Saturday 23 April 2022

Emptor, Caveat and Do Your Homework

    Ancient 'ball-busting' cameo bought   
by 'European Lady' (where?) 

Plakas Auctions is an art and antiquities dealer, who seems to have started trading a while ago and has premises ('appointment only') in Tolpuddle Street, London. Past sales tend to have been of European, Asian and Islamic art. They have just had an auction of Property Of European Lady Collection since 1980's of Ancient Art and Antiquities April 22, 2022 1:00 PM BST Live auction
195 Lots
Decorative Art (192)
Antiquities - General (45)
Roman Antiquities (53)
Egyptian Antiquities (19)
Greek Antiquities (11)
Egyptian Items (1)
European Items (3)
Glassware (1)
Neolithic and Paleolithic Antiquities (1)
Other Cultures (55)
Oh wow. Where to start? Here the "invaluable" website is offering to you a whole load of weird-looking things, some shiny, that they say were made by various ancient and exotic cultures. But far from being "in"valuable, there are estimates for approximate amounts of money for which you, dear reader, could bid and even buy one for your very own self to have-and-hold, to show off to admiring, impressed and jealous dinner guests. Who will most likely not know what they are either.

But how would you know, dear reader, that they are what the website says they are? Well, you could do it the hard way, go out and get archaeological education and experience, work on digs in different countries on different soils so you see what artefacts look like when they come out of the ground, hang around conservation workshops, find out how they are treated, and what they look like after that, look at excavated material in museum stores and reports... and so on. Or, lacking the dedication and possibilities, you could take a short cut and take into account what the experts say.

Here we come up against that word I hate: "reputable dealers". That adjective has too broad a meaning, and in some of them, in the light of the reality behind some cases of its use that term is - some would say - an oxymoron. 

Nevertheless, I think that, for all my misgivings, there are dealers who do know how to tell fake from real antiquities as well as anyone can. These would be the equivalents of the connoisseur dealers of the Grand Tour period with their extensive training, knowledge and reputation. I was thinking of the names  of the current in the car (as I am hypersceptical about the market, you may be sure it was a short list, and one of them is dead anyway). I am not going to give even a few examples, as I'd not like to seem to be endorsing some of them, I'll keep my thoughts to myself. But they do exist and let's say if I saw an antiquity was being sold  as authentic by one of these guys, I would be very surprised to see it looked dubious to me. 

Then there are the discerning collectors (who I am not going to name either), if something came from a certain named collector's own collection, I might think the same. One caveat though, if the collection is still in the process of being created, I might urge taking a second look at anything that is being 'weeded out' (just saying).

OK, so coming back to this Plakas Auction. They are selling something from a "collection of art and antiquities" put together ("since the 1980s) by a "European Lady". So, I suppose the dealer thinks that sounds posh, like you'd see on the cover of a Christie's catalogue, eh?

Let's take a look. "Since the 1980s" is totally irrelevant in the case of legal provenance, most of the countries represented by the antiquities have laws going back before 1980. If said anonymous lady from any one of the 27 countries of Europe (EU) has just died, age 70, like the Good Book says, she'd have been born in 1950, and in 1980 she'd be a way along her career path and would be thirty. A good age to start buying art objects etc, I guess. Perhaps the 1980s is supposed to signal, "and despite some objects being in her collection for all that time, nobody who saw them said they were fakes"? But then, who saw them, and if they thought they were fakes, would they say? 

Was she a discerning and informed collector or did she just buy willy nilly? Was she perhaps a former auctioneer, a successful art dealer, a conservator, or maybe rogue archaeologist with a collection? We do not know, we are not told anything about her in the catalogue. All we have is (part of?) her collection. What does that tell us about what her collecting interests and specialities were, or how discerning she was? Well, I am glad she never invited me round for dinner and then sprung "an archaeologist you say? Come upstairs and see my antiquities collection" on me. Guaranteed to spoil the evening for us both. 

