A few days ago, a guest-blogger on the Chasing Aphrodite blog (one M. Frechette), added what I deem a well-thought out contribution to the debate surrounding the upcoming Paris sale of the Barbier-Mueller collection of Latin American antiquities, slated for 22nd March. Further in-depth discussion (with more likely forthcoming) has also been offered by Donna Yates here and here.
One of the commentators, a Dr. Geoffrey A. Smith, stated in rebuttal words to the effect of "published provenance is not always an accurate one," and "just because provenance isn't listed in the catalog doesn't preclude legitimate ownership." Potentially valid, but also contentious, claims. I can attest from my own ongoing research that issues like this are what makes investigating and quantifying the antiquities trade, especially data from past auctions gleaned from catalogs, a time-consuming and complicated task. Relevant but difficult.
My response to Dr. Smith raised what I feel to be a salient point. In the highest-end echelons of the so-called legitimate antiquities trade that auction houses like Sotheby's, Christie's, Bonham's, etc. supposedly now represent, and after several embarrassing exposures of legal and ethical wrong-doing in recent years (discussed ad nausea elsewhere), the question remains: Why hide information from your customers if, in providing it (especially in online forums), you absolve yourself from any claims of fraud or illegal (internationally illegal in many cases) activities? Remaining purely profit-driven is one thing (as Dr. Smith suggests in a follow-up comment), but how can any claims to transparency and reform be taken seriously, and why should they?
As a case in point (and in-line with my general interests in all things Asian antiquities related), I present to you this item. Allegedly bought at a garage sale in 2007 for $3 (but from an anonymous family), its arrival and sale on March 20th at Sotheby's New York caused shock waves. Listed as a "Rare and Important 'Ding' Bowl, Northern Song Dynasty," first of all let's note that its estimated price was $200,000-$300,000, but it sold for a whopping $2,225,000! Provenance (a.k.a. "ownership history") is offered as solely belonging to a "New York State private collection." When did the original owners (pre-2007) actually acquire it, and how?
In the catalog notes and descriptions, much text is spent describing the aesthetic details of the piece, including a couple citations that provide other examples of similar bowls. One in particular stands out, and I quote the catalog description itself:
"Only one other bowl of the same form, size and almost identical decoration is known; the piece in the British Museum London, published in The World’s Great Collections. Oriental Ceramics, vol. 5, Tokyo, 1981, pl. 57. This bowl was bequeathed to the museum in 1947 by Henry J. Oppenheim, together with a small number of other ‘Ding’ pieces, including a plain dish with foliate rim, pl. 62, and a bowl with molded decoration of boys and flowers, pl. 61."
Relatively detailed information is also provided, with a couple of references, about the general provenience of the Ding ceramic kiln site, with manufacturing dates and stylistic changes observed from the 10th-13th centuries (see Kerr 1982; Kerr and Thomas, 2004). Much is also made of the fact that Ding ware has been argued to be a high-status vessel type, stored in official warehouses and made in imitation of gold or silver objects. NO mention, citation, or even slight hint is revealed as to where and when this particular vessel surfaced, how long it has been outside China, inside the US, and if there are significant gaps in its ownership history. Did the bowl derive from the kiln site itself, a grave, a warehouse stockpile? If originally part of the haul from a legal excavation, even before the days of scientific, systematic archaeology, some relevant notes must exist somewhere for such a rare piece?
And what of the c. 1947 nearly identical piece mentioned above? One might also reasonably inquire as to whether or not, as Dr. Smith suggested, the 1947 provenance could be trusted should it ever arrive at auction. Bought by Giuseppe Eskenazi, current owner of a long established London gallery, might it now be purchased by one of numerous museums who have previously bought from him before, including several in Australia? It is highly unlikely, to me, that any professional museum with a 21st century acquisitions policy would touch this piece unless more clarity and documentation could be provided.
If a museum does purchase it, let us hope that, even for such a tiny and easy-to-overlook piece, everyone will do their job to ensure legal export pre-1970 (and in accordance with Chinese laws that date to 1982 and earlier). Furthermore, may they also have success in clarifying as detailed an ownership history as possible, and perhaps (with luck) obtaining information regarding provenience and context. As pointed out by SAFE and others, China's illicit antiquities trade continues, but national and international action is being taken. It's worth noting here that the latest US-China MoU (2009) will be up for renewal again next year. In closing, I feel that not only are these questions worth raising, but also that the questions themselves demonstrate that the claims to full transparency and reform by such elite auction houses are yet to be satisfactorily achieved.