Friday, 25 November 2011

Athena Protests

David Gill notes ("collectors as blog readers") that some collectors are coming to his blog to find provenance details of items on offer elsewhere because they are dissatisfied with the lack of information on this offered by the sellers. One case that comes to mind are the rather shadowed collecting histories of two extraordinary Apulian volute vases [on custom-made tropical hardwood stands] that have resurfaced on the market. These vessels, with decoration by the rather inaptly-named "Baltimore painter" (who almost certainly lived and worked in a place far from Baltimore Md), are on offer by a New York gallery (Royal [sic] Athena) owned by Jerome Eisenberg. The gallery owner has now left a comment on Gill's post on the topic ("Collecting histories for the Baltimore painter"). He moans "it is in poor judgement that neither Dr. Gill nor Mr. Tsirogiannis did not contact the currrent owner before publishing this blog with its damaging innuendos". I personally would say no less poor judgement that putting such noteworthy objects on open sale without revealing the full known facts of where they came from.

Mr Eiseberg protests that these vases are "clean" since "the Italian Carabinieri, having reviewed that catalogue and others in detail in 1907, have no claim on either of the two vases", the date must be wrong as the objects "surfaced" only c. 1990 followed soon after by their first "publication" (Mr Eiseberg's own catalogue from the original sale where they were bought by somebody before now being resold to the dealer by an "S.B" from San Diego, and one in an art-history catalogue of Greek vases). Probably he means "2007", the year he had to return some objects to Italy because there could have been a claim on them. An issue which is unclear to me is whether these two vases were still in Mr Eiseberg's hands (and therefore catalogues) as late as in 2007? Or were they by that time in unknown private hands having been bought from Royal Athena like many thousands of other antiquities before 2007?

What kind of "claim" could the Italian (or any other) authorities have if the objects were secretly dug up, secreted away in some tomb-looter's outhouse, secretly sold to a buyer who secretly removed them (perhaps through other countries) to the USA where they finally "surfaced"? They "surfaced" (from underground) in a country though that for a decade had been (we are told) "implementing" the recently joined 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Can the first and subsequent owners of that object demonstrate that the transactions which led to that object "surfacing" were consistent with Act 3 of that Convention and its (moral if not - in the case of the USA - legal) implications? What does the Convention to which the USA became a state party in 1983 define (clue: in Act 3) as an illicit artefact? Does it matter that the USA (under the pressure of the dealer lobby) in effect ignores every single principle of the Convention except its Article 9 in its "implementing" legislation? Maybe it does in legal terms, but surely we are talking here about ethical dealings in antiquities.

Dealer Eiseberg justifies his reticence in the presentation of these two items to reveal their former history:
As Dr. Gill and Mr. Tsirogiannis are well aware, a history of provenance was not required back in 1991 when the vases were acquired [by Royal Athena gallery].
Indeed it probably was not, neither is it now, not by US law at any rate. Surely though the question must have arisen where they had come from and why such remarkable items were unknown to scholarship in the preceding years and decades. What explanation of that was offered to the prospective buyer (Eisenberg) by the seller back in 1990 (e.g., the tired old trope: "from a former East German collection")? Not "required", but of potential interest to a potential buyer and therefore information which a dealer would be expected to be passing on to prospective clients. Antiquitist sleight-of-hand now appears:
Since they were purchased in an auction, Hesperia Arts, the previous year, it would obviously not have been in the best of interest of a dealer to publish this fact in his catalogue and is certainly not the practice of any dealer either then or now. An earlier provenance would certainly not have been supplied if it came from a recent commercial source whether it be a dealer currently in business or an auction.
Well, of course what is in question here is not what was or was not said in Eisenberg's own catalogues when he first had these items on sale in 1991, but what is currently on the Royal (sic) Athena website (here and here) where equally there is no mention of the "Hesperia Arts" sale (let alone a lot number). That of course would raise questions of where they had been before that (see Gill: Looking Back to Athena Fund II ). Now actually mentioning earlier auction sales IS usual, we meet it in coin auction catalogues as well as those dealing with dug-up and "surfaced" antiquities, Christie's, Bonhams and Sotheby's for example do make at least a pretence of offering such things, especially if they have previously passed through their own hands (it is normal practice in the case of other items of fine art).

Certainly readers can draw their own conclusions why they think that on the current antiquities market: "An earlier provenance would certainly not have been supplied if it came from a recent commercial source". Many of us think that some "recent commercial sources" that keep coming up with more and more freshly-surfaced (from "underground"?) antiquities of any type probably have very good reason for not revealing where they actually come from. Which is why those who have no such reasons should be being very careful to separate themselves from dodgy suppliers by deed rather than mere words (denial). It is obviously with suppliers with nothing to hide that responsible dealers should be seen (rather than merely assumed) to have consistently been dealing.

Vignette: Athena has a pot but is a bit cagey about saying where she came by it and why she bought it.

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