The Antiquities Trade and Collectors

This Forbes article (link below) gives Peter Aldrich's ideas on antiquities from the view-point of a collector. I don't agree with the feasibility of most of his suggestions, but it's important to keep the debate going about how to clean up the antiquities market.


I had a chat recently with a journalist writing a piece about collecting antiquities for the FT. We stuck to discussing the collectors who had chosen to make their collections public - Leon Levy & Shelby White, George Ortiz, Christian Levett - and how attitudes of collectors to looters had changed.
There's a lot of 'bad press' about collectors on some blogs, seemingly linking them directly to looting. The truth is that most collectors are trying to go out of their way to buy material that was not looted, and they know that if items turn out to be looted they'll have to return them - and will loose the money they paid for the item. So in financial terms it's simply not worth buying smuggled art.
Mrs White has returned a few items to Greece and Italy in recent years, but as a percentage of the collection she and her late husband put together, this is minute. She and her husband have funded excavations, publications and a great deal of scholarship - although her critics tend to forget this.
Levett is actively collecting on a large scale, and going out of his way to buy pieces with solid provenances: he's also displaying part of his collection in his Mougins Museum of Classical Art, so clearly feels secure in his belief that they were not looted.
I took the time out to wonder, if I were a collector, what would I do differently, because we academics always like to critique how we'd do things better ... But as much as I hate to admit it Levett's a model collector, doing it by the book.
There are some dodgy collectors out there buying pieces they know to have been dug up clandestinely and smuggled, but most of those are, as far as I'm aware, in the Middle East and Asia (notably Japan). No serious Western collector would, for example, go near any of the antiquities recently looted from Benghazi.


  1. hi dorothy,christian levett,in my eyes is a model collector and everything the modern antiquities collector should be.hear is a guy that has put his collection on public display for all to see with nothing to hide.a collector who buys as ethicaly as possible and pays a premium for acquiring pieces with good provenance.
    i also collect,though im a flea compared to levett but i also try to collect as ethicaly as posible and avoid buying pieces that could have been looted[ie any apulian pieces sold at sothebys in the early 80s]
    many decent collectors like the shelby whites ect have been caught out through no fault of their own when buying pieces with made up provenances from auction houses or unscrupulous dealers[graham geddes is another example of this].for the serious collector provenance is king.
    ps,i started my collecting 15 years ago when i paid a visit to the bm and than wonderd into coincraft where i bought my first greek coin,an alexander the great tetradrachm,since then i have been hooked.

  2. Thank you. I'm so tired of people bashing collectors - there are some bad ones, but most do it because they love history. I have yet to meet one who encourages looting!

  3. true,most collectors love history and this is what makes them collect but having read "sothebys the inside story" and "the medici conspiracy" one cannot deny that there is a link between the unsatiable demand for antiquities and the looting and that statement is coming from me a passionate collector.there are still to many collectors that simply dont care where their pieces come from and that is a shame.

  4. The loot I tended to deal with was in countries where it was poor locals digging to finnd enough to feed their families, so the scale of organised looting in Italy was quite an eye-opener. What Medici did was pretty shocking - but I also wonder if it's not time to try and organise some sort of an amnesty with him and Symes so we can know once and for all which photos in the Polaroids were looted and which not. Since it seems he can't be prosecuted, it would at least be nice to get that information. And ideally where from.

  5. everything they handled is guilty by association,which is a great shame.symes handled many licit pieces from very old collections.
    all the photo archives should be published,as a collector of greek pots it would certainly make it easier for me to do my due diligence.i have had many arguments with other archaeologists over this issue.
    ps,many archaeologists take the same view as you,two of my heros,a.d.trendall [who use to help guide and advise collectors like geddes expand their collections]and sir john boardman[who for me is a giant in classical archaeology]didnt mind private collectors at all.

  6. Exactly - an amnesty would sort the licit from the looted, and end the confusion once and for all.

    Pots have never been my thing, but with most old journals and books now online it's a lot easier to find provenances for sculptures. If you know where to look.

