Thursday, 2 May 2013

Today, Egypt Challenges Christie's

Following on from yesterday's claims about the withdrawal of an (unknown) number of items from a Bonham's auction reported here earlier, Egypt is now reporting that it "successfully withdrew six ancient Egyptian artefacts from Christie’s auction list in London". It is not clear if there are any links between the two events a day apart. According to the official story,  The Director General of the Repatriation of Antiquities Department Osama El-Nahas "discovered by chance" three days ago that Christie's auction house in London was to auction six ancient Egyptian items which he suspected had been "stolen and smuggled out of Egypt".
The objects include a New Kingdom red granite engraving depicting a Nubian face discovered in 2000 by the German European mission in King Amenhotep II temple in Wadi Al-Hittan on Luxor’s west bank. The other five artefacts are a collection of New Kingdom religious stelae and statues of different sizes. Regretfully, said El-Nahas, Egypt's Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) does not have documentation proving Egypt’s ownership but [...] the person who claimed ownership of the five objects did not have any documents that prove his ownership. Therefore, according to UNESCO regulations and Egypt’s antiquities law, they must be returned to Egypt. Christie's withdrew the objects from the auction and is to hand them over to the concerned British authorities to take all legal procedures to return back the six objects to Egypt.
Like yesterday's story of the alleged "stolen 200 objects" in t'other auction house, there is something that really does not ring true in this tale. There is of course nothing in English law which stipulates that a UK seller of Egyptian antiquities of unknown pedigree actually has to provide documentation that he owns them. They come from an "old collection", "my grandfather's attic" and the matter is closed. That's not how it should be, but that is how it is, whether the Egyptians and preservationists like myself like it or not. Unless the seller was actually Egyptian...

The six items may very well have been:
Sale 8776 Lot 56, limestone cobra head, 12.1 cm long,
Lot 57 steatite official statue fragment Middle Kingdom, 6.7cm tall.
Lot 58, Red granite relief fragment depicting a Nubian face, 22.8 x 14.8 cm.
Lot 59, New Kingdom female head, 9.5 cm long.
Lot 60, Limestone relief of offering bearers, New Kingdom 18.4 x 14.6 cm
Lot 61, New Kingdom limestone relief fragment (I do not like the look of this one myself) 17.1 x 9.8 cm

In the catalogue today, all six of them are followed by the following texts:
Private collection, UK, acquired Egypt 1940s; thence by descent to the present owner. Saleroom Notice: Please note that this lot has been withdrawn.
There appear to be no more items in the catalogue from such a  UK Private collection "acquired Egypt 1940s". If indeed these six items had been acquired in the 1940s, there is no reason why they'd be withdrawn, so is this not true? What checks were made by Christie's?  Who is/was this mysterious UK collector? This is all a great mystery, all the more so if Bonhams had been made to give up stuff yesterday too. What is going on in the London auction world? As far as the six Christie's items, most of this stuff seems to me to be the most excrable junk anyway, which I'd say no discerning collector would give house room to - except lot 60 maybe (which I bet might be linked with a specific building complex by style). Personally I'd be doubtful about the authenticity of lot 57 and 61, but then I'm not a Christie's expert...

Interesting times.

Nevine El-Aref, 'Stolen Egyptian artefacts rescued from Christie's auction', Al Ahram, 2 May 2013.

Note that (once again) the gallery of pictures accompanying the Al Ahram article shows only one of the items listed above (lot 58) and the second and third photos do not correspond to anything related to the Christies auction and are probably just space fillers.


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