Articles of IADAA members
“An old tradition under attack”
Video of a lecture given by Vincent Geerling on June 10th 2016 in Brussels during BAAF.
This section contains the following articles:
- James Ede, Dealers: Trade, Traffic and the Consequences of Demonisation
- James Ede, Ethics, the Antiquities Trade & Archaeology
- Statement of IADAA at the Conference on “Governance of Cultural Property: Preservation and Recovery” – Basel, September 29-30, 2009, The Value of Codes of Ethics
- James Ede, Restitution and the Art Trade – The Problem of Orphans
DEALERS: TRADE, TRAFFIC and the CONSEQUENCES of DEMONISATION
by James Ede
A recent decision by an American institution to sell a tomb group prompted the following press release.
‘Any attempt by museums or archaeological societies to profit from sales of antiquities provides incentives for global criminal activity that can lead directly to the loss of the art they claim to value. Egypt’s archaeological heritage is already under immense pressure from illegal art smuggling, much of which is entangled in other illegal trades, such as drugs and arms. Local, petty looting is often in the news, but the global networks start and end in the galleries of London, Brussels, New York, Paris, Zurich and elsewhere.’
So here we are. Although the logic of the first sentence is highly questionable (how can a sale by a museum possibly be seen as an incentive for global criminal activity?), the case for the prosecution has been eloquently put. People loot antiquities, particularly in times of strife. People sell and collect antiquities. Ergo, the first is caused by the second. And it gets better. The looters are in war zones. They are our enemies. They are using weapons against each other and against us. Weapons cost money. Antiquities sell for money. Ergo, the weaponry is being funded by the antiquities trade. Pictures of holes in the ground are produced as incontrovertible evidence of this truth. Syrian policemen go on television to say that ISIS is funded by the trade. This traffic is worth 6-8 billion dollars annually. And the very existence of the market is entirely to blame, entangled as it is with arms and drugs traffic. As an antiquities dealer I have become a backer of terrorism, an international hate-figure.
Not a shred of hard evidence has been produced to back up this overblown hypothesis.
In order to get away from this alluring fantasy, let’s look at some facts.
First and foremost let’s look at the size of the trade. In an off-the-cuff comment, Colin Renfrew once said he thought the total trade including traffic was worth about £3 billion per year. This figure was seized on and has been endlessly recycled by commentators who are too lazy to do their own research. Latest estimates are at $6-8 billion as I mentioned above. That would be 25% of the total global Art Market, including all contemporary art. Silly isn’t it? We HAVE bothered to do some research on the open trade. By analysing the publicly quoted figures of the auction houses and dealers worldwide and rounding the figures up quite dramatically we have arrived at a figure of €150-200 million per annum, ie around £150m. This does admittedly exclude one-off sales such as the Geurnol lioness and the Old Kingdom statue from Northampton (another spleen-venting opportunity, largely by people who had no idea of its existence the week before), but these are rare. This figure of £150m is verifiable. It sounds quite a lot of money, until you put it next to the estimates above. In order for the gigantic figures bandied about to be true, there would need to be an illegitimate business out there in Greek Roman and Pre-classical antiquities which is between 20 and 90 times the size of the open market: where and what is all this stuff? It would have to be all over the place. Dr. No style hoarders would need several underground missile sites on tropical islands to accommodate such riches. It clearly is hogwash.
There is a legitimate trade, and there is illegitimate traffic. Please can we also differentiate between the two. Stolen objects are not good for the trade. We avoid them wherever we can. You have only to look at the disparity in values between objects with provable provenance and those without- even when those have long collection history which cannot be proved – to see how much store the trade now sets by legitimacy. It was not always so, and I freely acknowledge that it was criticism from our detractors which has helped to drive this change. I must say that this process, while gradual, has been going on for a long time.
IADAA was formed in the early 90s because we could see the need to give identity to dealers who understood their responsibilities as well as their rights. Members who fail to maintain standards have and will be expelled.
