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In Defence of the Antiquities Trade

11 April 2014

Antiquities dealer Jamie Ede, of Charles Ede Limited, London, responds to Christos Tsirogiannis’ post of 2 April on this site about possibly looted antiquities appearing in the London salerooms:

As some commentators have noted, Dr Christos Tsirogiannis seems to be more interested in embarrassing the auction houses than in trying to help them root out looted antiquities.

It is clear that the Becchina and Medici archives [of former dealers Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina; they include photographs of looted objects handled by the two men after 1970] should be made available, at the very least, to many more law enforcement agencies as well as stolen art registers. Only then would he be justified in complaining were auction houses and others not to consult them. It is absurd to blame people for not using a resource that is unavailable to them.

Two things are worth noting. Firstly these archives date from the 1970s and ’80s and many of the objects have appeared for sale on a number of occasions since. They have generally not been returned to Italy since there is no real proof that the pieces were stolen in the first place. While it is likely that many, if not most, of the items did enter the market illicitly, both Becchina and Medici also sold items which were legally on the market. This further muddies the waters.

Secondly, Tsirogiannis does not mention the intense efforts made in the last 25 years by the auction houses, the trade and in particular The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, to stop illicit material coming on to the market. The latter has the most stringent Code of Ethics and due diligence requirements of any market organisation. On a number of occasions, those who failed to meet the standard were invited to give up their membership.

We in the trade would be absolutely delighted if all antiquities had documentary provenance but the reality is that enormous numbers of objects without documentation have come on to the market in the last few hundred years, and they have every right to be in free circulation. Readers need only look at the antiques and other art objects in their own homes, and ask themselves how many of those pieces have documentary history prior to 1970, to realise how rare such proof is.

We are always being called upon to be open and transparent but our critics are not prepared to be open themselves. At present we are very concerned about the situation in Egypt, Syria, Libya and other parts of the near East but requests for information on looting and thefts from museums and sites meet with no response.

Tsirogiannis suggests that the stories he promotes are ‘not newsworthy’. I think the fact that The Times devoted half a page to a story concerning two minor objects of dubious provenance shows this to be manifestly untrue.

Would that as much newsprint were devoted to the transgressions of some groups in the near East destroying monuments in the name of religion.

It is surely time for the argument to move on; all who are involved should recognise that it is in no-one’s interest for the wilful destruction of ancient monuments, smuggling and looting to flourish. The best way to fight the illicit traffic is to support and encourage the legitimate trade, not constantly denigrate it.

Related Articles:

Auction houses should do more to root out looted antiquities (Christos Tsirogiannis)

Red Alert: Syrian cultural artefacts at risk

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One comment

  1. Jamie,

    You (unfortunately) represent an increasingly rare voice of reason in a wilderness of accusation without accountability. I am astounded every time I see situations where one of the most basic tenets of American law – a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven – is so blatantly ignored. Although I find intentional trading in clearly illicit antiquities to be reprehensible, even worse is the assumption by some individuals that collectors, dealers, museums and others should be assumed guilty until proven innocent. The fact of the matter is, provenance documentation was historically not required to be archived for eternity, and the passing of antiquities from one generation to another through estate disbursements or other means of sales usually did not include historical documentation. This reality in no way means that artefacts without provenance documentation were acquired, owned or traded illegally or unethically. The burden of proof remains with the accuser, and collectors, dealers and museums need to stand up for their rights in a more coordinated and public manner.

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