Showing posts with label Sotheby's. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sotheby's. Show all posts

June 24, 2020

Another looted conflict antiquity from the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon seized. This time at Royal Athena Galleries in New York

Left Image provided by the NYDA's Office and HSI-ICE
Right Image from Royal-Athena Galleries catalog
When speaking of the effects of conflict antiquities, the market's most vocal proponents, the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) and the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Œuvres d’Art (CINOA) often reflect on the limited number of objects seen in market circulation derived from the recent Middle East conflicts.  Members in positions of power are invited to speak at UNESCO, stand at podiums at trade events, and write articles lamenting that collectors and the trade in an age-old tradition, are under attack by heavy-handed regulators.

They never seem to quite get around to discussing in detail any of the illicit artefacts that  HAVE made it into the ancient art market, sometimes not identified for decades, and long after their respective civil wars are resolved.  They also don't monetize their own profits from this slow trickle of conflict antiquities, which transfuse the ancient art market with financial blood, years after the human bodies that once fought around them stop bleeding.

The dealer associations don't like to talk about the painful scars of plunder from earlier wars, like the museum-quality Khmer-era statues that came to market following the civil disturbances in Cambodia.  Some of the finest examples of Cambodian art produced during the Angkorian period (circa 800-1400 CE) were extracted from that country and readily snapped up by art institutions and private collectors, despite the fact that they were pillaged and illegally exported.

Looted from Cambodia’s ancient temples, during the Cambodian civil war, which raged from 1970 to 1998, conflict antiquities from that non-middle east war did not begin to flow back to their country of origin until 2014.  Likewise, antiquities dealers known to be involved in the trade, like Nancy Wiener and Douglas Latchford, a/k/a “Pakpong Kriangsak”, weren't charged until 2016 and 2019 respectively, almost twenty years after the war concluded.

In the US charging document for Latchford, correspondence evidence by the collector-dealer brazenly admits to his informed role.  Speaking by email to a colluding market colleague, discussing a recently plundered bronze head, Latchford writes:

“was recently found around the site of the Angkor Borei group in the N E of Cambodia, in the Preah Vihar area. They are looking for the body, no luck so far, all they have found last week were two land mines !! What price would you be interested in buying it at? let me know as I will have to bargain for it.”

Latchford also sent this same dealer another email that included a photograph of a standing Buddha still covered in dirt.  In this email he exclaimed:

“Hold on to your hat, just been offered this 56 cm Angkor Borei Buddha, just excavated, which looks fantastic. It’s still across the border, but WOW.”

Interestingly, source-country export licenses never accompanied any of these pieces, known to be in movement after the invention of email, and long after Cambodia's laws for the protection of their culture were implemented. 

The dealer groups also never seem to mention that OTHER civil war in the Middle East. You know, the multifaceted civil war in Lebanon, Al-Ḥarb al-Ahliyyah al-Libnāniyyah, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 that was also responsible for 120,000 deaths and created one million refugees.

The Lebanese civil war was one of the most devastating conflicts of the late 20th century.  During that war, and from the Temple of Eshmun alone, excavated in 1967 under the oversight of French archaeologist Maurice Dunand, numerous artefacts were stolen in 1981 when a storage depot the Jubayl/Byblos Citadel fell to armed members of al-Katd'ib (the Phalangist Party).  Of those only twelve have been painstakingly identified and restituted back to Lebanon from various collectors and dealers.

Those artifacts included:

 one male head and three male torsos identified in a 1991 catalogue for Numismatic & Ancient Art Gallery, managed by Azzedine El-Aaji and  Burton Yost Berry in Zurich; 

 one male torso and one sarcophagus fragment offered for sale by Sotheby's London in its 8 December 1994 auction; 

 a marble male torso located with the Dorotheum Auction House in Vienna in 2000; 

 a marble male head identified by Jean-David Cahn in Basel and self reported for return in 2006; 

 a marble male torso identified with Galerie Gunter Puhze in Freiberg, Germany in 2017; 

 a marble bull's head, a torso of an athlete, and a torso of a calf bearer identified with purchases by collectors, George Lufti, Michael Steinhardt, and Lynda and William Beierwaltes in 2017. 

That was all, until this year. 

Last week marked the latest action in an effort by the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., to seize looted antiquities discovered in New York City in order to return them to their countries of origin.

One of those seizures turns out to be an ancient object, once described as a 130 CE Roman Marble Life-Size Portrait Head of an Athlete, also previously excavated at the Temple of Eshmun in Sidon and also stolen in 1981. 


This marble head was seized at Royal-Athena Galleries, a New York City-based gallery that is operated by Jerome Eisenberg.  According to authorities, once Royal Athena became aware of the evidence, they completely cooperated with the Manhattan DA’s Office and consented to the head’s return to Lebanon.

