Friday, 3 July 2009

US Antique dealers' approach to the China MOU

Beverly Hills Gallery and Auctioneer Isadore M. Chait have issued a public statement guaranteeing the legality of Chinese artifacts in their upcoming July 12 auction. These objects would come under the terms of the 2008 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on import restrictions of Chinese artifacts into the US. The MOU was created in an attempt to curb illicit trafficking in Chinese antiquities and art in the U.S. and covers all types of collectable Chinese items dating from the Paleolithic Period to the end of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 907). It also applies to wall art and monumental sculptures that are at least 250 years old. During the period of operation of the MOU, such works can be legally imported into the US only if Chinese officials issue a valid certificate of export or if they left China before January 16, 2009.

Isadore M. Chait assured buyers that that “many of the items in the auction had been purchased from our Gallery in previous years. Others carry impressive credentials, among them the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, a Paolo Verdes estate, and several private collections” (see also here and here). No mention is made of it, but I assume the gallery will be backing up its claims by supplying the purchasers with some kind of documentation of the object's previous ownership history. This guarantee of legality should be extremely comforting to collectors, given the fact that I.M. Chait’s July 12 auction contains a number of exceptional objects such as an archaic bronze ritual vessel and monumental sculptures as well as collections of Han and Tang pottery.

The lead item is a museum-quality Early Western Zhou Dynasty (1027 – 771 B.C.) bronze vessel estimated at $80,000. Known in Chinese as a gui, the archaic container has a domed lid and is decorated with the intertwined geometrics characteristic of the era. Fantastical animal-heads decorate the handles and
legs. An inscription inside the cover completes its attributes. Another archaic bronze is a pair of massive covered Hu (wine storage containers) from the Warring States Period (770 – 221 B.C.). They are in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. Additionally, a Northern Qi Dynasty (A.D. 550 -577) limestone head of Guanyin falls under the restrictions. Han (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) and Tang Dynasty (A.D. 619-907) pottery horses, camels and ritual pottery figures—those pricey and favored symbols of status and good taste so frequently found on American mantles and in executive offices—also now warrant credential checks. Fortunately for collectors, several fine examples appear in this sale.Among the more outstanding is a massive pair of Tang Bactrian camels caught in mid-stride and bearing riders whose mustaches and outfits clearly identify them as foreigners. (Lot 210.) Not only does this pair have the proper provenance, they come with another of Chait’s assurances, a Thermo Luminescence (TL) Test Certificate. The camels are estimated at $30,000 – $35,000.Similarly qualified are a pair of Han Dynasty painted pottery figures of dancing ladies. These have remains of the original, nearly 2,000 year old pigment , The ladies also come with TL test certificates in addition to the Chait guarantee.
We may contrast the attitudes of the buyers of such items - demanding assurances of legitimacy including secure provenances - with those of a small group of artefact dealers who are currently in the process of trying to overthrow the very same MOU to allow them to continue to import contextless and provenance-less ancient artefacts without the "bother" of being required to show that the objects left the source country legally or before the MOU was established. Whether or not this is what collectors want - or whether it is in the long term interests of collecting at all, remain to be demonstrated. What is interesting is that we do not see other branches of the dealer community attacking the State Department for attemting to reduce the participation of the US in the trade in illicit antiquities. It is just the ancient coin dealers and collectors. I wonder if they imagine they are speaking for all collectors of Chinese antiquities?

I think, however, if buying antiquities from Californian dealers, when there are ones that offer documentation that the antiquities they sell are of legal origin, and those that cannot and will not (and some of which are members of organzations actively intending to overthrow the import restrictions), then it seems to me that the ethical collector's choice is a simple one. Of course the market for some of Chait's arterfacts is a different one from the "cut-price bit o' 'istry in yer 'and" one that the ancient coin dealers and eBay dugup antiquity sellers are catering for.

[Footnote: By the way though, the "ritual pottery figures" ("those pricey and favored symbols of status and good taste so frequently found on American mantles and in executive offices") mostly come from grave robbing just as much as any Utah pots.]
Photo: Gui vessel (Wikicommons)

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