Sotheby’s Denies Chinese Scroll was Inauthentic

Signed Su Shi, this object sold at auction in September of 2013, it was billed at the sale as a masterpiece created over 1000 years ago
Signed Su Shi, this object sold at auction in September of 2013, it was billed at the sale as a masterpiece created over 1000 years ago

In September Sotheby’s sold this scroll for $8.2 million to a Shanghai businessman, Liu Yiqian. At the time of the sale the work was described as an important work which is over one-thousand years old. Perhaps one of the most important works of calligraphy, which bore seals indicated important historical figures had owned the piece.

Now it seems there are doubts. Researchers based in Shanghai have alleged that the scroll is in fact a 19th century creation. The claims of the researchers are widely reported in the Chinese press. Whether this qualifies it as a fake, a forgery, or a simple reproduction depends I suppose on the intent of the creator. Note I’ve hedged the question a bit in the title calling it ‘inauthentic’. This would have damaging consequences for Sotheby’s plans to step into the Asian art market. Reuters reports that the auction house “has sought to establish itself in China as a trustworthy seller of foreign and contemporary art, while avoiding the scandals that have hit the local auction industry. It held its first full China auction in December.”

Now Sotheby’s is aggressively defending against these allegations. No surprise given the devastating consequences this might have for the auction house just as it attempts to make strides the Asian art market, and move past the embarrassing dispute over the recently-returned looted Koh Ker statue from Cambodia.

David Barboza reports for the NY Times arts blog:

In a 14-page report, published in Chinese, Sotheby’s said it had found no evidence that the work, Gong Fu Tie, by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi, was a forgery. The piece has long been considered one of the greatest works of calligraphy.

In a statement, Sotheby’s said it “firmly stands by” the piece as a work produced by Su Shi.

“We have published a detailed and comprehensive analysis rebutting each of the issues raised about the authenticity of the work,” the auction house said in a statement. “This report demonstrates that the brushwork of The Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy is inconsistent with that of a late copy or tracing as was alleged and is of such high quality that it could only have been created by a masterly hand using a soft brush.

Furthermore, we have established that both the seals and colophon are genuine, serving as further proof that the piece was created by Su Shi.”

The reports I have seen of Sotheby’s arguments focus on technical aspects of the object. The brushwork and other details. Nothing I have seen yet talks about the history of the object itself. Who owned it? What is the ownership history before the 19th century, if any? Those may of course be difficult or impossible questions to answer given the length of time. And yet those are the best possible arguments. They are ones that auction houses have been often unable to use, because they have too long been hesitant to look at this kind of deep history of objects, training their buyers instead on the aesthetic and other merits of objects as a means to generate value.

Increasing the Use of Forfeiture in Policing Heritage

The NYT’s Tom Mashberg reports that Sharon Cohen Levin and Alexander Wilson (two Assistant U.S. Attorney’s) have traveled to Cambodia to examine the site where the 10th Century Koh Ker statue was likely looted in Cambodia. I have no way of knowing whether a trip like this is unusual or not. It seems to me to be a good idea to get some context for the original looting. For those who don’t know, Assistant U.S. attorneys are the Federal government’s prosecutors. And when these folks take on a case, they do so selectively, and generally only if they are confident in a win. These offices across the country have a very high winning percentage in the cases they take on. So it is not much of a surprise that these AUSA’s have decided to make a trip to Cambodia to examine the site itself:

The NYT image of the feet at the temple
where the Koh Ker statue was likely looted

A Cambodian government spokesman, Ek Tha, said the delegation that visited the temple included Cambodian and foreign archaeologists. A federal judge is scheduled to rule in weeks on whether the government’s case to seize the statue can proceed to trial. In earlier arguments District Judge George B. Daniels has pressed prosecutors on what proof they had that the statue, called the Duryodhana, was taken in the 1970s. Sotheby’s has been trying to sell the statue, valued at as much as $3 million, on behalf of its Belgian owner since 2011. The United States government says the auction house had reason to suspect that the statue had been stolen, and that it is the rightful property of Cambodia, citing laws governing antiquities adopted when the country was a colony of France. Sotheby’s has said the statue was legally purchased in good faith from a reputable London auction house in 1975 by the owner’s husband, now deceased, who had no reason to suspect that such a sale could be bound by laws set by a government that had long passed from power. In a statement the auction house said the trip by the lawyers “will not change critical weaknesses in the government’s case — most importantly, its reliance on hopelessly ambiguous French colonial decrees.”