In Royal-Athena Galleries - Art of the Ancient World, Volume XXVIII - 2017, featuring 176 Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian, & Near Eastern antiquities, Eisenberg had described the seized artefact as follows:

Roman Marble Life-Size Portrait Head of an Athlete, possibly a pankratist. His closely cropped beard and thin moustache are suggestive of the styles favored by the athletes of the period. Sensitively carved of marble from the area near Saliari on the Greek island of Thasos, his strong countenance has alert deepset eyes and a  determined expression upon his parted lips.  Ca. 130 AD H 10 in. (26.7 cm) Ex French collection; W.H. collection, Westport, Connecticut, acquired from Royal-Athena Galleries in 1988.  Published J. Eisenberg, Art of the Ancient World, vol XVI, 2005, no 12.  

Even if scientific analysis of the statue-grade block of marble used for this magnificent sculpture were to reveal that the slab came from the Saliari marble quarries on Thasos, the movement of raw materials between the Phoenicians of Lebanon and the Greeks was common in antiquity.  But while the stone used for this sculpture could confuse dealers and collectors to the country of origin, its accompanying paperwork should not have.

Who were the owners Eisenberg codified as the "Ex-French collection" and "W.H. collection, Westport, Connecticut" and what export documentation was provided, if any, to justify this sculpture's legitimacy in the ancient art market?  These finer case details have not yet been made public by the New York authorities, and like the previous twelve recovered antiquities from the Temple of Eshmun, may further clarify which other ancient art dealers handled objects stolen during the Lebanese civil war,  and with whom or where they purchased them.

This new seizure in New York illustrates the difficulty faced by source countries in identifying historic conflict antiquities simply by trolling through every catalog, for every auction ever created, by any dealer, in any language in any country around the world; especially when the material used to create the artefact traveled, and might intentionally or unintentionally result in the object being mislabeled as coming from another country altogether.

In closing, I would like to underscore something as it relates to the difficulty in identifying conflict antiquities, and the seemingly impossible task faced by scholars, law enforcement, and source country ministries in bridging the gap between locating their plundered artefacts after the fact, years after these antiquities have infiltrated the ancient art market. I would also like to comment on how determining all the culpable hands these objects have passed through on their way to fine gallery showrooms in New York and other cities is a slow and tedious process which is not always a straight line to a restitution victory.

As this single incidence of plunder illustrates, the Lebanese Republic could not have reported this 1981 civil war-era theft to the Art Loss Register because the ALR had not yet been founded.  Even in 1991, after the ALR came into existence and began the never-ending task of archiving stolen objects around the globe, the archival photos for this theft, useful in cross-matching the stolen Temple of Eshmun objects, were only in the hands of a single foreign scholar, and not the Lebanese authorities.  This left the Ministry of Culture in Lebanon at a marked disadvantage for being able to prove irrefutably what objects in circulation absolutely belonged to them, and were in fact stolen from the Byblos Citadel antiquities depot during their civil war.

It wasn't until Professor Rolf Stucky, the former Head of the Department of Classical Archaeology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and a colleague of archaeologist Maurice Dunand, published two books in 2005 that the Lebanese authorities got a much-needed lead which helped in the recovering of their antiquities.  Stucky's books contained critical photos that he had taken while working in Lebanon between 1973 and 1974 which matched with written excavation records for objects known to have been excavated at the Temple of Eshmun.  With these photos, the Lebanese authorities could start to sort out which artifacts had been stolen from the Byblos Citadel antiquities depot and already recovered and which objects were now known to still be missing.

Even with identifiable photos as to what belonged to whom, there are simply not enough eyes monitoring the ancient art market and too many mediums by which antiquities are sold, often misidentified, for source countries to recover all of their losses before the statute of limitations in various market countries makes investigations futile. In 2017, in seeking the seizure of the Temple of Ishmun Bull's head, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos spoke to the cases he had worked on stating that his efforts had resulted in "multiple convictions, the seizures of thousands of antiquities totaling more than $150 million, and the repatriation of recovered antiquities to half-a-dozen countries".  And that's just the illicit antiquities in circulation that one State authority, with a dedicated prosecutor and a trained group of researchers, has managed to successfully detect.

What about the countries and cities where we don't have enough provenance eyes or a vigilant public prosecutor?  

So when the market responds that they satisfactorily self-monitor, or that the problem is with only a few bad eggs, or that the sector doesn't see a wide-spread problem with blood antiquities circulating which requires legislative oversight...

I beg to differ. 

By:  Lynda Albertson


September 7, 2019

The interesting fate of Joshua Reynolds' painting "A Young Girl and Her Dog", stolen in 1984.

Image Credit Left: www.thecatalogstar.com
Image Credit Right: Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (TFAM)
In 1984 a portrait of young lady Elizabeth Mathew with her dog, painted by Joshua Reynolds, was one of five artworks stolen from the mansion home, the Old Rectory of Sir Henry Price (1877–1963), and Eva ‘Eve’ Mary Dickson (1907–1994), the Lady Price, on church road in Newick, a village in the Lewes District of East Sussex, England.  The theft occurred during one of three burglaries which targeted at least twenty five artworks from Lady Price’s collection.  

