The international trade of archaeological material is worth millions of dollars each year. In 2016 just two auction houses in New York sold $26 million of antiquities from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, and Rome. Some of these items are sold with comprehensive collecting histories tracing the ownership and sale over the decades. But many have limited information and the owners can be little more than the anonymous ‘Lady’, ‘European Private Collector’, or ‘Distinguished Private Collector’.
The last twenty years have presented some disquieting revelations about the nature of the trade. One major international auction house stopped the sale of antiquities in London after paperwork indicated how material was being consigned via Switzerland. In another case a London auction house had to withdraw large numbers of lots (including the cover piece for the in-house magazine featuring the sale) when the Italian authorities intervened.
A major raid in the Geneva Freeport, further seizures from another dealer in Basel, and raids in Greece on the property of a London based dealer, have provided the Italian authorities with a series of dossiers of photographs and paperwork relating to the sale of antiquities. These have been used to ensure the return of several hundred objects from North American public and private collections. The collections include Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Princeton University Art Museum. The objects range from collections of silver plate, a marble statue of the goddess Aphrodite, a series of terracotta reliefs from an Etruscan temple, as well as Athenian and South Italian figure-decorated pottery.
More recently concerns have been raised about the possibility that looted archaeological material from Syria and Northern Iraq was being brought to European and North American markets. In early 2015 the BBC’s File on 4 programme was able to identify such material openly on sale in London. This has led to calls by archaeologists and heritage professionals for the due diligence process conducted by auction-houses to be made more rigorous.
Only this week Christie’s in New York had to withdraw two lots—a South Italian black-glossed water-jar and a Roman marble janiform statue—from sale after they had been identified from photographs derived from two separate seizures of documentation in Switzerland. This case has served to highlight the need for reform in the auction houses so that potential buyers can be reassured about their purchases, and to ensure that objects recently removed from archaeological sites in Syria cannot be used to finance other activities.