The Art Market: Antiquity trade under pressure
The antiquities trade is under pressure again. As Cyprus prepares for its presidency of the Council of Europe, which promotes human rights, high on the agenda is combating illicit trafficking in cultural property. Ioannis Kasoulides, Cyprus’s foreign minister, has called for a “robust” UN Security Council resolution to “apply universal limitations on the trade and transfer of artefacts originating from all conflict zones, with the obligation of proof of legitimate trade resting on the traders, auction houses and buyers and not on the originating state”.
This represents a reversal of the current burden of proof system. “It is the equivalent of saying that everything in your home is stolen and can be confiscated unless you have proof that it’s not,” says Joanna van der Lande, chairman of the Antiquities Dealers’ Association.
The situation has been exacerbated by conflicts in countries including Syria, Mali and Yemen. But the blanket response is alarming those in the market. Vincent Geerling, chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, says: “The legitimate antiquities trade is very, very careful, but is always the first to take the blow.”
Meanwhile, Christie’s has “voluntarily withdrawn” a Roman marble torso of a goddess due to be sold at its Antiquities auction in New York on Tuesday. The withdrawal comes on the back of the latest “auction alert” made by the controversial archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, a researcher at the Trafficking Culture project at Glasgow University. Tsirogiannis says that the item, which had a presale estimate of $100,000-$150,000, is traceable to the confiscated archive of the British dealer Robin Symes. Symes was linked to an illegal antiquities network but was never charged and has denied that he knowingly sold looted goods.
Tsirogiannis does not share his archival materials with the auction houses and generally reveals his matches on a public forum. Christie’s says that “further research may indicate that [the torso] was purchased through legitimate sources”.
While provenance issues dog the antiquities market, possible forgeries are haunting Old Masters. The latest news is that Sotheby’s has submitted a second work for technical tests to Orion Analytical, the company that this month concluded that a painting the auction house had sold in 2011 by Frans Hals is a modern forgery. Sotheby’s has now sent Orion a painting of Saint Jerome that it sold in 2012 for $842,500 as from the circle of the 16th-century artist Parmigianino.
The “Hals” and the “Parmigianino” had been in the possession of Giuliano Ruffini, a French dealer-collector whose links to the works have been revealed by the investigative journalist, Vincent Noce.
Another work that Ruffini handled is “Venus with a Veil” (1535), attributed to Lucas Cranach, owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein, and which kick-started the public scandal when it was seized from exhibition by the French authorities in March. Now, Johann Kräftner, director of the Princely Collections, says that taking into account all examinations, including an expert report made since the work’s seizure, there is “no reason to doubt the authenticity of the painting”. “Any divergent opinions resulting from recent analysis instructed by the French authorities can and will be refuted, point by point,” he adds.
Ruffini’s lawyer, Philippe Scarzella, says his client “has no reason to think that these paintings could be fakes. He entrusted professionals, experts, art dealers and museums to study and determine their attributions … He is not responsible for their change of opinion.” No charges have been filed against Ruffini.
The annual ArtReview Power 100 ranking of art world luminaries divides opinion, but it gets people talking. This year’s 15th list is topped by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the globetrotting artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries. He replaces last year’s art dealing duo, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the founders of Hauser & Wirth, now relegated to the third spot. Newcomers to the top 10 this year include the Berlin-based video artist Hito Steyerl and the Polish curator Adam Szymczyk, director of the 14th Documenta exhibitions in Athens and Kassel next year.
Those on the side of art market transparency have welcomed the clarification by New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs on how auction houses report the prices of works that have been guaranteed by a third party. The DCA has reiterated that auctioneers must follow Sotheby’s lead and subtract the fee paid to a guarantor when that third-party is the eventual buyer of a work. The disclosure eliminates a previously hidden discount that masked the true selling price of key works.
While a step in the right direction, it is debatable how much difference this makes in the wider context of an obscure market. “It will be interesting to see if art galleries are held to the same standard,” says the art adviser Wendy Cromwell.
Galleries reported significant early sales from the 43rd edition of the Fiac contemporary art fair in Paris (open until Sunday evening). Skarstedt gallery sold George Condo’s “Untitled (Head #3)” (2016) to an Asian private buyer for $500,000 and Mike Kelley’s “Three Part Yarn Stack” (1990) to an American for $275,000. Two 2016 totem sculptures by Kader Attia — who was announced as the winner of France’s €35,000 Marcel Duchamp prize last week — were among the sales at Lehmann Maupin’s booth (€50,000-€100,000).