Friday, May 28, 2010

The AAADA, Ethics, and Justifications...

The AAADA (Australian Antique and Art Dealer's Association) represents the largest professional network of on and off-line dealers in Australia. Although they have been mentioned before on this blog in association with the highly-suspect dealings of two affiliated galleries specializing in antiquities (BC Galleries and The Unique Things Store), nearly every medium to large scale online dealer of antiques or antiquities (from contemporary pieces to ancient artifacts) are registered members. Founded in 1992, and now boasting "more than 130 national members," the AAADA is "your brand for quality," where "your purchase is guaranteed and your transaction professional." This from the official online "Message" of President Warwick Oakman, who himself has a gallery dealing in recent antiques.

To further bolster the confidence of a gallery's clients who might investigate just who the AAADA is, upon finding out their favourite gallery is a member affiliate, the President's "Message," and web-site in general, advertises dozens of specialized service providers (conservators to customs and insurance agents to interior designers) to make sure that clients "get the most" out of their purchases. Since 2001, the AAADA has even offered an annual showcase of dealers and their wares, "the only event of its type fully vetted for quality and description." Underlying the Association's function is a "Code of Practice," to which all prospective members must, apparently, swear to uphold. As will be discussed in more detail, it appears that oversight of these standards is minimal, at least where antiquities are concerned.

While I must again emphasize that the vast majority of dealers affiliated with AAADA appear to offer only recent/contemporary antiques (entirely different from antiquities with former archaeological contexts), the points I will highlight from the "Code of Practice" are supposed to apply to everyone. So, for example, Rule #1b requires that all dealers list the price, manufacturing date, material, maker's mark (if relevant), and restorations for each item offered, and to state upfront if something is a reproduction or not. What about provenance or collecting history? Apparently not... Rule #2 requires that "the member shall not attempt to confuse or mislead the customer or falsely describe any of the goods he/she offers for sale or seeks to purchase." Is this another barrier against the selling of forgeries? Rule #4 requires that "members shall accept responsibility for descriptions of items given to members of the public by their staff." This rule seems to have been added to make sure no dealer can pass the buck onto their "underlings" if caught selling forgeries....but what about selling recent dug-ups?

Rule #5: "Members shall not make unsolicited visits to private domestic premises" struck me as strange. Does this actually happen? Is this to mitigate against shady back-room dealing? Rules #7 and 8 seem to absolve the Association of responsibility if a member dealer or gallery gets into trouble, while rule #10 requires that "members cooperate to the best of their ability with consumer protection agencies (e.g. the police, trading standards authorities). At the end of the list, the webpage states that, although the AAADA can not act on any wronged parties legal behalf, they do offer Conciliation Services to mitigate disputes. Why go through all this trouble if everything is above board to begin with? Furthermore, if the AAADA is so concerned with being Australia's foremost representative body for the licit sale of antiques, why allow any galleries in the much more risky/controversial antiquities trade to join? For that matter, why is the President's own gallery listed an an antiquities dealer?

Under the section of the webpage entitled "Our Services," something else suspicious came to my attention. When discussing how viewers of the website can "collect antiques with confidence" when purchasing from an AAADA affiliated gallery, the requirements that "members seek to advance the professional reputation of the Association," and "build long term relationships with their clients" are stressed. However, this point is also offered: "Clients wishing to form collections are able to do this discreetly and with complete confidence." Huh?! What need is discretion when only above-board, recent or contemporary antiques are being purchased? Does this imply that some member dealers are known to be less-legitimate than they let on, even with supposed adherence to the Code of Practice? that addendum merely to shield those who look for AAADA affiliation when they purchase antiquities off the black market? I feel this is a question needing answering.

In regards to the AAADA's stated international affiliations, I must highlight a further point. As Australia (and New Zealand, and all Southern Hemisphere markets for that matter) are still somewhat off-mainstream in terms of the global antiquities markets, it only makes sense that major dealer networks representing Southern Hemisphere countries would themselves be affiliated with larger networks. In this case, AAADA is a member of C.I.N.O.A. (as highlighted on my first post about BC Galleries). CINOA, out of Brussels, is Europe's largest art/antiquities dealing association, with most international/online dealers under its umbrella-and located in a country which even today is known as a major world centre for the trade.

I highlight the following sentence: "Through its membership of C.I.N.O.A., the international trade Association, it takes part in decisions of international and environmental heritage importance. These decisions can also affect your rights and ability to continue to enjoy collecting antiques for private use." Paul Barford has done an excellent job of demonstrating just how convoluted the "collector's rights" arguments have become, and the less-than-stellar responses to open questions that proponents of the no-questions-asked trade perpetually give. Leaving aside a potential scenario of the purchase of, say, a 19th century clock made using wood from a now endangered tree species, or the shipment of objects needing biological quarantine (which would run up against relevant environmental legislation and be subject to severe import restrictions, coming into Australia at least), it seems to me that a proviso such as this would only apply to the antiquities trade.

