Culture Without Context
- In November 1997 a fourth-century BC gold phiale,
bought in Switzerland by the New York dealer Robert Haber on behalf of the collector
Michael Steinhardt in 1991, was confiscated by order of the US attorney. The order was
made be- cause the entry documents named Switzerland rather than Italy as the country of
origin, and also because the export of the piece from Italy had taken place in direct
contravention of that country's patrimony laws. This order sets a precedent as the claim
to title of a 'good faith' purchaser was set aside in favour of that of the original
owner, in this case the Italian government. Mr Steinhardt has lodged an appeal against the
decision and is supported by the American Association of Museums and the Association of
Art Museum Directors, who both argue that the 1997 decision acts to unsettle presently
established museum collections and will also constitute a threat to future acquisitions.
The Archaeological Institute of America has pointed out that the associations' stance is
in contradiction of the ICOM Code of Ethics.
- The fears of the museum associations are not without foundation. The Italian government
is looking to reclaim a hoard of Hellenistic silver, acquired for the New York
Metropolitan Museum for $2.74 million by the dealer Robert Hecht (of Euphronius Krater
fame). Like the Euphronius Krater, the Metropolitan claims that the silver belonged first
to a Lebanese dealer, Nabil Asfar, who is himself accused in London of selling a looted
relief from Nineveh. The Italian authorities claim that the silver hoard was excavated
illegally at Morgantina in Sicily be-fore being smuggled out to Switzerland in 1981.
- Morgantina is also thought to be the probable source of the Greek acroliths - marble
heads, hands and feet - of statues of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone bought by Robin
Symes in Switzerland and subsequently sold to the New York collector Maurice Tempelsman in
1980 for more than $1 million (although it is claimed that the clandestine received only $
1,100 for their labours). The Italian government is pre- paring yet another case but local
schoolchildren had already in 1994 written to Mr Tempelsman asking for the return of their
history. Italian antiquities, it seems, are now rather a risky investment, especially if
their provenance is not known.
- In Britain Lord McAlpine of West Green closed his business after his role in the sale of
the Salisbury Hoard was made public. This important hoard of bronze objects, apparently
discovered in an Iron Age context by two metal detectorists in 1985, was broken up on the
market and passed through the hands of several dealers. Lord McAlpine sold part of the
hoard in 1989 to the British Museum for C55,000. After an exhaustive investigation the
Museum was able to piece together the story of the hoard and showed that it had been
excavated without the landholder's consent, and returned those objects held by the Museum
to their rightful owner - an ethically correct but not legally necessary action. In an
interview with the,4rt Newspaper in January Lord McAlpine reiterated his refusal to
reimburse the British Museum for their loss, arguing that he would not be able to recover
his money from further up the dealing chain. Once again the public purse paid the price of
the illicit trade.
- The Sotheby's affair rumbled on to the end of 1997. Although the company did not re-veal full details of the internal investigation which was carried out in response to Peter
Watson's book Sotheby's: The Inside Story - at a cost of $11 million - they did in
December announce that in future they would not offer for sale any object known to have
been exported illegally from its country of origin, whether or not it was imported legally
into the country of sale. Thus Sotheby's have pledged themselves to go beyond what is
required of them by law. The impact of this announcement was lessened somewhat as Dede
Brooks, CEO of Sotheby's, revealed that the decision to stop holding sales in London was
taken because the real market is now in New York. It was reduced still further when it
became clear that the majority of antiquities offered up for sale in their June auction
were still without provenance.
- Harvard Museums have recently put on display a 1995 purchase of 182 fifth-century BC
Greek vase fragments. The director of Harvard's art museums, James Cuno,
argued that the pieces had probably been removed from Italy before 1971, the
date at which the Harvard acquisitions code took effect, and which forbids
the purchase of material of questionable provenance. The fragments were
bought on the advice of museum curator David Mitten from a New York dealer
who had in turn purchased them from Robert Guy, of the University of Oxford,
who could only have obtained them after 1971. Guy's name has in the past
been linked to those of dealers Robin Symes and Herbert Cahn. Mitten has also purchased
several unprovenanced antiquities from Robert Hecht (see above). Innocent until proven
guilty claims Cuno. Guilty by association counter his critics.
- November 1997 saw the opening of the prestigious Miho Museum in Japan which was attended
by several well-known figures. Phillipe de Montebello of the Metropolitan and Robert
Anderson of the British Museum were present, as was the dealer Robin Symes and the
collectors George Ortiz, Michael Steinhardt, Leon Levy and Shelby White. Funded by the
Shinji Shumekai religious organisation, the museum's collection is largely of Japanese
origin although there is a substantial holding of objects from other East Asian countries,
as well as from the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean areas. These latter antiquities have
been acquired over the last seven years and are largely without provenance. Inevitably,
the authenticity of certain objects has been called into question.
- The issue of fakes was highlighted again in the strange case of an Egyptian stela - the
secpulchral tablet of Sheshonq - put up for sale at Christie's New York in March as a copy
with an estimated price of $200 to $300. It sold for $10,350. Was it genuine after all?
- In an interview with Barbara Crossette of the New York Times in March, the Iraqi
Director General of Antiquities gave a graphic account of the looting of his country's
archaeology. Sites are quickly stripped by thieves who employ hundreds of bedouin or
peasant to dig 'like ants'. Materials is smuggled out through neighbouring countries to be
sold in Switzerland, Britain and the United States. (In June Saudi Arabia returned 50
antiquities which had been smuggled across the border.) At the monastery of al-Sayda,
north of Mosul, one of the oldest monasteries is the Christian world, the monks were held
captive in one room while a gang emptied the attached museum of all its relics.
- In the Ukraine the ancient Greek site of Chersonesos is reported to be under threat from
the activities of an 'antiquities mafia', but more worrying perhaps is the claim made to
the land by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has plans for the 'pagan' site to be
- Police in Istanbul seized 188 pieces of Byzantine and Ottoman date from the house of
Alparslan Kurtarici, who claimed in April that he had bought the material at markets.
- Timbuktu will seem a very far away place to some readers, although it is very close to
the concerns of the IARC. Timbuktu is situated in the Niger Valley, in Mali, and sites
there continue to suffer the depredations of the market. The Malian government recently
negotiated the return of a stolen twelfth-century terracotta from Jacques Chirac, although
rather bizarrely it arrived back home marked as a 'gift from the president of France'. The
government is also pressing for the return of two objects currently on display in the new
Gallery of African Art in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. William Teel, the owner of the
two figures, would not disclose their source.
- In October 1997 Bavarian police raided three apartments belonging to Aydin Dikman and
recovered over 4,000 antiquities worth something in excess of $40 million. Notable amongst
them are more than 400 objects looted from Greek Orthodox churches in northern Cyprus soon
after the Turkish invasion in 1974. They include two mosaics of the apostles Judas and
Thomas which had been torn from the sixth-century church of Panagia Kanakaria and which
complement those previously recovered from Peg Goldberg by the Cypriot Government in 1990.
Some of the frescoes seized had been looted from the medieval Monastery of Antiphonitis.
The police also recovered photographs which apparently show looters removing frescoes from
walls. The police action was facilitated by the co-operation of Michel van Rijn, a former
accomplice of Dikman (and a beneficiary of the Goldberg sale to the tune of $250,000). Van
Rijn also worked with the Minich-based dealer Serafim Dritsoulas whose gallery was found
by police to contain nine more icons when raided in February 1998.
Information obtained from:
The Art Newspaper
The Boston Globe
The New York Times
The International Herald Tribune
First posted October 1998; Page
design updated September 2006