Of course it is true that people, especially poor people in war-ravaged countries, loot antiquities when they can. As dealers we cannot control this, nor should we be expected to. The best way to stop this is to have stable, uncorrupt government in the countries concerned. Everyone agrees that Saddam, for all his faults (to put it mildly) stamped out looting very effectively. Before the invasion of Iraq, I foresaw what would happen and wrote to Tony Blair asking him to put a tank in front of the Baghdad Museum. I received no reply. Only after the museum had been ransacked did I hear from the Minister of Culture. She asked what my trade association was going to do to stop these looted pieces reaching the market. I am afraid my reply was in anglo-saxon. Perhaps if we stopped meddling in these countries they’d have a chance of settling back into some semblance of normal life.
The looting and wanton destruction, often for supposedly religious reasons, continue. Some of these objects will make it on to the legitimate market, which is not the same as saying that they are there because of the market. Documentation can be forged, and in any event huge numbers of legitimate objects have no provable provenance. Before we get hot under the collar about this, I invite you to think about any antiques you may have in your own home. For how many of those could you produce paperwork stating when and where you bought them?
Please note also that the British Museum itself admitted that it had no proof for the date or source of acquisition for the majority of its collections! The Egypt Exploration Society has no record of the pieces which it sold in the 1960s when it moved to Doughty Mews. I say this not as a criticism but as a reminder of L. P. Hartley’s famous phrase ‘The past is a foreign country- they do things differently there’. So when an American institution puts up some pieces at auction and there are howls of outrage, I smile slightly. One academic friend was furious at the estimated price, because he felt (rightly in my view) that the pieces belonged in a museum, but that they were overestimated. I have to point out that this huge rise in prices is because people now value incontrovertible provenance so highly. You can’t have it all ways.
So, how do we further reduce the amount of illicit material making its way on to the market? The best way is by openness; by sharing information and not hoarding it for selfish reputational reasons.
In recent years, the auction houses have been blasted with monotonous regularity. The existence of an archive of material which went through the hands of a convicted smuggler in Italy, and certainly the majority of which is illicit, is well known. This man, Becchina, was active between c. 1975 and the mid 90s. His crimes are 20 years or more old. Many pieces he introduced into the market are still there, and they are tainted. So when one or two turn up at auction there is a well- orchestrated furore. Articles in the Times, the full works. But the auction houses are denied access to this archive, so how on earth are they expected to know that they are taking on a problem? This is pure Kafka and should stop forthwith. It is absurd to demand that dealers and auctioneers carry out due diligence (a hard enough task as it is) and then deny them the tools with which to do so. I suppose the idea is that if the database is made available the goods will never surface. If that’s the reasoning then I fail to understand why the identification of the pieces should be accompanied by a witch hunt against those organisations which have enabled such identification to be possible in the first place.
When, through the agency of a close academic friend here in Manchester, I found that I had a Greek bronze stolen in the war and sent it home, the Greeks didn’t pillory me- rather the opposite, which is the sensible approach.
Here however we are merely denigrated. Whatever we do to try and improve standards of due diligence it will never be enough for some people. They hold the view which says that because to a greater or lesser extent illicit material will always find its way onto the market, the answer is to close the market down altogether. After all, surely if there are no dealers and no auctions there will be no point in looting?
This is such flawed thinking. Buried treasure will always attract treasure hunters; if the treasure has no intrinsic value, they will destroy it. I once owned a magnificent gold ring with the cartouche of the Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, which had been in a collection since the 1780s. I only had half as it had been hacked in two by the tomb robbers who found it, in the days when its only value to them was as bullion. That would never happen now, but might if there were no market. The really extreme view says that it is better for unprovenanced antiquities to be destroyed than to be conserved, studied and published by academics. Colin Renfrew went so far as to say to me that he sympathised with the destroyers of the Bamiyan Buddhas, as it was their way of attacking the market, rather than just iconoclasm which many of us believe to be the true motive.
