Monday, 30 June 2014

Provenience, fakes and the art market

This post is about the importance of knowing where an archaeological artefact comes from when it appears on the art market. Such information is called 'provenance', and it includes both the ownership history of an object and its original archaeological findspot; the latter is also referred to as‘provenience’.[1] If no archaeological findspot is cited and/or if the ownership history of the object is unclear or incomplete, a potential buyer should be wary. It may turn out that the object was stolen, illegally excavated and/or illegally exported from its country of origin and therefore the new owner may find himself/herself obliged to return the object to its rightful owners or its country of origin, in some cases without financial compensation. Conversely, the object may turn out to be a fake, and therefore not worth the price paid for it: the value of an antiquity is a factor not just of its aesthetic qualities but also of its age and the connection that it provides with the past. A fake, no matter how beautiful and skilfully made, is worth a fraction of the price of an authentic artefact.

[Chinese antiquities for sale: how do you distinguish the real from the fake? Image from:]

The issue of ownership history became a huge one after the Second World War, as Philip Hook, author of ‘Breakfast at Sotheby’s’, notes.[2] When they came to power, the Nazis confiscated works of art from Jewish families; some of these works were sold abroad, others were burned if deemed ‘degenerate’, many were simply stored away. Access to relevant records of these actions that were held in Eastern Europe was made impossible until the end of the Cold War, and those kept in the National Archive in Washington were only made accessible to the public in the 1990s. At this point a project of restitution began: identifying works of art that had been stolen during the war (many of which were by that point in national museums or in private collections), finding the descendants of those from whom they had been taken two generations previously, and returning it to them. Cases arose where the new owner of a work of art had purchased it in good faith and was understandably reluctant to give it away; sometimes to solve this problem the work was sold and the profits split between the two parties, a solution which must have been highly frustrating for both parties. Restitution made it very hard to sell works of art if there was anything suspicious about their whereabouts between 1932 and 1945. Auction houses adapted to the new concerns of buyers by setting up departments to research the ownership history of works of art and thereby ensure that any work of art put up for sale would not carry the risk of a restitution claim by descendents of previous owners.

[Artworks confiscated by the Nazis in France. Image from:]

In recent decades, there have been many high-profile cases where a museum was forced to return an artefact it had purchased back to its country of origin after it emerged that the object had been illicitly excavated and/or exported - and in some of those instances, the museum knew this to be the case at the time of purchase but had turned a blind eye. For example, the Euphronius Krater, a beautiful red-figure vase painted by the famous Greek artists of that name, was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 for the then-record amount of $1 million. Later, it was found to have been illegally excavated in Cerveteri, an Etruscan site in Italy, which is a country that has a law vesting ownership in the State for all objects excavated after 1939 that are of artistic, historical, archaeological or ethnological interest, and rendering it illegal to export such items without an export license. The krater was returned to Italy in 2006, following interviews with the tombaroli (the men who had illegally dug at Cerveteri and found the krater), police investigations of the middle-men who had sold the krater to the Metropolitan museum (Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici) and repeated demands from the Italian government. Lately, the Turkish government in particular has been putting pressure on North American Museums to return objects that were uncovered in Turkey and subsequently illegally exported. This is a message to potential buyers: good title cannot be obtained to objects that are illegally excavated and exported; therefore any object with a shady ownership history might bring trouble to a new buyer.

My main focus today, however, is on fakes. The traditional secrecy of the art market with regards to the histories of objects (which, it is claimed, is intended to preserve the anonymity of present and past owners) enables fakes to be sold alongside genuine artefacts, with few means available to the average buyer or even to experts for distinguishing between real and fake. If a complete document citing the provenance of the object from the moment it was excavated to the present was required, it would be very difficult for fakes to enter the market. My particular focus will be on stone artefacts, which are impossible to date scientifically and which therefore present a particular challenge when they surface on the market without provenience.

Fakes are, as Hook writes, ‘a response to demand, an ever changing portrait of human desires. Each society, each generation, fakes the thing it covets most’. For example, medieval monks faked the relics of saints and martyrs in order to gain visitors seeking miracles and thereby to receive endowments to their foundation. Nowadays, there is a demand for branded items: designer handbags, sunglasses and watches are counterfeited and sold to buyers who are not fooled about their authenticity but are buying ‘the illusion of status, of belonging, of success, conferred by the fraudulent reproduction of a famous name’.[3] Alongside this, there is a demand for a connection to past societies and their supposed simplicity and wisdom, for objects of timeless beauty made in a time before modern mass-production. With the commodification of culture (‘the global tendency to treat art and antiquity as market commodities’),[4] original artefacts are given a high value that encourages their faking. Such objects bring status to their owners, but they are a limited and non-renewable source, and the expanding market and high demand for such objects provides a tempting opportunity for fakers to cash in on the trend.

