture specialist suggest it should be obligatory to show the archaeologists? How does he see this template working in such a context? I think Mr Howell really does not see that the PAS is a product of the medieval and 1880s British legislative framework and not in fact the reason for its existence in that form...

He also does not see that in the case of an artefact hunter taking apart contexts (and tombs!) to put loose objects onto the antiquities market, it is not the loss or not-loss of the objects that is the issue, but the loss of the close observation and documentation of context that is trashed in the removal of those things that is the issue. And, demonstrably, neither in Britain, nor Etruria are tomb-robbers capable of making those records. Some of the British ones can barely write. And here it makes no difference whether the activity is legal or illegal, a looter's hole is not an excavation. A looter is not an archaeologist. A looter cannot produce archaeological information, they can only produce loose objects. The same way as I have a saw, hammer, chisels and nails and a lot of old wood in my garage, and can easily make a chair, with four legs and a seat, maybe even some rungs, but this piece of furniture would be of no use to 'Clinton Howell Antiques, dealers in high end English Antique Furniture'. It's not the same thing.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Timeline Auctions, Ukrainian Cultural Property and the Soviet-Era Smugglers


In their 25th February 2020 Auction, Timeline are selling a 'Viking Single-Edged Petersen Type C Sword 9th-early 10th century AD' (Lot 0463) Estimate GBP (£) 8,000 - 10,000
Provenance:
From an important private family collection of arms and armour; acquired on the European art market in the 1980s, and thence by descent; believed originally from the Dnieper River.
There's a whole lot of superfluous narrativisation, over-using the word "important" and mostly yammering on about the pattern-welding. I'm more interested in the statement that it came out of the Dniepr (now in Ukraine) in the "1980s". Just to put that in context: Leonid Brezhnev (1964–1982), Yuri Andropov (1982–1984), Konstantin Chernenko (1984–1985), Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–1991). Who, in the 1980s was in a position to take a find from the Dniepr and transport it through the Iron Curtain to "the European art market"? What were the connections of this particular art smuggler? Whose hands did this item pass through, and how were the funds raised from its sale made use of? There is more than one type of blood antiquity.

In a recent article we learn that Timeline claim to be super-ethical as dealers in this difficult and disreputable market (almost as difficult as that in rare wild birds):
Christopher Wren of Timeline said the auction house employed the ALR “to check all Western Asiatic items submitted to us for possible sale, so it was directly at our instigation that the piece was identified.” He added: “We also liaise closely with the Art Squad of the London Metropolitan Police and with other authorities in our constant endeavours to ensure that stolen or looted pieces are not offered and can be returned to their proper home.
And in this case? Its proper home is Ukraine. Unless of course Timeline has access to export licences with the correct stamps and signatures on it. But they do not say anything about that in their sales offer.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Wide-eyed and 'Innocent' on the Grey Market


A fragment of a temple relief looted from an Afghan museum  30 years ago has resurfaced on the antiquities market, where it was spotted on a British auctioneer’s website and investigated by the Metropolitan police. It is now being repatriated (Dalya Alberge  'Met police and British Museum help Afghans recover looted ancient masterpiece' The Guardian  18 Jan 2020). 
Carved in the 2nd century AD from a yellowish limestone, the sculpture of two bulls was excavated in the 1950s in northern Afghanistan only to be looted during the civil war in the early 1990s, following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Where the bulls have been since then is unknown, but they were spotted by the Art Loss Register (ALR), which has an international database of stolen artworks, on the website of Timeline Auctions, and reported to the police. The seller immediately relinquished ownership and its status was confirmed by the British Museum, where Dr St John Simpson, a senior curator, recognised the sculpture immediately. “It’s a very well-known, unique piece,” he told the Observer. 
The fragment is listed in the Catalogue of the National Museum of Afghanistan 1931-1985 by Francine Tissot, published by UNESCO in Feb 2007 (p. 57, K.P. Sk. Ff 117 1a and 1b)  where it is pretty clearly visible. This publication is available online.  It was one of a number of pieces from the same site in the museum, but as Simpson notes, it is the only one of them to have been recovered so far. About 75% of Kabul Museum’s antiquities have been destroyed or looted. Presumably these c. 70 000 museum objects too are mostly floating around the voracious no-questions-asked antiquities market, each and every one of them having been 'innocently' bought (no-questions-asked) and sold a number of times already. Simpson said the site this museum object had  come from had been
"totally ransacked and looted and pitted during the civil war period. So it’s in a complete mess now. “Archaeological sites are even more vulnerable than the built museum environment at times of loss of central control. There’s not an archaeological site in Afghanistan that’s been untouched by this wave of looting.” It makes the recovery of such sculptures all the more important, he said, “but it’s tinged with inevitable sadness that at times of conflict, museums and places of culture are deliberately targeted.”