    Had some slightly surreal conversations with UNESCO over the photos I posted of items missing from Benghazi, where they said those items were not looted, I had to explain why they were, because I wasn't using their 1961 inventory of short descriptions no photos but instead had gone back to the original dig reports which had photos of the missing items ...I really just wanted to point out that I'm very good at this, and maybe they could learn (but instead kept my mouth shut).

    There would be no archaeology at the start of the Renaissance and into the 19th century without collectors, and it's a pity they've moved so far apart now.

    Actually Levett said he wanted to dig, and forgot to drop a friend a line about it (will next).

    And you're right, when I was at university professors were working with collectors, and many collected on a smaller scale themselves. Lord Renfrew has, I believe, a nice coin collection. Now ... I've suggested to a few people they submit an article to Minerva, but they won't because their professors frown on it for it's art maarket associations (I used to write for it years ago, but don't as they don't pay enough for me.

  7. its funny you should mention minerva.i read an article in minerva a few months ago about metal detecting and another by peter clayton on the treasure act and how brilliant the pas is.i sent an email and recieved a reply from dr.murray eiland asking me if i wanted to write a piece.
    i wrote an article 1500 words, about the treasure act and the pas.it was a bit hard hitting,the crosby garrett helmet fiasco was mentiond.im not sure if they are going to publish it.they said it might go in jan issue but i havent heard anything from them.i have met dr.mark merrony a couple of times when he was based in bond street.a realy nice guy,very passionate about byzantine mosaics.he knows his stuff.i dont want any money from them if they publish,i just want to redress the ballance.

  8. They should pay a token amount for articles. But then again the only argument I've had with anyone in years was with Levett over Minerva - I kept saying no, and they kept pushing. My theory is that when I work with a homeless charity I happily 'forget' to take my sallary because those guys need it more than me. But when a collector spending millions on art wants my time he can pay for it as my usual rate - otherwise he is is effect saying my time is worthless, and I don't believe it is.

  9. good for you and they just put the price up.
    intresting bbc news article on the benghazi treasure.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15582483

  10. I still recommend Minerva to people - both to oread and to write for - but ... the truth is that I wish there was a good general archaeology magazine out there, as there seem to be several good ones in French and Italian

  11. Many countries such as Italy and Greece have laws that restrict what antiquities can be owned by private individuals after a certain date. Greece's antiquities laws date to the late 1890s and Italy's antiquities law relate to objects found after 1902. If dealers or collectors purchased antiquities that were "dug up" after the 1890s in Greece or "1902" in Italy, those objects were probably illegally excavated (i.e. looted) and if the owners cannot prove that the objects were legally removed from those countries; the objects should be returned to the source country irrespective of the collectors good fgaith motives in purchasing that artifact.

  12. I agree that 1970 is an arbitrary date, but it's the one others chose. My feeling is that if we go back to the '30s when it comes to Nazi looting, we should go back a bit further than that with archaeological looting.

    I also feel it's time to draw the line - perhaps a cut-off date before which claims against Nazi loot should be filed. I also feel some sort of an amnesty needs to be considered by Medici and Symes - if we can't prosecute them, at least let's try to get the information out of them about the artefacts they traded, so we can find out where some of them came from.

    I'm not sure I fully agree with your idea about shifting the priority onto collectors to prove items were not looted, since it’s almost impossible to prove a negative. I do however feel that some system needs to be put into place to get better provenances out of dealers – I understand sellers not always wanting people to know they need money, but ... “old collection, England” means nothing, and too many dealers are faking provenances as I noted in posts about the Christie’s head stolen from Sabratha in Libya, the MFA Heracles statue stolen from Perge etc

    I’ve never felt that urge to collect, but if I did, I’d stick to buying from public auctions (were items are more likely to have been “vetted” by people looking through the catalogues, even if not those writing them) and a small number of dealers – Cahn and Chenel seem honest and have good sculptures, for example. There are other dealers that I’d avoid like the plague, and I really wish there was some way of making the auction houses disclose the names of the handful of dealers which repeatedly consign dodgy lots.

