Liquidating an Antiquities Dealer’s Stock

Francesco Rutelli is making headlines again, this time in the Times, telling the Italian Parliament yesterday he had an “urgent question” for Sandro Bondi, his successor as Italian Culture Minister:

“Since the summer of 2007 the Ministry of Culture has undertaken extra-judicial negotiations with the commission of liquidators of the Symes collection nominated by a London court, with the aim of verifying the possibility of recuperating archaeological artefacts belonging to the heritage of Italy.”

The question involves antiquities which may be sold to satisfy the debts of Robyn Symes, who served prison time for bankruptcy. As an aside, my understanding of UK bankruptcy law is very limited, but I understand that seving jail time is a pretty extreme measure, and is given generally when a debtor won’t pay their debts, though they may be able to.

The difficulty is that Symes had a great deal of antiquities, which are now in the process of being liquidated to satisfy his debts. The Italian authorities and other nations of origin are of course very interested in the disposition of these objects, given that they most likely were illegally excavated or illegally exported. Some of them are slated for sale at an auction held by Bonham’s to be held on October 15th. One of the objects for sale is this Apulian 4th-century BCE red krater vase.

David Gill points to an Italian report in Il Messaggero which indicates that 17,000 objects worth 160 million Euros were recovered. An astonishingly high figure if accurate. It seems he also asked the Department of Culture Media and Sport about the liquidation but they stated “arrangement involving the Italian Authorities and other parties … was facilitated by this Department [sc. DCMS], which is specific to an individual case.” That’s not particularly helpful of course. This is a sale which needs to be made public, and the DCMS and the Italian Culture Ministry needs to put their cards on the table and be accountable and tell us what and how they are resolving this dispute.

I strongly suspect that there is not much which can be done. Without sufficient evidence that these object were illegally excavated in Italy, or that they were illegally exported, Italy does not have much legal traction to challenge this sale. I suspect the DCMS may know that, but won’t state that publicly because it would reveal the deep-rooted problems in the antiquities trade.

This may indirectly reveal the drawbacks with the recent Italian repatriation strategy. They have secured the return of many objects in recent years, but have done so in large measure without using courts, and without setting legal precedents, broadly defined (the interminable ongoing prosecution of Marion True is one exception). Some potential buyers, who want to work with Italy in the future may avoid this sale, though others, particularly private collectors may not be so constrained. Though the potential purchase price may decrease, I’m not sure there’s any legal basis (absent solid evidence) for blocking this sale. We have strong suspicions of course, but I’m not sure the Italians have enough to withstand the evidentiary burdens of a legal proceeding. We’re left with objects which “probably” originated from Italy, with only a limited universe of potential buyers. Such a state of affairs is not helping anyone.

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Export Restrictions, The Waverley Criteria and Eakins’ "The Gross Clinic"

A recently attributed work by English landscape painter John Constable has been temporarily denied export under the UK’s Waverley Criteria. The work, “Flatford Lock from the Mill House” (~1814) which was only attributed to Constable in 2004, has been sold to a foreign buyer, whose identity is unknown. The UK has a limited export restriction scheme, which temporarily halts the export of a work if it falls under one of the three Waverley Criteria:

  1. Is it so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
  2. Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
  3. Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

If a work can fall under any one of these three categories, export will be temporarily restricted by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) so a UK buyer can raise enough money to keep the work in the UK. The export license for this work may be delayed until 11, May 2007. I am not sure who owns the work, or if it is even publicly displayed. It was part of an exhibition at the Tate Gallery from June – August of this year. The restriction begs the question though, if the work is not generally on display to the public, do UK residents get some kind of inherent benefit out of having the work in private hands?

Such is not the argument over the recent decision by Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia to sell Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” (1875) for $68 million, pictured below. Of its own volition, the University has decided to delay the sale so that Philadelphia can attempt to raise enough money to keep the work in the area. For information on the fund-raising attempts, see Stephan Salisbury’s piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Donn Zaretsky’s Art Law Blog has a good analysis of the decision to sell here.

At the heart of both of these decisions, lies a question which often plagues cultural property. Do very beautiful and valuable works have a single true home, or should they be displayed anywhere? These works engender civic and national pride, and a city or nation is loathe to give them up without a fight. However, at least with respect to the Waverly Criteria, the UK’s position seems quite contradictory. How much of the British museum would have been left in its source nation if Waverley Criteria had been applied? The answer is not much. However, there is a good argument to be made that the Museum is taking good care of these objects, and millions of visitors get to view and experience them. There are not any easy answers to this question. Ultimately, though we may criticize the decision of Thomas Jefferson University to sell the work, it went about the sale in a responsible manner, in such a way that allows concerned parties to raise funds for the work to stay in Philadelphia.

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