More anecdotal evidence perhaps that prices paid for antiquities reflects not only the intrinsic value of the object, but the quality of its history as well. Unprovenanced objects are not selling. Souren Melikian reports on the importance of a pre-1970 history for antiquities at recent auctions in Paris:
At Pierre Bergé on May 29, an Egyptian portrait painted in encaustic on panel of the type conventionally associated with the Fayum area rose to €1.46 million, or nearly $2 million, paid by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The portrait, datable to the years 54 to 68 A.D. on the basis of the hairdo, was owned by a European collector as early as 1968. A week later, it was the turn of Boisgirard-Antonini to score with Egyptian art. The wooden mask of a woman, with its ancient polychromy unfortunately altered by heavy waxing, realized 10 times the estimate, at more than €75,000. It had surfaced in the Paris trade in June 1912. Two lots down, the star piece in the sale, an Egyptian torso of the fourth century B.C. more than tripled its high estimate as it went over €2.26 million. Hieroglyphs carved on the back name a prince who was the governor of Upper Egypt. The inscription was debated at length in three separate German publications before World War II. At the end of a sustained bidding match, the room broke out in applause. The contrast with the dead silence that greeted scores of bronzes, some very fine, from ancient Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and other areas was striking. None were documented and the majority remained unwanted at low prices ranging from €1,000 to €5,000 euros. In five to 10 years, these hot potatoes may not even make it to the auction rooms.
- Souren Melikian, Antiquities, With a Proven Record, Drive Auction Market, N.Y. Times, June 14, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/15/arts/15iht-melikian15.html.
In his seminal 1982 article, Harvard Law Professor Paul Bator noted that the art trade is shrouded in mystery. In the thirty years since Bator examined the international art market, little has changed with respect to the basic information which is made available when works of art are bought and sold at auction. Auction house catalogues typically include little more than a cursory “this work is from a private collection”. That may change, at least in New York when the State’s highest court will take up a recent auction dispute.
Continue reading “Will the Statute of Frauds Add Transparency to the Art Trade?”
Jason Felch reports that Federal agents have seized a whopping $100 million in art in the past couple years from Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor, an American citizen, is subject to potential criminal charges for dealing in looted and stolen art: a pending criminal trial in India; and he may be prosecuted in the United States as well.
Felch reports on the staggering number of esteemed Museums which have purchased material from Kapoor since:
Since 1974, Kapoor and his Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past have sold or donated ancient art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Toledo Museum in Ohio and others. Abroad, his clients included the Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; the Museum f¿r Indische Kunst in Berlin; the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore; and the National Gallery of Australia. To date none of the museums has been accused of possessing stolen art or conspiring with Kapoor. Several have acknowledged having objects from Kapoor but declined to comment on the ongoing investigations.
This is a staggering array of objects and some very fine Museums.
The piece demonstrates how integral federal forfeitures are in policing the art and antiquities trade in the United States. Whether all that art will be repatriated to Southeast Asia remains to be seen, but the institutions which have material which passed through Kapoor would be wise to start preparing a strategy for the inevitable questions which will arise. Right now he looks to be as big an alleged antiquities smuggler as any of the names we’ve seen deal in art from Europe or even some of the notorious dealers in looted Mediterranean antiquities.