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Antiques PR Publicity Announcements News and Information

Toxic Antiquities in the Market Place

David Gill, archaeologist, reflects on the growing co-operation of auction-houses to halt the sale of recently surfaced antiquities

Authorities in Italy and Greece now have access to at least 14,000 images of antiquities that were passed onto the market over the last few decades. These photographed objects were handled by three dealers: two in Switzerland, and the third operating from London. Many of the 130 or so objects returned to Italy since 2006 have been identified thanks to this type of visual testimony.

Research into the returning antiquities has begun to highlight particular pathways and routes through the market. Specific auction-houses, galleries and dealers have been noted. This “intelligence” is helping with the identification of objects that continue to surface on the market.

Several thousand of the images are now reported to have been added to the database managed by the Art Loss Register (ALR). The ALR has traditionally been useful for spotting items stolen from recorded collections and archaeological sites. But the addition of part of the seized photographic dossier to the dataset will allow authorities to identify objects that may have been ripped from their archaeological contexts.

In April 2010 one auction-house in London withdrew four items from its sale of antiquities: one piece featured in the photographs seized in the Geneva Freeport, and three came from another set found on the Greek island of Schinoussa.

A spokesperson for a major New York auction-house emphasized the transparency of public auctions and the part this has played in the identification of objects that were being offered for sale. The same auction-house has restated its commitment to ethical standards: “We do not sell works that we have reason to believe are stolen.”

The pressure is on to find antiquities with well-documented collecting histories or “provenances.” Dealers want to avoid the adverse publicity of offering material that may be subject to seizure. Potential buyers want to know that there have been rigorous checks before they “invest” in a piece of ancient art.

Museums in the United Kingdom have long-taken a firm ethical stand on the acquisition of antiquities. More recently the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) adopted 1970 – the date of the UNESCO Convention – as its benchmark. Will dealers start to use it as well?