In this case, however, I'd not be too unhappy about any archaeological damage done.... the majority of the ones I flicked through are of rather dubious authenticity and age. Like that scarab with the back-to-front hieroglyphs I had a little jab at the other day. The Neolithic" object was Lot 100: 'An Anatolian Amber Mother Goddess Neolithic Period, Circa 6th Millennium BC' could be yours for a few hundred quid. But before you bid, ask 'Plakas' where in 6th Millennium Anatolia one could get (waxy honey-coloured semi-opaque) "amber" (in blocks big enough to carve a 4cm high woman with a big butt and boobies). And while on the subject of near-eastern amber, what about that unprovenanced " Lot 99: A Mesopotamian Amber Bull Circa 1500 B.C."? The "amber" here looks an awful lot like alabaster in the lighting of the sales spiel photo (and the face is more like a bear, but perhaps it was meant as a ram?). Or that "Lot 31: Roman Imperial Cosmetic 'Tortoise Shell' Vessel Circa 1st Century B.C", made of what, you say? Most of the antiquities (the popular Tel Brak eye-figures, Syro-Palestinian full-breasted lady figurines) of claimed Middle Eastern origin are without any kind of collection history. As are many of the classical and Sasanian intaglios of rather dubious 'Bangkok-style' cutting in this collection.  

Which of course brings us back to the connoisseurship, or lack of it, of the dealer offering these items and giving them the stamp of approval backed by their reputation and experience... Oddly enough, since this is the person guaranteeing that all is as described, it is pretty difficult to ascertain who this is, and their "experts" mentioned on the website are also not named. The actual name of the dealer is nowhere on any website related to this auction. Why are they hiding their expertise? Also interesting is the fact that the usual company directories and professional organization websites don't give you the answer either. The website mentions an address in Islington (by the McDonalds) which can be seen on Google Street View to be a small space that is little more than a front door in a wall. A collector found a second address on the art-fox website for this auction: Bridge Street, Kington, HR5 2DJ. If you look that up (as they did), it turns out that this (new?) address is also just a door with a mailbox, this time belonging to a company called "Ghost Mail, Low Cost Personal and Business Mail Forwarding, Parcel Handling, Storage and many more services". Services that perhaps include selling antiquities and art connoisseurship?

What is interesting is that many of the items offered from this European lady collection have extensive collection histories, with lots of names. The question is where do these details come from? 

On the list (where some of the sleuthing mentioned above is published) there is some rather scathing discussion of this outfit and its antiquities, of which the following seems to sum up nicely (mnestic2001 Apr 19 #96558):
"Whew! What a mess of an auction! A very large number of fakes there in all categories. Also very incomplete and "odd" descriptions of many things. They often use the term "Western Asiatic" which is used by TimeLine Auctions a lot. Could be that the mysterious "European Lady.." who has collected " (since) the 1980's..etc .." was a big time customer of TimeLine.

Who is behind this company? It's seemingly impossible to find out online. No info at Companies House and if you ask for some information about their personel and ownership they don't reply. Also the address for this auction house is a small lock-up shop in Islington, London, not exactly where the major auction houses are.

Look at the cylinder seals!! Some worthy of Sadigh! Absolute rubbish. Though this one is a bad copy of this one

Cheers, Bron."
In this particular case, those who know the British market will know who Mnestic/Bron is. He'd be on my shortlist of knowledgeable dealers (and in fact runs on his website a very informative and at times amusing series of pages on fakes - not all readers will be able to access it, it is set up in some weird old code that cannot be opened by many modern browsers, so I regret I cannot see it from here). So, I'd accept his opinion. I also confirm that there is indeed one dealer in the whole UK that consistently uses the outdated term "Western Asia" and I would say that some of the items "European Lady" bought have a very "TimeLiney" feel to them (read into that what you will). So, what actually is going on here? This raises the issue that we need much more research of the type I propose calling "Commercial flow Analysis", attempting to document how dugup and not-dugup artefacts actually flow on the antiquities market. Perhaps this collection could have been an interesting case study.

1 comment:

James said...

Yes, I agree, they do look like newly-made Sadigh antiquities!
Same owner as UK, Pax Romana?

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