Friday, March 14, 2014

Why Christie's Thinks It Can Find Buyers for Antiquities Lacking Pre-1970s Provenance

Nord on Art points out that the e-catalogue for Christie's upcoming London antiquities sale includes a number of items lacking in the pre-1970s provenance that museums belong to the AAMD should require for any objects they acquire, and that makes buyers more vulnerable to potential repatriation claims. 

For Wennerstrom, that Christie's thinks these items can be sold is puzzling:
as the repatriation of antiquities continues to make international news, one wonders why any potential buyer would consider acquiring works without clear datable pre-1970 provenance.
But there is really not much to wonder about here for two reasons. 

First, not all buyers care whether museums are some day going to be willing to accept donations of their artifacts. They are happy enough to acquire for themselves such beautiful objects, and perhaps eventually even display them in private museums; or they anticipate that eventually some solution to the problem of so-called "orphan" antiquities will be found and the very caring foster-parents who purchased these "orphans" will then be permitted to donate them. 

Second, the risk of having a repatriation claim brought is a calculated one for any buyer, and depends on several factors that may reduce it substantially: where the object's country of origin is difficult to establish that risk drops substantially, for instance, and the resources available to the country of origin are likely to be scarce, requiring them to focus on the highest-end objects and on repatriating items owned by countries, museums, or universities where leverage can be exerted in the form of threats to ban archaeological digs or exchanges. 

The continued saleability at auction of the kinds of items noted in the Nord post is only the tip of the iceberg. One can only imagine what goes on in the back rooms of antiquities dealers' shops where presumably the very highest-end provenance-challenged pieces are sold directly to collectors. But the key point here is that heritage protection advocates are deluding themselves if they think that the 1970 rule in itself is making much of a dent in the trade in non-archaeologically-excavated artifacts.

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