Despite its (then) recent disappearance, the oil on canvas portrait, painted in or about 1780, sold a mere four years later during a London auction in July of 1988.  Leading up to the sale, the portrait garnered pride of place on the cover of Sotheby's auction catalog.   The winning bidder, an as yet unnamed member of the art trade, then sold the artwork on to the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (TFAM) in 1990.  All this without anyone; Sotheby's, the should-have-been-well-informed savvy art market buyer, or the prestigious Japanese museum itself, appearing to have done a thorough check on the portrait's validity on the art market before or after acquiring the painting. 

The painting, listed on the museum's website as A Young Girl and Her Dog, had once been exhibited extensively.  It toured as Girl and Dog when displayed at the British Institution in 1831, later at Grafton Gallery in 1891 and again at the New Gallery from 1899 until 1900.  The oil painting was also included as part of a 1913 national loan exhibition at New Grosever Gallery and given a different title, that of Portrait of Miss Mathew, later Lady Elizabeth Mathew.  Apparently relying on these public appearances, the auction house and the subsequent buyers appeared to accept the collection history supplied at the time of the painting's sale.


Thomas Hamlet; his sale, Messrs. George Robins, August 1, 1833
Wynn Ellis; his sale, Christie’s May 6, 1876, lot 96
William Stuart Stirling-Crawford, Milton, who bequeathed it to his widow, Caroline, Duchess of Montrose; her sale, Christie’s, July 14, 1884, lot 36
Henry J. Pfungst from whom it passed to Arthur Smith
Sir Lionel Phillips, Bt., Tylney Hall, Winchfield, Hampshire; his sale, Christie’s, April 25, 1913, lot 58
Arthur Hamilton Lee, Later Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868-1947)

Yet where and when the painting was in the many years that passed after the artwork was purchased by Sir Lionel Phillips in 1913 failed to raise any eyebrows. 

Advocating for the legitimate heirs, descendants of Lady Price, who have been asking the museum for the painting back for years,  Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International, indicated that the artwork was sold omitting the fact that Sir Henry Price purchased the portrait directly from the Viscount of Fareham in August 1942.  Representing the family in this claim, Marinello provided the museum with a copy of original correspondence for the purchase of the portrait for £6000, as well as related confirming documents and a photograph of the artwork when it was proudly displayed to the left of a fireplace in the family's home.  

"A Young Girl and Her Dog" by Joshua Reynolds
as photographed in the home of Sir Henry and Lady Price
Image Credit: Art Recovery International.
As the painting was not insured at the time of its theft, which would then transfer ownership to an insurance company upon any claims payout) and in accordance with British Common Law, which favors the dispossessed owners and by proxy the family's heirs, the artwork is still legally "owned" by the family in the UK.  British Common law stipulates that a thief cannot pass good title onward, no matter how many subsequent owners subsequently purchase an artwork in apparent good faith. 

According to a report in the Art Newspaper, a lawyer representing the Fuji Art Museum, Haruhiko Ogawa, of Kumada & Ogawa law firm, stated at some point in the process that the museum is currently contesting the Price family heir's (Radley-Smith) claim.  The lawyer indicated that the family of Lady Price and their representative had not established without a doubt that the painting the museum has in its possession is in fact the same one which was stolen in Newick, despite there being no record of another exact work of art executed by the artist Reynolds which matches the individual female and scenery details portrayed in the singular commissioned portrait.  

Artist Joshua Reynolds made his living in the portrait trade and was paid well by wealthy clients who wanted flattering portraits of themselves and or their family members. Like some prolific artists of the period, he established a workshop of drapery painters and assistants who assisted him in keeping up with the large number of commissions he undertook.  Demand for Reynolds work at one point was so high that the artist's records substantiate that the painter had as many as 150 appointments for individual sittings in a single year, sometimes scheduling as many as three sittings a day to keep up with his busy work calendar.

This portrait of A Young Girl and Her Dog, was commissioned by Irish nobleman, Francis Mathew, later the First Earl of Llandaff.  Elizabeth Matthew was his daughter.  It is thought that Reynolds painted the details of Lady Mathew and left both the dog and the painting's surrounding background elements  to others working within his workshop.  This assumption may be speculative though as the pocketbook the artist kept for the period of time when this portrait was completed has been lost over time, obscuring the exact dates for this artwork's sitting, as well as the price paid to the artist for the commission of the 77.5 x 63.5 cm portrait.

Having said that, the purchase of art work on the international market is undoubtedly a ticklish business.  Japanese civil law assumes that if the possessor has acquired a thing stolen or lost in good faith by purchase at an auction, or in a public market, or from a trader who deals in such wares, the individual or individuals wronged can reclaim the object from the possessor, only upon the condition that the wronged individual repays to the possessor the amount which the latter, in this case the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum as the bona fide purchaser, paid for the painting.   

