Saturday, October 3, 2015

Conflict Antiquities Symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palmyran funerary relief in the Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C.
 Last Tuesday night, September 29th, I went to a seminar held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled: “Conflict Antiquities, forging a public/private response to save the endangered patrimony of Iraq and Syria”.  The title and program warned me that this was likely to be an exercise in blaming the antiquities market for the cultural destruction in the Levant, and it was. It was co-sponsored by the US Department of State, here is a link to the press release on it.

Thrust of the speakers, who ranged from assistant secretaries of State, representatives from Homeland Security, agents of the Justice Department and high end attorneys for major museums and auction houses, was that the market for looted antiquities was the GREATEST threat to Syria and Iraqi's cultural patrimony.  They went over the extensive looting taking place with aerial photographs of sites pillaged since the unrest in Syria and Iraq, and the rise of ISIS.

However, their case is unconvincing to those involved in the antiquities business in the US and Europe, myself included. Showing images purportedly showing a receipt book taken in a raid on an ISIS compound showing taxes collected on antiquities sales in Arabic, they attempted to make the case that ISIS is funding itself largely through the sale of looting objects form the territories under their control.  However, the images they showed, screen grabs from online market places in Arabic, were of low end antiquities of very minimal value, small coins, bronzes and Roman glass, and a few Palmyran reliefs that were of higher quality. There was not one dealer among the panelists, and the one dealer who spoke up in the Q&A period, Randall Hixenbaugh, made the point that even the more attractive Palmyran reliefs are of modest value and hard to sell.

My issues with this symposium are several fold.  The first issue is that neither I, or the dealers I know, are seeing "conflict" antiquities being sold on the market.  The second issue is that the antiquities market in the US has been educated about cultural patrimony issues for well over a decade, since the 1990's.  The trade has gotten so restricted with museums and major auction houses requiring so much documentation of provenance that a class of "orphan" antiquities has been created; that is pieces with a long history of ownership here, but who lack the documentation to prove it.  The symposium is going over old ground for us here, but attempting to address a new threat, which is ISIS.

And here is my real problem with the symposium, the utter disregard for the destruction of objects and sites. Oh, they spoke about it as a bad thing, but then equated looting as the same as being blown up. There was no recognition that at least a looted object sold onto the market is one that survives, unlike those blown up or destroyed.  The real difference with the situation in the Levant and that in other parts of the Classical world is that there, looting is market driven, but in the Levant, it is not. Rather it is religious zealotry, and while ISIS might be happy to profit from the sale of antiquities, it not profit that motivates.  ISIS would rather destroy things than sell them.  One story I read researching for this blog concerned an attempt to smuggle Palmyran reliefs (link to the blog, Conflict Antiquities) In this story a smuggler driving a vehicle was smoking when passing an ISIS checkpoint, and the guards got suspicious because smoking is a sin and stopped him and searched the vehicle. When the Palmyran funerary reliefs were found, they destroyed them. They weren't interested in selling them for the money.

The effort to make "conflict" antiquities valueless, may well guarantee their destruction, since that is the primary aim of ISIS anyway.  Antiquities are by their very nature fragile, only the perception of their value, whether monetary or culturally motivates people to preserve them. While we might decry the loss of context that looting inevitably entails, the objects at least have a chance of survival. If they have no value,  no one is going to preserve them in that part of the world.  There is no good solution to the problem of the loss of cultural patrimony short of destroying ISIS, and re-establishing the rule of law in Iraq and Syria.  That requires much more than lecturing law abiding citizens of the US, who the government can threaten. It requires action, military and diplomatic where the damage is being done. And the US and the UN have proven unable and unwilling to really address ISIS and the instability in that region. The humanitarian and cultural cost of this ineffectiveness is enormous and continuing. The symposium was a waste of time, it is window dressing, an attempt by the State Department to show they are doing something to address the real destruction taking place, by placing the onus on the antiquities market, rather than addressing the real threat.  However well intended, it was a remarkably one sided prescription for a problem that is, it was like decorating the hallway while the house burns.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, and will in subsequent posts. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Civilization Under Attack, what can we do?

