Friday, November 28, 2014

Due Diligence at Christie's: time for change?

Sardinian Figure from the Medici Dossier
Source: Tsirogiannis / ARCA
The decision to withdraw the Steinhardt Sardinian Figure from the 'Ancient Art' auction at Christie's in December raises some issues.

First, did the Christie's antiquities team check the collecting history of the figure for themselves? It is clear from a simple and brief search that the figure had been owned by a private individual (who appeared to be represented as a gallery) and that the gallery where the figure was exhibited did not appear to own it. Why did Christie's present the information in the way that they did?

Second, did the Christie's antiquities team contact the Italian / Sardinian authorities to check that the figure was not listed in one of the photographic archives?

Third, did Christie's use a third party to check databases of "stolen" archaeological objects? It is known that some of these agencies do have access to some of the photographic archives seized by the Italian authorities.

Fourth, have the staff at Christie's managed to learn anything from previous seizures? How have they adapted their due diligence processes? Is there enough rigour?

Is a way ahead to ask much more searching questions about objects that do not have full and documented collecting histories that lead to the period prior to 1970?

Is it time for a new approach to be adopted by the auction-house?

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Announcing news on Thanksgiving Day

Steinhardt Sardinian Figure
Source: Tsirogiannis / ARCA
The apparent removal of the Steinhardt Sardinian figure from auction at Christie's is timely. After all, today is Thanksgiving Day. Eight years ago, also in late November, the J. Paul Getty Museum announced the return of its first batch of material to Italy.

So perhaps it is a day to bury "bad news".

But what is surprising is that a major institution like Christie's has not absorbed the lessons of the last eight years in what has become known as "The Medici Conspiracy".

Academic researchers now realise that it is important to probe and investigate "collecting histories".

And we know that it is important to check the photographic archives that have been seized by the Italian authorities.

Staff in the "Ancient Art" department at Christie's need to adopt a more rigorous due diligence process to prevent this type of incident happening again. They ought to recognise that their present process is not "fit for purpose".

It is perhaps timely that my next essay in the 'Context Matters' series for the Journal of Art Crime is on this very theme.

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Steinhardt Sardinian Figure Withdrawn From Sale


Many Italian news agencies now seem to be covering the decision by Christie's to withdraw the Sardinian figure from December's auction. The vendor was Michael Steinhardt.

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Steinhardt Sardinian Figure: Update

It appears that the Steinhardt Sardinian Figure has been withdrawn from auction at Christie's next month.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Christie's and "transparency"

Sardinian figure from Medici Dossier
Source: Tsirogiannis / ARCA
Back in November 2009 (i.e. 5 years ago) some objects that passed through Christie's were seized and subsequently returned to Italy. When I contacted the press office at Christie's I was informed "the transparency of the public auction system combined with the efforts from the U.S. ICE and foreign governments, in this matter, led to the identification of two stolen artifacts". The Attic pelike and the Apulian situla have now been returned to Italy.

Five years later, a Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie's appears to have been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis from Polaroids in the Medici Dossier.  The posting of the catalogue ('the transparency of the public auction system')  has prompted the identification.

If the pelike and situla can be described as "stolen" by Christie's because they appeared in the Becchina archive, how does the same auction house describe the Sardinian figure?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Press coverage of Steinhardt Sardinian Figure Growing



There seems to be growing coverage in the Sardinian and Italian press of the story that the figure identified by Dr Christios Tsirogiannis appears in the Medici Dossier.

Discussion has started to include the figure returned from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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Coverage of Steinhardt Sardinian Figure

Source: Tsirogannis / ARCA
The coverage of the story about the Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie's in December  is growing. There is now a feature on Sardinian TV.

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The Steinhardt Sardinian Figure: Social Media




Comments on social media are applying pressure on the vendor of a Sardinian figure due to be sold at Christie's in December.

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Diplomatic pressure and the Steinhardt Sardinian Figure

Sardinian figure identified from the Medici Dossier
Source: Dr Christos Tsirogiannis / ARCA
It appears that officials in Sardinia have asked US Ambassador Phillips (in Rome) that the Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie's in December should be returned to Italy ("Pili: Bloccate l'asta della Dea Madre. E' refurtiva, deve tornare in Sardegna", Sassari Notizie November 25, 2014). The figure has been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis from a Polaroid that formed part of the Medici Dossier.