I am bewildered by such views. Those remains did not belong to whoever happened to be in power at the time. They belonged to all of us. Organizations like SAFE- Saving Antiquities For Everyone – make no comment when zealots destroy ancient remains, preferring to attack private ownership of antiquities. They made no complaint when the US military built a huge dump encroaching on ancient Babylon. They made no complaint when the Turkish government buried the hugely important Roman site of Zeugma under billions of tons of water. Who then are the biggest destroyers of the archaeological record?
It is at this point that I sadly come to the conclusion that it is we dealers and collectors who care for the remains of the past more than our most vociferous detractors. We are not perfect, but no-one can say that we are not passionate about what we do. It is our desire, as well as in our interest, to safeguard the pieces we own. Our motives may be largely commercial, but money is not the only thing that drives us. In the past there was a very valuable relationship between dealers, collectors and academics. That was in the days when museum curators believed that the objects themselves held valuable information; they didn’t feel that context was the beginning and end of everything. We need to rekindle that relationship and rediscover some trust. I hate looting; if someone made off in the night with Stonehenge I would be outraged. At the same time I absolutely refuse to accept that what I do is dishonest. On the contrary is an essential part of the mechanism which allows all of us to study and enjoy the remains of our ancient past. If the academic world chooses to cut itself of from us, both sides will be the loser. And although many antiquities were originally cult objects for arcane religions, they are no longer. Archaeologists are not high priests. Wide ownership is positively desirable: it is unfashionable to say so, but the comparison of those marbles from the Parthenon in the British Museum with the dreadful condition of those which remained in Athens graphically proves the point. And not all objects need to be in museums, any more than all 18th century English oil paintings need to be in art galleries in the UK. In any event, experience shows that the best will gravitate over to public collections in time. And here is a conundrum: private collecting is condemned in part because it removes objects from the field of study. I agree. Private collectors should be encouraged to publish and show their collections. Yet the howls of rage when the late George Ortiz showed his collection at the Royal Academy mean that such an exhibition is unlikely to happen again. Do you want openness or not? If you do, you will have to accept that the objects themselves do not carry any guilt. They are still worthy of study no matter if they appeared on the market illicitly. Forcing this material underground is no answer and is bad for scholarship.
And what of new museums? Will the emerging economies of the east not want to have collections of Western art in due course? We are alright Jack. Why should they be denied what we take for granted? The past cannot be set in aspic. We should use all means to discourage looting, and one of the most effective is to encourage the open market. This means granting export licences for legitimately owned objects (which many so-called source countries do not do) and allowing controlled trade. A country like Egypt, which has far more material than it knows what to do with could benefit from an export tax on antiquities it doesn’t need. The export of the Mustaki collection in 1947 did not harm Egypt’s cultural heritage. There were 10,000 relatively minor objects and I handled the dispersal of the collection over 20 years. Most of the more important are now in museums. It is time that the export of similar collections was allowed again. Only this time round, could the licence itemize the goods and not read ‘Twenty crates of antiques’?
There is constant flux, and where there is flux there is a market. Where there is a market there are dealers. We are needed. Don’t demonize us too much.
Speech, given at the Manchester University, October 25, 2014
ETHICS, THE ANTIQUITIES TRADE & ARCHAEOLOGY
by James Ede
The art trade has faced increasing scrutiny in recent years. This has focused largely on the subject of ethics, and in particular the standards used by the trade when acquiring objects for which no firm provenance is available. Whilst this scrutiny has applied to the whole art market, the antiquities trade in particular has faced a barrage of criticism, some of it deserved, but much of it based on misinformation and ignorance.
We must address these criticisms, for what is at stake here is the whole foundation on which the art trade is based, namely that the private ownership of art and the connoisseurship which collecting inspires, are desirable in a cultured society. This centuries-old tenet has had an enormously important effect on the way in which the great museums of the world have developed, and this in turn has lead to a much wider appreciation of world cultural heritage.