Still from ISIS video of the destruction of Nimrud in April 2015
There is a new force arising in the East, and it is undeniably evil, ISIS, also called Daesh, ISIL, and I am sure other names. By any name, the rise of ISIS is one of the most disturbing things to happen in my lifetime. And the world does nothing, or at least nothing effective to counter them and stop the killing of innocents, and now the destruction of our common human heritage. The provocation has been deliberate and intense, videos of the beheading, first of Western hostages one at a time, then mass decapitations of groups of men, one of the last available to be seen was the group beheading of a dozen Egyptian Coptic Christians a few months ago.  It is very hard to find these videos now online, as evidently the powers that be are suppressing their dissemination in the idea that these videos  are recruiting tools for ISIS. However I think everyone should see them, their barbarity is shocking and could be a stimulus for action. Instead, the suppression of the beheading videos has, according to some experts, lead to ISIS's destruction of archaeological sites, and distributing videos of them. 

One would have hoped the world would have learned from the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001. But since then no mechanism has been put in place to protect ancient objects, sites and museums. Perhaps the American, and the West's attitude is best summed up by the infamous quote of Rumsfeld after the looting of the Iraqi National Museum happened when Bagdhad fell, "Stuff happens".  He went on to say, wars are untidy, and free people are free to do stupid things. There is a quality of resignation in the West to the provocations coming out of ISIS. People in the know, say there is nothing we can do to stop ISIS from destroying these sites. I wonder what the point of having the worlds most powerful military is, if we cannot use it effectively in situations such as these.  There is a lack of will on our part to intervene.  And the world loses its common heritage to these barbarians.

Instead of action against ISIS, what is happening now is the archaeological community is holding seminars bashing the antiquities trade. As if the dealers were responsible for the destruction of the archaeological sites in the Near East.   One was just held this past week at the Asia Society,
There a number of academics and high ranking ministers spoke about the role of looting and the antiquities trade in funding terrorism.  And almost as an aside, addressing the destruction of the archaeological sites.  One of the speakers, Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who put out a book titled, Thieves of Baghdad, spoke about the "huge" size of the antiquities market, saying he couldn't be specific about how large it is, because it is a national security secret.  Another such seminar is scheduled for Tuesday, September 29th, 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I am going to attend it, and will report on what is said. I hope it doesn't become another market bashing and blaming event. But the premise it already sounds like that is what it will be.  The title is "Conflict Antiquities: Forging a public/private response to save the endangered patrimony of Iraq and Syria". It says it will have presentations that provide new evidence that ISIL is looting for profit and discuss a new initiative to combat the trade in conflict antiquities. 

I'm unconvinced that this is as big an issue as the academics are telling us.  As a dealer, I have been trying to sell ancient art of all kinds for decades now. And I can tell you that it isn't an easy sell. With ancient Mediterranean art, not only do you have issues of authenticity to get over, but provenance is a big concern for the collectors in the US.  Rich people aren't stupid, they don't want to spend a lot of money on something that turns out to be either a fake, or illicit and run the risk of it being taken away from them.  The market for ancient art is very small, and the buyers are sophisticated. Antiquities are not fashionable, most people don't know a thing about them and they are hard to boast about, unlike say a Picasso or other modern master, or a Jeff Koons or other contemporary art.  People buy art because they like it, but also, for the status the ownership of it conveys in the eyes of their peers.  The buyers for antiquities are not looking for social approval, as they would get very little of it. Most people, wealthy successful people not excepted, know very little about ancient art, and have little interest in it.  When people come into my house, it isn't uncommon for them to not look around them at the pieces, they just cannot or do not relate to them.  The idea that there are these wealthy people willing to spend millions on purloined objects that no museum would accept and that could never be sold at auction or legitimately is unbelievable to me.  Who are they and where are they? I don't see people willing to spend millions on legitimate antiquities, let alone illicit ones.  Collectors exist obviously, but not in the numbers posited by these academics and ministers, and not on the scale they are suggesting. 

And another question I have is this, if there is such a flood of ancient Near Eastern pieces reaching the market, where are they?  I'm not seeing them.  Perhaps I am cloistered in my little pocket of the market, so they aren't passing by my attention, but I do leave Hudson and go to Europe and New York and see what people have for sale. And I see nothing on the market of the quality of the material that we see being destroyed in the videos disseminated by ISIS.  I'm afraid that the reality is that ISIS is simply destroying the objects, and not selling them.  Some pieces may get smuggled but these people are true believers, something we don't understand in the West.  We are so immersed in the market mentality, and believe so much in the power of money, that the idea that there are people motivated by pure religious extremism who have no regard for the value of these pieces is unthinkable by us.  The reality is that ISIS can fund its operating in other ways far more effectively.  Their capture of Mosul and the banks there, gave them something like 400 million dollars in cash. That is a lot of money.  Selling oil into the black market is much easier to do than selling antiquities.  Smuggling and profiting from the smuggling of the goods that people need to live is easier than selling antiquities. 

