Saturday, June 14, 2008

A wake-up call for the antiquities market

International Herald Tribune (Souren Melikian )

Curators and collectors who track sculpture from Ancient Egypt, Etruscan bronzes from present-day Tuscany, or Hellenistic sculpture from around the Mediterranean and further afield in Iran, would be well advised to ponder their next move with utmost care.

The days when you could buy anything without bothering to find out how this major statue of a seated woman in imperial drapes or that marvelous bronze figure of an animal came to tumble onto the market are over. The latest evidence that a new stage has been reached was a policy advisory issued by the U.S. Association of Art Museum Directors. Its gist, The New York Times reported last week, is that museums "normally should not acquire a work unless solid proof exists that the object was outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970, or was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970."

As the overwhelming majority of objects knocking about the art market come from countries that do not permit the export of antiquities, the U.S. museums advisory amounts to underwriting, if only unofficially, the 1970 Unesco convention banning the acquisition of objects illicitly dug up.

This will not stop overnight the illicit traffic in antiquities. But it is a heavy blow dealt to the antiquities trade because it makes it that much less tempting to museums and wealthy donors alike to acquire objects of ill-defined provenance.

See the above two-page article for the full story. There is a photograph on the page of an absolutely wonderful snake sculpture from Egypt, which is so perfect that it makes me go weak at the knees. From the Jéquier collection, it sold for $338,500 at Christie's. The Swiss Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier died in 1946. The IHT says that extraordinary prices were achieved for some of the items from his collection precisely because they did not raise provenance questions (although it doesn't actually say how Jéquier himself established provenance).

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