Blog Subscription via

October 7, 2011

An online review of Christie’s sale of "Antiquities" in London on October 6

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

This week my attention was drawn to Christie’s sale of “Antiquities” on October 6 when a friend told me that she had seen ‘Germanicus’ at the preview in South Kensington, London. Since I am writing an art crime mystery about the fictional theft of a bronze Germanicus from Amelia, Umbria, Italy, I was curious about which ‘Germancius’ was for sale.

Christie’s online catalogue describes “A Roman Marble Portrait Head of Germanicus”, dated circa 10-19 AD, as:
His head inclined to the right, with strong features, prominent chin and aquiline nose, his narrow lips bowed, his hair spiraling from the crown and falling onto his forehead in thick pincered waves. 12¾ in. (32.4 cm.) high
Under “Provenance” the information is provided as follows:
Marie Ghiringelli collection, Monte Carlo, 1920s-1950s; thence by descent to Mr. G. Huguenin, Switzerland, 1955.
I did a simple Google search for “Marie Ghiringelli, Monte Carolo” and found an “Antonio” who had been involved with opera and “G. Huguenin, Switzerland” appeared to possibly be a gallery of sorts in Switzerland. I am not an expert in this kind of thing and I emailed Christie’s for more information but you can imagine that on the eve of a big auction that they were really busy.

The price for Germanicus, estimated at 200,000 to 300,000 British pounds was out of my budget, but if I had been a prospective buyer, I would look for information that this object was in compliance with the 1970 Convention. Information that it had been in two collections, as long as this information was true, would have given me as a buyer some comfort. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend 300,000 British pounds just to find out I’d supported a network promoting organized crime. You might say, why buy it then? Well, I have spent years studying Germanicus and this object would just be too tempting for me. However, one of the questions that would remain unanswered is, where did this object come from? Did it sit in Nero’s seaside villa in Anzio (Nero was Germanicus’ grandson) or did it belong to Caligula (Germanicus’ son and the ill-fated emperor?)

This is the information that Christie’s did provide to prospective buyers:
Germanicus Julius Caesar, (15 B.C.-A.D. 19) was the son of Drusus Major and Antonia Minor and the brother of Claudius, who later became emperor. Tiberius (reigned A.D. 14-37) was his uncle and adoptive father. Germanicus' military career was distinguished; he commanded the eight Roman legions on the Rhine frontier, recovering two of the legionary standards lost after a military disaster in the Teutoberg forest (A.D. 9). He became immensely popular among the people of Rome, who celebrated his military victories. The Roman biographer Suetonius in hisLife of Caligula, III, describes Germanicus' "... unexampled kindliness, and a remarkable desire and capacity for winning men's regard and inspiring their affection." Following his untimely death through illness at Antioch at the age of thirty-four, he was elevated to god-like status. 
This portrait was probably set up high and near a wall or in a niche because of the low relief carving of the locks of hair at the back of the head. Based on the fringe over the forehead and physiognomy, the present portrait is likely to belong to a group of portraits known as the Beziers type which originate with a head from Beziers, now in Toulouse. Cf. F. Johansen, Roman Portraits I, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 1994, pp. 126-7, no. 51. For the typology, cf. H. Jucker, Die Prinzen auf dem Augustus-relief in Ravenna. Mélanges d'histoire ancienne et d'archéologie offerts à Paul Collart, Lausanne, 1976, p. 254, no. 91.
The ‘collecting history’ of this piece is minimal and the actual information of where this object came from is not mentioned – all we are told is that it ‘was probably set up high and near a wall or in a niche because of the low relief carving … likely to belong to a group of portraits known as the Béziers type which originate with a head from Béziers, now in Toulouse.”

What and where is Béziers? It’s an ancient town in the southeast of France in Languedoc (I stayed there in Vergeze for two weeks in 2006), a former Roman town known as Baeterrae. The Romans apparently, according to Wikipedia my go-to-classical history guide, colonized it in 36/35 BC. I was not able to find information about the heads of Béziers that are now in Toulouse (another city I’ve stayed in). But my guess from exploring this information is that they are first century Roman marbles that were displayed in a small town in the southeast of France. However, just visiting those areas years ago didn’t give me any additional information – I mostly remember vineyards and a great science museum.

Did this marble head of Germanicus sell at Christie’s on Thursday?

Christie’s has a magnificent website that provides ‘Auction Results’ on the items sold. The sale in South Kensington of ‘antiquities’ totaled 3,491,862 British pounds. Christie’s provides a list of the sales price for each item.  In looking through the 251 items offered for sale, 20% of the items did not sell. When I sorted the lots by “estimate (high to low)”, I found that two highly valued items that did not sell.

An Attic red-figured pointed neck-Emphora”, attributed to Skyriskos, circa 475-450, valued at 250,000 to 350,000 British pounds, was not sold according to Christie’s online auction results. The “provenance” on this item was from a private German collection and acquired in Switzerland in the 1960s. It was labeled “Beazley Archive no: 30676”. This information shows ownership prior to 1970, the agreed upon date by UNESCO members desiring to create an international treaty to stop the looting of archaeological sites and the sale of stolen antiquities. That information might provide me with some comfort that it had not been recently dug up.

The second most expensive object in the auction, my Germanicus marbel head, did not sell.