“Bloccate immediatamente la vendita della Dea Madre. E’ refurtiva, va restituita alla Sardegna. Il governo italiano deve intervenire immediatamente sull’amministrazione americana per bloccare l’asta dell’11 dicembre prossimo a New York. Non si tratta di un pezzo pregiato da vendere, ma è refurtiva. Rubata alla Sardegna e ai sardi. Un governo autorevole e serio deve intervenire con tutti i poteri a sua disposizione per bloccare questa vergognosa vendita che offende la storia della Sardegna e dei Sardi."
Christie's needs to respond to these claims as a matter of urgency now that a fuller collecting history has emerged.

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The Steinhardt Sardinian figure and "the transparency of our operations"

Sardinian figure from the Medici Dossier
Source: Dr Christos Tsirogiannis / ARCA
Readers of LM will know that Max Bernheimer of Christie's made a public statement in 2010 about the 'transparency of [Chriet's] operations". He specifically said:
Provenance has always been important, and in light of recent repatriation issues, it has become paramount.
By provenance he means "collecting history".

So is the verification of the "collecting history" for the Steinhardt Sardinian figure now "paramount" for Christie's? It appears that Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has identified the figure in a polaroid from the Medici Dossier.

We can assume that Bernheimer has been in touch with the Italian authorities and sought clarification.

But while he is about it, could he confirm when and how 'Harmon Fine Arts' obtained the figure? And why not use the name of the collector behind HFA?

And what does "with the Merrin Gallery" mean anything other than HFA made a loan of the figure for an exhibition?

Potential purchasers of the figure will want to know that they will not have the Italian authorities pressing for the figure's return. After all, you would not want to spend over $1 million on a figure that could be reclaimed shortly after the auction.

Is it time for Christie's to make a public statement about the sale of the figure?

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Cycladic Figures from the Keros Haul and the 'Harmon Collection'

Peggy Sotirakopoulou linked five pieces of the Cycladic 'Keros Haul' to 'Harmon, New York'. These are:
170: Spedos figure. Formerly Ian Woodner (acquired in 1968 or 1969). NAC no. 39; Harmon/Stern 2004, 40, no. 138; Getz-Gentle, PS rev. 158, no. 1 ('The Karlsruhe/Woodner Sculptor') ['Harmon coll']
180: Torso and thighs of a female figure. Formerly Halphen collection, 'since before the Second World War'; auctioned Paris, Drouot-Richelieu (December 1995). Harmon/Stern 2004, 13, no. 177.
181: Lower torso and thighs of a large female figurine. Formerly Ian Woodner, 'who acquired the figurine in 1962 or 1963'. NAC no. 41; Harmon/Stern 2004, 45, no. 157.
223: Torso and thighs of a female figurine. Formerly Jay C. Leff collection ('since the 1960s or earlier'), Julius Carlebach, New York; Sotheby's NY June 1996, lot 44. Harmon/Stern 2004, 12, no. 181.
242: The larger part of a female figurine. Formerly anonymous private collection. Harmon/Stern 2004, 39, no. 111.

Harmon Fine Arts of New York issued a catalogue, Cycladic Masterpieces (2004) [sometimes referenced as Harmon/Stern].

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Steinhardt Sardinian Figure and the Medici Dossier

Sardinian figure from the Medici Dossier.
Source: Christos Tsirogiannis / ARCA
Glasgow-based researcher Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has suggested that a Sardinian figure due to be auctioned at Christie's (December 11, 2014, lot 85) is linked to the Medici Dossier of polaroid photographs. The estimate is $800,000-$1,200,000.

The upper part of the head has been damaged in the Polaroid photograph, although no comments about restoration are made in the lot notes.

The figure is the stated as coming from the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Collection. Its earlier collecting history is stated as:
  • Harmon Fine Arts, New York. 
  • The Merrin Gallery, New York, 1990 (Masterpieces of Cycladic Art from Private Collections, Museums and the Merrin Gallery, no. 27). 
  • Acquired by the current owner, 1997.
The due diligence search will no doubt have alerted the staff at Christie's and the agency they used to possible concerns. So, for example, was Harmon linked to some of the fragmentary Cycladic figures derived from the 'Keros Haul'?

