Showing posts with label Caveat Emptor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Caveat Emptor. Show all posts

July 30, 2020

Restitution: Lot 448, Christie's


Early last November we wrote a blog post asking Christie's about an interesting polychrome painted 5th century BCE antefix in the form of a dancing maenad.  It had been scheduled to come up for sale in their December 4, 2019 auction and I felt the artefact deserved a closer examination regarding its legitimacy on the ancient art market.  For those who do not know, an anteflix is a decorative upright ornament, used by ancient builders along the eaves of a roof to conceal tile joints.




The provenance of the antefex was listed by Christie's as follows:

Provenance:

While nothing before 1994 was specified in Christie's single-line collection history, we know that before she died Ingrid McAlpine was once the wife of Bruce McAlpine, and for a time, before their divorce, both were proprietors of McAlpine Ancient Art Limited in the UK. 

While not completely identical, the Christie's antefix closely resembles another ancient Etruscan antefix in the form of a maenad and Silenus.  This one once graced the cover of the exhibition catalog "A Passion for Antiquities: Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman" depicted to the left.  

That South Etruscan, 500-475 BCE, polychrome anteflix was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum from the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection via Robin Symes for a tidy sum of $396,000 and displayed in an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art back in 1995.  In 2007, that antefix was restituted back to Italy by the J. Paul Getty Museum after a Polaroid photo, recovered during a 1995 police raid on warehouse space rented by Giacomo Medici at Ports Francs & Entrepôts in Geneva, was matched to the artefact in the California museum's collection.

The Christie's auction dancing maenad also closely resembled another pair of suspect polychrome antefixes depicting a maenad and Silenus.  This grouping was once part of the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum.  Like with the J. Paul Getty purchase, an image of one of the Copenhagen antefix and a foot were matched with photos law enforcement seized in the dealer Giacomo Medici's business dossier.  Eventually, as with the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Danes relinquished the pair of objects back to Italy.

Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine's names also comes up with other plundered antiquities later identified as having been laundered through the licit art market and accessioned into the prestigious Museum of Fine Arts in Boston collection.   An Attic black-figured hydria, (no.3) came through McAlpine via Palladion Antike Kunst, a gallery operated by Ursula Becchina, the wife of disgraced dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  The couple's names also appear alongside Robin Symes AND (again) Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman for the donation of an Apulian bell-krater. Both of which were restituted to Italy.

In addition, former Judge Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the Italian judge who worked heavily on these looting cases, showed me a letter, seized by the Italian authorities during their investigations which was written by the staff of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine Ancient Art Gallery.   This letter, dated 8 July 1986, tied them once again to at least one transaction with Giacomo Medici and Christian Boursaud and referred obliquely to companies the convicted dealer operated through third parties, fronts or pseudonyms. 

All of which lead me to several (more) questions.

Why was Bruce Alpine's name, and the name of his ancient art firm conveniently omitted from the provenance record published by Christie's ahead of the December 4th auction?  
Was this omission an accidental oversight on Christie's part or an elective decision, perhaps as a way to reduce the possibility of the object's previous owners connections to the above mentioned dealers drawing unnecessary attention?    
What collection history did the auction house have, if any, that shows where or with whom this artefact belonged prior to the 1994 McAlpine acquisition date to demonstrate its legitimacy in the ancient art market?

Given that three antefixes depicting satyrs and maenads had already been returned to Italy as coming from clandestine excavations I brought my concerns to other Italian experts collaborating with ARCA, and to experts from the Villa Giulia, the Louvre,  and to the Carabinieri TPC.  Each acknowledged I had a right to be suspicious.

ARCA forensic researchers and a forensic archaeologist affiliated with the Louvre Museum pointed me to examples of molds that have been discovered at Etruscan excavations which also depict maenads and helped with comparison imaging.  Researchers in Rome who worked on the Becchina and Medici case identifications with the Rome courts pointed out similar antefixes from the ancient Etruscan cities of Veii and Falerii Veteres, which are part of Rome's Villa Giulia collection.  Both zones, situated on the southern limits of Etruria, were looted extensively.

But I was running out of time and without a smoking gun photo of the object in a looted state, I was also running out of evidence and leads.

I watched the days tick down until the item went up for auction and then sold, in just under two minutes of bidding.  Frustrated, and thinking this little lady was lost for the present, I filed my research away, hoping that down the road she might reappear and that by that point the Carabinieri, MiBACT or I might have more evidence, enough to build upon to make a case for restitution.

Surprisingly, BVLGARI, the Italian luxury brand came to the aid of its country and one frustrated antiquities researcher.  They too had been watching the auction and knew of our efforts to try and bring our girl home. Unbeknownst to me the jewelry firm had purchased the antefix, and then working through cultural diplomacy channels, donated it, through the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, to the Italian State and to the Villa Giulia specifically.

Looking back, with a view from the client's side of the equation:

When one wants to bid at an auction at Christie's, over the telephone, or online, a buyer has to prove that he or she is legitimate. To do so they must email the auction house a digital photo or PDF scan of a valid photo ID (eg. Driver’s Licence, Passport), and a proof of address.  For this proof, they will accept a recent utility bill or bank statement or corporate documents.  With these verifiable and valid documents, the auction house then trusts the potential buyer enough to open up an account in his or her name.

