Thursday, 9 September 2021

Another Collector Asks Dealer for Money Back on Looted Artefacts

It is a bit disturbing to see that "The Economist" magazine has a section specifically on 'Antiquities and the law', but under that heading we find an article with an enticing title (you need to register to read it): 'A case in Germany has big implications for the antiquities trade' (Sep 11th 2021). But that's really just clickbait, such headlines appear with some frequency, yet in real life nothing changes, the law remains as completely inadequate to deal with looters, smugglers and carefree buyers as it always has been. Anyway this story "involves a hoard of Celtiberian helmets and a conscientious collector". It begins with a well known case of a 2013 raid of the Spanish Civil Guard on the home of a collector (named as Ricardo Granada) in Illueca, a village in north-eastern Spain. They seized Celtiberian coins that the collector had stored chocolate boxes. He had some 4000 other artefacts, sling bolts, brooches, ceramics and breastplates. But there were none of the weapons or helmets that they had been looking for because they may have been sold on. The distinction between collector and dealer is often more fluid than some archaeologists that support collecting claim.

According to prosecutors,
at least 18 bronze Celtiberian helmets in uniquely good condition — and of incalculable historical value — had reached the antiquities market. Seven went to Christian Levett, a British collector. At his Museum of Classical Art in Mougins in southern France, treasures from antiquity are displayed alongside works by modern and contemporary artists including Picasso, Matisse and Damien Hirst.

On September 14th these helmets will be the focus of a court hearing in Munich with far-reaching implications for the often murky trade in antiquities. [...] In his case, after he discovered the helmets were looted, he decided to do what few if any individuals had done before: he gave them back to the Spanish authorities without demanding compensation or mounting a legal battle to keep them. “Culturally, ethically and legally,” Mr Levett says, “I didn’t feel that I had any choice but to give them back to the Spanish people.” Instead, the former hedge-fund manager vowed to recover his money from the sellers.
Good for him on both counts, but really the issue is he should have done his research on tie origins before he bought them, and reported the attempted sales to the authorities before he'd parted with his money. N'est pas? Especially as there had been controversy about the sale of the items in the first place (see below) 
In June last year, Spain’s Supreme Court upheld a lower tribunal’s findings that Granada had dug up the helmets between 1989 and 1990. For more than 30 years, the judges wrote, he had “devoted himself systematically and exclusively” to plundering the necropolis of the Celtiberian settlement of Aratis or Arátikos, which was destroyed by the Romans in the first century BC. Only once, when he brought in a mechanical excavator, did the local authorities interrupt his labours. Granada was sentenced to three years in jail. Not that it mattered—he had died four months earlier. An accomplice got 21 months.
Mr Levett is still badly out of pocket. It seems he bought six of the helmets between 2008 and 2009 for €236,136 from a German auction house, Hermann Historica, which was acting for heirs of a noted collector, Axel Guttmann (died October 2001). Apparently they had previously been offered in 1990 to the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz who declined to acquire them due to lack of evidence of legal provenance. Large numbers of Guttmann objects were sold by Christie's starting in November 2002, but the sale of these Celtiberian objects was handled by Hermann Historica catalogue in 2008. An attempt to stop the sale and have the items seized, but this was frustrated. Now Mr Levett is trying to sue the dealer for the return of the money he paid for them. 
 At the hearing in Munich next week, Mr Levett will be seeking the return of the €236,136 ($280,000) sale price, including commission and shipping. “Hermann Historica have sold me objects that have been proven in a Spanish court to have been stolen,” he argues. [...]  The auction house protests that it acted in as much good faith as Mr Levett. The helmets came from “one of the best-known and extensively published collections in Europe”, says Stefan Schreyer, Hermann Historica’s managing director. “The results of [court proceedings] conducted ten years later could understandably not be taken into account.” Much could depend on who knew what and when. 
And who turned a blind eye to actually ascertaining where and how the objects had appeared on the market before Guttmann had them. Such objects don't just fall from the sky (particularly in multiples) and there is no such thing as artefact elves making them in the bowels of the earth as some dealers seem to want to prefer to believe in. 

Hermann Historica says of the 2008 auction:  
“None of the claims raised at the time could be substantiated, the auction was conducted properly [and] the winning bidders, including the plaintiff, became rightful owners based on German law,” says Mr Schreyer. Many dealers and collectors—and their lawyers—will be extremely keen to see if the court in Munich agrees.
In my view, this case will be thrown out, because the court is very likely to conclude that Mr Levett must have been aware of the attempts to delay the sale in 2008 due to the doubts about the origins of these items. Yet he went ahead with the purchase - I would suggest the court will say 'recklessly'. That defence however may not do much for the dealer's reputation and idea of "good faith". We will see. The case is an interesting parallel to that which Hobby Lobby's Steve Green is conducting with Christie's over the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet. I think slowly "antiquities" is going to be an area that is as much "caveat vendor" as caveat emptor, and that's a good thing. Let them take more care.
Vignette: antiquities should all have money-back guarantees if the seller can't provide title   

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