Neither did the 3rd century BC “Greek Parcel Gilt Silver Phiale” estimated at 100,000 to 150,000 British pounds.  Its “Provenance” is identified as from a private London collection in the 1980s; a private collection in Switzerland; and acquired by the current owner on the ‘Swiss art market’ in 1993. 

Are buyers also sensitive to objects that appear not to be in compliance with the 1970 Convention? If items are not selling, will Christie’s auction house provide more detailed information about the ownership or collecting history of these objects in order to facilitate a sale? Are they already thinking that they should do more to reassure their clients that the objects are not looted? After all, a company such as Christie’s which is providing all this information on the Internet for everyone – museum officials, archaeologists, academics and law enforcement to see – and enabling buyers worldwide to purchase the objects online – would be unlikely to engage in selling stolen property, eh?

What did sell at Christie’s London auction of ‘Antiquities'

The most expensive item that did sell at Christie’s London October 6 auction was “A Roman Bronze Portrait Head of a Man”, circa second quarter of the 3rd century AD, for 457,250 British pounds (US$705,080). The stated “Provenance” of this object is from a private collection in Germany in the 1980 and acquired by the current owner in 2001. This information might not satisfy a buyer’s question as to whether or not this item had been smuggled out of Italy or possibly even Bubon in southwestern Turkey.   The “Lot Notes” on this item, which sold for almost $1 million, does not indicate where this object came from, only that it was from the period of the Soldier Emperors (235-284 AD).

A Greek Marble Head of Young Girl” sold for 313,250 British pounds or US$483,032. The “Provenance” states that it was owned by "P. Vérité in Paris in the 1920s" and passed on to "C. Vérité of France". As a buyer, I might feel more comfortable purchasing this antiquity and less concerned that someone would claim that it had been found in the ground in the last four decades.

Looking at the auction results from the Kensington sale at Christie’s, approximately 55 or about 20% of the items didn’t sell. Although the auction results state the “price realized”, the buyers are not named and these items will not be able to be publicly tracked. If you contact Christie’s, you will likely be told that the information of the purchasers is private. Of course, would every Porsche owner want his or her name publicized when a vehicle is purchased? But this gets into the whole debate of who owns cultural property. Where did these objects come from and how did they get to the auction house in London? Where will they be going now? These artifacts are the collective memory of human history; each item commemorates an aspect of being human and provides historical perspective, possibly understanding of current society.

For all UNESCO’s efforts to stop the trafficking of looted antiquities, what are the auction houses doing to reassure buyers that the items were legally obtained? These objects are so beautiful that if I had the money to purchase them, I would like to feel comfortable with the investment. Or will the purchase of antiquities go the way of fur coats?

Christie’s does have another way of communicating with prospective buyers about the auction through an easily accessible e-catalogue. The pages are beautifully displayed and contain much of the same information as the website.  Page 41 introduces the “Property from the Collection of the Late Gabrielle Keiller (1908-1995).  Her third husband, archaeologist Alexander Keiller and ‘sole heir to a Dundee marmalade firm’, opened a museum in Avebury and contributed to ‘one of the most important prehistoric archaeological collections in Britain’ (English Heritage).  Mrs. Keiller collected modern art and bequeathed her 20th century collection to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  According to the catalogue, Gabrielle Keiller purchased three Cycladic works up for sale at the auction in 1981 from B. C. Holland Inc. in Chicago in 1981.  However, there is no information as to when B. C. Holland came into possession of the objects.

On page 43 of the catalogue is an object, Lot #61 titled “An East Greek Bronze Griffin Protome” whose “Provenance” is described as being “with Robin Symes London; with Royal-Athena Galleries, New York, 1988; and the Morven Collection of Ancient Art.  I don’t know what that means.  When did Robin Symes have this 6th century BC object? Sometimes “East Greek” means the land known as “Asia Minor” which is now the Republic of Turkey.  I just finished reading a few articles from Turkish journalist Özgen Acar which describes the smuggling ring of antiquities where Robin Symes intersects.  Symes is a former antiquities dealer who went to prison for in 2005 and whose activities are documented in Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini’s 2006 The Medici Conspiracy, the Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums.”  I am willing to believe that Christie’s auction house would not trade in illegal antiquities but I don’t know what I am to understand from this information as it is stated here.

Christie’s does have a paragraph on page 170 at the back of the brochure, which I presume is fairly standard:

(c) Attribution etc Any statements made by Christie’s about any lot, whether orally or in writing, concerning attribution to, for example, an artist, school, or country of origin, or history or provenance, or any date or period, are expressions of our opinion or belief.  Our opinions and beliefs have been formed honestly and in accordance with the standard of care reasonably to be expected of an auction house of Christie’s standing, due regard having been had to the estimated value of the item and the nature of the auction in which it is included.  It must be clearly understood, however, that due to the nature of the auction process, we are unable to carry out exhaustive research of the kind undertaken by professional historians and scholars, and also that, as research develops and scholarship and expertise evolve, opinions on these matters may change.  We therefore recommend that, particularly in the case of any item of significant value, you seek advice on such matters from your own professional advisers.” 
Christie’s catalog also states that it is an agent and that all transactions are between the seller and the buyer, yet the names of sellers are not identified in most cases.  Who is really putting these items up for sale?

While many items require a major investment, other objects are for sale for thousands of US dollars or British pounds. It seems that even though I could conveniently see this auction and view real-time results on my iPhone or iPod Touch (as touted by Christie's), I’ll need a lot more than money before I feel comfortable purchasing an object of antiquity at auction.