From Egypt to London Bonhams again?

The inlay sold as Lot 101, at Bonhams Auction 27739 (London 16 April 2015)

The inlay sold as Lot 101, at Bonhams Auction 27739 (London 16 April 2015)

New resemblances have emerged between pieces excavated by the Italian mission directed by R. Pintaudi in Antinoupolis and items recently auctioned by Bonhams. Despite a previous auction was stopped, it appears not much has changed.

The right (see note at the end of the post) left half of a glass inlay sold in London on 16 April 2015 for £ 15,000 (on the left) looks remarkably similar to the one recently published in Analecta Papyrologica (p. 372, reproduced below).

Right half of a mosaic inlay excavated by the Italian mission at Antinoupolis, and recently published.

Right half of the mosaic inlay excavated by the Italian mission at Antinoupolis, and recently published.

However, according to the auction catalogue the inlay comes from the “Scheps Collection, Switzerland, formed in the 1930s-1960s.” It would be interesting, among other things, to understand how the two halves came to be reunited in case it will be ascertained that the Bonhams right one is the same as the one found in Antinoupolis. Pintaudi has denounced both robberies from the mission’s storage and looting on the excavation site.

A spindle whorl sold by Bonhams in April 2014 has also been identified by Pintaudi as coming from the Antinoupolis material. In this case the provenance given in the catalogue was “UK private collection, formed during the late 1950s and early 1960s.”

If all this will be confirmed, we will have another proof of the fact that auction houses seem not to take enough care of provenance checks, while they have the ethical and professional duty to do so. I would say, they do not even care after alarming events and the continuous appeals in view of the wider situation in Egypt and elsewhere. I am confident that Madeleine Perridge (Head of Antiquities, Bonhams) will comment on the episode and will give us information on Bonhams provenance policy and practices, besides details on the acquisition history of the pieces in question. At my conference last October, she and other auction houses representatives and dealers not only pointed out the difficulties connected with provenance documentations, but also manifested their disappointment on what they defined as a criminalising attitude of the academics towards the antiquities market. Fair enough, but honestly what should we think after all these cases? As I asked in that occasion, is there a way to collaborate in order to stop what is happening, e.g. exercising a more careful control over the material on sale, providing images to experts in the field before sales take place? By the way, to provide images would be possible only if auction houses systematically take and archive them, which as we have learnt recently from Christie’s representatives is not as common as you might think, quite the opposite…Unless dealers and auction houses will take serious steps on checking provenance documents from their sources, nothing will ever change.

Besides provenance, the price of Bonhams lot 101 raises questions since it seems incredibly high and unjustified to me: £ 15,000 for a little inlay, not particularly rare? Really? Why, if I may ask: for the restorations it went through? What’s going on here? I would recommend buyers to consider the fact that auction houses sellers do get percentages, so inflating prices since the very beginning can easily occur. Indeed high prices could end being a more general advantage for both sellers and purchasers when antiquities are subsequently donated to a public institution with a consistent tax write-off and a millionaire looking like a public benefactor while he or she is first and foremost a benefactor to his or her own pocket. Or is it the high price just due to the fee oligarchs are ready to pay these days for the pleasure to own a piece of antiquity sold in the elegant rooms of a famous London auction house? I could not believe a museum has eventually paid this sum, but with so many new and well funded institutions spreading all over the world you never know.

Finally in case the provenance from the excavation site will be confirmed, I wonder how these pieces have crossed the UK borders without much troubles.

Correction 10 May 2015: I have been informed via email by Rosario Pintaudi that the side of the Bonhams’ inlay on which he has moved questions is not the right, as I reported initially, but the left. The image produced in the recently published article (available here) and reproduced above would correspond to the Bonahms left half although reversed since these glass inlays look ‘readable’ on both sides.

5 thoughts on “From Egypt to London Bonhams again?

  1. I thought those inlays were manufactured with only one half, and the “other half” is just the reverse.

  2. If the spindle whorl comes from Antinoupolis, as Pintaudi says, why has it not been published? It is disappointing that the paper linked to does not provide a full listing of looted material, which would help clean up the market. Instead it’s a publication of selected objects with brief academic commentary. This is good to boost the publication rate of the authors, but does not make a useful step to make the range of the looted material fully known. It’s ironic that Pintaudi denunciates the academic world for publishing looted papyri without caring for the consequences, then produces an incomplete listing of looted material!

    The mask pictured above is probably the same as the looted fragment. It has been cut down on top, and the glass liberated was used to fill in the loss on the side. It has also been cut in half to produce two pieces which could be put together to complete the face. The way to decide this would be to look at the thicknesses of the pieces.

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