Monday 21 October 2013

Christie's: An Inscribed Silver Beaker of Elamite Origin

The Munich-Mahboubian beaker, a pair to the Christie's one, or the same? (photo: Zenith)

From somewhere deep in the foggy District of Columbia, somebody has passed on this information to me and suggested my readers might find it interesting. I have slightly edited the original communication.

An inscribed silver beaker of Elamite origin will be offered for sale at a Christie’s auction in London on the 24th October 2013 (see here Sale 1174, Lot 11 - "Provenance Private collection, UK, acquired 1940s-1950s"). To judge by the image, it looks extremely like the object which was studied by Michael Müller-Karpe in München in 2007, when it was offered for sale at an auction by a well-known Munich auction house. He considered it as most likely originating from an illicitly excavated temple of Napiriša at Anšan. See especially his article "Antikenmarkt als Geldwäsche: Der Silberbecher des königs Ebarat",Kunst und Recht 14 (2012), 195–202, available via his profile. Another article discusses the topic (Nils Metzger, 'Iran: Raubgut könnte aus verschollenem Tempel stammen Spiegel 18.09.2012). In the case of that beaker, the  German authorities could find no proof that the item was stolen and finally closed the investigation and the beaker was given back to the dealer (the consigner was reportedly a collector and dealer named Houshang Mahboubian who had other items thought to have come from the same site). Now a year on, this beaker, looking very much like that other one, has surfaced on the market. The question is, where has the one seen by  Michael Müller-Karpe now gone so the two can be compared? 

In Iran archaeological finds older than 100 years are basically government property - accidental finds must be reported since 1930 (Art 10) [see here for a more recent version of the law]. The Munich beaker was stated by its consigner to have been in an English private collection since the 1970s so where had it been before that if its pair was already in another (?) English private collection thirty years earlier? Why was neither seen and published in all those years when we now have two (?) separate inscriptions referring to an otherwise unknown temple, and also bearing an inscription locating the site  (Reiner, Erica (1973) "The Location of Anšan", Revue d'Assyriologie 67, pp. 57-62)? The Munich cup was reportedly photographed in the collection of Houshang Mahboubian, a London art dealer of Iranian origin at the end of 2003 along with a number of other items, but no second cup.

How many beakers like this are there in private collections outside Iran? How and when did these objects leave Iran before entering those two English collections?   

So who was out digging
the temple of Napiriša at Anšan well before the  1968-1978 expedition of William Sumner, from the University of Pennsylvania and Ohio State University? Why was the recovery of such an interesting inscribed find from the site two decades earlier not known? Note that in the catalogue Christies warn US buyers of the implications of buying Iranian artefacts. 

UPDATE 22.10.13
Well, what a surprise eh? Times: "Goblet removed from sale after illegal export fears". It is a shame though that we cannot report that it was Christie's that came to the conclusion not to get involved with the sale unaided. Apparently it took Lord Renfrew to have a quiet word with them before they crumbled. From the number of times they were checking my post yesterday until late evening - working late (I assume to see if there were any comments), it's my guess they were still intending to brazen it out.  NOW what happens to the vessel?

Anyway, thanks Christie's for doing what seems, in the circumstances, to be the right thing.

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