Sunday 26 September 2021

Collectors do their own Ancient Artefact Provenance Research

Ring, metal detector find,
 2018 (Live Auctioneers)

Over on the Ancient Artifacts discussion list, amateur collectors of portable antiquities have demonstrated that they have found a way to find out untold parts of the collecting history of the objects on sale through aggregator sites like Catawiki and LiveAuctioneers, where minimal collecting histories (and, it seems from what they found, less than perfect due diligence) are the general rule. The method is set out in a series of highly important posts (follow the links in the originals to see where they lead), starting with:  'Lodewijk', 'How to use image search for comparing artefacts - DIY research' Sep 17 2021, #95665 (the forum allows you to read posts arranged in a thread). 

The whole saga started off with some wearable ancient rings sold online by a prominent London dealer as 'Byzantine' and having some generic "in-the-collection-of-an-X[location]-Y[descriptor]-acquired-before-Z[date]"-type collection histories. Totally inadequate - country (let alone place) of origin not stated, no details of legal excavation or legal export. 

But it gets worse. While the UK seller claims that these objects long ago were out of the ground and in some kind of "old collection" in the west going back many years, in the post, as many as eleven cases are shown (with links and pictures) in which applying a certain search method (see the next post) identifies items that in fact turn up on a site called "" that I have previously discussed in a separate post here.  Many of these records can be traced back to them appearing on the Ukrainian auction site Violity (apparently by metal detectorists that had found them, sometimes the records can be linked also to Russian and Ukrainian metal detecting forums). Yet according to the UK dealer now selling them, these very same items (there is no doubt that they are the same, not just similar)  they have "verified" (really?) that each of these objects were in a private collection outside eastern Europe well before that date (an export licence would be required for these items to legally leave Russia or Ukraine). This casts doubt on the method used to verify the collection history given by the seller. 

But what the collector is primarily worried about is that the London dealer has no idea about the date of these items, as he puts it with the necessary degree of sarcasm:
"What a weird coincidence. Maybe the whole box was mislabelled  Byzantine/ Viking/ Medieval instead of 17th to 20th century? Maybe the English/ Belgian/ German/ London/ West-London collector or gentleman working in the European art market mislabelled it somewhere between 1960 and 2000 while passing it down in descent".

In a subsequent message an additional five items are added and the collector remarks:

"This becoming quiet worrying because of the scale. This is going to end up in the dozens, if not hundreds". [...] These are not rings that match in style, all these rings are the exact same rings that show up on a Russian /Ukrainian collection site way before they show up in auction [...]".
One of them was posted on a Russian metal detecting forum in 2018 with the person who probably found it asking for date and value. He was told it was worth there 2000 roubles (= c. 20-23 euros) but the estimate in the UK auction was 600-800 pounds. It seems that not all metal detectorists are in it "not for the money"... As Lodewijk (who seems to be Dutch) notes: 

So a Russian ring dating 17th-19th century, posted on 23-6-2018 at a Russian metal detecting forum shows up at [...] auction 17-5-2019 as a 1300-1500AD Silver medieval crusader ring? And with a provenance of "purchased in the European art market in the 1980's" .

The medievalist in me also is prompted to ask just what the dealer had in mind calling a ring of the 14th to 16th century "Crusader", which "Crusades" did they have in mind?   

Veteran Canadian dealer Robert Kokotailo ventures on the forum:

I see this as proof the provenances on these particular objects are simple made up out of thin air, which may have legal implications at various levels. The one that concerns me the most is for potential buyers if they have to import the objects based on false provenance declarations. It is likely the exporter would face the consequences but you never know for sure if the local authorities don't fully understand what happened, or don't care who is at fault and decide to go after the importer as he is local to them so easier to get to. Keep in mind, while those provenance can be proven false, we don't know for certain if the seller is guilty of creating false provenances, or if the objects are coming to them from consignors/ sellers who are providing those provenance. I am pretty sure if the authorities got involved and wanted to know, figuring that out would not be difficult. Eventually things catch up with people. Just ask [ ] in New York. 
It seems that the seller (and their suppliers) as well as the auction venue (so three groups of people involved in this trade) all have some important questions to answer about how they establish the veracity of the collection histories they pass on to the buyers. How reliable is this information?

Mr Kokotailo is right, the collection history is not just an optional nicety these days, it is fundamental to determining the identity of the object. This affects all collectors now, so there was some enthusiasm on the forum for the method Lodewijk had used to discover these problematic issues. So he decided to do some more
[I] just did a very basic image search through Yandex and look what pops up, and that's without trying. Thing that worries me how this is going to go with other sellers, I am going to do some try outs this weekend.
And that I'll leave to another post. This actually could be quite a game changer.

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