I'll now provide a couple of examples, from two different member galleries, to illustrate that, at least as far as antiquities are concerned, AAADA membership seems to be little more than a front, with the Code of Practice not being visibly adhered to. The first comes from Moorabool Antique Galleries, out of Geelong, Victoria. While specializing primarily in historic to recent period ceramics, they also deal in "glass, silver, artworks, and tribal & antiquities." As of today, there are 90 artifacts offered under antiquities, but only a few have pictures available and almost none have any stated collecting history (outside of the occasional previous sale at Christies or Bonhams, or the break-up of some c. 1980s private museum). See this Neolithic Thai ceramic pot and this Iranian buffware zoomorphic vessel for good examples! Look for a more detailed blog post on this specific gallery soon. These two antiquities (here and here), for sale via the Peter Lane Gallery out of Adelaide, have even less information attached to them. So, where's the oversight? What assurance can AAADA membership provide to a prospective honest collector that they're not being cheated if some affiliated galleries don't even offer the prices they're selling their antiquities for, let alone any pertinent background?

To close, while the AAADA might be a good idea in principle, and be able to quite capably handle its ethical and legal oversight responsibilities in representation of Australian dealers on the international stage when it comes to recent antiques, it seems that it has some explaining to do in regards to what it lets antiquities dealers get away with. Constant vigilance!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Soo Tze Oriental Gallery: A small contribution from Tasmania?

Another gallery, dealing in a mixture of contemporary, recent historic, and ancient art and antiquities, has come to my attention as needing mention here; another member of the Southern Hemisphere (and more specifically, Australian) trading "scene." Soo Tze Oriental Galleries is currently based out of Hobart, Tasmania (since 2005), but previously operated out of a Melbourne shop since 1983, with an online presence since June, 2003. To quote from their online homepage, it "is now Australia's premier private gallery dealing in a broad range of Buddhist and related art and ethnographic materials from Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, China, and Bhutan, in addition to works from the rest of Asia." Furthermore, they highlight the "broad time span" and "high quality" of their products, and the self-stated fact that "items from our inventory [are] now found in many of the best private collections, galleries and museums around the world."

All signs point to this dealer operating a very small enterprise, or at the very least running a very controlled on-line store, as only six categories of artifacts/contemporary art are listed, each with very few items on display at any one time. These categories are "sculptures," "paintings," "objets d'art" (i.e. "small functional and decorative from 1000BCE to the 19th century"), "rugs & textiles," and "Tsakali and miniature thangkas." Leaving aside those objects that are being sold as contemporary art, ethnographica, or recent pieces (very few of which have displayed provenance regardless....provenance DOES matter, even for recent acquisitions), I will now turn to those few pieces recognizable as suspect antiquities.

What first made me determined to report about this gallery is this vessel, said to come from the site of Ban Prasat, northeast Thailand. Nearly identical examples are also on display at the Phimai museum. As is all too common, no provenance information, collecting history, or even price, is given for this artifact on sale. Without holding it in my hands, determining its authenticity just from photographs is difficult, but the form, color, and shape all match... Other artifacts, like this "Liao Dynasty copper funerary mask," this "repousse copper Linga cover," c. 17th century Nepal (albeit with provenance stated as from a 1994 Christie's auction), or this fragment of "Yuan Dynasty silk," are all equally suspicious to me. Although China has long been known for a thriving fake antiquities industry, most dealers naturally try to do their best, and stake their reputations, on the fact that they only offer genuine artifacts to the best of their knowledge. The fact that no prices are given, to me, points to even more suspicious dealings...artifacts, albeit in small quantities, bought and sold for a select group of favourite customers perhaps?

The burden of proof is now on Soo Tze Oriental Gallery to either provide evidence that due diligence has been conducted on these objects (and, ideally, make this information available as part of the listing for each artifact offered), or admit that they haven't, and remove from sale anything demonstrated to be a forgery or a recently surfaced artifact. If they can't and won't comply with these basic ethical standards to foster a licit and non-destructive trade, preferring to continue with business-as-usual, then they will be further exposed as such.

