Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Going through the Moves: The Auctioneers' Put-up-Take-down Dance

The number of antiquities in the three Bonham's and Christie's antiquities auctions at the beginning of this month with secure collecting histories going back more than a few decades is traditionally low (Nord Wennstrom, 'Hazy History for some Antiquities at Bonham’s, April 2014', March 28, 2014). Among those noted by Wnnstrom in the Bonham's auction a pyxis was later withdrawn and then a day later an Assyrian stele.

The pyxis was one of two items being sold by London auction houses this month which figure in the seized archives of dealers Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina (PACHI: 'Two more objects surface from Medici and Becchina archives in London auction houses', Thursday, 27 March 2014).

Both of the items identified by University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis as figuring in these archives were withdrawn from the auction at the last moment (BBC: 'Looted' artefacts removed from auction', 2 April 2014; Peter Watson, 'Auction houses ‘handling stolen goods’ The Times, April 2 2014).  Obviously the auction houses should have realised that they were handling objects of dodgy origins and not put such items up for sale in the first place. Instead, they placed them in their catalogue alongside a mass of other items of similarly unclear origins (paperless and freshly "surfaced"). It seems that, as always they were counting on researchers only being able to unequivocally identify a small proportion of them as among the items known from seized documentation of dealers to be of known dubious origin. Only then do they react and withdraw a small percentage of the objects just before the sale, breathing no doubt a sigh of relief that not more dealers archives have been seized and most of the other paperless artefacts they are selling go unchallenged. This is a mechanism, a ritual the same auction houses go through every year, a provocative now-you-see-it, now-you-don't dance with the watchdogs of the market.

Another item  (Lot 99 "Private collection, Geneva, Switzerland"), withdrawn by a London auction house at the last moment "for further study" is the Neo-Assyrian Black Basalt Stele from Tell Shiekh Hamad (Martin Bailey, 'Assyrian stele withdrawn from auction', The Art Newspaper 02 April 2014 '- " Following its appearance in the Bonhams catalogue, concerned archaeologists have reported the matter to the police forces of the UK, Germany and the US, as well as to Interpol and Unesco"). With an estimate of £600,000 to £800,000, the stele would have been by far the most valuable object in the 3 April auction.

UPDATE 3.3.14
Of course the empty vessels of the antiquitist lobby are braying about this sham. Cultural Property Observer, pretending he is unable to see the significance of the farce, asks disingenuously "Is That It?" (CPO 3rd April 2014):
Bonham's has 496 lots in their two sales and Christie's has 199. Of course there are many lots with multiple objects but after their effort it appears at most only 0.288% of the objects appear problematical [...] that's [...] one-quarter of one percent of this particular market. So what do these numbers really tell us? [...] That auctions are filled with looted material? Of course not.
It tells us that less than one percent of the paperless, freshly surfaced and 'rumoured to have been...' items on sale by two major auction houses figure in the (just) two archives of dodgy dealers seized in recent decades. It is crystal clear to the rest of us that if more dugup antiquities dealers kept proper archives (most deliberately do not) and more of them were accessible to researchers, quite obviously the number of items that could be identified as passing through certain hands in the past would increase. The lack of information, and the lack of a challenge from over-worked watchdogs such as Tsirogiannis and Gill and therefore a successful sale at any of the major antiquities sellers does not mean, by any measure, that artefacts with unsatisfactory or questionable documentation of legitimising collecting histories are kosher as Mr Tompa seems to want us all to assume. On the contrary, we know less about many of the antiquities in these April 2014 than Bonhams lot 22 and Christie's lot 173.

The fact that nobody had any dirt on any of them before the auction is of no significance whatsoever. We should remember that the actual origin of the Assyrian stele was not identified by the auction house's "due diligence" search for full information, but only by somebody outside the auction house after it had been put up for auction at Christie’s New York in 2000, and failed to sell.

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