Friday, December 12, 2014

Selling Antiquities in New York

© David Gill, 2014

The two big sales of antiquities at Christie's and Sotheby's have taken place in New York this week. It is time to review the year.

First it is clear that there has been a steady decrease each year from 2010 ($133.8 million) to the present $26.8 million. And that is nearly a $6 million drop since 2013.

Sotheby's has yielded more than Christie's for the third year in a row. This year's difference was more than $2.5 million. (Last year was $7.5 million, so the gap is narrowing.)

Both auction houses have had to address issues relating to the so-called "toxic antiquities" that their due diligence processes appear to have failed to spot.

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Symes Statue Unsold at Sotheby's


Egyptian statue from Schinoussa Archive
Source: ARCA / Tsirogiannis

It seems that the Egyptian statue that had appeared to pass through the hands of Robin Symes has been left unsold at Sotheby's today.

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Robin Symes, the Egyptian Priest and Sotheby's

Egyptian priest from Schinoussa Archive
Source: ARCA / Tsirogiannis
Later today Sotheby's will be auctioning "AN EGYPTIAN DIORITE FIGURE OF A PRIEST OF THE TEMPLE OF MUT, LATE 25TH/EARLY 26TH DYNASTY, CIRCA 670-610 B.C." (lot 6). The collecting history is provided:

  • private collection (Christie's, London, April 27th, 1976, no. 135, illus.) 
  • Khnoum, Geneva, 1992 
  • Drouot-Richelieu, Paris, October 1st, 1996, no. 462, illus. 
  • Safani Gallery, New York 
  • Jack Josephson Collection (Sotheby’s, New York, June 5th, 2008, lot 57, illus.) 

In 2008 it sold for $422,500.

Who was the vendor in 1976? And who was the statue's proprietor prior to 1976? When did the statue leave Egypt?

The statue has been exhibited at:

  • the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, August 2008-August 2013 
  • the Albany Institute of History and Art, “The Mystery of the Albany Mummies”, September 21st, 2013-June 8th, 2014

Part of the collecting history has been expanded. Glasgow University researcher Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has spotted that the statue appears in the Schinoussa archive and therefore makes the link with Robin Symes.

Egyptian objects with similar collecting histories were withdrawn from auction at Christie's yesterday. We can only presume that the staff at Sotheby's have been in touch with the Egyptian authorities.

Will the statue be withdrawn from the sale today?

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christie's: withdrawn lots

Attic red-figured krater / Swingler
Source: Tsirogiannis
Those following Christie's sale of antiquities will have noted the following lots have been withdrawn:
  • Lot 51: AN EGYPTIAN ALABASTER FIGURAL JUG. "This Lot is Withdrawn."
  • Lot 95: Athenian red-figured krater. "This Lot is Withdrawn."
  • Lot 133: A FALISCAN BLACK-GLAZED ASKOS. "This lot has been withdrawn from the sale." Collecting history: "with Phoenix Ancient Art, Geneva, 1997"; "PROPERTY FROM THE MICHAEL AND JUDY STEINHARDT COLLECTION".
  • Lot 139: A ROMAN MARBLE COLUMN CAPITAL. "This Lot is Withdrawn."
Dr Christos Tsirogannis had linked lot 95 to photographs associated with David Swingler, and lots 51 and 139 to the Schinoussa archive. It is not clear why the askos was withdrawn from the sale, although it joins the Sardinian figure also from the Steinhardt collection.

Who owned the askos prior to 1997? What does it say about other objects that were derived from this route? What about the mummy mask that was acquired by the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) in 1998?

Do the staff at Christie's need to review their due diligence process to make it more rigorous?

And why have the lots been withdrawn when in the past the sales have proceeded? Can we detect a change in policy at the auction-house?

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why loan the odd pedimental sculpture from the Parthenon?

The personification of the river Ilissos from the Parthenon
© David Gill
Lee Rosenbaum has explored why Nel MacGregor has been keen to make a loan of the 'Ilissos' statue to the Hermitage Museum ("Preparing for Lawsuit? Why Might Neil MacGregor Be Doubling Down on His Elgin Marbles Bet?", Culturegrrl December 9, 2014).

Rosenbaum suggests the following as a possible explanation of MacGregor's tactic:
More people view these cultural treasures in London than in Athens. And now, with the incipient loan program, the British Museum’s reach could be further broadened. Therefore, the world is better off if custodianship of these treasures remains in London.
This one statue is part of a pedimental group, that forms part of an architectural whole from a major fifth century BC temple known as the Parthenon. Is the time coming when these sculptures are placed in a specially designed museum and within line of site from the Athenian akropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site?

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Robin Symes and lots at Christie's

Authenticated and therefore reliable collecting histories are important. Auction catalogues need to be able to demonstrate the previous owners of a lot. After all, potential buyers need to understand what they are buying.