The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) was formed in 1993 and from the outset it was clear that one of our most urgent tasks was to address these criticisms. We believe one of our prime functions as dealers is to participate actively in the preservation of the remains of man’s ancient past.
Antiquities have been collected for thousands of years – for example the Romans were avid collectors of Greek sculpture – and in this time, the number of pieces coming onto the market ran to millions. Unfortunately provenances for the vast majority of these works have been lost. War, migration, economic development and sheer indifference have all taken their toll as well. The provenance of large numbers of objects has been discovered by chance, long after they have been sold. It is therefore unacceptable to suggest that lack of provenance means that a particular object has recently been stolen. Very often the source of pieces is deliberately obscured for perfectly legitimate reasons, where, for example, the inheritor of an object does not wish his family to know that he is selling. All these issues serve to muddy the water and to create an environment in which it is possible for those opposed to the trade to maintain the pretence that the majority of objects are on the market illicitly. For these reasons those on the inside know that this is not the case, but it would also be disingenuous of us to suggest that there is not a problem with illicitly excavated or exported material. In fact, these are two separate problems, and in order to address them, we need to understand the historical context.
Most source countries have some form of control over the export of archaeological material; these range from the pragmatic (U.K, Germany, Netherlands) to the draconian (Greece, Turkey, Egypt). The fiercest laws were passed at very different times, but are essentially chauvinistic, and it is interesting to note that in almost all cases they have been enacted at a time of nationalistic revival (in Italy under Mussolini, in Greece following the War of Independence from Turkey, in Egypt under Nasser). These laws have been designed to foster a belief in outside cultural imperialism, and are both a symptom and a source of a deep emotional feeling. Unfortunately emotion is a bad basis for legislation, and though these laws have proved remarkably ineffective, their emotional basis makes it very difficult for the relevant authorities to adjust them in a way which might make them work. These laws are also by no means uniform; for whereas some countries (Egypt, Turkey) have taken the drastic step of ‘nationalising’ all antiquities (even when privately owned for generations), others have allowed private ownership, and dealing, to continue. The latter case usually involves a strict embargo on export, and this has served to produce a false, two-tiered market. IADAA believes that ‘nationalisation’ of legitimately held objects amounts to State theft, and that the second case is also indefensible, especially in the context of the European Union: if Europe is to have any meaning as a single entity, surely its cultural heritage must be regarded as common property? Given that such privately owned objects were removed from their context years ago, and that anti-trade academics therefore regard such objects as worthless, there is no archaeological argument in favour of them being rigidly chained to their country of origin, any more than all Georgian candlesticks should remain within the United Kingdom. By encouraging smuggling, such laws are having a diametrically opposed effect to that which was intended. Adjustment to encourage the legitimate trade would go a long way towards restricting the smuggling routes on which illicit trade depends, and we hold that free trade need not only apply to privately owned pieces. Government storehouses and museums are bulging with objects which have no recorded provenance and which are extremely poorly conserved due to lack of funds. Surely many of these pieces could also be released to the market, since they are believed to have no archaeological value?
A third area which deserves consideration is the problem of chance finds. It is inevitable that a large proportion of excavated material will be found during the course of normal agricultural and economic activity. Draconian laws result in the destruction of the archaeological record unless a proper system of reward exists, since the finder will usually channel such objects into an illicit market. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the penalties for doing so are now so severe that finders are deliberately destroying pieces rather than run the risk of being caught with them. This is an absurd situation. In this respect the laws of the U.K, whilst far from perfect, offer a solution. There a finder has an inducement to declare his discovery. Either the state takes ownership and pays a reward equivalent to the market value, or, if the piece is not of particular importance, ownership is granted to the finder. Either way, the archaeological information is preserved.
One further point needs to be made perfectly clear: IADAA firmly believes that every country has a right (and indeed a duty) to preserve in public ownership the most important cultural objects, and should have a pre-emptive right over new finds.
