Sunday 26 June 2022

What a Tangled Web we Weave: Provenance Research Once Again Reveals Lack of Care Checking Consigners' Sales Spiels


 So what do we do when another consigner's spiel to an auction house is repeated by them in print uncritically/ carelessly/ 'in good faith' and turns out to be utter bollocks? What should an auction house do? What should collectors who (say they) care do? Or does everybody just shrug their shoulders and say: 'business as usual in this dirty game'? In a recent blog post, Forging Antiquity Team member and Macquarie University PhD candidate Richard Bott examines a catalogue of antiquities recently offered for sale(Richard Bott,  'Cycladic Heads, Christie’s, and Problematic Provenance' Markers of Authenticity June 26, 2022)

During an auction held in April 2022 in New York, Christie’s sold the head from a Cycladic figurine, of the early Spedos type, for $252,000 USD. While this, in and of itself, is rather unremarkable—an unfortunately large volume of Cycladic figurines were looted in the 20th century and now circulate that antiquities trade, some fetching similarly high prices—the provided provenance (ownership history) is rather interesting. According to the provenance supplied by Christie’s, this piece was supposedly owned first by the Swiss antiquities dealer Heidi Vollmoeller, who acquired it sometime in the 1960s; then by the Merrin Gallery of New York, who acquired it from Vollmoeller in the 1980s; then by a private Canadian collector who purchased it in 1990; and then it was acquired in 2015 by the unnamed individual who sold it through Christie’s: the current owner remains unknown. Further investigation, however, suggests not all is right with this narrative.
I think the frequency with which 'not all is right' with seller's narratives on the international antiquities market at both 'high' and 'middling-low' ends depends on the number of times a researcher sits down and devotes time to any given one. But Dr Bott has made a bit of decent headway of draining this little bit of the antiquities-swamp. This starts with a 1984 article by Pat Getz-Preziosi in which the head features in a picture together with 17 other heads part of a single “Private collection”. Bott then addresses the question of where on the timeline of the consigner's stated 'collection history' that photo was taken and where (in whose ownership was this group of objects). That revealed an astonishing mismatch, not spotted by the 'Christies's experts'. He asks questioons that it seems had not occurred to the latter....
A more substantial issue with the offered provenance arises when one begins searching for the other heads featured in the 1984 photograph: a third possible, and seemingly more likely, owner emerges. Since 2019 at least three more of the heads from the photograph were offered for sale. [...] it would appear that these heads were owned initially not by Heidi Vollmoeller, but by [the dealer Nicolas] Koutoulakis.
Having done a huge amount of work to attempt to penetrate the clouds created by the April 2022 'collection history' and present a more closely-argued alternative version, Bott then addresses the issue of why a consigner would hide the previous owner. Probably the issue is that Loutoulakis had handled the Keros 'hoard' of Cycladic idol fragments, a well-publicised looting case that occurred there during the mid-20th century.
With pressure increasing in recent years for those who now hold looted antiquities that passed through Koutoulakis to return them, it is certainly possible that the seller of the Christie’s head wanted to hide Koutoulakis’ involvement. After all, $252,000 is hardly an insignificant amount of money. Admittedly, it is difficult to place too much faith in one provenance narrative over the other given that none is presented with verifiable support. While the cumulative weight of evidence does suggest that Heidi Vollmoeller did not own the Cycladic head sold at Christie’s earlier this year, without further evidence the exact provenance of the Christie’s head remains unclear. [...] The only way to avoid these confusing provenance webs is with greater transparency from all involved: the auction houses and dealers who sell these works, the collectors who buy them, and those who continue to willingly publish them with hidden provenances. In this case, one thing is, however, clear. At some point, someone has obscured the provenance for at least one of these sculptures.
And... well, business as usual of course. Because, actually, in the collectors' world, who cares? And if they don't care, and nothing happens when somebody gets it wrong yet again, why should any dealer waste time and money exercising a little bit of discretion, criticism or intellectual curiosity to check out what they are told?

Vignette: A place in London where it seems the emptor is not helped very much to caveat.

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