November 23, 2014

Essay: Do you think art collectors might be tempted to buy Syrian antiquities (looted or otherwise?). We say resoundingly, yes.

By Lynda Albertson

On November 22, 2014 the Syrian Arabic Republic - Ministry of Culture's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) published two striking photos of three confiscated artifacts removed from the Taibul Tomb in the Southeast Necropolis at Palmrya.  Taibul (TYBL in his native Palmyrene) was a rich Palmyran merchant who commissioned a tomb for himself and his family in 113 CE in a necropolis five kilometres southeast of Palmyra.

The tombs in this ancient graveyard are subterranean.  To the untrained eye, the zone where Taibul's tomb and others are located originally looked like just another tract of stony Syrian desert. But with the combined work of Syrian and Japanese archaeologists who documented the site between 2001 and 2005 we have learned much about Palmyrene funerary practices, couches, sepulchres and loculi.   

Unfortunately, the finely-sculpted figures of
men and women where of interest not only to archaeologists and historians documenting the site but more recently also to tomb raiders. But were these thieves savvy enough to understand what will sell on the antiquities art market or were they simply opportunists, taking advantage of what they could easily access?  

Are funerary busts of interest to collectors?

And are they willing to pay large sums for them?

A quick search on the internet would lead one to believe so.  In a few clicks I found one relief listed on eBay through Aphrodite Ancient Art LLC with little identifying where the object originated from.  The auction page states only that it was part of an “Early American private collection, 1960’s”.  eBay lists this one for a steal.  Its auction price is an eye-popping $13,500. 
Aphrodite eBay Auction Item

In 2011 an uglier Syrian limestone relief also went on auction.  Listed as Lot 69 in Sotheby’s June 8, 2011 auction, the object's provenance was listed as Sarkis and Haddad, Beirut, early 1970s.  Despite its humbler appearance, it still managed to find a buyer and fetched a modest sum of $8,125.

Going back to the Aphrodite website, I found a second, Syrian funerary relief of two brothers.  This one listed the object as coming from Palmyra with a provenance of having been purchased from Sotheby's New York in June 2011.  Buy it while it still lasts and collectors can get two funerary figures for a whopping $22,500.

Given the fragility of the Palmyra tombs and the many heritage sites damaged, at risk, or already looted as a result of the Syrian conflict, I wonder if it would be wiser if the experts shifted their focus away from statistical analysis to something more concrete.  Instead of trying to quantifying how much money ISIS/ISIL may, or may not, be making off of blood antiquities perhaps we should be stressing that more attention and funding is needed to trace who the individual traffickers are, both upstream and down.  If we do, Syria's cultural heritage might have a less grim outcome.   As for journalists in search of catchy headlines; vandalized tombs make just as dramatic a statement as vague value estimates and they can be substantiated with actual witnesses and imagery confirmation.

Aphrodite Website Auction Item
Given the gargantuan task of protecting antiquities in the midst of a civil war,  I think its pretty remarkable that DGAM had photo images matched so quickly to identify these pieces and to inform the public of their findings.  And while I am not prepared to go out on a brittle limb and assume any of these reliefs on sale or recently sold have dirty provenance, I do think their presence in the fine arts marketplace makes a pretty strong case that Syrian heritage objects are of interest to collectors.  The fact that they garner hefty sums further underscores that we have only seen the tip of the Syrian antiquities iceberg. 

Petty subsistence looters may fence objects for paltry amounts, middlemen fighters may take their cut, and end traffickers may make a bundle selling to auction houses and galleries, but all this useless faffing about of trying to put an unquantifiable dollar sign on how much its making which opponent in this war is doing nothing to stop the flow whatsoever.

In the end percentages are less relevant than simply understanding that collection-worthy pieces like these seen at auction or those stripped from Palmrya will surely find their way into the world's antiquities art market.  Maybe not immediately, but with the lack of market transparency and self policing, surely in the future.

Traffickers are patient.  So are collectors.


Post a Comment