For the last week, the infamous Sevso treasure has been on display in Bonham’s auction house in London. The New York Times devotes an article in its art section to the exhibition. The private exhibition marks only the second time the 14 silver objects have been displayed, and its not even open to the general public. Some estimates value the 14 sculptures at $187 million. The last display occurred in new York in 1990. The silver objects are roman in origin, and are believed to date from 350 – 450 A.D.
Despite their beauty, the antiquities are marred by controversy. This week’s display was certainly made in anticipation of an eventual sale. However, the location, archaeological context and provenance of the find remain unknown. We do know the Marquess of Northampton acquired the objects in the early 1980’s. In 1983, 10 of the objects were offered for sale to the Getty museum, however the sale fell through because the export licenses were falsified.
One of the difficulties with these items is that their origin remains a complete mystery. Though certainly Roman in origin, Lebanon, Croatia, and Hungary have all made claims on the objects. There was a lengthy series of legal proceedings. After a 7 week trial in 1993 in the New York Supreme Court (the court of general jurisdiction in New York) a jury found that neither Croatia nor Hungary had established a valid claim over the treasure, and the Marquess of Northampton retained ownership.
The exhibition and potential sale have caused quite a stir already. In the London Times, Lord Colin Renfrew, former director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research argued that the display of the works by any UK museum would be unethical, and “It is an affront to public decency that a commercial dealer should do so – even if many archaeologists such as myself, will take the opportunity of going to inspect it.” The problem of course, is we know the objects are Roman, but not which part of the former Roman empire they were discovered in. Hungary and Croatia both feel strongly about their claims, but they are unable to establish concrete ownership.
There has been an atmosphere of reform in recent years in the UK, with accession to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the Ministerial Illicit Trade Advisory Panel, the Parliamentary Inquiry in 2001, and the new Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. How the UK government will respond to the trade in these objects, which was undoubtedly the result of an illicit excavation should be interesting to watch unfold.
Stair Galleries, a small gallery in Hudson, New York has discovered that it was auctioning works which may have been stolen from Harvard University in 1968. The painting, similar to this portrait of 19th century Harvard President, and founder of the law school, John T. Kirkland. The work resembles this portrait by Gilbert Stuart which sold for $182,000 this summer in Manchester, New Hampshire (pictured here).
However, it appears that the work may not be an original Gilbert Stuart painting, according to the Harvard Crimson. The painting was sold for $7,500 last week, as a part of the estate of William M. V. Kingsland. Kingsland had no heirs, and no will. The distribution of his estate was in the charge of a public commissioner, which commissioned the items to Christie’s and Stair galleries to auction the objects.
Colin Stair, the president of Stair galleries, halted the sale of 250 objects from the Kingsland estate. The FBI has been investigating the sale, to determine if any of the works have been stolen. A dealer who purchased paintings was the first to discover that one had perhaps been in the Harvard collection in the 1960’s.
Details are still a bit sketchy, and the only reporting on this I have found has come from the Harvard Crimson. It raises some issues though. What database were being consulted. Did they check the Art Loss Register, or another? Was the work published in these databases? If anything it highlights the need for a single database, and a need to publish these stolen databases for everyone.
On Friday, Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin and Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli signed a bilateral agreement making it more difficult for objects from Italy to be illicitly traded through Switzerland. I haven’t been able to track down the precise details of the agreement, but it seems the deal will require customs officials from both nations to require proof of a lawful export from the other nation before an object is allowed into the country.
This agreement may be another upshot of the Getty trial currently underway in Italy. Its also likely a product of Swiss concerns that its art market (valued at $1.2 billion) has taken on a seedy reputation in recent years as a transit state. Switzerland also recently signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention in an effort to change its image. The new agreement is set to come into force sometime early next year.
This measure could have a substantial practical impact on the amount of looting taking place in Italy. However one large obstacle is the fact that most antiquities are portable, and can be easily disguised as something mundane with a coat of paint or varnish. Jonathan Tokely-Parry and Frederick Schultz served prison time in the UK and US respectively for disguising Egyptian antiquities in this manner. One of the sad realities of the illicit trade is the fact that customs agents don’t have the resources to search every car, or freight container which enters its borders. Though bilateral agreements like this one are certainly a welcome development, more work needs to be done to remedy problems with the market.
The New York Times devoted a short brief on the so-called Getty trial wednesday. After a long summer hiatus, the trial of former Getty Museum curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht continued Wednesday in Rome, with the testimony of Fausto Guarnieri, who once worked for Italy’s art-theft squad. The statue is only on e of the objects at issue in the prosecution of True and Hecht, who are accused of dealing in stolen artifacts. A 1939 Italian law vests title to all unearthed antiquities in the State.
The statue of Aphrodite, pictured here, was purchased for $18 million by the Getty in 1988. It dates from the 5th century BC, near a Greek settlement in Sicily known as Venere di Morgantina. Italian authorities were alerted in 1986 by rival looters, who were angry that the statue had been sold too cheaply. Guarnieri testified that 20 years ago tomb robbers led him to a site in Sicily where the statue had been unearthed.
The trial is a tremendous black eye for the Getty, as the sculpture is a centerpiece of the museum’s antiquities collection in Malibu. True’s defense counsel are arguing that the sale of the statue was met with little official interest by Italian authorities in 1988 when the sale took place. Apparently, the statue was not on the official list of stolen objects when the Getty made official inquiries at the time of the sale. It would have been difficult though, as there was no record of what the statue actually looked like. Prosecutors are relying on scientific data which points to the statue’s origin in Morgantina.
This trial will of course be watched very closely by museums all over the world with Italian antiquities. Though I failed to grasp it when I posted comments about the decision by the Museum of Fine arts in Boston’s decision to return 13 antiquities to Italy, the True prosecution may have been at least part of the impetus behind the decision. Also, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently returned 21 pieces to Italy.
I’m not sure what this prosecution means for the illicit trade. Certainly, it seems likely that museums will be far more careful when they acquire Italian antiquities. However, it seems likely that the looters will continue their work, they just will sell to dealers and individuals rather than museums. Is the public good being served by having these objects in the hands of an individual rather than a museum? Perhaps not; but however nefarious we might believe the actions of True and Hecht were in this case, wasn’t there a tremendous value in allowing the public to view these objects? Its the same kind of argument that Greece and the British Museum have been fighting over for centuries in relation to the Parthenon Sculptures/Elgin Marbles. There are no clear answers. However, the Parthenon Sculptures have been resting in London for centuries now, while the Italian antiquites are a fairly recent acquisition by the Getty. Conversely, the archaeological context was lost when the statue was unearthed twenty years ago. However, was there anything in that soil record about Greek civilization that we don’t already know? We can’t be sure. At the very least, the idea of a museum acquiring a very valuable object which had been looted strikes me as distasteful. It certainly reveals a troubling part of museum acquisition which I suspect the vast majority of visitors are unaware of.
What is certain, is that Italian authorities are pursuing an aggressive policy of pursuing antiquities found/looted/unearthed within its borders. This will likely diminish the prices which sellers of certain questionable objects can expect to receive for their finds in the short-term. But it might increase the price which may be paid for objects with a clean provenance. An unintended consequence may be the decrease in opportunities for visitors and residents California, Boston, and New York to see these examples of Greek and Roman culture.
Perhaps the way forward is an increase in travelling exhibitions, but there are financial, logistical and other drawbacks to that remedy as well. The one thing all parties involved in this prosecution, and the wider debate can certainly agree on, is that these are extremely valuable and beautiful objects.