This brings me to the crux of what I want to say. We need to rethink our attitude towards the market, as what we have been doing hasn't been working, and isn't achieving the oft stated goal of furthering the preservation of our heritage.   Vilifying the market for antiquities does little or nothing to prevent the destruction of the archaeological sites and objects they contain.  This a favorite thing for academics to do, blame the market for the problem of illicit looting. However the situation is different now, we are dealing with a new force of evil beyond our comprehension. We need a different approach. I would suggest that in this situation where objects and sites are being actively destroyed that perhaps the moral and right position to take is to purchase everything we can, and hope to encourage looting. There is little doubt in my mind that what is left in the Middle East will not be preserved, rather it is all at risk of destruction. Do we doubt that they will do it? How many videos do we need to see before we believe their words.  The looting might be lamentable in the loss of context, but the objects at least would survive. The destruction of Nimrud was complete, ISIS used high explosives which sent shock waves through the ground, and would have destroyed everything both above ground and underneath. The archaeological site has been effectively and utterly destroyed with nothing left for future generations to discover.  Now the only remnants are what was taken out by the West and currently in our great museums. 

The great museums and collections we have are the repository for our common human history.  Their presence not only enriches the lives of those who live close but the many visitors who go to them.  And now, like zoos and our museums help to preserve things that are in danger and being destroyed in the countries where they were found. They can no longer be viewed as outdated vestiges of colonialism, but as repositories of human history preserving it for all mankind.  The market has an important part to play in all of this. By giving value to antiquities, it helps to preserve them. Now more than ever, everyone needs to work together, dealers, collectors and academics to counter the active destruction now taking place on a scale never before observed.


Monday, September 21, 2015

The power of negativity!

This past week was Asia Week at Sotheby's New York and Christie's.  The Sotheby's sale had some exceptional and very good early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, Christie's had almost nothing of that type.  The estimates at Sotheby's were very high, I thought overly ambitious, but I was hopeful. Perhaps Sotheby's was hoping to recreate the excitement and high prices generated by the Robert Ellsworth auction earlier in March of this year: The early Chinese Buddhist sculpture in the Ellsworth sale sold exceptionally well, going way over the conservatively low, but realistic estimates.  However, as I would like to see the field progress, I was hoping the high expectations at Sotheby's would be realized.  I was unable to attend the sale in person, so followed it live online, as now anyone with an internet connection can.  It was a shocking experience, not a single one of the early Chinese Buddhist sculptures sold.  Below are the top three pieces:

lot 422, Sotheby's 16 September 2015 sale
 The stela above has a single Buddha standing with a flame shaped halo behind him, on a lotus pedestal.  Beautifully carved the full robes of the Buddha flare out on the sides in typical Wei Dynasty style, and the halo has incised and low relief carvings of flames, vegetal ornament, dragons and apsaras.  The smiling beatific face with pronounced ushisha are all typical of the Wei Dynasty in the early 6th Century A.D. The piece is carved of limestone, stands 38 1/4 inches (97cm) high, and has a provenance as from a French collection early 20th Century.  Not a distinguished provenance, and probably not a provenance the auction house would accept if provided it by a dealer.  However, in theory, it was a legitimate piece free of potential troubles.  As a work of art, it is exceptional, very complete and beautiful, it is a superb example of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture of the Northern Wei Dynasty.
The estimate was an ambitious $800,000. to $1,200,000. USD.

lot 424, Sotheby's 16 September 2015 sale
Stylized and blocky, and not particularly beautiful, the standing Bodhisattva sculpture above is a rare and good example of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture. One the base is an inscription that dates the piece to the late Northern Qi Dynasty, 576 A.D. Without that inscription I would have given it a Northern Zhou dating, 577 - 581 A.D., which just goes to show you to be open minded about style! Quite large, it stands 58 1/4 inches (148cm) tall, carved of sandstone.  This piece has a very distinguished provenance, coming from Yamanaka Co., Kyoto prior to 1925, and acquired by the sellers in the 1950's or 60's.  It was also exhibited and published in 2005 at the Kyushu National Museum in Japan.  The estimate was also $800,000. to $1,200,000. USD.

lot 425, Sotheby's 16 September 2015 sale
 This large Buddha head in limestone is from a high relief from a cave temple of the Northern Wei Dynasty, early 6th Century A.D. It is quite large as these things go, 18 inches (45.7cm) tall.  Quite beautiful in expression it has the elongated face found in this period of Buddhist sculptures. It also has what appears to be quite a good provenance, a named private Brussels collection from 1950.  The estimate was strong, $120,000. to $150,000. USD., but didn't seem unreasonably high to me, almost conservative.

