Should New Collectors Buy Antiquities Through Auction Houses?

Posted on March 14, 2011

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In an article from the Wall Street Journal on investing in antiquities, G. Max Bernheimer, Christie’s International department head of antiquities, advises potential new collectors, “Buying through an auction house, where due diligence is incredibly thorough and everything is openly published in the catalogue, limits the possibilities over ownership and repatriation issues later on.”

I’m not entirely sure if Bernheimer and I exist in the same universe, but it’s not always a “safe bet” to purchase through an auction house. An auction house is a seller’s agent, and it is a potential buyer’s duty to exercise due diligence — investigating the history of the object, checking on stolen art registers, etc. Most auction houses look at the paperwork that a seller shows them (when there is paperwork), but do not investigate the claims within that paperwork.There have been countless instances of fraudulent paperwork — the seller might know it and she might now, and the auction houses don’t seem to mind selling antiquities without any paperwork at all.

Countless studies show that the vast majority of antiquities sold through auction houses lack provenance to establish that they were not illicitly excavated (the usual figures are 90-97%). In fact, in one study by Ricardo Elia of BU of the some 1,700 Apulian red-figure vases known to exist (with 1/4 of them in museums), none had a provenance tending to suggest they had been anything other that illicitly excavated, and nearly all of them were sold through the auction houses.

I’m not necessarily blaming the auction houses (there are plenty of people working on that), but right now they are under no legal obligation to do anything that perform their duty as a representative to their clients, and to not facilitate transactions they know to be illegal. I think that Bernheimer’s statement could cause potential new collectors to think that antiquities purchased through auction houses are somehow more legitimate than those purchased elsewhere.  This is simply not true; it’s a patina of legitimacy, if anything.

For those of you who have always been curious about investing in antiquities, check out the article from Wall Street Journal, Pricing the Priceless: Buying Antiquities Can Be a Wise Investment, but Watch Out for the Cracks.

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If you are interested in the auction industry, check out my 2008 article: The Ethical Trade in Cultural Property: Ethics and Law in the Antiquity Auction Industry.

You’ll have to find the Elia study yourself; I’m working on memory here.  As to the “patina of legitimacy” — I’m sure someone coined the term, and I can only tell you it wasn’t me.

Hat tip: LCCHP.

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