[Counterfeit designer handbags. Image from:]

It has been said that fakes are ‘made with the intention to seduce the contemporary eye’,[5] and therefore that, while ‘they may deceive the generation in which they were created…, unlike the real thing, they date’.[6] Hook cites van Meegeren, the Dutch faker who fooled many experts in the 1930s, as an example: nowadays, his works are easily recognised as fakes, because ‘the Dutch seventeenth century viewed through the eyes of the early twentieth century looked different from the same period seen by the eyes of the early twenty-first’. The problem is that this only applies to works from well-documented periods of history: it is possible to recognise a fake Dutch seventeenth-century painting as such, but much harder to recognise a fake Cycladic statue (more on which below), for example, because much less is known about that particular culture and its artistic output: archaeologists were able to document very few objects from a limited number of sites before looters destroyed the archaeological record and sold their marketable finds; they have not been able to establish a chronological sequence and are not even sure which types of figures are part of the corpus, making it very difficult to distinguish fake from genuine.

[A van Meegeren fake Vermeer. Image from:]

The flood of fakes on the market is problematic for scholars because ‘when a [fake] is accepted into the canon of genuine work all subsequent judgments about the artist or period in question are based on perceptions built in part upon’ the fake itself:[7] in other words, fakes, if mistaken for authentic artefacts, can mislead those trying to learn about the past; and subsequent fakes may be accepted as authentic through reference to a fake that has already been accepted. For the art market, this means that a huge number, even a whole category, of artefacts may be forgeries and therefore of no worth. Archaeologists are very concerned by the looting of Cycladic sites on islands in the Aegean in search of highly-prized statues dated to the 3rd millennium b.c: it has been estimated that only 40% of Cycladic statues known on the market are from archaeological excavations. For all we know, the rest may all be fakes. The statues are made of stone, which is impossible to date. Archaeological excavations uncovered statues that appeared to be female, if gendered; the figures were small, with a few double figurines and figurines of musicians found. When demand for Cycladic figures grew on the international art market, there suddenly surfaced great quantities of the rare, and therefore more valuable, double figurines and figurines of musicians. The market also came to feature male figurines, never found in excavation, and statues of increasing scale (some as big as 148cm), which attracted high prices due to their impressive size – all without provenience. Had these all surfaced from illicit excavations, or were they manufactured precisely because they are rare and would bring greater profit to the forger?[8] It is not impossible that all the male statues and all those greater than 100cm are fakes. Nor can any buyer be certain that his/her Cycladic figurine is authentic, unless from a legal excavation: an archaeological findspot is the best guarantor of authenticity.

[Cycladic Lyre Player. Image from:]

Moving on from these ambiguous classes of Cycladic statues, some objects ‘would be condemned [as fakes] if they appeared on the market’, but are known to be genuine because they were ‘discovered in a properly conducted excavation’. The Blau monuments, two stone objects less than 10 cm high and less than 20cm wide, were presented to the British Museum in 1899 without a provenance, and were dismissed as fakes because nothing like them had been found in excavations. In later years, excavations in southern Mesopotamia uncovered similar objects in Sumerian contexts dated to 2900 b.c. The Blau monuments are now understood to be ‘among the earliest examples of early cuneiform script, still mainly pictographic’.[9] Unique objects appearing on the market today without provenance may be dismissed as fakes and their significance never fully understood. 

[The Blau Monuments. Image from:]

The real problem is that, with no means of dating stone artefacts, it is impossible for even experts ‘to refute or confirm claims of authenticity’[10] regarding any stone artefact without a recorded findspot. This means that the object cannot contribute anything to knowledge regarding the culture or site from which it is supposed to have come, and that buyers are not guaranteed to be investing in an item of any value. An example of this deadlock is the Getty Kouros, a sculpture which combines ‘features of Archaic sculpture associated with several regional traditions and therefore not seen before in a single piece’.[11] This otherwise unattested combination of Attic and Coritinthian features suggests that the statue is a fake, but on the other hand, it seems unlikely that a faker would combine them precisely because it raises too many questions about the object’s authenticity. The statue is either a unique artefact from the past, and therefore of priceless value, or it is a fake that does not correspond to any past artefact, and therefore of no value.