Perhaps to put pressure upon the TFAM, by drawing attention to the case during ICOM Kyoto 2019, the biggest conference of the museum field, Marinello issued a tweet which included a photograph of an apparently overlooked news article from the Mid Sussex Times, published on May 25, 1984, which reported on the theft, clearly mentioning a masterpiece by Joshua Reynolds and which included a large photo of the stolen painting.  Marinello's tweet pushed for the museum to act in good faith by revealing who the consignor was, reminding them of their obligation as an ICOM member museum to adhere to the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. 

ICOM's Code of ethics addresses diverse museum-related topics such as acquisition procedures and compliance with legislation and which specifically states:

2.2 Valid Title
No object or specimen should be acquired by purchase, gift, loan, bequest, or exchange unless the acquiring museum is satisfied that a valid title is held. Evidence of lawful ownership in a country is not necessarily valid title.

2.3 Provenance and Due Diligence
Every effort must be made before acquisition to ensure that any object or specimen offered for purchase, gift, loan, bequest, or exchange has not been illegally obtained in, or exported from its country of origin or any intermediate country in which it might have been owned legally (including the museum’s own country). Due diligence in this regard should establish the full history of the item since discovery or production.

The TFAM has been the subject of acquisition controversy in the past.  In 2012, in a tussle with Italy, the museum was involved in a dispute over the return of a Leonardo da Vinci painting commissioned in the early 16th century for the "Salone dei Cinquecento" of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence after it was established that the artwork had been illegally exported during World War II. The museum also claimed in that instance to have purchased that work in good faith.

On November 26th 2012 the museum and Italy's MiBACT issued a joint statement simultaneously in Tokyo and Rome, wherein the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum and Italy's Ministry of Cultural announced the signing of a long-term loan agreement alongside the donation of Da Vinci's Fight for the Banner, a moment of the "Battle of Anghiari" by the museum.

For now the Radley-Smith heirs sit and wait while the jurisdictions in question hash out who should be favored, the victim of theft or the acquirer in good faith of this stolen work of art.  Unfortunately in this case, the heirs of the family do not have the weight of an entire country's loans to dangle as a carrot for negotiation. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

September 11, 2018

Restitution: An Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele returned to Greece


On June 9, 2017 forensic archaeologist Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, wrote to ARCA and to the Art and Antiques Unit of London's Metropolitan Police (New Scotland Yard), INTERPOL and the Greek police Art Squad reporting that he had identified an Attic Marble Anthemion from a Grave Stele coming up for auction in Sotheby's June 12, 2017 London auction which he had traced to the archive of convicted Italian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina. 

This accumulation of records was seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002 during raids conducted on Becchina’s gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland.  The Becchina Archive consists of some 140 binders which contain more than 13,000 documents related to the antiquities dealer's business.  

These dealer records include shipping manifests, antiquarian dealer notes, invoices, pricing documents, and thousands of photographic images.  Many of which are not the slick art gallery salesroom photos, but rather, point and shoot Polaroids taken by looters and middlemen.  This latter type of image often depicts looted antiquities in their recently plundered state, some of which still bear soil and salt encrustations. 

Two of the identifying Polaroid images of the object
located in the Becchina archive. 
In 2011 Becchina was convicted in Italy for his role in the illegal antiquities trade and while he later appealed this conviction, he is currently under investigation by Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) who moved to seize his cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., his olive oil company, Olio Verde srl., Demetra srl., Becchina & Company srl., bank accounts, land, and real estate properties including Palazzo Pignatelli in November 2017. 

Looted antiquities traced to Becchina's trafficking network, like this attic marble anthemion, continue to surface in private collections, museums and some of the world's most prestigious auction firms specializing in ancient art and are frequently identified by Tsirogiannis, archaeologists working with Italy's Avvocatura dello Stato, the Italian Carabinieri and the Greek police. 

In his email, Tsirogiannis stated that he had identified the attic marble anthemion in three professional and two Polaroids images as well as in four separate documents found in the confiscated Becchina business records. The dealer's documentation indicated that the stele appeared to have been in Becchina's hands from 1977 until 1990, when it was then sold on to George Ortiz, a collector and heir to the South American Patiñho tin fortune who lived in Geneva and whose name has appeared with regularity on this blog tied to purchases of objects of illicit origin.   Ortiz's name has long been associated with this trafficking network as his was one of the names found on the network organigram found in Pasquale Camera's personal possessions.

