How Do Dealers Acquire Antiquities?

Bo Emerson of the Atlanta Journal Constitution has a nice article in yesterday’s edition tracking the efforts of Jasper Gaunt, curator for Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, in his successful attempt to acquire this Hellenistic marble head of a goddess, dating from the 2nd or 1st century BC. The work sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York for $486,400.

It’s a very interesting article, and highlights the way the insular antiquities-buying community works. One thing struck me about the article. Though dealers may, with the best of intentions, strive to acquire objects with a detailed provenance, thereby insuring the objects were not illicitly exported or excavated, you pay a premium for them. That is, if an upstart cultural institution is trying to expand its collection, and has only limited funds, it may be difficult to pay a higher sum for works which are provenanced. It would seem to pose a difficult moral dilemma. Should a curator risk buying an unprovenanced object if it means they might add to the prestige of their institution? I think that’s a very real temptation. Of course, working against that temptation is the increasing scrutiny leveled at cultural institutions who are accused of holding illicitly excavated, looted, or illicitly exported objects.

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One thought on “How Do Dealers Acquire Antiquities?”

  1. Regarding the role of Sotheby’s (and auction houses in general) in the illegal antiquities trade, you may have missed this recent item : the return this month in Cyprus of six ancient icons stolen during the invasion by the Turks in 1974. They were spotted by the Church officials in a Sotheby’s catalog and their sale was prevented.
    See this blog ( and my own post here (

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