Friday 28 May 2010

Antiquity Dealing: Provenance Cowboys and the Hoi Polloi

In a highly eloquent post on Looting Matters "Provenance ... has become paramount" , David Gill quotes a recent interview with Max Bernheimer, International Head of Antiquities at Christie's who says:
Provenance has always been important, and in light of recent repatriation issues, it has become paramount. In a way these issues have helped the auction business because of the transparency of our operations; buyers can have complete confidence when buying at auction. Everything we do is published, and source countries have the opportunity to review our catalogues long before the date of sale.
Clients too of course. Having the information presented up front allows the client and observers to ask questions. Not having the information presented honestly up front immediately raises questions; given the perceived nature of this trade, one cannot help but have the feeling, what have they got to hide?

If a reputable antiquities dealer presents up front the collecting history of the objects it offers to allow verification of its legitimacy, what can we say of an antiquities dealer that does not? The many dealers for example who insist that "traditionally" dealers do not offer any information on where their pieces came from, where they "surfaced" (from "underground") and when and where they have been in the meantime? This is how it was done in the nineteenth century but is there a place for nineteenth century practices in modern times when the antiquities market itself and the material offered on it has changed so dramatically?

It seems that the reputable antiquities market is accepting that a reputation for ethical dealing is based on upfront declarations of the collecting history of the items offered, what then to say of dealers who stubbornly insist that the legitimacy of an item on sale should be considered as "innocent until proven guilty" and appearing deaf to the protests concerning why they do so without offering up front any information whatsoever that would allow formulation of the question even?

One such dealer criticises me, among other things, for insisting that it is the business of the reputable seller to be offering this information, not a third party.
Mr Barford has a very simplistic and inherently irrational approach[...] it is not economically possible for every artifact to have a documented provenance unless some governmental authority creates that provenance. Mr. Barford has consistently attempted, in his remarks on provenance, to present that as being the responsibility of the trade. This is however simplistic and unrealistic. The trade cannot unilaterally set provenance standards, they must first be agreed upon by the collecting community and by relevant authorities.
This is just sidestepping the issue. The person who is capble of saying where the item they have in their stockroom, and how they ascertained that it had not been illicitly ovbtained 9ie by establishing its prior collecting history) is the seller. This needs no "some governmental authority" to "create" (sic) that provenance. I really have no idea what kind of governmental authority Welsh has in mind, merely note that this is entirely in line with a consistent trend in what ACCG spokesmen write to see this always as "somebody else's problem". Something that somebody else should step in (at taxpayers' expense) and do for collectors and do for dealers. The trade in antiquities however is a very lucrative one, so I do not see why it cannot finance itself, but needs government subsidies and help. It is not at all "simplistic and unrealistic" to see increasing vigilence and adoption of more stringent ethical measures for the dealing of portable antiquities to reduce the amount of illicitly obtained material on the market as the responsibility of the reputable dealers involved in the legitimate market in licitly obtained antiquities. One which it is the ethical collector's responsibility to see are upheld by avoiding the cowboys and patronising only the reputable dealers who take full responsibility for the ethical standards of their business in precisely this regard.

Last June Bernheimer was quoted in a Christie's press release saying that“[...] objects with clear provenance continue to perform exceedingly well at auction”. Objects without clear provenance at the moment can be sold to undiscerning collectors willing to run the risk of the integrity of their collections being compromised by the inclusio of illicitly-obtained items (after all "who is to know, innocent until proven guilty"). Such transactions however are increasingly being seen as undertaken by cowboy sellers supplying cowboy antiquity collectors, pseudo collectors. The hoi polloi of the dealing and collecting world will continue to thrive in the secrecy of the market which shields their activities from scrutiny. They will continue to protest their innocence of any connection with the passage onto the market of illicitly obtained goods using all sorts of arguments designed to appeal to their lowbrow supporters. They will continue to operate according to weasel-worded antiquity dealing codes of ethics according to which in efect "anything goes" and which are in any case rarely enforced.

If reputable antiquity dealers offer collecting histories and provenance up front, can buyers have "complete confidence" when buying from a cowboy antiquities dealer that does not and provides all sorts of excuse why he fills his stockrooms with items for which - for one reason or another - he cannot do that? I would suggest not. I would suggest that a reputable and discerning collector should avoid patronising such cowboys and take their custom elsewhere, like discerning fashion shoppers would not buy items apparently produced in child-labour sweatshops. Whether or not the cowboys survive depends on keeping the market indiscriminate, undiscriminating, fostering hoi polloi attitudes in collecting circles.

We see a lot of that among antiquity dealers and collectors these days.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.