Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bonhams: Don't Be Miffed With The Italians

The staff at Bonhams are clearly feeling sore ("furious" according to some sources) over the Italian request that several lots in this week's auctions should be withdrawn. Robert Brooks, the chairman of Bonhams, clearly felt cross (according to the press release):
we would welcome a greater openness on the part of the Italian Government, which would allow us far more advance warning and information about concerns they have. Responsible institutions need to work together and not to keep information hidden, for whatever reason, until the very last minute.
Yet the management team would do well to reflect for a moment.

At least seven of the pieces withdrawn from the Geddes collection had "surfaced" through Sotheby's in London. Thanks to Peter Watson's Sotheby's: Inside Story (London: 1997) we have been provided with a glimpse of how material passed from (looted) archaeological sites in Italy, to Switzerland, and thence to the market in London. (The chapter on Apulian pottery is more than informative and certainly relevant in this case.) I would have thought that anybody involved in the business of selling antiquities would have read this book, even if they find the revelations uncomfortable.

Again, anybody involved in selling antiquities should have been following the returns of antiquities from North American collections (public and private) to Italy. Somebody in the world of antiquities would have realised that at least seven items returned to Italy had surfaced through Sotheby's in London. Indeed one of the pieces, a Lucanian (South Italian) nestoris, has a more than significant history:
The second piece had surfaced at Sotheby's in London in December 1982 (lot 298). The nestoris was subsequently placed on loan at the Borchardt Library, La Trobe University, Melbourne from 1988 to 1994; Ian McPhee of La Trobe University informed me in October 2006 that Mr G. Geddes made the loan though he may not have been "the actual owner at the time".
This pot, along with other items from Boston, has been discussed in the International Journal of Cultural Property (2006) [abstract]. I would have thought that this Cambridge University Press publication was required reading for anybody selling cultural property.

All this means that if a collection, derived in part from purchases made at Sotheby's in London in the 1980s (and including significant pieces from Apulia), was offered for sale via an auction house, it does not seem unreasonable for the staff of that auction house to be on the alert.

Did the staff of Bonhams contact the Italian authorities? What form did the due diligence process of Bonhams take?

And then there is the question of selling an Apulian krater from the Robin Symes collection in the general antiquities sale. Again the staff of the antiquities department at Bonhams should have been on the alert because of a piece of Apulian pottery that did not appear to have a recorded history prior to 1970 especially given what we know of looting in southern Italy. I find it unbelievable that "professional" dealers in antiquities were unaware of the controversial nature of pieces associated with Robin Symes given the way that his name has been linked to many of the returns from North American collections.

In summary, the staff at the antiquities department of Bonhams appear to have been less than rigorous in their "due diligence" process. Indeed it begins to look like a common pattern. Just think back over the last year to the cases of the Lydian silver kyathos or the Egyptian tomb relief.

In October last year I wrote:
Bonham's values its integrity. It has done the correct thing in this instance (although at what seems the eleventh hour). Will its senior management team now put in place a more robust process of checking antiquities prior to a sale?
Clearly one year on there does not appear to be a robust process in place. And the chairman of Bonhams could, perhaps, ask why the present system allowed these events to take place?

Perhaps the blame lies not with the Italian authorities but a little closer to home.

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