  13. I agree that 1970 is an arbitrary date but it is useful with respect to antiquities removed such as the Rosetta stone. The 1970 date is inapplicable to artifacts that were stolen from state warehouse's such as the Ka Nefer Nefer mask.

    More importantly, as I previously stated, many states had enacted laws protecting antiquities that pre-date 1970. In fact, the scant legisative history surrounding the Antiquities Act of 1906 reflect that the US was trying to follow what European countries and Mexico have done to protect their patrimony. For example, by the 1890's Greece required and provided export certificates for collectors seeking to export artifacts that were excavated in Greece. (In fact, in the late 1920's the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts required depositions to be taken with respect to gold jewelery that was looted from Greece and was then in possession of persons resideing in Massachusetts.) Similarly, Italy in 1939 required export certificates for all artifacts that were excavated in Italy after 1902 and were being removed from that country.

    It is not a "negative" to require these certificates to accompany artifacts as they are transferred from one collector to another. These certificates are the provenance and proof that the artifact in question is genuine and was legally removed from the source country. Because these certificates enhance the value of the object it is much more likely that they will be retained by collectors. These are papers that would normally be kept by collectors to document their possession.

    Collectors know and have known the importance of documentation and will not discard documentation that enhance the value of their antiquities. Thus, in countries that have antiquities laws that require such documentation, it is not an imposition to require collectors to maintain such documentation and to assume the absence of such doumentation undercuts the licitness of that artifact.

  14. I agree, in an ideal world there would be some sort of standard for documentation, but it seems impractical - and the truth is that it's just as open to faking as provenances are.

    But I also feel that countries should try to find some way of letting people check if something is looted - and it does seem as if St Louis did try to do due dilligence and check that the Ka Nefer Nefer mask wasn't looted ... alas, it turned out they were given the wrong information, and it was.

    I believe that the issues are to an extent being resolved by the Market - collectors are in effect voting with their cash by chosing not to spend it on items that seem dodgy.

  15. I agree that provenance can be faked as Schultz did with Egyptian antiquities before he was caught and prosecuted. Similarly, provenance has been faked with respect to sale of antiquities in Israel. The difference however is when a certification is issued by a source state, it generally has a copy of that document and can be contacted for information regarding a specific certification.

    The record with respect to SLAM is that the research into provenance that SLAM did with respect to the Ka Nefer Nefer mask was very sketchy and incomplete at best. Under such cirucmstances, SLAM should have known that there were issues relating to its purchase of that mask given that there was evidence of it being in possession of the Egyptian government.

    Again, if a source country issues an export certificate, it is easy to detemine whether that certificate is fake or false by contacting the issuing state. If the certificate is fake, then the antiquity was either looted or is a fake. Collectors have to be held to a standard and they cannot simply claim ignorance. Given today's climate if a collector does not exercise due diligence, the collector cannot complain when a country such as Italy and Greece seek to use replevin to reclaim their patrimony. Indeed, this may be one reason Shelby White entered into an agreement with Italy regarding what objects she would return and what objects Italy would forgo seeking in a replevin action.

    Due diligence should be viewed as the norm in collecting and if collectors do not exercise such diligence they cannot complain if the source country seeks to reclaim its patrimony in a replevin action or, as in the US, seeks the assistance of the government to bring a forfeiture action for an antiquity that illegally entered the country.

  16. Don't forget the Sevso Hoard - very dodgy documentation there too. And there are a lot of items with 1970s and 1980s export documents from the Lebanon

    I think due dilligence is becoming more of the norm - it's just common sense. But Leon Levy was collecting a long time ago, when different standards applied. You can draw a parallel with collectors in paintings wanting the years 1930 to 1945 clarified, so it doesn't turn out to be Nazi loot.