Interestingly both Becchina and Ortiz were never mentioned in the 'Provenance' section given by Sotheby's.   During the sale, the object's collection history was listed simply as follows: 


Possibly as a result of Tsirogiannis' identification, the 340 B.C.E. object (thankfully) failed to sell.  Eleven months later, in a May 7th 2018 issue of the Times, the newspaper reported that Sotheby's, not Tsirogiannis, had discovered that they had a false collecting history on the stele at which point "by way of a voluntary goodwill gesture" handed the stele over to the Metropolitan Police in London.  The Greek Embassy in London working with the Greek The Ministry of Culture authorities via the Directorate for the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Property, followed up with the legal claims necessary for restitution and on June 27th, 2018 Christos Tsirogiannis testified at the Greek consulate in London as to his findings. Subsequent to the above, the object was formally handed over on September 8, 2018.

After its return to Greece, yesterday, the column has been delivered to the Epigraphical Museum of Athens, Greece. 

December 1, 2016

Thursday, December 01, 2016 - ,,, No comments

Just another day, living in gangsta...I mean art market...paradise...

“History is subjective. History is alterable. History is, finally, little more than modeling clay in a very warm room.” ― Bradford Morrow, The Forgers

Papyrologist and ancient historian Dr. Roberta Mazza once coined a phrase to describe the world in general, but which also aptly applies to how the art market sometimes moves and acts....“absurdistan”

Chiming in with her very own “prestigious auction alert” on her spot-on blog Faces & Voices earlier this week, Mazza then drew our attention to an upcoming New York auction we may not want to miss.  In addition to auctioning six, six-figure bibles from the Dr. Charles Caldwell Ryrie collection, auction powerhouse Sotheby's is also offering a “Souvenir Facsimile” of the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St John's fragment. 

But who recreates a Canonical gospel as a souvenir? And more importantly, who buys one?  Does its ownership by a famous theologian make the counterfeit knock-off the Bible-nerds equivalent to a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card?

If reading about a certified fake on auction wasn't enough to make me think people will buy just about anything, the auction house news reminded me of this list-serv posting from 2014.  It is from an antiquities collector forum and was posted by a well known dealer.  Its title...

A journey in the life of a looted antiquity...

I'm sure this lovely step-by-step guide was merely an illustration, mind you. Surely the um.... the respectable dealer himself wasn't speaking from any first-hand experience?

“Hello to you all.

I would like to share with you my thoughts regarding how a piece you end up buying in auction at Bonhams or Christies is actually looted.

- A poor farmer in Egypt finds it while ploughing [sic] his land.

- He is scared to report it considering the hell he will go through, confiscating his land, ending up in jail, family dying from hunger etc... so he sells it to the local dealer in the village.

- Local dealer sells it to the middle man in Cairo.

- Middle man sells it to the big boss in Cairo.

- Big boss smuggles it to an Arabian gulf country, e.g. Qatar, Dubai, Bahrain.

- Piece then shipped to a stupid European country, e.g. Portugal.  sorry, stupid meaning = level of  customs awareness.

- Then an invoice is made from a dealer in another European country e.g. Belgium, to this Portuguese dealer for the piece, of course no body [sic] checks, it's an EU transaction, no tax, no customs.

- Based on the Belgian invoice, the Portuguese dealer make an export licence [sic] to U.S.A from ministry of culture, piece origin from Belgium, this totally cancels the fact that the piece came from the Arabian gulf.

- Item received in the U.S , no trouble, legal,

- Item sold in auction + old European collection, legally entered to U.S, customs paid.” 

Dealer name withheld  
Location: somewhere in “absurdistan”

NB:  ARCA has screenshots of the conversation with said dealer in question, but based on the above, we are super happy that US Secretary of State John Kerry has signed off this week on the U.S.-Egypt cultural property Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

by: Lynda Albertson

November 18, 2015

Price and Provenance

Record prices were achieved at auctions last week with Chinese billionaires leading the way.

On the 11th of November, a Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau bought an exceptional 12 carat blue diamond, known as the Blue Moon for CHF 48.634 /US$ 48.5 million at Sotheby’s in Geneva, the highest price ever paid for a gemstone at auction, adding to his already large collection of art, jewellery and fine wines. 

On the 9th of November, Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché was sold in New York for US$ 170.4 million, achieving a record for the hapless artist ranking in the top ten list of the most expensive paintings ever sold.  The name of the bidder from China was revealed to be Liu Yiqian, a Shanghai billionaire collector, who is already famous for his Ming Dynasty “Chicken Cup” bought for HK$ 281.24 million / US$36.05 million  in April 2014, the highest price ever paid for Chinese porcelain at an auction. 

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), ‘Nu couché, painted in 1917-18

Modigliani was the artist of the week. Only a few days earlier on 4th November, another painting by Modigliani Paulette Jourdain was sold for US$ 42.8 million, well above its estimate, at Sotheby’s otherwise lacklustre sale of the collection of its former owner A. Alfred Taubman. Sotheby´s identified the buyer as a private Asian collector. 

Before these trophy items go behind the thick security doors, residents and visitors in Hong Kong had a chance to inspect them in person a month earlier together with other luxury collectables, exhibited as part of the auction houses’ highlight tours to stimulate the region’s increasingly eclectic taste in art. The costly campaign of the rivalling auction houses probably paid off. 