But Christie's seemed to need much less convincing paperwork before accepting the antefix of the dancing maenad for consignment.  Having reviewed the provenance paperwork for this antiquity, this antiquity came with only two, not very convincing documents, one of which had no dates whatsoever.

Those were:

1.) An undated document, which Christie's referred to as a "McAlpine stock card" for stock No. 2/114 noting a vendor in the name of ‘Kuhn’ of a "Terracotta antefix in the form of an akrotère."  

As mentioned above, an antefix, which comes from the Latin word antefigere, (to fasten before), is an architectural fixture which caps then end tiles of a tiled roof.

An akarotère is an architectural ornament placed on a flat pedestal called a plinth and is an ornamental sculpture or pedestal such as the one to the right. These sit above the pediment of a Classical temple and do not extend from the ends of roof tiles.  I also failed to find any Akarotères that picture a dancing maenad.

2.) An 8 February 1994 pricing document with no company names listed anywhere, which listed 15 carefully redacted artworks and one final artefact at the very bottom which listing item  2/156 as "an Antefix with musician, height 40 cm" with a list price of $35,000.

As with the first document, this second is puzzling.  The height of the listed object is slightly off, the stock number doesn't match, and the price indicated is three times higher than the antefix at Christie's sold for. And while the paper is dated 1994 in keeping with Christie's stated provenance, this document by no means shows that the document references the McAlpine's acquisition as it lists no company the purchase was made through and seems merely to be an price listing from some unidentified entity.  The visible item's description is also a bit puzzling.  While the Christie's maenad does depict her carrying a crotalum (a kind of clapper) in her right hand, it would be a stretch to call her a musician. Even if she could be described as a musician, generally speaking if you know the word antefix, its reasonable to assume you would be familiar with their depictions in history.  Why use the word pairing "with musician" instead of using "of a musician" or "of a maenad"?

This was all the documentation Christie's needed to consider an object valid for sale to a willing buyer?

They should be ashamed of themselves. 

Yet, at least we have a somewhat happy ending BVLGARI's donation.  Despite being auctioned and despite a long delay due to the COVID pandemic,she's finally home, and today, at 4pm, at a formal restitution ceremony, this lovely dancing lady took her place with her companions, in the Etruscan exhibition Colors of the Etruscans** at Rome's Centrale Montemartini.  



On the left the antefix as offered for sale by Christies. On the right the antefix at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia. This antefix was found in 1937 in Veii, in the course of regular excavations of the Soprintendenza at the Etruscan sanctuary of Campetti North: a site previously looted by tombaroli. It seems evident that both antefixes were cast from the same mould and decorated in the same workshop. Therefore, most probably were originally part of the decoration of a single building.


On hand for the restitution celebration were:

Claudio Parisi Presicce, Capitoline Superintendency for Cultural Heritage -Director of Archaeological and Historical - Artistic Museums

Valentino Nizzo, Director of the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia

Margherita Eichberg, ABAP Superintendent for the Metropolitan area of Rome, the Province of Viterbo and Southern Etruria

Sara Neri, Direzione Generale Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio (Service IV, Circulation)

Lt. Col.. Nicola Candido, Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage

Leonardo Bochicchio, Daniele F. Maras, curators of the exhibition


I for one am glad she's home, and to also have been a part of her journey.  She's travelled a long way, from the Etruscan city of Veii, to London, and back home again.  May her bare feet forever dance on Italian soil.

By:  Lynda Albertson

** This exhibition will be open at the Centrale Montemartini museum through 01 November 2020.

March 6, 2013

Do art forgers prey on our treasure hunt instinct?

Here are two videos published in the last week that can be tied together to explain the art market's vulnerability to forgeries:

From Ljublijana, Slovenia, ARCA founder Noah Charney discusses "Leonardo da Vinci and the Treasure Hunt Instinct" where he discusses how art satisfies our desire to find what is hidden, to solve puzzles, riddles and mysteries (toward the end of his lecture he mentions that 2/3 of known art produced by old master painters is considered lost).



On CBS Sunday Morning News, Ken Perenyi confessed that he brought newly created paintings aged to fool art experts with the intent of obtaining a more lucrative attribution on more than 1,000 art pieces -- his contribution to the art market. Note that the FBI has never filed charges against Perenyi (according to CBS) and that the 'statue of limitation on his misdeeds as run out' despite Perenyi's admission that he 'lied to the agents' because in Perenyi's world 'it's survival, part of the game'. In this video, appraiser Brenda Simonson-Mohle calls Perenyi a "thief on the loose" and calls forgery "pretty much bank robbery with paintbrush."

Ken Perenyi, in the tradition of art forgers Elmyr de Hory (Clifford Irving wrote Fake! The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time in 1969) and Eric Hebborn (Drawn to Trouble in 1991), has written the confessional Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of An American Art Forger (reviewed last summer by Jonathan Lopez in the Wall Street Journal last summer).