Nevertheless the hundreds of thousands of objects already unearthed should have a voice too, and dealers and collectors help them to speak. Never forget: we are among the foremost guardians of our world heritage. We too have a voice, and one which should be listened to.
© James Ede
THE VALUE OF CODES OF ETHICS
Statement of IADAA at the Conference on “Governance of Cultural Property: Preservation and Recovery” – Basel, September 29-30, 2009
The international Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) was founded in 1993. One of the most important aims of the Association was to draw together those leading dealers who shared an understanding of the importance of ethical considerations for the trade. To that end, a stringent Code of Ethics was drawn up which forms a seminal part of the rules of membership. The most important provisions of the code referring to cultural property issues are:
1.) The members of the IADAA undertake to the best of their ability to make their purchases in good faith.
2.) The members of the IADAA undertake not to purchase or sell objects until they have established to the best of their ability that such objects were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property.
3.) The members of the IADAA refuse to dismember and sell separately parts of one complete object.
4.) The members of the IADAA undertake to the best of their ability to keep objects together that were originally meant to be kept together.
7.) The Members of the IADAA undertake to the best of their ability to inform the Administrative Board about stolen goods and thefts. They also undertake to co-operate with international and national agencies involved in the recovery of stolen goods.
8.) All members undertake to check objects with a purchase value of Euro 3000 or over (or local currency equivalent) with the Art Loss Register unless the item has already been checked.
9.) IADAA condemns the illegal use of metal detectors.
All dealers in second-hand goods are vulnerable to the possibility of buying objects, which have arrived on the market illicitly, but it is not only true that honorable dealers will take steps to avoid this, but that the trade is also vital in combating traffickers. Tackling the problem with purely legal, prescriptive means ignores this importance. This paper explores these two themes, which are implicitly supported by the IADAA Code of Ethics.
It is vital that legislators and other interested parties understand the difficulties which dealers face on issues of provenance when trying to identify and avoid stolen and illicitly excavated material. Millions of antiquities have been traded and collected for centuries. The vast majority, perfectly legally on the market, have either never had, or have lost documentary evidence of provenance. All of you here might like to consider how much paperwork you could produce to prove the date of purchase of art and antiques you have at home. Even where such paperwork exists it is often hopelessly vague. An IADAA member, James Ede, acquired the Mustaki Collection consisting of over 6000 artworks exported from Egypt in 1947. The licence granted (and such paperwork was rare in those days) refers to ‘30 cases of antiques’. It is because of this lack of proof that a workable code of ethics is so important; it places a great onus on the dealer to buy responsibly and with care. Such care requires the exercise of due diligence, which is the concrete result of signing up to a Code of Ethics.
Due diligence when making purchases
The dealer’s role starts at the moment at which he considers a prospective purchase. He must first consider the seller. Does he know him/her? If so, he should obviously not deal unless he is sure of the other party’s honesty. He should then ask for as much information as possible about the provenance of the piece. Such information should form a signed part of the purchase documentation. Two things must be recognized in this regard. Firstly that client or commercial confidentiality may well not allow divulgence of the name of a previous owner. For example a collector might not wish his family to know he is selling his collection; similarly the object might form part of a larger group, which the seller is hoping to acquire at a later date, the source of which must therefore be kept secret. Secondly that a very high proportion of objects will have been through auction at some stage, and auctioneers will never divulge the name of a consignor unless expressly given permission to do so.
If the dealer does not know the seller he must take even greater care. Firstly the identity of the seller must be established, if necessary by the production of ID. The attitude of the seller to requests for information will often be revealing, and if in doubt the dealer should not proceed. The object itself may help. Pieces which have been in private hands for some time can acquire an ‘old collection’ patina. This is not foolproof; sometimes objects may have lain untouched for many years and have a very fresh appearance, but it is a guideline. IADAA also recognizes that theft – say from a museum – can produce objects with this patina. Particular occasions will require care. For that reason we have for example warned our members to be particularly careful with Mesopotamian material, which might have come from the Baghdad Museum and to avoid purchase without documentary support of provenance.
