Saturday, 23 July 2011

Dodgy Artefact Database Vindicated

I have mentioned the database which Dorothy King is compiling of looted artefacts here before. Although earlier I was critical of the way she apparently intends to approach this, it is pleasant to be able to share news of an early success, in fact before she had the database up and running. David Gill is birdwatching in wildest Wales, but Dr King beat him to this one:
a head was sold at auction, the auction house said it had proof the head had been in Switzerland, and ... oh whoops, someone helping with the database has been able to prove not only where it was looted from, but also when (long after 1970). If collectors had any sense, they'll get in touch and try to help us - rather than get caught having to rapatrier les objets
mais oiu, but if collectors with 91 000 quid to blow on a conservatory ornament with piggy eyes had any sense they'd be asking for more details from the seller than a vague undocumented "Private collection, Switzerland, circa 1975. Acquired by the present owner in Switzerland in 1988". What's that supposed to mean? Now all Dr King has to do now is work out where the head is now, Christies apparently is not saying who bought it (Did you buy this Roman head?). She is keeping close to her chest where and when she has determined the object was stolen, hinting it was "long after 1970", but more importantly was it after the 1988 date by which the person selling it was asserting it at Christie's was already in their possession? Now, how to get from that to a conviction? So, why is this object included on Dorothy King's database and not the Art Loss Register? Is it not a little confusing having a private database parallelling what should be available on ones already existing?

UPDATE 31.Oct 2011:

Dorothy king now reports that this head was from a statue at the Sabratha Museum, west of Tripoli and had been detached and stolen in 1990. It is now back in Libya. Not before it was sold at Christie's as lot 261 in a recent antiquities sale even though - it seems - an archaeologist had contacted the auction house before the sale that the item was of dodgy provenance. Christie's went ahead with the sale anyway. The pushing was done by Dorothy King and "the brilliant Hafed Walda". So where had the head been since 1990 and why did Christie's not check the legitimacy of the provenance (ie where it had been before that)? Is it true that when the Libyans reported the piece had been stolen from a Museum in 1990, Christies's "stonewalled" and went ahead with the sale?

Photo: Head of shrewish woman with piggy eyes and chipped nose sold at Christie's in April 2011.


kyri said...

you see paul,rather than being cynical about the database,dorothy is slowly winning you over,how you could believe that this database is helping the looters is beyond me becuase this stuff is already out there.
she obviously has other people helping her and this kind of coordination is what is needed.there will be alot of people wishing that dorothys database dosent materialise.i think she is doing a great job and good luck to her.

Paul Barford said...

How can one fail to be "won over" by somebody as charming and self-effacing as Dorothy King?

Despite that, in the form she presented it and for the reasons I give, I am still not sure this database is a good idea and I think it should have been/be more widely discussed. I also do not think making FOI demands (as she announced she would be doing) is the way it should be compiled.

Let's not get too excited though, she's found a head which she claims should be somewhere else, the trick is now not only proving that to the person who now has it, but also bringing to justice (all) those who led to it being where it is now - wherever that is. Can her database lead to that? We will see.

But I am not averse to giving credit where credit is due, well spotted that person!

So Kyri, do you still believe in the due diligence of those auction houses when this was sold by one of the biggest of them with what Dorothy seems to be hinting is a wholly false provenance in April this year? Who was the seller?

kyri said...

paul,as you know these looters are proficient at what they do.providing false provenances is becoming an art form to them.a reciept on old paper,dated from the 50s,from a dealer who no longer exists,a letter from a museum curator who maybe died 20 years ago ect,the auction houses at the end of the day have to take the provenance at face value,as indeed many collectors do.some of these provenances are very hard to this case though ,i must agree that it was an important piece and should have been published somewere befor 1970,even if it was just in an old auction catalog.if there was a data base it would have been excluded from the sale and the cosigner reported to the police[i would hope].its not an exact science paul,as in any business mistakes will be far as im concernd the major auction houses are making a concerted effert to only sell licit material.i can only say by my own experience that over the last 5 years ,things have changed drasticaly,provenance declaration forms and phone calls to dealers over very minor pieces.
ps,the german auction houses are still way behind the british/usa auction houses.most of their stuff is unprovenancd,even now.

David Gill said...

Please note that issues were indeed raised about this sale at the time.
See here.

Paul Barford said...

Now there is no need to be "rude" David.

Chris Exx said...


I'll try to be more self effacing and charming because clearly what I am doing so far isn't working!!

Er, excuse this question, I probably should know the answer but I am just a stupid old coiney... but... I can't help but wonder... It seems like you despise antiquities, the "cult of the object", etc. Seriously, again I am just an idiot collector, but IF these objects are so WORTHLESS, why do you care if collectors have them or not?

I'll guess: Just because they are associated with looting that destroys the historical record? Did I get it right?

If so, if an object is already above ground is useless historically, then really there is no problem if collectors have some of the hundreds of millions of ancient coins above ground? Museums can't do anything with more than a fraction of those coins, can they?

But what do I know?

Was that better? Charmed yet?


Paul Barford said...

Hmm, a little less sarcasm might make the questions seem less flippant.

The objects have a financial worth to those who build a trade on them.

In the case discussed in the post to which you comment, it is (I think) a stolen object. I believe that when Dr King reveals more, we
learn that it was in a collection and has been stolen from it (just guessing here Libya?). So obviously in cases like that, it does not matter if it is a marble bust, a sports car, library book or whatever, do you support thievery?

Here somebody bought it, but if they had known where it was [really] from (let's assume), they'd not have bought it. So it comes down to the collecting history and provenance to determine ownership rights. And whose responsibility is it to check they are not buying stolen goods when it is in a seller's interest to conceal the fact that they are, or might be? See?

In the other case where we are talking about fresh dugups, newly "surfaced" (from underground) on the market, they are not only "associated with looting" but are both the products of it and the reason for it. That is why they are a concern. It is not the object, its the process that produces them.

"If an object is already above ground is useless historically, then really there is no problem if collectors have some of the hundreds of millions of ancient coins above ground?
That is a very naive self-serving approach, so your own dugup coins that you bought "don't matter"?

Without proper records, how are you going to differentiate the millions that are "above ground" because they were picked up by nineteenth century shepherds and sold to people on the Grand Tour, those "above ground" because they were looted in the 1950s and 1960s (so - being pre-1970 UNESCO - we can forget about doing anything about them), and those that were dug up with his bulldozer five years ago by Todor Rabus the artefact thief at Archar and were smuggled into the States in a container marked "potatoes" and sold by Brooklyn fence Dimitri Dodgy Dealer, a friend of the guys now facing charges?

What are you going to do to stop Todor and Dimitri selling you freshly and illegally excavated material like potatoes, pretending that its all from "old collections"? Because its not ME that is buying them, it is you coin collectors. I'm not responsible for this state of affairs, you lot are. What are YOU going to do about it before we have to? Or are you going to wait until somebody does the job of cleaning up the market for you, hand a ready solution on a plate?

...Like for example imposing temporary import restrictions on ILLEGALLY EXPORTED artefacts? You see the problem is, there are those among you that do not want to see the market cleaned up. The dealers who buy Dimitri's coins direct from Todor and then sell them to you pretending they are something else stand to lose a lot of money.

How many "Dimitri" coins have you unwittingly in your collection Chris? Does that not worry you at all? What will YOU do about it?

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