Anyone who fancies a Modigliani nude, yet are without the wherewithal needed, can still decorate their walls with a lookalike copy, skilfully handmade in Southern China. The chance that your friends may spot it as a reproduction is probably about 10%, as with the case of the fresh copy of the 18th century portrait Young Woman by Jean-Honoré Fragonard of bought online for GBP£ 70 for the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s project ‘Made in China’ project earlier this year. Even the Gallery’s curators were marvelled at the skill of the Chinese copyist although they insist that we should be able to easily spot the difference with closer scrutiny. 

But can we really?

It is a bitter fact that many large-scale conspiracies such as Beltracchi and Knoedler/Pei-Shen Quian were not uncovered for more than a decade. In China, it took nearly 10 years until someone eventually spotted at a Hong Kong auction house that a former librarian, Xiao Yuan, stole 143 Chinese master paintings from the library of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and replaced them with his copies. His copies were again substituted for further fakes. 

Living artists’ works can also be copied. Recently a Chinese auction house withdrew a living artist’s painting from its sale in Hong Kong after the artist himself challenged the authenticity of the work, which was presumed to be destroyed in 1989 and allegedly repainted in 1992, according to the very artist’s letter provided by the seller. As demonstrated in this case, it can be difficult to prove authenticity even for contemporary art in the Chinese art system, where credible documentation is often not in place. The distinction between a copy and a forgery is not fully recognised in the local culture, nor is the importance of a work's collection history, often referred to as an artwork's provenance. As demonstrated in the recently concluded exhibition “Copyleft Appropriation Art in China” at Power Station of Art in Shanghai, the concept of appropriation may be very different between China and the West. 

The free port that is Hong Kong has become one of the world’s largest art marketplaces and is consolidating its status as the region’s main art hub with the expected opening in 2019 of an iconic new public museum M+. Overshadowing the luminosity, Hong Kong also has a reputation as a playground for the illicit trading of counterfeits and smuggled artworks, many of which are transported in bulk from Mainland China. 

Recognising this growing issue, one which has been undermining the credibility and further development of the region’s art market, a group of experts with respective backgrounds in art, insurance, forensics, crime prevention, security and commercial risk management founded a local art risk consultancy TrackArt in 2011. Based in Hong Kong, it is the first and, currently, only provider of forensic DNA coding services for artworks in Asia. 

Together with cataloguing and recovery assistance services, TrackArt’s DNA coding secures the artwork’s onwards chain of provenance and validates future identification, which works most effectively in the primary market if applied in the artist’s studio. Using licenced technology from a UK technology partner, TrackArt offers more than one format of DNA suitable for various types of materials and surfaces of paintings, works on paper, antiquities, ceramics, etc. 

It’s high time the art market learnt the importance of securing the provenance of artworks, both now and in the future.

Here is a link to TrackArt’s website

-----
(Selected information sources)

Dulwich Picture Gallery ‘Made in China’ Project
http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/about/press-media/press-releases/fragonards-young-woman-revealed-as-replica-in-made-in-china-project/

Chinese curator’s forgery
http://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/22/china/china-art-forgery/

Geng Jianyi’s claim
http://theartnewspaper.com/market/art-market-news/159750/

Shanghai’s Power Station of Art’s current exhibition, Copyleft
http://www.powerstationofart.com/en/exhibition/detail/735erz.html

Is it plagiarism or is it ‘shanzhai
http://theartnewspaper.com/news/159569/




February 5, 2015

Pieter Paul Rubens, “The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby”

Posted originally in its entirety with permission from the author and Plundered Art. 

The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby, Rubens
by Marc Masurovsky

What’s in a provenance? According to one saying, it is all in the eye of the beholder. Should it be? After all, there are those who believe, truly believe, that a provenance is optional and is a mere adornment for the art object being offered for sale, traded, loaned or otherwise donated. The art market has learned that an “interesting” provenance can enhance the value of the art object being offered up, especially if it has survived the vagaries of war and genocide.

Still, others think that a provenance is the closest thing to a legal document. Now, why would these “others” say such a thing? Well, for one thing, a provenance should give those who come to museums to view, who go to auction houses and galleries to acquire, some basic information about where the object came from, who the current owner is, who the previous owners were. Shouldn’t the provenance meet some or all of those requirements? And if so, how complete should it be? After all, we don’t want to give the wrong impression about an object, we surely don’t want to rewrite its history, we don’t want to lie about the true history of an object. Do we?

For the sake of the exercise, let’s use a painting by Pieter Paul Rubens, “The daughters of Cetrops find the serpent-shaped baby Erichthonius, 1615, an oil on panel, painted by the 17th master in 1615 or so we think.

The online art historical database of the world-renown “Rijksbureau V. Kunsthistorische Documentatie” (RKD), a fascinating softly interactive collection of information about Dutch paintings and their collectors, proves to be most useful and the departure point for our exercise.

