Caveat emptor! A note to Christie’s prospective buyers


One of the bronze statuettes on sale (Resandro Collection)

Are you going to join next 6th December Christie’s auction of Egyptian antiquities in London King Street? If so, be aware that Christie’s people seem to be in some confusion about Egyptian legislation related to cultural heritage protection and the concept of provenance. In their Collecting Guide, under point 6 entitled “Pay Attention to Provenance” (indeed…) antiquities specialist C. Corti writes the following:

“Provenance is important in all fields of collecting, and particularly with Egyptian bronzes. It is essential to check whether the piece you are interested in was extracted from the ground and exported from Egypt before 1983, when the country passed a law forbidding artefacts to be removed from its borders. A history of important collectors is also desirable, as in the Resandro Collection, within which many pieces boast prestigious provenance as well as having appeared in numerous exhibitions and publications. These factors help to ensure that an object retains its value and will remain appealing to future generations of collectors.”

I must say that the reference to the law of 1983 is quite misleading. The export of antiquities, as well as their excavation and commerce, was regulated by the Egyptian State well before then. Legislation on the preservation of cultural heritage has been in place in Egypt since 1835 (yes, since almost two centuries ago…); it allowed the excavation and commerce of antiquities to some extent, but under the control of the State. Different measures were undertaken mainly in 1912 and in 1952 to control the market through licenses. Moreover, Egypt was one of the first countries to subscribe the UNESCO Convention of 14 November 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which is in fact adopted by most museums, institutions and academic associations as a watershed date in their ethical policies (usually 1972, the year of the convention’s enforcement).

The principle that all the antiquities found in the country belonged to Egypt was clearly fixed already in art. 1 of law n. 14 of 1912. Antiquities were legally exported outside the country on the basis of specific and regulated cases, for example as a result from partage or legal purchase from an authorised dealer.

The new law issued in 1983 (amended in 2010) basically forbade the commerce in antiquities (before then conceded to some authorised dealers, as just mentioned) and established again and once for all the important principle that the State owns archaeological sites and cultural heritage objects of any kind found in the country. So while this is a very important law, it is far from being the only one to be considered when establishing licit and ethical provenance of an object. (You can check the complete list of Egyptian laws through the website of the International Council of Museums:

Now, in practice due to the socio-economic and political situation of Egypt, this legislation has been often disrespected, in different ways and even in recent years, not only by criminals, but also by some dealers and buyers (including “important collectors”, to use Christie’s terminology). This common disrespect does not imply that such behaviours are to be considered legally and above all ethically acceptable: quite the opposite. So before buying, be aware that in case the collection history of your purchase is not properly and sufficiently documented (more below on this), the Egyptian government or previous owners might decide to ask for repatriation or restitution: then you’ll have to sort things out. I also invite you to think about the important ethical implications connected with the circulation of antiquities on the market, and the many issues involved in the preservation and availability for study of cultural heritage objects such as those on sale on December 6, objects which belong to humanity besides to their legal owners. If you are a collector, do please be a responsible one.

Christie’s has clearly to sell its merchandise as any other shop and auctioneer, so I appreciate that the language in its leaflets, despite the flair for elegance and exclusivity, is just that of vendors looking for a profit. But the concept of “prestigious provenance” really gets on my nerves. What does this even mean, apart being an easy advertisement for unaware collectors to flog to the auction rooms thinking to be “prestigious” themselves? Here the key adjectives should rather be legal and documented. Provenance is a technical term indicating two aspects in the history of an archaeological object: 1. The find spot, i.e. the place and context from where the object was excavated; 2. The collection history of the object, i.e. its history after the find: eventual distribution to museums, sale to collectors, etc. Both these facts in order to be credible should be documented, that is proven to be trustful through written, original statements, demonstrating the history attached to the objects. I am sure Christie’s has all these documents in good order, so ask for them before buying, and check them very carefully to stay on the secure side.

After all, as we have read in many accounts, researches and legal proceedings, even “important” auction houses and dealers have sold in the past authentic and fake antiquities with forged provenance documents. (You don’t believe me? Then read these two books: P. Watson, Sotheby’s: Inside Story, London 1997 and P. Watson, C. Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy, London 2006, and check among others the Trafficking Culture Database of cases:

1st December update: The Art Crime blog reports that expert C. Tsirogiannis has just identified four potentially-tainted antiquities scheduled to be auctioned by Gorny & Mosch in Munich, Germany on December 14, 2016. These objects have been circulating on the market through prestigious auction houses and dealers, but closely resembles objects documented through the Becchina archive, i.e. the photographic archive of Gianfranco Becchina a convicted Italian antiquities dealer. One more reason to be very careful.

So you are advised: caveat emptor!