Collecting 101: A Head at Bonhams

I'm always vaguely amused when people try to slander me to newspapers - the women who claimed to the Daily Mail I was trolling her, the collector I declined to work for who told the NY Times a pack of lies, Zahi Hawass who claimed to the WaPo he had a file an inch thick on my bad work in Egypt ... the problem is that a lot of untrue stories do make it into the press, and also a lot of propaganda about looting and collecting antiquities. There are too many people who have cried wolf and made too many unsubstantiated allegations, so they are not taken seriously by people dealing with the day to day business of antiquities, whether selling or buying. The looting of archaeological material and the destruction of sites is a huge problem, and I would in no way wish to downplay it. In recent years there has however arisen a whole industry of 'experts' most of whom do little other than travel from one conference to another, and complain about the issues to raise funds to travel to more international conferences.

So we have a lot of hot air and a lot of allegations, but very little actual outreach explaining it to people. I've taken a slightly different approach. Whilst I often decline to answer questions about my work because of security or legal issues - or I don't want smugglers to know how we catch them! - I also thought it might be useful to explain some basics.

Today the Greek Ministry of Culture issued a press release saying that Bonhams had withdrawn this lot from tomorrow's London Antiquties auction.

The reason given is that "the head is contained in seized photographs, which shows the possible origin and illegal export" - given that it says "seized photographs" I assume they mean the polaroids taken by dealer Robin Symes and sometimes called the Schinoussa Archive, which were found in his Greek home there.

There are people who kick up a huge fuss about anything that appears in these and in the polaroids of Giacomo Medici, but although both were dodgy dealers, they also sold a lot of licit material. Some photos showed newly excavated material covered in earth, others items bought at auction. So appearing in these polaroids is a black mark against an item, but not necessarily proof of anything more. That's why whatever self-proclaimed experts say, the Greek government is using the word "possibly" ... and if the photos had shown it had been stolen from a site or museum they would have said so.

This herm was a copy of an original by Alcamenes, and was copied from the 5th century BC and throughout the Roman period. Even a quick Google Image Search shows just how many there were of these ...

Where dodgy people often mess up is in trying to be too clever with the provenance and literature:

This is pretty meaningless. It is almost suggesting a link, as if it could possibly have come from Pergamon by implying it rather than stating it. Almost as if they'd rather hoped it had had this inscription on the missing bits like the complete copy in Istanbul ...

And then we move on to the description and provenance, which are like a series of red flags to a bull:

"Probably originally from a herm"?!! Unless there is evidence to the contrary, it was almost certainly from a herm.

"archaic style" is a term I have only heard people bluffing their way through art use: it's either Archaic and early 5th century BC or earlier preceding the Classical period, or it is archaising in that it is deliberately executed in an 'old' style to deliberately recall a past age - the latter is what Alcamenes was aiming for, and what the sculptors at Amphipolis were too. My issue with auction houses is that they often employ people who don't know what they are doing as they can pay them less, but since Olga Palagia also has issues differentiating when it comes to this, perhaps I am being to harsh.

"Nicolas Koutoulakis Collection, Geneva, acquired circa 1965, thence by descent" ... circa 1965 is designed to evade the 1970 cut-off point. And "circa" to me suggests that once again Bonhams would not be able to provide paperwork to substantiate this; collectors have complained about this to me in the past. Nicolas Koutoulakis died in 1996, and Bonhams seem to have passed through his Geneva collection. The fact that a ridiculously high percentage of the items that passed through his hands have turned out to have been looted is neither here nor there, as most were before 1970. The bigger issue for me is that he kept most of his collection in Paris.

So Symes polaroids + dodgy dealer + Bonhams track record + no paperwork + odd write-up + second dodgy dealer = the balance of probability suggests that this piece was looted.

I've already said that I think this plate looks like a modern fake. This doesn't really bother me - auction houses operate under caveat emptor, and frankly I don't care if arrogant collectors buy fakes any more than if they exhibit exceptionally bad taste in their vanity project museums. Fakes have been around forever, and arguably the Roman Hermes above is a fake of Alcamenes' Hermes Propylaios - and they don't damage archaeological sites.

Bonhams are the ones to watch in terms of dodgy antiquities, and nobody else would have had the arrogance to try to sell the Sevso Treasure ...

... and did anyone notice that they announced with huge hyperbole in 2009 as the property of European Private Collector, this Roman cameo glass vase? ... it was bigger than the Portland Vase so it had to be better ... forget the quality, just feel the weight ...

I asked to see it at the time, and Bonhams told me they were only showing it to experts. The hand-selected experts they allowed to see it were all suitably grateful. Representatives of the north African government who felt that the balance of probability was that it was recently looted from their soil were not.

Bonhams got their press puffery, but were unable to sell the vase. Christie's have an excellent legal department who take issues raised by reputable sources seriously. Bonham's bluffed and lost.

Obviously not everything Bonhams sells is dubious, as even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The provenance of this Roman head sounds just as nebulous - no dodgy dealer named, but also not much concrete information.

But they left out mention of the key point which shows that the head clearly has a long collecting history - the old nose repair ...

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