Dr Christos Tsirogannis has identified two of the lots that are to be auctioned this week at Christie's from the Schinoussa Archive (linked to Robin Symes). This raises questions about when the objects passed through Symes' hands.

Lot 51, AN EGYPTIAN ALABASTER FIGURAL JUG

  • with Nicholas Wright, London, prior to 1980. 
  • Private Collection, U.K., 1992. 
  • with Charles Ede, London. 
  • PROPERTY FROM THE HARER FAMILY TRUST COLLECTION


Lot 139, A ROMAN MARBLE COLUMN CAPITAL

  • Antiquities, Sotheby's, London, 18 May 1987, lot 210 (part). 
  • Antiquities, Sotheby's, New York, 25 June 1992, lot 138.


For lot 51, is Robin Symes the anonymous private collector? Is this the best way to describe him?
For lot 139, when did Symes possess the capital?

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Christie's: "having to prove provenance"

Readers of LM will know that I find the word "provenance" as obsolete. Why not use the terms archaeology ("this krater was found in tomb 56 of the Fikellura cemetery"; "we do not know where this statue was found") or collecting history ("formerly in the Hope collection"; "auctioned on the New York market"; "property of an anonymous Belgian gentleman")? I have written on this topic and the key article from the Journal of Art Crime can be found here.

I see that William Robinson, International Head of Group at Christie's, has written about the forthcoming December sales, including antiquities (that takes place this week). He comments:
Each individual area has had particular challenges. For me this year, many have been directly or indirectly related to the questions of cultural property and provenance. We have not been able to sell any Pre-Columbian Art in 2014, as we have not been presented with any that has had provable provenance dating back to before the bilateral agreements that various countries have made. I sincerely hope that we will be able to successfully sell items in this field in the coming year. This issue of having to prove provenance on items, with its implied assumption of ‘guilty unless proven innocent’, is an attitude which I detest but reluctantly have to agree is sensible in the current atmosphere. Strong provenance is also becoming more and more reflected in the prices that are achieved in the sales. The flip side to this is that our attitude towards provenance was also a major factor in our winning the most important collection that came onto the market in 2014 (due to be sold in 2015). At the same time I have worked internally as one of the members of the Cultural Property Committee to try to modify Christie’s approach towards works of art where there are anomalies in our regulations, or situations that lead to unnecessarily rigid application.
Yet the antiquities team under Robinson's care did not manage to spot the issues surrounding the Steinhardt Sardinian figure and it had to be withdrawn from sale. There remains the case of the Swingler krater as well as two other items that passed through the hands of Robin Symes. Earlier in the year the London department was offering material identified from the Medici Dossier (and attracted major coverage in The Times of London).

I have suggested elsewhere that Christie's needs to adapt its due diligence process to make it more rigorous. And this is where the word "provenance" is meaningless. The Christie's catalogue entry needs to map out the authenticated collecting history of the object. Perhaps Robinson will read this and encourage his antiquities team to make the appropriate changes.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Swingler and the Getty: "we need things to fill it up"

Image of krater reportedly linked to David Swingler
Source: Tsirogiannis
The issue about the krater at auction at Christie's this week and linked to David Swingler (by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis) continues to develop.

It appears that Swingler worked with Jiri Frel of the J. Paul Getty Museum to supply antiquities. A 1987 report records (Claire Spiegel and Robert A. Jones, "Unseen Artworks Embroil Getty Museum in Dispute", LA Times April 12, 1987):
Frel became well-known for his ability to drain the living rooms of wealthy collectors. "He cried for them; he whined for them," said David Swingler, a Los Angeles archeologist and collector. "He would say to me, 'Please, we have a Roman villa, we need things to fill it up.' He was constantly asking for knickknacky things for the study collection."
It would be interesting to know which of the Getty pieces are linked to Swingler.

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The British Museum and Cultural Imperialism

© David Gill
The loan of one of the pedimental sculptures from the Parthenon to the Hermitage raises a number of issues about cultural property. I was presenting a research seminar on this topic in Cambridge last month and I was asked how the debates fit into the wider discussion of cultural imperialism.

One of the most helpful reviews attacking the position of the Encyclopedic museum as maintained by James Cuno, and Neil MacGregor, has been provided by Roger Bland of the British Museum. 

It is well worth a read.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Parthenon loan to Russia

© David Gill
The British Museum has announced that it has loaned the statue possibly representing the river Ilissos to Russia (BBC News, 5 December 2014). This statue forms part of the west pediment of the Parthenon.

Neil MacGregor sees the loan as a "marble ambassador of a European ideal" (British Museum blog). The sculpture will be on loan to the Hermitage.

I suppose we could see the Parthenon as a building derived from tribute paying cities scattered around the Aegean. And I am sure that there were some asking questions in the fifth century BC about how their talents were being spent.

But it all depends on how you view empires and imperialism.

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