Monday 11 November 2013

The Difficulties of Responsibly Buying Antiquities in the USA

Agora Auctions, Inc. has just launched the first of what will be a regular electronic antiquities auctions ( which will take place every three weeks.
[...] Based in the United States, the company is run by Tom Mullally (Senior Numismatist and Auction Administrator), Matthew Richter (President and CFO) and Alfredo De La Fe (Vice President, Numismatist and Chief Technology Officer). The focus of our auctions will be Ancient, Medieval and World coins and provenanced antiquities [...] a nice selection of Pre-Columbian, Egyptian and other ancient artifacts.
When you check out the website though, it appears that these dealers have a totally inadequate notion on what "provenance" is. What they mean, in any case (as Professor David Gill keeps reminding the deaf market), is collecting history, how something entered and travelled through the licit market. ONLY by these means can its licit entry onto the market can be verified. All the rest are 'orphan' artefacts of questionable origin which no truly responsible dealer or collector would want to touch.

Thus it is that, despite the declarationsof those involved, Agora only offers us fragmentary (ersatz) information of this nature. So we have the commercial origin (e.g. "ex-Grebkesh and Runn") pseudo-collecting history (absolutely meaningless when it comes to verifying licitness of origin without access to that company's business records). Then we have the formulaic one-step-removed ersatz collecting history  "ex-[Wherever] Private Collection”, or the "from the [random surname] estate". These are equally meaningless formulae without a whole heap of other information up-front about [random surname] and where they obtained and how they vetted their material. Particularly concerning are the Egyptian antiquities and those pre-Columbian objects. Where did they come from, how and when did they reach the USA? Very few of the coins I looked at have any collecting history or reported export documentation associated with them. On present evidence it seems to me that these "Agora Inc." guys are just half-heartedly going through the motions of dealing with "provenanced" material. Some 351 lots, including dealer lots, are listed "all with low estimates". Caveat emptor.

UPDATE 11.11.13:

For a sequel to this discussion see here.

Vignette: an agora


Alfredo De La Fe said...

Paul, more information on provenance is provided to the winning bidder of any of the antiquities. The last time I checked, you do not post your resume every time you send a message to your blog. For that matter, your readers do not know YOUR "provenance".

Paul Barford said...

"more information on provenance is provided to the winning bidder of any of the antiquities".

Well, that is really no good at all - especially since you do not say that on the front page. Why not put that assurance on the front page of your auctions if that is the case?

Can potential bidders gain access to this documentation (or learn what documents are available) before they agree to put their money down ? If not, that seems rather odd. Would you buy anything on the internet with only a very sketchy description of what you are getting and where it came from - a used child's pram, a car, used TV or audio equipment, a musical instrument? So why should antiquities be any different?

To illustrate what I mean, have a look at a used car advert I posted up. Would you buy this car Alfredo?

What is the ACTUAL REASON why you cannot put into the object description the information that it has an export licence issued by ... on the .... for example? In what way would it hurt the sale of that object to admit that it has one?

Paul Barford said...

" your readers do not know YOUR "provenance"
What is this Ellis Iasland, or the Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities or some kind of Nazi Race Segregation Board? What on earth are you saying, man?

I do not think anyone posts a "resume each time they post a message on a blog" (or discussion list, or You Tube comment). That's not the way these things work.

If I was blogging about dodgy meat sold in the local market, dodgy car dealers, dodgy insurance salesmen, foreign-made children's toys with lead paint, saving the whales or a million and one other topics, I doubt you'd find even a single jerk asking "what's your provenenace mr writer - you must post a full resume before you say anything here"!

So I ask again, what is it that is so different about the antiquities market and those that collect them that leads to such aberrant behaviour? This is not, despite what you think Mr De La Fe, the behaviour of normal people.

What is your problem? You say you trade in"provenanced" artefacts, I ask to see the provenance, and you make some weirdo suggestion.

Either you DO sell items with proper provenances, or you DO NOT. Whether I am Jewish or not or whatever makes not a bit of difference to that.

P2Pinvested said...

You do take some stick Paul don't you. I have started reading your blogs now, mainly for the comedy value of the comments and your comments back.

Paul Barford said...

Only NOW? Well, you see that is exactly the point I was making here

I not so sure you help your cause saying you find the issues about which I write "comedic".

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