Tuesday 27 April 2010

Guardian: Roman sculptures withdrawn from auction

Bonhams has been getting a lot of attention this week in connection with today's sale of antiquities. Dalya Alberge ( Roman sculptures withdrawn from auction amid fears they are stolen , Guardian Tuesday 27 April 2010) has an article in the Guardian about it. "Archaeologists remain concerned about illegal trading of antiquities and some believe insufficient checks are carried out into their provenance" - only "some"? I think the lack of transparency in dealings in all kinds of dugup antiquities is a fairly general concern these days. As Lord Renfrew, the eminent Cambridge archaeologist, warns "such sales are maintaining London's reputation as a clearing house for looted antiquities". He called for auction houses to identify the vendors of antiquities. "That would be a step towards clarifying the problem," he said.

The piece is about the four statues spotted by David Gill which have recently "surfaced' on the market and look to be of eastern Mediterranean origin (possibly dug up in Syria or northern Greece). The auctioneer Bonhams soothes that:
"Whenever a serious question is raised about an item's provenance we withdraw it from sale pending an internal investigation. We take rigorous care to ensure that we only sell items that have a clear provenance".
Perhaps since Britain has legislation covering dealing in tainted cultural property, the investigation should not merely be an "internal" one, but the relevant authorities should actually come into action.

The use of the adjective "rigorous" to describe the "care" taken to ensure that the vendor only handles "items that have a clear provenance" is questioned by Gill in several recent posts on his Looting Matters blog. If the provenance is established with suich rigor, why are items such as these statures now being withdrawn if it was an easy matter to establish that they do NOT have a good provenance - and why is the information ascertained not made public? In fact Bonhams reveals the depth of its "rigor" in the statement of their spokesman who said that the firm sends its catalogues for scrutiny to the Art Loss Register to ensure that only items with clear provenance are sold and "if they raise issues, we also withdraw items" (also?). But then as any undergraduate knows, the Art Loss Register only deals with stolen items, and does not list previously unknown items that have freshly arrived on the market from illegal excavations on archaeological sites.

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