[The Getty Kouros. Image from:]

What happens when a unique artefact is offered for sale, without a provenance? The Guennol Lioness, a stone statue 3.5 inches tall, was sold by Sotheby’s in December 2007 for $57.2 million-  a record price. The piece was described as having an ‘impeccable provenance because it has been in private collections since 1931 and on display and ‘accessible’ to the public in the Brooklyn Museum since 1949’; however it does not have a known findspot and the sale catalogue merely stated that the object was ‘said to have been found at a site near Baghdad’.[12] No comparable objects are known, though the lioness resembles depictions of felines on some Mesopotamian cylinder-seals. We do not know where this object was found, with what objects, in what structure: ‘was it from a funerary context, a domestic context, a cultic context? Was it buried alongside a child, a woman, or a dog? Was it found inside a pot or in the foundation of a building?’.[13] Each scenario affords the lioness a different meaning, illustrating the extent to which objects which surface ‘without secure information beyond what is immanent in themselves… are unable to broaden our basis of knowledge’.[14] And each scenario conjures up images of the irreparable loss to knowledge of the past: the fragile human remains destroyed by the looters’ search for a saleable object, any surviving botanical evidence such as seeds blown away in the wind, any other aesthetically-pleasing objects separated from this one and each other and sold to the four corners of the earth. More troubling for the current owner, the very uniqueness of this lioness should raise questions regarding its authenticity: ‘without knowing the exact archaeological findspot, … can the investor ever be certain that the artefact being purchased is real?’

[The Guennol Lioness. Image from]

With regards to religious artefacts, for example those sold to tourists by dealers in Israel with catching captions such as ‘from the time of king Solomon’ or ‘from the time of Jesus’, these are valuable insofar as they are seen to have an aura of the sacred through their connection to past religious events or characters, both of which rely on the authenticity of the object.

[A sketch of the James Ossuary. Image from:]

When the James Ossuary came to light a decade ago, this small chalk ossuary inscribed with the Aramaic words ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus’ was hailed in the media as ‘the first ever archaeological discovery to corroborate biblical references to Jesus’. It had no archaeological findspot and was said to belong to ‘an anonymous Tel Aviv antiquities collector who, having become aware of its significance, was now willing to allow news of its discovery to be made public’.[15] A reputed epigrapher dated the inscription to the first century a.d., and scientific tests came to the same date for the ossuary. It later emerged that the ossuary belonged to Oded Golan, who soon after was found to have forged an inscription relating the 9th century b.c. repairs to the Temple of Jerusalem which had surfaced shortly after the James Ossuary. New tests were conducted and eventually, it was decided, based on the patina of the inscription, that the ossuary itself was genuine but that the inscription was modern. Those sceptical of Christianity or religion in general mocked those who had found their faith strengthened by the ossuary; the latter were humiliated. The archaeologists Goren and Silberman, documenting the changing opinions regarding the objects, concluded that ‘it is time for scholars to stop dealing with unprovenienced antiquities’.

Such advice is probably pertinent to all involved with ancient artefacts – whether in a scholarly capacity or in search of a reliably lucrative investment. Antiquities must be put on sale with a recorded findspot, for the benefit of human knowledge and to provide buyers the certainty that they are buying a genuine artefact.

[1] C. Coggins 1998. ‘United States Cultural Property Legislation: Observations of a Combatant’ International Journal of Cultural Property 7:57
[2] Philip Hook, 2013. Breakfast at Sotheby's: An AZ of the Art World. Penguin UK.
[3] Mark Jones (ed.) 1990. ‘Fake?: the art of deception’. British Museum Press.
[4] ibid.
[5] C. Chippindale and D.W.J. Gill, 2000. ‘Material consequences of contemporary classical collecting’, American Journal of Archaeology: 463-511.
[6] Hook
[7] Mark Jones (ed.) ‘Fake?’
[8] C. Chippindale and D.W.J. Gill, 1993. ‘Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures’, American Journal of Archaeology 97: 601-659.
[9] Mark Jones (ed.) ‘Fake?’
[10] M.M. Kersel, 2012. ‘The Value of a Looted Object– Stakeholder Perceptions in the Antiquities Trade’, in R. Skeates, C. McDavid and J. Carman (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 253-274.
[11] Chippindale and Gill 2000.
[12] M.M. Kersel 2012. ‘The Power of the Press: The Effects of Press Releases and Popular Magazines on the Antiquities Trade’, in E.M. Meyers and C. Meyers (eds.), Archaeology, Bible, Politics and the Media: Proceedings of the Duke University Conference, April 23-4 2008, Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 72-82.
[13] M.M. Kersel ‘Power of the Press’
[14] Chippindale and Gill 2000.
[15] Y. Goren and N.A. Silbermann 2003. ‘Faking biblical history’ Archaeology 56: 20-29.

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