Monday, 21 December 2015

Breakfast with Dorothy, Dealers, then the Dodgies

A while ago the newspapers carried a few stories written by journalists who'd been taken by colleagues to London dealers and been shown material which they said was (potentially) "ISIL loot artefacts" which was on openly on display. I was curious to see for myself how this looks on the ground and taking the opportunity of being in London for a book launch, I asked one of those colleagues where they'd been, and he did not give me names but indicated they'd been to "New Bond Street". On Wednesday I met Dorothy Lobel King (PhDiva) and persuaded her to take me to some leading West End dealers and have a look with me.

Readers of past posts in my (and her), blog will know that I have not always been on what one might term "good terms" with Dorothy. That is behind us now, but I was very curious to meet her in person and at the same time was a little apprehensive about it. She is however a lovely, warm generous person, with a most unexpected laugh. It was great fun. I am not going to embarrass her by saying which dealers we visited, let us say that several of them have one time or another been mentioned  in this blog- some as trying to be good guys and some in rather less warm terms. They were all within a stone's throw of New Bond Street. The dealers we visited on 16th December were chosen by Dorothy. I had never been in any of them before, and it was quite an eye-opener.

I am proud to say I behaved myself, no ranting, no arm waving, no expletives. I suspect the nice well-spoken young ladies who let us in had no idea that they'd just let one of their biggest "enemies" in among the shiny cases. They would have seen, I think, that while ms Lobel King looked like a million dollars, I was not really dressed  like someone that has 30000 quid in my pocket for what they sold, but all were very polite,  and answered all my questions very patiently. Thanks. This was even when I failed the "Sassanian helmet test" (misremembering details of a Gorny and Mosch sale - I suggested it was from western Europe - a sharp little giggle from Ms King and the gallery owner glowered). Oh well.

I saw nothing there that was Syrian - nothing that would lead me to write that there were ISIL antiquities on open sale in central London. That is not to say that some of the more nondescript items were not (Dorothy was not impressed by my confessed lack of knowledge about Islamic ceramics) but on the whole it seems from what I saw this week that such claims would be exaggerated (see below). There were two 'South Arabian' pieces in two different galleries but one was (I think) a fake and for the other, the dealer insisted he had documents of a collecting history going back to the 1950s.

What else did I see? Two things surprised me when you got up close and familiar with these things being sold by top-end dealers. The first is how incredibly badly these objects are cleaned and conserved. By that I do not mean they are dirty, but the conservation methods applied were totally inappropriate and unskilled. The above-mentioned helmet had bronze and silver plates riveted onto an iron rimband, the latter had corroded  and the rust had just been taken down very roughly with a rotary grinder. Iron corrosion products inside suggest that it had been buried with a chainmail neckguard folded inside, all of that had been stripped out. Brrrrrr. A marble statue had been wire-brushed and was scratched all over. The cartonnage from the back interior surface of a 'Late period' anthropoid sarcophagus (a horrible piece of painting anyway) had clearly at one stage been separated into three smaller (suitcase size) pieces for transport and then mounted together [this one had old animal glue as a consolidant suggesting that this mistreatment is old]. A bronze vessel had extensive areas of restoration which were then painted, and the paint carried up over the original patina of the surviving elements, giving them a richer colour. A large piece of a larger hieroglyphic inscription had been separated from what clearly had been a massive block and reduced to a slab 3-4 cm thick by chiselling rather than sawing (this also I think was old work). Some of the Islamic pottery (especially in one gallery) had some appallingly amateurish restoration. I would suggest that this does not really suggest that these items have been above ground for any time. It seems to me that the amateurish conservation may have been done by people working for middlemen in the source country. Had they passed through several collections of wealthy collectors in that state, I would expect the 'rawness' to have been taken off some of the pieces, and that ceramic and metal vessel would be taken down and redone by proper conservators. The fact that they have not suggests that this object is only relatively recently sourced.

The other thing which surprised me was to find objects in even these galleries which to my eye did not look particularly convincing as authentic artefacts (I thought it a bit crass to ask whether they do COAs). There was one statue which stylistically and formally was wrong, wrong, wrong (though was a nice piece of stone). Another, although it was very convincing and nicely aged/distressed, was in a stone which simply was not used in the region. It struck me that this might be the reason why the majority of the dealers displayed their goods without labels. This may flatter the buyer that his or her judgement is so good that they are expected to 'know' but the thing is that identifications are given word of mouth, and not a written statement. My guess is that if an object is inauthentic it makes a difference legally if the object is bought "as seen" rather than "as described (in a text) [look, I snapped this on my i-phone]".  

When I was deprived of the delightful company of Dorothy, I decided to continue the quest. Following a suggestion from her, I came across some "interesting" material in an indoor market near the place we'd eaten breakfast served by an attentive young girl whose accent suggested she may well speak better Polish than me. In the front of the building were antiques (I should say "antiques" in the case of some of the 'oriental' stuff) but as you penetrated further towards the back.... Oh dear. Asking at the front desk for "Roman coins" led me to a talkative Moroccan right on the edge of the market with a pile of little antiquities of metal pottery and glass. I would say about 40% of it was authentic. A lot of small coloured glass fragments. The bulk was fakes of varying degrees of competence of Egyptian and Byzantine stuff. The whole lot could have been from an Egyptian source. The guy was not at all averse to me photographing them. Going round the corner I found more of them. One memorable boutique was selling mostly Arabic, Persian and similar calligraphy and manuscript pages. Decorative stuff. If that is original, it would be interesting to know how it got on the market - I have no idea what they were but looked pretty convincing to me. That's more than one can say about the antiquities. Load of crap. There were some lamps going cheap in polythene packets with bows sold as Christmas presents - yuk. Over to the right were more expensive ones (75 quid each). When for the name of the country of origin, I was told "Byzantium". I did not press the point, although a type that is found in Syria these were all fake. As, I would say, were most of the 'glyphic' items this seller had. On and on it went, shop after shop with rows and rows of little objects, with a high proportion of fakes. One dealer objected to me photographing his storefront and came rushing out waving his hands.  So I went in to see what he had to hide. The rather crude 'ancient' Egyptian figure in the window clearly painted with poster paints (yes, really) was on sale the told me for ten thousand quid, and the spouted medieval lamps with the modern glaze on them were a 'steal' at 750 quid, caveat emptor sine documenta as they say.

Obviously I could go on, but although there were small authentic items here (I am sure I'd have been told "from an old collection, but I've lost the paperwork, and not-at-all-slipped-out-in-pockets") it seems to me that this end of the London antiquities market is full of fakes. That is moderately good news for the heritage, more bothersome for buyers given the total and scandalous lack of regulation of this market. Anyway, most of the (authentic) material I saw seemed to me to be likely to mostly be from Egypt rather than Syria/Iraq.

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