According to the RKD, the provenance reads as follows:

Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Luzern, 1934-11-30, lot nr. 40 
niet verkocht (volgens veiling cat. 7-8 december 2011)
Hans W. Lange, Berlijn, Collection B., Vienna, 1938-11-18 - 1938-11-19, lot nr. 180
Lange, Hans W. (Berlijn) 1938-11-18, lot nr. 180 
, het betreft hier de gedwongen verkoop van de collectie van Victor Bloch
Lempertz (Keulen) 2006-11-18, afb. colour reproduction, lotnr. 1133 
, met opgave van herkomst en literatuur
Sotheby's (Londen (Engeland)) 2011-12-07 - 2011-12-08, afb. colour reproduction, lot nr. 198 
, met opgave van herkomst en literatuur;
Dorotheum (Wenen) 2012-04-18, afb. colour reproduction, lot nr. 606 .

private collection Colas de Marolles, Frankrijk
private collection Viktor Bloch, Wenen 1938 waarschijnlijk in 1934 niet verkocht. In 1938 in Berlijn verkocht als ' collectie B., niet-arische collectie', d.w.z. joods (zie Held 1980)
Particuliere collectie / Private collection 1938 - sinds de late jaren 1930 (volgens veilingcat. 7-8- december 2011)
Hans W. Lange, Berlin
Galerie Jean-François Heim, Parijs/Bazel 2014 - Shown at the European Fine Arts Fair, Maastricht, March 2014

The Lempertz auction house in Köln, Germany, which is a habitual reseller of Holocaust-era plundered art objects, provided the following information for the Rubens painting in its sales information on November 18, 2006:

Slg. Victor Bloch, Wien;
Auktion XVIII, Gilhofer u. Ranschburg, Luzern, 30.11.1934, Lot 40;
Auktion H. W. Lange, Berlin, 18./19.11.1938, Lot 180;
seit dem Ende der Dreißigerjahre in einer westdeutschen Privatsammlung.

The Sotheby’s auction house sold the painting on December 7, 2011. Its sales catalogue included the following information about the Rubens painting:

Dr. Victor Bloch, Vienna;
His sale, Lucerne, Gilhofer and Ranschburg, 30 November 1934, lot 40, where unsold;
His forced sale ("Collection B. Vienna"), Berlin, H.W. Lange, 18-19 November 1938, lot 180;
In the possession of the family of the present owner since the end of the 1930s.

It added: “This work is sold pursuant to a settlement agreement between the current owner and the heirs of Victor Bloch...At the time of the sale in 1938, this work was accompanied by the expertise of Max J. Friedländer and Gustav Glück.”

The Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, Austria, sold the Rubens painting on April 18, 2012 and disclosed no provenance information.

We know from the RKD provenance that the Rubens painting ended up with the gallery of Jean-François Heim in Basel, Switzerland. Mr. Heim’s gallery provided the following information online:
Colas de Marolles heraldic symbol
Colas de Marolles family Collection
Probably Van Schorrel Sale, Antwerp, 1774
Dr. Victor Bloch Collection, Vienna (as Peter Paul Rubens) Sale XVIII, Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Lucerne, 30/11/1934, lot 40
Sale H. W. Lange, Berlin, 18-19/11/1938, lot 180
From the end of the 1930s in a private collection in West Germany
Sale Lempertz, Cologne, 18/11/2006, lot 1133 (as Peter Paul Rubens)

To sum things up, as far as the extant literature allows us to conclude, the oldest owner to be identified for the 1615 painting by Rubens was a French collector by the name of Colas de Marolles who presumably acquired the painting in 1774 at the van Schorrel sale in Antwerp. Jean-François Heim is the only one who mentioned this XVIIIth century historical tidbit. The painting ended up in the collection of Dr. Victor Bloch, of Vienna, at an unknown date. Dr. Bloch tried to sell the painting on November 30, 1934 at Gilhofer and Ranschburg, in Lucerne, Switzerland, as lot No. 40. But the painting failed to find a buyer, a fact noted by Lempertz, Sotheby’s and Heim.

The Nazis annexed Austria in an Anchluss on March 10, 1938. Dr. Bloch, being of Jewish descent, was subject to anti-Jewish racial laws. The Hans W. Lange auction house in Berlin, Germany, a veteran of “Jew auctions”, the swift liquidation or “forced sale” of movable property belonging to persons of Jewish descent. The property of Dr. Bloch was listed in the Lange catalogue as non-aryan, a tip-off to the potential buyer that this sale was a fire sale. Lange sold the Rubens without the consent of Dr. Bloch, to an unknown buyer on November 18-19, 1938 as Lot No. 180, a fact noted by the RKD and Sotheby’s. The Lempertz auction house and Heim failed to indicate in their provenances for the Rubens painting the fact that the Bloch sale, a non-Aryan sale, a forced sale, occurred within the context of Nazi anti-Jewish policies of economic and racial persecution aimed at dispossessing all persons of Jewish descent of their property, movable and immovable. Anyone reading their provenances would have to assume that the sale at Lange was licit and the buyer who acquired the Rubens painting had obtained it in good faith despite the fact that the Lange sale was well-advertised as involving non-Aryan property, code for Jewish, code for persecuted, code for forced sale.