The dealer should also check the object with the Art Loss Register (ALR) as soon as possible, and certainly before resale. IADAA was the first association to have a formal agreement of collaboration with the ALR, and it is a rule of membership that all objects above a certain value threshold (at present € 5000) must be so checked. This price limit exists not only because of the cost implication, but because lesser value objects are likely to have been mass-produced and therefore hard or impossible to identify.
Finally, payment must be made via a traceable route.
After the purchase, further research will be undertaken for parallels and cataloguing purposes. Even with all possible safeguards it is often not until this point that stolen pieces are recognized.
Impact on the market
There is no doubt that the increasing importance of provenance has had a marked impact on the market. This has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the amount of dubious material being offered in the market and a steep rise in the price of objects with demonstrable provenance as against the price of the equivalent piece without. Much of this change has been driven by the trade itself – the trade after is the ultimate arbiter of value, but it must be acknowledged that new laws – or often more accurately, the effective application of old laws – has contributed too. Although there is often much talk about the UNESCO convention of 1970, never let it be forgotten that source countries did little until recently to enforce their own laws. Many source countries also quite properly allowed the export of antiquities after this date. For example, the Cairo Museum had a shop selling authentic objects until 1976.
But the application of draconian export laws – many source countries such as Italy and Greece still allow an internal market, with all the distortions to trade that that entails – has never been successful on its own. It could even be shown to have been counter-productive. An open market has always been an effective tool against illicit traffic and it is the legitimate market, operating under a Code of Ethics that has done much to change things. In the last five years, members of IADAA have been responsible for identifying and returning stolen objects on a number of occasions. The most recent involved the return to Samos of a Greek bronze kouros, which had been stolen during the Second World War.
Such successes would be much more frequent however if more information about stolen art was made available to the trade. At present we have to rely entirely on the ALR. This is a very important and helpful organization, but it is not always given all the information it needs by police and other anti-crime forces. This surely needs to change if the trade is to play its role to the full in the fight against art crime.
A change in attitude is also required. Instead of lambasting the trade constantly it would be enormously helpful if our critics felt able to acknowledge the changes we have undertaken, and to reciprocate our offer of help for the future. We are not the problem; we are part of the solution.
RESTITUTION AND THE ART TRADE – THE PROBLEM OF ORPHANS
by James Ede
I am not a lawyer, but as a classicist and dealer in antiquities I am interested and a little alarmed by the way in which sound legal principles of ownership and good faith appear to have been supplanted by an almost Socratic approach to restitution resting on moral imperatives. Ethics make good foundation for law, but are not a substitute. We must remember that ethical viewpoints change, but laws of ownership have stood the test of time and must be protected. Nonetheless moral imperatives have been pushed to the fore and in the short time available I want to touch on one indirect result of this shift, and the effect which it is having on the trade.
Antiquities have long been the subject of restitution claims, mostly without any merit in law, many of which drift on as I speak without really getting anywhere. This has largely been restricted to iconic objects such as the Elgin marbles, or more recently the Rosetta Stone. In recent years claims on relatively minor objects, particularly from some American museums, have been more successful. I do not have time to consider the merits of these claims, which may have been considerable other than to remark that rarely has proper proof of illegal excavation or export been produced to support them; they have relied for their success on moral pressure both applied directly and through the media. Threats of non-cooperation in archaeological projects and of banning archaeologists from excavating have also been employed. As a result, in a small number of high profile cases, antiquities have been returned to their (putative) country of origin. Many of the returns have ignored one of the central tenets of international treaties dealing with the return of cultural property to the country of origin. All set time limits within which claims can be made. In the case of the UNESCO Convention this is set at five years from the time the claimant was aware of the object; in the case of the European Directive of 1993 the time limit is one year, and thirty years even if the piece has never been published:
1. Member States shall lay down in their legislation that the return proceedings provided for in this Directive may not be brought more than one year after the requesting Member State became aware of the location of the cultural object and of the identity of its possessor or holder.