  17. When Leon Levy, Robert Hecht or Robin Symes were collecting it was still a crime, at least in the US, to purchase stolen property. The fact that these crimes were not pursued or vigorously prosecuted in the period from the 1920s through 1970s does not negate the fact that these collectors were dealing in stolen antiquities and their activities of directly or indirectly destroying archaeological sites should not be condoned.

    Indeed, given this fact, it may be difficult for these collectors to donate or bequest their exhibits to any museum. Also, given the emphasis on provenance, it may also be difficult for them to sell their collections on the open or licit market.

    Perhaps, they should consider returning their collections to the countries from which their objects were stolen. In this way, while the sites from which these objects were taken will not be made whole, the artifacts will be returned to the source country for display.

    As to Nazi art,if provenance can be proven, museums should return such art notwithstanding that they pruchased the art in good faith. Antiquities and Nazi art should be treated in the same fashion. Both should be returned to the rightful owners notwithstanding the passage of time. Neither museums or collectors should use legal means to refrain from returning such objects to the rightful owners.

  18. Hecht and Symes were dodgy dealers. Mr Levy was a collector, and of a quite different ilk.

  19. Leon Levy bought objects that were stolen from Italy. What he bought was stolen property and presumeably illegally imported in the US in the same fashion that Michael Steinhart's gold phiale was imported into the US. The fact that these men were Wall Street investors does not negate the fact that they bought knowingly or unknowingly stolen objects. And, under US law, a thief can not give title to stolen property. Thus, the stolen antiquities they own are possessed by them but it is questionable as to whether they can pass good title if they sell the object. In the same sense they are the equivalent of any collector who has purchased art that passed through Nazi's hands. They may possess it but there is a question as to whether they own it. My position, is rather absolute, if a collector possess' stolen proeprty, irrespective of how the collector acquired that property, title does not vest in the possessor and the original owner should, at least morally, be entitled to reclaim it. The Ka Nefer Nefer mask case may resolve this issue as to whether SLAM can continue to possess property that was stolen from Egypt.

  20. anonymous says
    "returning such objects to the rightful owners"
    but it is not allways clear who the rightfull ownners are.the euphronios krater was looted from italy not greece.
    dorothy hits the nail on the head when she says that collectors ,even 25 years ago didnt see the need to do due dilligence as provenance was not as important than as it is now,different standards for different times,in fact it has only been over the last 4-5 years that auction houses have asked consigners to sign provenance declaration certificates ect.i think that most collectors [though not all] are the innocent victims in all this.when a collector is buying from sothebys ,he or she would expect the auction house to have done their due dilligence,after all this is sothebys not some ebay dealer.someone like geddes was not privy to the information we have now on the state of the antiquities market in the early 80s.as dorothy said she was "shocked" at the industrial scale of the looting that was going on,as where all of us but when this was going on,only the looters and the dealers knew ,not the collectors.

    i think looters and unscrupulous dealers are to blame,not innocent collectors who where buying in good faith, published pieces, at a time when provenance was certainly not king.
    as a collector myself,the first thing i look for is the provenance but it is 2011,not 1980.

    most of these collectors are also very philanthropic,often donating part or in some cases all their collections to museums,this speaks volumes for the kind of people they are.comparing them to paedophiles,as michael vickers did in his introduction in a book "ancient greek pottery" ashmolean museum oxford 1999, is a disgrace.
    ps,i wish anonymous would sign their posts,its the polite thing to do.

  21. unprovenanced dose not allways mean stolen.

    i collect old antiquities catalogs ,mostly with the hope that i can find one of my pieces in them.i have antiquities catalogs from the 1930s-1970s and provenance,as we know it is hardly mentiond,"property of a lady" property of a gentleman" and thats it.i have some sothebys catalogs from the 1930s stufed with greek vases with no provenance at all but these pieces are out there somewhere.


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