The Lempertz auction house sold the Rubens painting on November 18, 2006, misleading the acquiring public into believing that the painting had been sold licitly in good faith by Lange in November 1938. For 68 years, the Rubens painting was owned illegally. In other words, Lempertz passed bad title to the next possessor who thought that he/she was acquiring the painting in good faith. On December 7, 2011, Sotheby’s in London, UK, accepted the Rubens painting on consignment from the possessor who had acquired it at Lempertz. Since December 1998, the art world has had to take heed of the so-called Washington Principles, drafted and adopted at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets. These non-binding principles serve as an ethical and moral checkpoint for the art market and cultural institutions in their treatment of art objects that have been misappropriated between 1933 and 1945. These said institutions and players are advised to do their utmost to resolve ownership disputes pertaining to these plundered objects and to reach “fair and just solutions” with the victims of the thefts and the current possessors.

Sotheby’s indicated in its sales catalogue that a settlement agreement had been reached with the heirs of Victor Bloch, meaning that the sale was going to proceed and the family of Dr. Bloch was strongly advised to accept a certain sum of money to preserve title in the hands of the seller and to close their claim for the painting. The sale proceeded. The buyer at Sotheby’s sold the Rubens a year later at the Dorotheum in Vienna on April 8, 2012. Jean-François Heim’s gallery displayed the painting at the Maastricht Art fair in 2014.

This “provenance exercise” is meant to serve as a cautionary tale regarding how art market players interpret the history of ownership of an object being displayed or offered for sale. It also shows how gallery owners and auctioneers are apt to select facts about the history of an art object. In other words, the history of objects is (re)constructed to serve, no doubt, the interests of the house. The provenance ends up being an exercise much like docudramas and historical reenactments on television, where fact and fiction coexist and interlace to produce a new narrative that masks the harsh realities of history.

December 5, 2014

Opinion: More Questions Than Solutions from the Auction Houses

By Lynda Albertson

Following the successful identification and the subsequent withdrawal of the Sardinian idol, Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist and Research Assistant with the Trafficking Culture Project has forwarded ARCA four additional images of antiquities that match photos from the Symes-Michaelides archive.  

Tsirogiannis and Italian heritage professionals have been working diligently for years to make sense of a lengthy catalog photo and forensic documentation, that paint a vivid picture of the complexity of the network of dealers, middlemen, and tombaroli involved in the looting and smuggling of antiquities.

These four identified objects match auction items that are to be included in two December sales events; one held by Christie's New York scheduled for December 11, 2014 and another with Sotheby's New York to be held the following day.

Christies LOT 51: AN EGYPTIAN ALABASTER FIGURAL JUG, estimated at $150,000 -$250,000


 




The object appears in the same condition in the Symes-Michaelides archive. The dealers are not mentioned in the collecting history supplied by the auction house.









Christies LOT 95: AN ATTIC RED-FIGURED COLUMN KRATER, estimated at $60,000 -$90,000





The object is depicted in the same condition in the images that have been confiscated by the American authorities from the antiquities dealer David Swingler, among hundreds of antiquities which were repatriated to Italy after it was found that they were smuggled. Swingler's name is not included in the collecting history supplied by the auction house.


The object appears in the auction catalog with its surface cleaned, unlike its appearance in the Symes-Michaelides archive. The dealers are not mentioned in the collecting history supplied by auction house.






Sotheby's: LOT 6: An Egyptian Diorite Figure of a Priest of the Temple of Mut, late 25th/early 26th Dynasty, circa 670-610 B.C., estimated at $400,000 - 600,000






The object appears in the same condition in the Symes-Michaelides archive.  The dealers are not mentioned in the collecting history supplied by the auction house.








Note: These suspect objects have been brought to the attention of authorities in the United States, Italy and Egypt.

More than  four decades have passed since the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Despite greater public awareness of the problems posed by looting, suspect antiquities are still finding their way into auction houses through methods embedded within the licit antiquities trade.  By whitening a tainted object's illicit background through legitimate or contrived collection histories, laundered objects, be they from Italy, Egypt, Iraq or Syria, will continue to find their way into the glassy catalogs of licit objects being sold on the art market.

Unless tighter sanctions are imposed by governments or unless the art market itself voluntarily polices itself better, at the behest of culturally aware collectors or the general public, the problem will continue.  Predatory and subsistence looters will continue to supply the demand for materials needed and by proxy encourage the parasitical relationship between them, the middlemen suppliers and the auction houses.