Sunday, May 2, 2010

Archaeo Gallery: The Antiquities Trade Out West

In my previous posts, I have initially been focusing on galleries and trade activities (the online antiquities trading "scene," if you will) operating out of the major cities of Southeastern Australia (and an example from New Zealand). Although Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland are the region's largest cities, with the greatest amount of traffic (legal and illegal) attempting to flow through customs and quarantine, it is important to not overlook goings on on the other side of the continent in Western Australia. This post will detail and discuss one such example: Archaeo Gallery.

Archaeo Gallery is based out of Herne Hill, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia's capital, and the only major city/port for the entire western half of the continent. Indeed, its position on the Indian Ocean makes it closer to South and Southeast Asia than to Sydney. As usual, authenticity is stressed above all else ("certificates" included), with the gallery's webpage proclaiming itself "Western Australia's Premier online dealer in legally acquired (italics mine), affordable ancient art and archaeology." Indeed, their Sales Policy page states "in the unlikely event an item is proven to be "not authentic" a full refund or exchange will be granted, these claims must be accompanied with a written letter from a respectable dealer or museum."

Like the disclaimers offered by other dealers I've blogged about, this makes me wonder just how frequently Southern Hemisphere dealers have unwittingly purchased/sold forgeries, or if they have difficulty keeping track of the activities of their suppliers... Why offer this option at all if they're so sure that everything is authentic? Nevertheless, the gist of the gallery's website strongly suggests to me that they offer many examples of recently, or semi-recently, surfaced artifacts within their "vast selection of art from all ages and cultures," with free and quick worldwide shipping. The existence of a privately maintained guestbook which satisfied customers can sign to receive updates and special offers seems to be the key method by which they respond to customer "needs" and keep things going.

Catalog categories are indeed diverse, ranging from "Prehistoric" (flints, Danish Neolithic axes), to "Later Fine Antiques" (which includes the rather ironic sale of three antique albumen prints depicting early 20th century Roman excavations in England, all of which passed through Christie's in 1983-now on offer for $5-600). Perhaps this is what Archaeo Gallery staff truly believes archaeology still to be? All major Classical World categories are present, and separate pages exist for coins, weapons, "tribal art" (currently empty), Islamic art, and even one entry under "Fossils Natural History." Very few catalog categories have more than 3 pages of entries for them, and nothing currently on sale was offered for more than $11,500AUD (Ban Chiang jewellery), or $7,900AUD (this gold and agate Indus Valley necklace), although how much those items listed as "sold" actually sold for is unknown. The overall small number of catalog entries, and generally low prices for the artifacts on offer, suggests to me that business is modest overall, even allowing for the likelihood that what's displayed online is a fraction of what this gallery might have in storage.

Let's talk stated and unstated provenance now, shall we? Very few artifacts for sale have a multi-stage "paper trail" attested to upfront (which unfortunately does not eliminate the possibility of forged provenance). Without a doubt, the majority of catalog entries either have no stated provenance or acquisition date whatsoever, or are listed as coming from "private collections" (Australian, West Australian, German, UK, Netherlands, Denmark), or as deriving merely from the Australian, London, or general UK "art markets." Statements such as "acquired by previous owner circa late 1960's, Israel," just won't cut it for valid provenance these days. Let's see that paper trail. Several minor, and a few major, collections are also listed as previous homes for these artifacts, among them the Frieda & Milton Rosenthal Collection (USA), the Dr. Paul Otto Taubert Collection (both seemingly more focused on contemporary art), the Russel Collection (Arizona), the Dr. C. Gallanos Collection (Melbourne), and the Dr. Harley Baxter Collection (Melbourne).

There are pieces surfacing at Archaeo Galleries with stated claims of previous membership in the Royal Athena Galleries and Geddes collections, both of which, but especially Geddes, have been under intense scrutiny of late. There is even a piece which passed through Bonhams (as sale 10059, lot 62) after an undisclosed period of time in a private UK collection. Bonhams itself has also been much in the news lately, recently having to remove several Medici and Symes objects from an auction in April due to very negligent provenance checking. Its pre-Archaeo Galleries "provenance" as stated is, to me, certainly not enough to waylay reasonable suspicions, especially given Bonham's recent embarrassments. My favorite is this offering of a Roman stucco wall fragment, coming from a "private New York Collection," which apparently acquired it from a "reputable New York City auction house." Another example is this Canaanite vessel "acquired from a reputable New York auctioneer." Really? Names, dates, and evidence please...
The "Asian Art" section itself contains Thai, Vietnamese, and Khmer antiquities, along with more frequently encountered artifact types from China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, but relatively few artifacts of each category. There is even a "guaranteed authentic" vessel from the Hoi An shipwreck! Let's not forget that the looting of shipwreck sites around the world, but especially in Asia, is also a major issue.

What to do about this? As always, appropriate, effective, and legal response to trade in blatant disregard of the law is difficult, and takes time. Beyond better archaeological community monitoring of traffic flowing into Perth, if some of the objects detailed above (and in the catalog in general) have more secure or independently verifiable provenances, now would be an excellent time for Archaeo Galleries to make this information public on the relevant catalog entries, and to authorities, or else remove them for sale. If they were interested in truly proving that they deal in "legally acquired" artifacts across the board, then why not chase up ownership/provenance history for any artifact that's missing it, question their suppliers more thoroughly, curtail business with any local dealer or middleman known to be procuring recent loot, and remove anything for sale that first surfaced post-1970? Due diligence would also dictate that if an artifact was offered to them with a stated pre-1970s surfacing and specific find spot, they check that at least this basic information is accurate, even if the object then dissappeared until it resurfaced in their possession. The current website and catalog strongly suggest to me that this is not being done, and Archaeo Galleries is thus quite complacent in today's modern online trade. I, for one, will be keeping a closer eye on what surfaces here. Constant vigilance!

1 comment:

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