The Merrin Gallery is linked to Roman bronze known as 'The Merrin Zeus' that was returned to Italy. Only last year there were issues about the sale of the Symes Pan at Christie's. And the marble statues of the Dioskouroi on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art were handled by the same gallery. We also recall that pots in the Borowski collection were derived from Merrin. (For a review of the Merrin Cycladic exhibition in the New York Times see here with a mention of the Sardinian figure.)

Then there is Steinhardt as a collector of such things as a gold phiale that has been returned to Sicily. What about the alleged link with the tomb painting from Paestum seized at a North American airport? Steinhardt has been associated with Cycladic figures. Steinhardt is also linked to Christie's where he is listed as a member of the Advisory Board.

Yet is there more information about the Sardinian figure? Suzan Mazur discussed the exhibition at the Merrin Gallery back in 2006 ('Merrin Gallery In Italy's Antiquities Dragnet?'). She noted:
[Leonard] Stern owned 10 Cycladic marbles and loaned all of them to Merrin for the show: Six Spedos pieces; a Dokathismata female (2400-2300 BC); the Anatolian "Stargazer" (3000-2500 BC) worth $1 millon and previously belonging to Nelson Rockefeller; a Sardinian female figure from the Ozieri culture (2000 BC); and a Cycladic female (2800-2700 BC) said to be from the same source as the Met's Cycladic "Harp Player". The Harp Player is a fake -- according to Met Ancient Near East expert Oscar White Muscarella. 
The collection was housed at the time in Stern's Fifth Avenue townhouse aka Harmon Fine Arts Gallery, which did "sizeable transactions" in antiquities Stern told me in a phone call. Stern's secretary, warned me the address was not for publication and she said Stern used a second gallery when he needed additional space.
So is the appearance of 'Harmon Fine Art' in the Christie's catalogue an alternative to stating 'Leonard Stern'? Was the figure only exhibited with Merrin? (For Stern as a collector see 'Dynasty in Distress', Bloomberg.)

So if Mazur is right, and Leonard N. Stern was the former owner, where did Stern acquire the figure?

And who purchased the figure from Medici?

Christie's would be wise to re-investigate the collecting history of the figure as a matter of urgency. Have they contacted the Italian authorities?


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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt

The death of collector Nelson Bunker Hunt was announced in October 2014. A number of obituaries have appeared in the British press:


Only the Telegraph mentioned his collections of antiquities and coins:
Forced into personal bankruptcy that required them to liquidate assets, the brothers auctioned off immense collections of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic coins, raising more than $30 million. Sotheby’s in New York sold their art collections, and they were even forced to offload household items, including an enamel teapot which went for $20.
The frontispiece of the 1983 catalogue was the Etruscan terracotta antefix that was acquired by Laurence and Barbara Flieschman and returned to Italy from the J. Paul Getty Museum. The cover shows the Kyknos krater that was returned to Italy by Shelby White.

The Euphronios cup from the Hunt collection is the starting point for Vernon's Silver's The Lost Chalice.

As I noted back in 2008 the returns to Italy included pieces from significant North American private collectors.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Beau Street Hoard


It was encouraging to hear last week from Verity Anthony about the Beau Street Hoard. The hoard was discovered in 2007 during excavations in Bath by archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology. As a result we know the precise context:
The mass of fused coins lay in a right angle created between the walls of a Roman building (probably the corner of a room). It was tightly packed in on the other sides by two stones, forming a stone-lined chamber. 
The  hoard was not removed until its 'full extent was established and its position accurately planned and recorded'.

Careful conservation work revealed the outline of the original bags in which the coins had been deposited. Sampling work was able to identify that the bags were made from 'skin product'.

The hoard itself contained some 17,500 Roman coins, originally deposited in 8 bags.

The Beau Street hoard is now the subject of a British Museum colour booklet by Eleanor Ghey (2014). It is a good reminder of the amount of information that can be gleaned from a properly excavated, conserved and studied Roman coin hoard.

I was very struck by the imaginative ways that the Beau Street Hoard has been used to engage with the local community through a series of projects.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Micropasts and issues with PAS data



It was instructive to listen to Dr Neil Wilkin yesterday at the Society of Museum Archaeology annual conference. He was talking about the Micropasts project and the use of crowd sourcing. It was good to hear a discussion of the digitisation of the card files as well as the images from the Horsfield archive (see here).

At one point Wilkin appeared to have to defend the intellectual reliability of the data provided by PAS. I think that he is right to be cautious. How far can we trust the information supplied with the reported objects? Are these largely reported or "said to be" findspots? Is the PAS information triangulated by more secure information from the Micropasts project?