Those French decrees aren’t all that ambiguous when considered in light of these two feet without the rest of the statue.

I thought the comments of Rick St. Hilaire were interesting, he argued that this trip was a kind of show of force by the AUSA’s. Not sure if that is true or not, or even if these folks even need to be concerned with a  show of force, but it does highlight I think how even remote areas like this temple complex are more closely connected than before, and that makes a forfeiture proceeding like this more likely to proceed.

  1. Tom Mashberg, United States Officials Travel to Cambodia in Statue Case, The New York Times, March 1, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/arts/design/united-states-officials-travel-to-cambodia-in-statue-case.html (last visited Mar 4, 2013).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

An Update on the Koh Ker Statue and Sotheby’s

The United States and Cambodia are locked in a legal battle with the auction house Sotheby's over this 1,000-year-old statue of the Hindu warrior Duryodhana that may have been looted from the Cambodian temple complex at Koh Ker.

Anthony Kuhn reports for All Things Considered on the ongoing dispute between Cambodia and Sotheby’s over this Koh Ker statue. The feet were found at the complex, but Sotheby’s is attempting to prevent any seizure of the statue. This looting likely took place in the late 1960’s. The Cambodians make a compelling case for the statue, while Sotheby’s refused to comment for the piece. I’ll update the case here as it develops.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Report that Federal Agents will seize Khmer Statue from Sotheby’s

It looks like the attention drawn to Sotheby’s auction of this Koh Ker statue will result in Federal seizure of the statue:

Federal agents in New York on Wednesday moved to seize a thousand-year-old Cambodian statue from Sotheby’s, alleging in a civil complaint that Sotheby’s had put the 10th-century figure of a mythological warrior up for auction despite knowing that it had been stolen from a temple. Investigators said the sandstone statue, whose return is being sought by Cambodia and which is valued at $2 million to $3 million, would be impounded on Thursday by agents from the United States Department of Homeland Security. The statue, consigned to Sotheby’s for sale by a Belgian collector, had been set for auction in New York in March 2011 but was abruptly pulled from the market at the last minute after Cambodia claimed ownership. At the time Sotheby’s rejected Cambodia’s efforts to recover the Khmer antiquity, insisting there was no proof that it had been looted and therefore the auction was legal. But in a series of internal e-mail exchanges obtained by investigators and included in the federal complaint filed Wednesday in United States District Court in New York, at least one Sotheby’s officer is depicted as having been told in 2010 by a scholar in Cambodian art that Cambodian officials considered the statue a looted artifact.

With evidence that Sotheby’s was told the statue had been looted, the Federal agents have a powerful piece of evidence they did not have in the Ka Nefer Nefer case. I would expect the unnamed Belgian collector who put the statue up for consignment to consider relinquishing the statue quickly. If it was purchased in good faith, he or she has a good claim against the dealer they bought it from. How long new before the Norton Simon is pressured to return its version of the statue?

  1. Ralph Blumenthal & Tom Mashberg, Ancient Cambodian Statue Is Seized From Sotheby’s, The New York Times, April 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/05/arts/design/ancient-cambodian-statue-is-seized-from-sothebys.html (last visited Apr 4, 2012).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Cambodia Disputing a Koh Ker statue up for auction at Sotheby’s

The disputed limestone Koh Ker statue

Cambodia is asking for assistance from the U.S. government in repatriating a limestone statue which was likely looted during the Vietnam War/Khmer Rouge era. Jane Levine, compliance director for Sotheby’s argues that “there are widely divergent views on how to resolve conflicts involving cultural heritage objects”. Here is mine.

