September 7, 2006

The issue of provenance

Posted at 1:05 pm in Similar cases

Minerva Magazine looks at how increased awareness of the importance of Provenance has affected art auctions in recent years. Despite some interesting points, the overall theme of the article seems slightly odd, as it appears to be based on the conjecture that equates stamping out dealing with looted art as being the same as having no private ownership of artefacts. This seems to me to be a completely spurious allegation which detracts from the actual discussion of the importance of provenance in art dealing. From the tone of other comments though, it would appear that the article’s author would prefer it if far less importance was attached to provenance.

Minerva Magazine

On the issue of antiquities provenance

Now that the issue of provenance has become such a dominant factor in the several campaigns against private collecting (such as those conducted by the Illicit Antiquities Centre in Cambridge, England, over the past few years) the auction houses of Britain and the United States have started to divulge substantial information that had previously remained confidential. This includes the names of many consignees and their original sources, such as previous auctions and even dealers. Until very recently it was not their policy to publish – and therefore publicise – the names of dealers still in business that were, in effect, their competitors as well as their clients. On the contrary it used to be standard practice in Britain to publish the names of all of all buyers, who were then predominantly dealers, in their printed results issued after the sales. Presently, in some cases, especially in England, this practice of ?full disclosure? borders on the extreme, and is taken too far especially where objects of little value are concerned.

For years the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre and their compatriots have claimed that the majority of antiquities at auction ? often claimed to be as high as 95% – are of illicit origin. The steady flow of material, now fully provenanced in most instances, certainly disproves this highly inflated claim, although one must acknowledge that there were indeed a good number of illicit objects consigned in the past to one British auction house by Italian and Turkish sources that have now been virtually eliminated. Several auction houses, such as that conducted by David Cahn in Basel, have always been quite strict about the source of their consignments, limiting them for the most part to old collections. Even some German and to a much lesser extent French auctions have begun to list more provenances and to use and even publicise their use of the Art Loss Register.

The net result of this furor over provenance has been a steadily increasing rise in the price of antiquities at auction, with those pieces possessing the more impeccable provenances often bringing much higher prices than those with little or none at all. The auction houses have now certainly capitalised upon the provenance issue. Sculptures and vases, which ordinarily would claim no more than one page in a catalogue, are now allocated several pages because of their previous ownership, and often accordingly receive surprisingly high prices. Separate catalogues are now published on just one or a handful of objects that date back to collections formed in the 18th or early 19th century. Private collectors are now the predominant buyers at auction for the top objects, and the few major pieces won by dealers are no doubt, for the most part, being bought on commission for clients.

Even many of the most cautious buyers appear to be reassured when supplied by reputable auction houses with just the country of the owner and the date of his or her acquisition of the object as indicated in most catalogue listings. (After all, as the writer has pointed out before, this anonymity is essential for those not wanting their names displayed in auction catalogues, which might indicate their need for funds in light of difficult or embarrassing personal circumstances.) Indeed, the resultant transparency of sources has apparently had the effect of helping to increase the desire for acquisition, thus raising the level of the entire market, and ultimately defeating the aims of those who are against private collecting (and the growth of museum collections).

Jerome M. Eisenberg, Ph.D.
The International Review of
Ancient Art & Archaeology

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