Such proceedings may, at all events, not be brought more than 30 years after the object was unlawfully removed from the territory of the requesting Member State.
[Council Directive 93/7/EEC of the 15th March 1993 on the Return Of Cultural Objects Unlawfully Removed From The Territory Of A Member State]
The consequence of this has been damaging. Some museums, naturally anxious to ensure that such issues do not recur, have decided not to acquire objects unless demonstrable provenance is available to prove they were on the market before a certain date. In most cases the date chosen has been 1970. The year is arbitrary but has gained wide acceptance because it was that in which the UNESCO Convention was drawn up (although the convention itself only came into force for participating countries in 1972). It takes no account of the fact that most source countries have had since then, and continue to have, antiquities dealers operating and it certainly takes no account of the extremely lax way in which most source countries have historically applied their export controls. A personal anecdote shows that this is still the case. A couple of years ago I was invited to Rome to present a paper at a Carabinieri Art Squad symposium on stolen art. Thinking I could kill two birds with one stone, I decided to come back via Geneva in order to deliver a piece of Roman glass to a client. I rang the Italian embassy to learn how I could legally temporarily import the piece to Rome for the duration of the conference. After two hours, an attaché rang back with the helpful advice that they had no idea of the correct procedures and that he suggested I should do what ‘everyone does; put it in your pocket’.
The date chosen is only half of the problem however. The other is proof.
Antiquities have been collected for thousands of years – the Romans were avid collectors of Greek sculpture – and in this time, the number of pieces coming on to the market ran to millions. For example, Sir William Hamilton, husband of the Notorious Emma, amassed a collection of over 3000 Greek vases in three years when acting as envoy to the Kingdom of Naples; one sanctuary (among hundreds) excavated in Sicily in the 1800s produced over 30,000 terracotta statuettes, the majority of which were sold to dealers. I could go on. The documentation attached to these pieces was poor in the first place; a collection of over 10,000 Egyptian antiquities purchased by me was exported under licence from Egypt in 1947 – a document which read ‘thirty cases of antiques’. It is remarkable that the piece of paper survived at all; in the vast majority of cases no paper trail exists. Even the British museum admits that it has no paperwork of any kind for the bulk of its collections.
This fact applies to almost any second-hand goods other than vehicles. The owners of millions of antiques (objects defined as over 100 years old) would find it hard to produce written evidence to support a pre-1970 ownership trail. The problem is exacerbated by deliberate suppression of previous ownership history for commercial reasons ( the protection of the identity of a collector with more to sell for example). Sometimes the antecedents of a piece are deliberately obscured for other perfectly good reasons, where, for example, the inheritor of an object does not wish his family to know that he is selling.
But perhaps most importantly these new guidelines take no account of the condition of the objects themselves. Pieces with 18th or 19th century restorations, or historic mounts, or even simply with patina that makes it clear they have been in collections for decades if not centuries, are arbitrarily tainted. This is manifestly unjust and actively suppresses scholarship and public education.
We are therefore potentially left with a huge body of objects which are perfectly legitimately on the market and which museums should be able to acquire but are unable to. We call them orphans, and they need looking after. I propose the following.
It is only very recently – the last 20 years or so- that provenance has come to have importance. Since then the change has been remarkable. Provenance information is assiduously collected and protected. Objects with demonstrable provenance command much higher prices at auction than their less fortunate, unprovenanced equivalents. This sea change must be recognized, and one answer (and by far the simplest) to the orphan problem is to follow the European Directive; in that way goods which have been on the open market for, at the maximum, thirty years would be protected from arbitrary claim.
© James Ede, Spring 2010 – Based on a paper given by James Ede at a conference on Restitution of Works of Art hosted by the law firm Farrer’s in London on 4th May 2010.