Provenance and the 1970 UNESCO Convention

17 of the 21 objects at the Phoenix Ancient Art
Exhibition lack pre-1970 documentation

In a lengthy recent piece in Art & Auction, Souren Melikian argued that fewer and fewer antiquities without histories which pre-date 1970 are appearing at auction. The main argument for the piece, that the 1970 Convention is slowly encouraging a reformed antiquities market, rests on the idea that higher prices are paid for objects with documented and reliable evidence showing the object was either legally exported or removed from the probable country of origin before 1970.

Yet just because higher prices are paid for licit objects (or at least objects which were only illicit before 1970) does not necessarily mean that other looted or illicit objects are appearing on the market. Nord Wennerstrom makes this point, detailing four examples of antiquities up for sale which lack provenance information predating 1970. Of course the fact that an object does not come with this history does not mean automatically that it has been looted or stolen. But it is a very very big red flag.

Nord concludes by arguing:

All of the works discussed in this blog post may well have secure provenance dating before the November 14, 1970 UNESCO accord (or other corroborating evidence) – but if that’s the case, why isn’t it being provided? Melikian is right – caveat emptor – buyers need to demand secure provenance that dates before the UNESCO accord for any antiquities they contemplate buying. However, sellers – including auction houses and private galleries – also have a responsibility. And, it would be helpful if the media, when covering the sales, also mention the number of lots lacking that all important pre-1970 provenance. Melikian writes that we should “give it another 10 years” – that’s not a long time, but it could mean a lot of looting.

Yes it does.

  1. Souren Melikian, How UNESCO’s 1970 Convention Is Weeding Looted Artifacts Out of the Antiquities Market, ARTINFO (2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *