October 11, 2016

Auction Alert - Christie's Auction House - A il(licit) Roman Marble Draped Goddess?

On October 10, 2016 ARCA was informed by Christos Tsirogiannis that he had identified a new potentially tainted antiquity scheduled to be auctioned by Christie's auction house in New York on October 25, 2016 traceable to the confiscated Robin Symes archive.



A screenshot of the provenance/collection history details are added here:


Since 2007 Tsirogiannis, a UK-based Greek forensic archaeologist and summer lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has sought to identify antiquities of illicit origin in museums, collections, galleries and auction houses that can be traced to the confiscated Robin Symes-Christos Michaelides archives and the related Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina archives.

Each of these dealer's archives provide insight inside the illicit trade in antiquities and, when combined, include thousands of ancient objects from all over the world which have passed through the hands of smugglers, middlemen, and antiquities dealers who "laundered” illicit objects through the licit market.

Christies Auction Object alongside image from
the confiscated Symes archive.
Many have argued that Dr. Tsirogiannis tactics of naming potentially looted objects from the archives via ARCA's blog, David Gill's Looting Matters and on occasion Neil Brodie's Market of Mass Destruction, places auction houses at a disadvantage and should be construed as unfair given the market does not have direct access to the archives.  A valid point, but this is not the first time that an item up for auction at Christie's has been listed for auction exhibiting only a limited version of the objects actual collection history.

How Many? 

This is the third time ARCA has helped to publicise tainted antiquities that Tsirogiannis has identified on auction with the firm Christie's in 2016.  In 2015, objects were identified at the auction house in April, in September, in October and in December.  In 2014 Tsirogiannis identified objects in March, November and in December.  In 2013, ARCA published only one. Each of these auctions excluded key passages through the hands of disgraced antiquities dealers well-known for having dealt in tainted antiquities.

But is the fact that trafficked antiquities continue to make it to licit market the fault solely of the auction house in failing to do sufficient due diligence or are their "distinguished" private consignors, like the one in this month's auction, just as culpable?

It would be interesting to know from the auction house's perspective how many times they are approached by collectors who have purchased illicit objects in the past, but who fail to disclose an object's full collection history, knowing that should they reveal a less than pristine pedigree, the pieces would then become worthless on the licit art market and also potentially be subject to seizure.

Do the big-three auction houses keep records of consignors who falsify or omit collection histories?  Do they in turn share these lists with researchers? And if not, do they share them voluntarily with authorities?

Given the frequency illicit antiquities continue to penetrate the legitimate art market, embroiling firms like Christie's in the repetitive drama of appearing complacent when handling stolen and illegally-exported (illicit) antiquities shouldn't auction houses consider more stringent reporting requirements of their consignors to insure that they do not support the illicit antiquities trade. 

In closing,  given the proven lucrative nature of unprovenanced antiquities on the open market, Tsirogiannis has notified Interpol and the American authorities of his new identifications. Here's hoping that his continued spotlight, however awkward it is for everyone, will serve as a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go before the licit art market is cleaned up.

By: Lynda Albertson

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