The statue has considerable value, its pre-sale auction price was estimated at between $2-3 million. That estimate will likely be considerably less after the report in the New York times, detailing the dubious history of the object. Sotheby’s claims the object was acquired by a “noble European lady” in 1975. Hardly a complete history of the object, and hardly enough to invoke the protections of good faith. The absence of information should not confer the benefits of a good faith purchase. Sotheby’s argues the burden should be placed on Cambodia. I wonder though if the blunt reality of two feet without a body might lead a thinking person to a different conclusion. No museum can ethically acquire this object. Though the Norton Simon has a similar statue, also without feet, no word yet on whether Cambodia may seek the repatriation of that statue as well.

I would expect if a resolution between Sotheby’s and Cambodia cannot be reached that the government consider using its forfeiture powers on the grounds the statue was under the ownership of Cambodia after a 1925 French colonial law declaring objects in Cambodia to be the exclusive property of the state.

Should the forfeiture proceeding be declined, I would urge Cambodia or its lawyers to consider using a civil action using as a precedent the English case, Bumper Development Corp. v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [1991] 1 WLR 1362. That case successfully achieved the repatriation of an object taken from an Indian temple, but it was the temple itself was given legal rights as a party. Perhaps there is a legal personality in Cambodia which might offer a similar connection to this statue.

    A Pedestal in Cambodia, which might be the base
  1. Tom Mashberg & Ralph Blumenthal, Sotheby’s Caught in Dispute Over Prized Cambodian Statue, The New York Times, February 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/arts/design/sothebys-caught-in-dispute-over-prized-cambodian-statue.html (last visited Feb 28, 2012).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Leopold Settles and Deaccessions

“Countess Kuefstein at the Easel” by Anton  Romako will  stay at the Leopold

The Leopold Museum in Vienna has reached an undisclosed settlement with the heir of a Jewish “construction entrepreneur”  who had his collection of art seized by the Gestapo some time before 1941. In order to pay the settlement and others, the museum will have to sell two other paintings by Egon Schiele. No one is talking of these sales in terms of deaccession, but that is what they are doing. Those Schiele works were surely in the public trust:

The Leopold Museum is selling an Egon Schiele painting, “Houses With Colorful Washing,” at a Sotheby’s (BID) auction on June 22. The cityscape is expected to fetch as much as $50 million, a record for the artist.
The revenue will help to pay for “Wally,” a portrait by Schiele that was the subject of a decades-long restitution dispute. In July last year, the museum agreed to pay $19 million to the heirs of the Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray to keep the portrait, which was stolen by the Nazis in the 1930s.
Last month, the Leopold Museum agreed to pay $5 million to the granddaughter of Jenny Steiner, a Jewish silk-factory owner, to keep in its collection “Houses by the Sea,” another Schiele painting that was stolen by the Nazis.
  1. Catherine Hickley & Zoe Scheenweiss, Vienna’s Leopold Settles With Heir on Nazi-Looted Paintings, Bloomberg, June 20, 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-20/vienna-s-leopold-settles-with-heir-on-nazi-looted-paintings.html (last visited Jun 21, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Stolen Degas Work Revealed as Stolen Before Auction

“Blanchisseuses souffrant des dents” by Edgar Degas, stolen in 1973

This work was recognized by a an individual from Le Havre France as a painting which had been stolen in 1973. The individual recognized the long-missing painting in Sotheby’s auction catalogue.  It was slated for sale today before the auction house withdrew it. The French Culture Ministry says that it will negotiate the return of the work, and that the seller “seems to be of good faith”. The case speaks to the difficulty with multiple stolen art databases. The painting is apparently on a museum data list in France, but it is unclear from the initial reports whether the work was reported to the Art Loss Register, the leading stolen art database.

  1. Stolen Degas painting resurfaces at Sotheby’s auction, AFP, November 3, 2010, http://ph.news.yahoo.com/afp/20101103/ten-france-us-art-painting-auction-degas-1dc2b55.html (last visited Nov 3, 2010).
  2. Stolen Degas painting discovered at New York auction, RFI, November 3, 2010, http://www.english.rfi.fr/americas/20101103-stolen-degas-painting-discovered-new-york-auction (last visited Nov 3, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com