So, in fact there re massive numbers of objects lurking in the greyness of this same no-questions-asked market.

There is some confusion in the article. Above it says that it was ALR that spotted the object 'on the website of Timeline Auctions, and reported to the police'. Just below that, it says something else.
Christopher Wren of Timeline said the auction house employed the ALR “to check all Western Asiatic items submitted to us for possible sale, so it was directly at our instigation that the piece was identified.” He added: “We also liaise closely with the Art Squad of the London Metropolitan Police and with other authorities in our constant endeavours to ensure that stolen or looted pieces are not offered and can be returned to their proper home. [...] The vendor in this case innocently came into possession of the piece many years ago and, on being informed of the origin… immediately relinquished any claim to ownership and agreed that it must be returned to the Museum at Kabul.” 
How could they otherwise? Yet, had the Museum catalogue not been published, and had the illustrations from it not been copied into the ALR (which is what I imagine had happened), and this was one of the items items looted from unexcavated parts of the site in the same civil war, it would have turned up on Timeline's doorstep with no guilt-inducing ALR record, and no way for any 'art squad' to prosecute ('old European collection, innit, guv') and then what would have happened? How far do those 'constant endeavours to ensure that stolen or looted pieces are not offered' go into researching the background of each and every item offered? (They missed the picture in the Kabul Museum catalogue for this one.) On accepting this item for auction, with what collecting history was Timeline presented? Where is it supposed to have been before being 'innocently' acquired by an unnamed owner? Has that owner's collection been scrutinised by the art squad to see what else is in it? Did the art squad follow it up by investigating the person who had sold it to them? And where actually had it been between being looted from Kabul Museum in the early 1990s and its surfacing and through whose hands did it pass?

Location of site
Surkh Kotal (also called Chashma-i Shir or Sar-i Chashma), is located in southern and consists of monumental constructions, temples mostly, made during the rule of the Kushans and is a major site for understanding this period of the region's history. The site  was excavated between 1952 and 1966 by Prof. Schlumberger of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. 


Timeline 'Policy'


From the blurb of their auction site: "All lots with an upper estimate value of £1,000 and above, and all Western Asiatic lots are searched against the Art Loss Register database". No mention here of authenticating documentation of collecting histories. As has been many times pointed out, and as many times totally ignored by smug dealers, there is zero chance that objects that were clandestinely dugup and smuggled will be on the ALR. Now, actually there are 4031 lots in the upcoming auction (Feb 25th), and 3596 are in the 10-999 quid range. So the ALR will not have had a lot of work to do. "Western Asia" is where? Do they mean perhaps just Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Sinai Peninsula, and Transcaucasia? The auction filter gives us 473 objects described as "Western Asian" mostly Mesopotamia (cunies, cylinder seals, vessels) and "Luristan" (odd-shaped bronzy things).  The mesopotamian stuff has cited origin stories like: "Property of a Middlesex lady; acquired on the London art market in 2007; formerly in a private collection formed in the 1980s". But the ALR was established in London as a commercial company only in 1991, by which time - if the given story is true - objects like these had been in a private collection for about a decade. So what is the point of asking the ALR about whether it was stolen before that? Obviously what needs to be checked is whether the object left the ground and the source country in accordance with the law, and that can only be determined by looking at the accompanying documentation for each item - and rejecting any item that has none.

