Friday, 17 April 2020

Professor of Art Crime Takes On Timeline Auctions Over Poor Description, Poor Documentation and Blatant AntiqiFakes

The inimitable Erin Thompson (Professor of Art Crime at John Jay College (CUNY), NYC)* has a witty article in The London Review of Books on fake antiquities (Own a Piece of the (Very Recent) Past, 17th April 2020). After about an anecdote about a ruined date involving antiquities (many of us have been there), she introduces the topic of the ubiquity of fake antiquities, past and present. Especially the latter:
"the internet has democratised the market for fakes. Now, anyone with a credit card can buy artefacts pretending to be Neolithic hand axes [sic], Hellenistic jewellery, Roman armour or Chinese tomb figurines. The strangest thing I’ve seen was an online storefront flogging ‘ancient Egyptian body parts’. One of these bits, marked at only $15,000, was an erect penis. If it’s genuine, I must fundamentally misunderstand the nature of either mummification or erections, or both"
She then goes on to use as the main case study a witty take-down of the hybrid fake mosaic Dionysic/Nereids mosaic being sold by TimeLine Auctions Limited discussed by me here. As for the Timeline offerings in general, the descriptions are so awfully (and unprofessionally) skimpy, usually with only a single small photo for each item (like on a dodgy online porn page - you have to register  to see the fullsize image). Thompson mentions just a few of the most egregious examples of problematic objects being sold by the ex-wildlife trader as antiquities:
Of course, it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty that any of the thousands of lots are not genuine antiquities merely by looking at them. But it’s also impossible to tell if they are in fact genuine, or worth the hundreds or thousands of pounds of their estimates, without extensive scientific testing or research into their provenances.[...]  We can’t be as certain of the inauthenticity of other lots in the auction, but it’s unlikely that so many ancient earrings would have survived in matched pairs, with their delicate loops intact and ready to wear – there are more than thirty pairs in this auction. If you’re selling fake ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals, you should perhaps not put two so obviously carved by the same hand  side by  side  in your sales listings. If you’re flogging a set of second millennium  BCE   ‘Babylonian’ duck-shaped weights, maybe don’t offer a choice of colours:  jewel tonespastels or classic black. And poking a  lump of clay with a pointy stick doesn’t turn it into a ‘Western Asiatic Early Dynastic Sexagesimal Counting Tablet, 3000-2500 BC.’
Thompson is critical of the unprofessional terms and conditions of Mr Hammond's nice little set up. Despite the fact that each object description gives exact dates and descriptions, if you read the fine print we are told, however, that the company does "not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including ... provenance [and] authenticity". So basically everything that is on the sales page should be taken with as much as a pinch of salt as if it was being sold on ebay or by an imaginative twelve year old, or a lying sociopath. What this says is that it's basically meaningless. You are buying what is in that one poor picture.
They make an exception for cases of ‘deliberate forgery’: if you submit not one but two reports from experts holding that the artefact is a fake, you can get your money back.
Deliberate forgery, but not a mistaken attribution, note. And tell me, how the eventual buyer of this piece of junk (mosaic) is going to do that when the "object" ostensibly consists of remounted tesserae in a (modern) "matrix". When is a fake not a fake, Mr Hammond?
Fakes are funny – but they are also harmful. They encourage potential looters and collectors to think that major pieces are still out there to be found, and so lead to ongoing looting. They also impede efforts to fight the trade in looted antiquities. And they influence the public idea of what types of antiquity are worth protecting against looting, distracting from the protection of unglamorous but information-rich genuine ancient artefacts. So, don’t buy antiquities online.

*and author of 'Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present' Yale University Press (2016)


Unknown said...

Very Well Said.

Jamie Corrigan

Unknown said...

Hi Paul,

Well Timeline are punting their next collection of 'Things' for another sale. You have to give it to them, they do not hang around when it comes to 'Moving it on and heading it out'.

One outstanding offering is a very badly constructed mosaic of " Naiad Holding Golden Hydria' est 6000/8000 no provenance given yet, but that will be No Problem.

It would seem that Mr Hammond is quite happy to totally ignore 'The Shot' which Erin Thompson 'Put across his bows' in April 2020.

Perhaps he could encourage children by putting on his site bags of mosaic tiles? Make your own, you decide the subject ! It would be better than Lego and maybe raise a next generation of 'Clients'?

Best, Jamie Corrigan.

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