Saturday 28 May 2016

Gotta Hellenistic Wreath to Sell Anonymously? Take it to Duke's

Provenance: Acquired by the Grandfather of
the vendor is [sic] the 1930's [sic] and thence by
descent Private Collection, Somerset

Duke's Fine Art Auctioner

Euan McLelland, 'Incredibly rare 2,300-year-old Ancient Greek gold crown worth £100,000 was kept for decades in a tatty box of old newspapers under bed by owner who had no idea what it was ', MailOnline   26 May 2016

A Hellenistic gold wreath has "surfaced', reportedly kept in an old cardboard box under a bed by an anonymous elderly man in Taunton.
Valuers from Duke's of Dorchester in Dorset attended the pensioner's home to look at some items he had inherited from his grandfather [...] Bits of dirt embedded on the wreath suggest this one was buried at some point [...] The current owner's grandfather was a great collector who was fascinated by archaeology and the ancient world [...] his family do not know how he acquired it [...] The man said: '[...] I inherited quite a lot of things from him and I just put this to one side for almost a decade and didn't really think anything of it. 'Recently I decided I needed to sort through things and called in Duke's to have look at some of the items he'd passed on to me' [...] The antiquity will be sold on June 9. 
Despite having zero provenance. What kind of a collector was Grandfather Anonymous? Where did he get it and when precisely? The newspapers it was wrapped in are not detailed - it could have been acquired just before Grandson Anonymous inherited the estate "ten years ago". This is "can't touch you for it" licitness and no responsible collector should want to add such an item to their collection. Duke's currently has some other "interesting" objects on sale - including a 'Syro-Palestinian' icon with no real provenance.

The Family Box: What an interesting photo the auctioneer took.
Why? What date are those newspapers? 
The "Dead Grandfather Provenance" is used quite a lot in dealing in antiquities. In some cases it covers an object where the actual message is "I don't want to tell you where this is really from" as in the matter of the sarcophagi reportedly offered by Morris Khouli to  collector Joseph Lewis II as well, perhaps the infamous Leutwitz Apollo. (see here too). In my experience dead grandfathers with a poorly sorted collection are used to launder some pretty obvious fakes in auctions by people who claim to "know nothing about what this is so I am setting the minimum starting price". There is always one greedy fool who thinks he knows more than the self-proclaimed ignorant seller and competes with a shill bidder (most likely) to push the price of worthless lumps of metal up a sizeable sum under the impression that it is a valuable authentic artefact. Grandfathers should document their collections better or they just become a red flag after their death.

UPDATE 28th May 2016
David Meadows, Rogue Classicist, is sceptical about even more of this story. he points out why the object seen in the photos is quite unlike the body of properly-excavated comparanda:
Taken together, there is much to be suspicious about this one. The disconnect between the accounts in the Daily Mail and the Duke’s of Dorchester official description are concerning at least from a collection history point of view. The huge difference in valuation also suggests the auction house might not be as enthusiastic about this as the Daily Mail would have us believe. Outside of that, the wreath itself has several features which just don’t ‘seem right’ from a Hellenistic gold wreath point of view. We’ll continue to watch how this one develops …
I think looking at the points he made, his suspicions could be right (noting too the scare quotes in te auctioneer's description) and this is an example of a fake-dodgy artefact being laundered by the Dead Grandfather ploy rather than a looted-and-smuggled-dodgy one. On which case who is the scammer? The anonymous pensioner who called in Duke's (why this auction house and not Christie's?) with some vague story about where it had come from, or was it the person who ten, twenty, years ago or more fooled Grandpa Anonymous into buying this, with the latter only realising he'd been duped later (when in shame and disgust he hid the damn thing away in a box and did not admit to anyone he'd been caught out)?

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