Owners of ‘orphaned’ objects find donations difficult now

A detail from one of the Sevso objects, the most
notorious collection of ‘orphaned’ objects

An interesting report in today’s N.Y. Times discusses the difficulty some collectors of antiquities are having when they decide to donate their collections to museums:

But his giving days are largely over, he said, pre-empted by guidelines that most museums now follow on what objects they can accept. “They just won’t take them — can’t take them,” Mr. Dewey said. Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, is in a similar bind. An antiquities collector, he is eager to sell an Egyptian sarcophagus he bought from Sotheby’s in the early 1990s. But he is stymied, he said, because auction houses are applying tighter policies to the items they accept for consignment. “I can’t get proof of when it came out of Egypt,” Mr. Dershowitz said.
The main omission from the report though, is that it only really gives the perspective from the point of view of collectors, without really giving much in the way of the consequences of buying these illicit objects.

There is a collection of reactions which give the perspective of the cultural heritage movement. But one big piece missing from the report involves the tax deductions received for these donations (and I’m pretty sure Neil Brodie and Patty Gerstenblith would have made this known to the authors of the piece).When an illicit object is donated, the donor receives a lucrative tax deduction, which can often exceed its real value. As a consequence the American taxpayer is then subsidizing the illicit antiquities trade, and helping to pay for the continued looting of sites.

I can appreciate the concerns of collectors who have acquired objects without informing themselves of the issues involved in the antiquities trade; who now find themselves surprised to have a very valuable piece of ancient art; and nobody is now willing to accept it as a donation. But this is a necessary consequence of the lack of information given by auction houses and dealers to these folks—especially the buyers who have money, but don’t know what they are actually buying. Some objects may be orphaned, but if the trade itself responds to this correction and pressure exerted on behalf of the owners of these ‘orphans’, then that might very well be worth the costs. Buyers won’t be buying objects if there is no further market for these objects, and the market itself rejects objects without provenance and information.

 Consider as well that many of these objects may not be real to begin with. Without information on an object’s history, we have lost the best most cost-effective means of knowing if an objects is in fact not a fake.

  1. Ralph Blumenthal & Tom Mashberg, Antiquity Market Grapples With Stricter Guidelines for Gifts, N.Y. Times, July 12, 2012.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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