Friday, May 14, 2010

An all-too-typical example of Southeast Asian Looting

As a brief, interim post to keep this blog going, I would like to share the following two links, to give further publicity to a very important project:

1. The first describes the discovery and eventual cessation of looting activity during 2007 at the village of Prohear, Prey Veng Province, Cambodia. What has come to be understood as a very important Iron Age cemetery site-crucial to understanding how the complex and stratified social organization that characterized the Angkorian Empire arose-was almost immediately looted out before archaeologists (from the Memot Centre) could reach the site. Eventually, collaboration was established with the locals and the controlled excavation of what was left could begin. Unfortunately, many of the rarer and more intact pieces were sold off immediately...the complete Dong Son drum being one of the more striking examples (see above left for jewelry examples). This event is not widely known outside of Southeast Asian archaeology circles, so I've chosen to give it more publicity here, as it's important to provide more examples of the kinds of materials turning up on the market, often with no provenance more specific than "Cambodia" or "Thailand," and provide proof that fresh loot is still flowing out of the region.

2. This link, from the Deutsches Archaologisches Institut (German Institute of Archaeology), led by Dr. Reinecke and an international team of colleagues, documents this important work in more detail, in the context of recent archaeological discoveries across the boarder in Vietnam and elsewhere in Cambodia. 52 intact burials were uncovered in the last of the "emergency digs" conducted in amongst the looter's pits, and only because they were positioned directly under the village road, which no one wished to destroy! Results, however, were beyond all expectations for such a ravaged site-demonstrating the site to represent one of the most elaborate and wealthy burial grounds (i.e. communities) in the entire southwestern region of Southeast Asia. Three of the 52 burials even contained Dong Son drums, establishing connections far to the north. Just imagine if the entire estimated 20,000 square meters had been reached...if local poverty and international greed hadn't gotten to it first...

While the more detailed technical and restorative aspects of the excavation are ongoing, outreach to the local public and archaeological community is already occurring. As always, it is fervently hoped that future work at sites of this type throughout the region, especially in Southeast Asia, will begin in time to mitigate as much of the damage as possible.

I am currently conducting research into two current and former collectors who have direct ties to the overall antiquities trade emanating from East/Southeast Asia, and will blog about them in more detail soon. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Looting on the High Seas

Once again, a colleague of mine here at ANU (thanks J.L.!) has brought two recent news articles to my attention, both previously released in the World Archaeological Congress digest. They both (here and here) concern the arrest and travel ban imposed on British born Australian "treasure hunter" Michael Hatcher, who is wanted for "trying to smuggle thousands of pieces of Ming dynasty (1368-1644) porcelain out of Indonesia in July. Police intercepted two ships containing the items, for which they have "strong indications" that they came from a wreck site in the Java Straight. If convicted, he "could be jailed for 5 years and fined 50 million rupiah ($6,000)."

What's the most troubling about these articles to me is not the relatively insignificant fine he'll have to pay (although this slap on the wrist is tempered somewhat by the jail time), but that he has been "excavating" ship wrecks since the 1980s, making $17 million US at his first government sanctioned auction (of gold ingots and Chinese porcelain from a wreck off of Sumatra's Riau islands). Furthermore, despite his pending trial and 'house arrest' in Indonesia, the articles report that "he has already begun to market items from his latest wreck."

Another immense haul of ancient artifacts from a unidentified 10th century shipwreck "off of Cirebon, West Java" was brought to the surface between 2004 and 2005 by Belgian "treasure hunter" Luc Heyman's Cosmix Underwater Research, Ltd., and his "local partner" Paradigma Putra Sejathera, who, despite "arranged survey and excavation licences," faced the temporary arrest of two of their divers, conflict with the Indonesian Navy and rival 'salvage crews,' a "year of litigation and two years of waiting while Indonesia drafted new regulations to govern such work." In spite of the immensity and diversity of the haul and "expressions of interest from across Asia," the US $16 million deposit to bid, and short notice of the auction's existence, resulted in the auction being a bust. The disappointment of the "treasure hunters" in a situation like this is almost palpable, as they'd have walked away with one half of all proceeds! Even the UNESCO Director-General has weighed in on the matter, expressing concern over the fact that these important archaeological artifacts would have been (and still might be) dispersed wholesale.

There are numerous examples of shipwreck looting around the world, such as this instance from Spain, and this drastic response measure concerning a Greek wreck off of Croatia. Southeast Asia (e.g., cases from the Philippines and Cambodia), unfortunately, is becoming even more well-known when it comes to underwater looting...and let's make no mistake: "Treasure hunting" by divers, often as part of well-financed companies with backers and buyers already lined up, IS looting! As one dive shop owner in the Philippines article linked to above said "And this you can quote me-ankle weights, crowbars, hammers and chisels are not the ordinary tools of fun divers." For much more information on maritime (nautical) archaeology as it's really performed by professionals, please see the home pages of two of the best Nautical Archaeology academic programs in the world: Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas, USA), and Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia). Let's hope for both a fair trial for Mr. Hatcher, but a quick succession of these clandestine activities as well, and museum curation/display by Indonesian and international authorities of as much of this haul as possible.

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!