Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Unprovenanced Arts of the Islamic World under London hammers
Admittedly, the reports of looted museum collections in Libya and elsewhere — which have been appearing with increasing frequency on the Museum Security Network in recent weeks — remain largely uncorroborated.
As with the Iraqi cultural heritage crisis, and indeed the plight of heritage sites in strife-torn Georgia in 2008 (which I reported on here), the 'fog of war' makes a proper assessment of the situation very difficult. Yet that seems an even more compelling reason why the major international auction houses ought to be exercising greater caution and responsibility towards cultural heritage on the open market.
Given the recent turmoil in the Maghreb it's extraordinary that the London auction houses are still blithely packing their catalogues with hundreds of lots of highly portable unprovenanced material. But then who is going to stop them?
Although most of the lots at Sotheby's evening sale on October 4 were predominantly sourced from the documented Harvey Plotnick Collection (and a few lots from that old favourite — the "European Private Collection"), the vast bulk of the 350 lots dispersed at this morning's day sale entered the catalogue entirely without provenance.
We know that Saif Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator's LSE-educated son, had bought a great deal of the material contained in his Islamic Museum in Shari’ Sidi Khaliffa at Sotheby's Islamic sales in recent years. Some reports maintain that the Libyan Islamic Museum has been looted by rebels. Officials inside the country insist that the looting in Libya is not as bad as the media have suggested. (They said that about Iraq, too).
Sotheby's saleroom was packed this morning with Middle Eastern gentlemen huddling, conferring, marking their catalogues, battling with the telephone and internet bidders. One man in the room was particularly active, buying across the price range from a few thousand up to hundreds of thousands of pounds per lot. Afterwards I approached him to ask whether he was buying for himself or for an institution. He was very forthcoming. "I am a private collector, buying for myself," he said, "but I am planning to build a museum in Turkey."
How ironic that Western nations, hamstrung by cultural heritage laws and provenance restrictions, can no longer add to their museum collections via the open market, while Western auction houses continue, unchecked, to supply the new museums of emerging nations with unprovenanced objects. Am I missing something here? I don't think so.