 From the website we learn "How to sell": 
Consignment
Once you have decided to put items into our auctions, a property receipt will be issued, confirming the details of the agreement and items. This will stipulate the sale terms, reserve, estimate ranges, selling commissions and any other charges such as collection of goods, storage or insurance. Sellers who live abroad must check local laws and regulations regarding the export of items for sale in the UK and documentation to prove legal export will be required. In addition, UK Import VAT may be payable at the time of importation into the UK (at 5% of the assessed value) and is payable by the seller. Please contact us before sending any items.

(3) Cataloguing and vetting
Items entered into our sale are then expertly researched, catalogued and professionally photographed for our website and printed catalogue. Before inclusion in the sale, each lot is rigorously vetted by an external committee of specialists, all respected and recognised experts in their fields. In individual cases, further scientific tests are undertaken. [...]
Again, no mention of vetting the collecting histories. No wonder dodgy objects get in...


  

Tel Brak Buyers Not Dismayed? Dealers Need to SFOP.


On its Twitter account, UNESCO urges End Trafficking, Save Culture ' with the tweet linking to the video of the cute "eye idol" from Syria. I've discussed this earlier on this blog, but there is no harm sharing it a second time, its as relevant now as it was two years ago:
.

Posted by UNESCO on You Tube 17 May 2017
.
As justification for that statement, just search for "Tel Brak" (the name of the site where the classic form of these objects was excavated by Max Mallowan) on the www (or "eye idol"). Like for example eBay. Over there you can find six unprovenenced/paperless Tel Brak  thingies from a single UK seller in Didcot Oxfordshire. The prices range from 13 to 300 quid (cheap if they are real). They are however all in a similar stone, with similar surface patination on them. They are quite a variety of aberrant shapes. Perhaps they'd appeal to collectors who have already got some examples of the more 'classic' forms?

Another seller ("Maklaiheung" (1189)) has one in alabaster "Purchased from a UK private collection; prior to 1990" [documentation?]. This one is a bit pricey for what it is, US $2,297.  The problem is where that unnamed 'private collector' got his from, because excavated TB eye idols have splaying bases, the double-headed ones have parallel-sided (rectangular ones), like the seller's. Also there's something not quite right about the setting and shaping of the eyes.  The seller claims (with no reference) that "The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a very similar example to this one dated to the period 3500-3100BCE", when in fact it is one in the British Museum that is closer [here]. This is the Met's one that I think the seller is referring to.

The little green idol from a US seller ('Damascus Antique', Beirut, United States) needs no comment. Some people obviously see the past like this. The other items this seller share the same qualities... The cuneiform tablet with the very rare 'dimplescript' writing form is particularly noteworthy [documents?].

Just as I was writing this, another little eye idol of variant form popped up on eBay, being sold by a French dealer (called 'masterpieces'). Oh, you really DO have to see his or her other stuff (my favourite is the so-called "Mesopotamian duck weight". See if you can spot the other object being sold by this person from the same factory... careless).  But the "Roman Marble Head" is just gross, and does not look like marble.

So UNESCO is saying don't buy these things if the prices seems low (Didcot, Paris) and there is no paperwork (all of them, one will give you their own 'signed COA') and eBay has nine on sale at this very moment. All of them at one time or another will enter collections, and then pass through other collections, masquerading as licit and authentic 'ancient artworks' ("my grandfather bought this in the 2020s on the UK art market"), and further muddy perceptions of the past.

This needs to STOP.

Stop Taking Our Past.
and maybe SFOP,
Stop Faking Our Past.


Archaeology? Anuvver Name for Treasure Hunting, innit?


Picturing, of course, human remains, the Times' Arts Column journalist Richard Morrison (Jan 17th 2020) writes: ' The upheaval of HS2 is manna for treasure-hungry archaeologists'.

And how did archaeology come to be equated with Treasure Hunting? Answers on a postcard please. The UK should just get the metal detectorists to give the HS2 route a going over with their machines and, just like 'Brexit', the Treasures Mitigation will get done in no time. Shame about the skellies.

 
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