Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Due Diligence Fail and Item with Wrong Description from Timeline: Vendor now "Tens of Thousands of Pounds" out of Pocket

An ancient sculpture, a Sumerian plaque dating from around 2400BC is to be returned to Iraq after it was secretly smuggled out of the country and offered for sale in the UK – only to be seized by the Metropolitan police after Sébastien Rey, curator of ancient Mesopotamia at the British Museum tipped off the police after spotting its planned sale in 2019 (Dalya Alberge, 'Ancient sculpture put up for auction in UK to be returned to Iraq', Guardian Sun 27 Sep 2020).

“It’s really exceptional to see something of this quality,” said Dr St John Simpson, the British Museum’s senior curator. Neither published nor listed in any museum inventory, it is thought the plaque was looted from the Sumerian heartland in modern-day southern Iraq. Simpson said: “There are only about 50 examples of these known from ancient Mesopotamia. So that immediately places it on the high-rarity scale. We can be fairly sure that this object comes from the Sumerian heartland. That is the area that got very badly looted between the 1990s and 2003.” The plaque was offered for sale in May 2019 by TimeLine Auctions, an online auctioneer, which described it as a “western Asiatic Akkadian tablet” that had come from a private collection formed in the 1990s. Simpson said its date, description and provenance were incorrect: “It’s Sumerian, not Akkadian, and definitely not a tablet. They also assumed it was 200 years later.”
The object is a fragment of a limestone votive wall plaque belonging to the Early Dynastic III period of southern Iraq. It bears traces of burning, a feature found on previously excavated finds at Girsu, one of the world’s first urban civilisations, on the site of modern-day Tello in southern Iraq, and it is thought that this item came from there (readers of this blog will know that recently other looted material from this site has surfaced on the market). The consigner of this item was not named, and no mention is made of any arrests (yet, but I doubt that will change).
Christopher Wren of TimeLine Auctions said of the Sumerian plaque: “The piece is not documented as having been looted and is not listed on any database, so it did not show on the checks with the Art Loss Register and other sources undertaken by us. [...] In informing the vendor “that it was possible, perhaps likely, that the piece could have been looted”, he added: “The vendor, who had casually and innocently acquired it from a German arts fair some years ago, was horrified to hear this and immediately volunteered to renounce any claim to ownership and expressed the wish that it be returned to its place of origin.”
Is this vendor German? If so, might there be a reason why he or she chose Timeline in drowsy old Harwich as the vehicle for the sale of this item, rather than a respectable German auction house. Why would they do that? Remember, the British Museum asserts "Such is the plaque’s importance that, if it were sold on the legitimate market, it would fetch tens of thousands of pounds". Matey reportedly just "casually and innocently" bought an item (apparently with no paperwork to back up the claim of legal origins) and just as casually abandoned it after having put it up for sale by Timeline (who also was not bothered by the lack of the said paperwork) hoping to make tens of thousands of pounds from the transaction.

When was "some years ago"? Was it some time after the beginning of 2003 when material from fresh looting at Tello was seized in London? Was the London dealer from which Tello material was seized earlier supplied through a "German art fair"? How did this material reach Europe? How is it possible something from southern Iraq came onto the UK market with absolutely no paperwork showing that the claim that it "was possibly, perhaps likely" looted could be challenged by either seller or purchaser? For that is the only way one can, I think, read the abandonment of this object by the vendor. I think anyone buying items from the area of Iraq really does need to have paperwork for it. It only makes sense. 

The article makes a mention of another recent case involving Timeline Auctions in January, the British Museum repatriated a 2nd century AD sculpture of two bulls that had been stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan in the 1990s. It too had been offered by TimeLine Auctions until its sale was reported to the police.

Once is a mistake, twice a habit. Mr Hammond needs to pay more attention to the paperwork, he's not dealing in birds now.   


kyri said...

i would hardly say the vendor was tens of thousands out of pocket as he or she was willing to sell the piece with no reserve but this is a classic case of how important context is,nither the looter,the middleman selling the piece on, the dealer in germany,[if there was one] the vendor or timelines auctions specialists had a clue of how rare and important this piece was otherwise it would have had a much higher estimate and a high fixed passed through so many hands and some of them were "experts" yet everyone thought it was a practically worthless piece of stone a collector like me provenance is king but really context is the king of kings.

Paul Barford said...

Well, if you look at the article, it says that

"Such is the plaque’s importance that, if it were sold on the legitimate market, it would fetch tens of thousands of pounds."

but he did not, instead he went to Mr Hammond, who misidentified it and gave it a low estimate, and then had not the paperwork to defend its legitimacy when the police came for it.

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