And what about all the unreported finds?

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AIA and St Louis

The Archaeological Institute of America has issued a statement about the sale of antiquities by the St Louis branch of the organisation ("New AIA Statement on the St. Louis Society", November 4, 2014). The AIA's Governing Body has highlighted three reasons why the St Louis branch should not sell (and I have restructured the format):

  • First, the objects from Egypt were entrusted to the Society by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt in 1914 for the benefit of the citizens of St. Louis and were intended to be placed in a public institution where they would be used for public education and scholarly study. Selling them breaks this fundamental commitment, now a century old. The citizens of St. Louis have been deprived of part of their legitimate heritage. 
  • Second, the objects were obtained by division from an authorized excavation, thus enhancing their scholarly and educational value. Such objects should remain in the public domain, not sold off in a manner that risks removing them from public view. 
  • Third, the actions of the St. Louis Society have seriously compromised the Archaeological Institute of America itself as an organization that upholds the value of preserving, studying and presenting the record of the human past for the benefit of future generations. 

The Egyptian objects on sale at Bonhams last month were withdrawn and purchased by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The St Louis Art Museum clearly feels that it wants to display Egyptian antiquities and even went as far as acquiring a mummy mask that subsequently turned out to have been excavated at Saqqara (and allegedly removed from the archaeological store).

Now some Mesoamerican pieces are due to be sold by Bonhams in New York.

The ArtNewspaper has drawn attention to the issue ("St Louis society attempts second sale of antiquities", November 6, 2014). Washington Paid Lobbyist Peter Tompa has now added his voice to the debate (as a comment to the ArtNewspaper):
In the golden age of archaeology, archaeologists were collectors and some wealthy collectors were amateur archaeologists. Now, its seen as heresy for an AIA chapter to sell a well-provenance piece which has somehow become inalienable for the ideologues that run the organization. Hopefully, this episode will prompt a much needed discussion of the issue and how the AIA's positions have only alienated itself from others who also care about preserving artifacts from the past.
He conveniently overlooks the AIA's position in order to promote the position maintained by those organisations who retain the services of his law firm. I note that the IAPN has increased its contribution to Bailey & Ehrenberg by $10,0000 in 2014.

Tompa's incautious language ("heresy", "ideologues", "alienated") highlights the insecure position held by the lobbyist.

I hope that the St Louis Society realise their responsibility to retain the objects for future generations in St Louis. It is not too late for their officers to withdraw the pieces from the sale.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hecht and Haverford College

Jason Felch has reminded us of the impact of toxic antiquities on museums. This time he has looked at the collection of Greek pots at Haverford College. The collection was derived from George Allen who worked for Hecht's Hesperia Art in Philadelphia. Interestingly one of the pieces looks like it comes from a known looted temple in Turkey (but we need to wait for Felch's publication).

This story will be making very uncomfortable reading for other museums that acquired objects from Hesperia Art - and not just in North America.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Minerva, coins and the Salisbury Hoard

I have been working through some of the names associated with the Salisbury Hoard (through Ian Stead's 1998 volume). He has a section on an Arnold Saslow:
An American dealer, Dr Arnold Saslow, had bought two axes from Martin, and my [sc. Stead's] letter to him provoked a furious response. He was one of the largest coin dealers in the USA, and had bought the axes at a fair at which he had probably spent $10,000 — how could I expect him to know what he had purchased from Martin! It would seem that American dealers do not have to keep strict records, unlike their British counterparts, and one got the impression that export licences were of little concern to someone as important as Dr Saslow.
Dr Saslow's name occurs in one of my earliest essays on the market: a review article, written with my then colleague Kevin Butcher, for Antiquity 64 (1990) 946-50 [online]. The subject was the first set of numbers for Minerva: the international review of ancient art and archaeology (first published in January 1990).

I see that we wrote this: 'Minerva's archaeologically responsible image has however been tarnished by an article by one of the Contributing Editors, Dr Arnold R. Saslow'. We then proceeded to unpack Saslow's views on the alleged looting of coins in Turkey. We returned to Saslow later in the review article over the issue of the suggestion that 'good' coins fakes were being produced in Turkey.

It would seem that the issues raised by the looting of an archaeological site in England can be linked to a wider debate over the damage to archaeological contexts in the Mediterranean region.

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