I watched online and was stunned when one after the other, these and the other early Chinese Buddhist sculptures failed to sell.  The beautiful stela, lot 422, was bought in at $780,000., the standing Bodhisattva, lot 424, was bought in at $620,000., and the Wei Buddha head, lot 425, reached only $52,000.  One problem with auctions, particularly when one isn't actually in the room but even if you are, is that you don't know if there were any bids at all, the auctioneer could have been bidding off the chandeliers as they say.  I hope there were actual bids and the failure to sell reflected that the bids never reached the consignor set reserve price.  If that is the case, then perhaps there were buyers for the pieces, at fairly substantial prices but not at the estimated prices. The last piece, the Buddha head relief, might not have had a buyer at all, given the very low price it was bought in for, about a third of the estimate. 

Right after the sale I called a colleague in New York who had previewed the sale and knows some prominent collector/scholars who were there as well. What he heard was that Chinese dealers were telling people that the pieces were fake, and apparently, they were believed.  Why would a rather unimpressive small damaged Buddha sculpture in the Ellsworth sale, lot 755 in March 2015 sell for 1.5 million, and a large, complete stela of a Buddha fail to sell much less than that? It makes no sense at all.

What the failure of these very good pieces to sell reveal is the irrationality of the art market and how easily manipulated the buyers are. People are prone to believe the worst things they hear, and most cannot see with, or believe their own eyes.  The pieces above are clearly authentic, regardless of what was whispered about them. That these naysayers were believed is an indictment of the shallowness of the understanding of the material on the part of the dealers and collectors who should know better.  It also shows how irrational the valuation of works of art is, it is completely subjective, there is no objective way to tell if something will sell and what it will sell for. Everything depends upon the mood of the buyers and the spell cast by the marketing etc. on them.  I've done very well in my life looking past all that for myself. However it is frustrating and damages faith in the market.  Perhaps the failure to sell was due to the high estimates, and after the sale the pieces might sell privately.  Let us hope so.  The question I have is what motivates people to condemn pieces like this? Whose interest are they serving?  If they believe this nonsense themselves, it exposes them as blind to art and ignorant, if they condemned the pieces falsely, this borders on criminal behavior.  Such is the art market. Don't believe what you hear, learn to look for yourself.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture at Harvard

I finally got to Harvard  a week ago to see the newly re-opened Harvard Art Museums in the location of the former Fogg Art Museum, which is what I knew when I was a student.  Much lauded, this ambitious redo was just opened in November of 2014, but we all remember what this last winter was like, particularly in the Boston area. I wasn't about to brave the blizzards and snowdrifts!  Designed by Renzo Piano, the renovations cost 350 million dollars and features what he calls, "the light machine", which is in reality, just a big skylight. The result of this extraordinarily expensive renovation is quite ugly from the outside, the "light machine" towers above the old building like some sort of sci-fi smokestack or other mechanical thing.  However, fortunately, the galleries themselves are quite nice, and they are streaming with light generally, even when it doesn't serve the art. 

The galleries displaying their early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, the focus of this post, is a case in point. They are on the ground floor off the courtyard, and do not benefit from the light coming through the "light machine", rather many are displayed against glass exterior walls, so are back lit, and impossible to photograph.  In person one can see them reasonably well, ones eyes compensate in a way a camera does not.  However they are not displayed to their best advantage.  Surprisingly I discovered in researching for this post, the complete collection of Harvard's early Chinese Buddhist sculptures is not on display, strange given all the money spent and the larger exhibition spaces that were created.  Some of the pieces not on view are major, as I remembered them my memory which was confirmed by consulting the Harvard museum website which does have the entire collection available online. That much is to their credit, many museums still only have a fraction of their collections online. 

I will feature in this post the pieces on view currently that most relate to the material I have been fortunate to handle.  Chief among them is the piece below, in two images, one I took showing the difficult lighting conditions, the other from the Harvard website, optimally if not dramatically lit.

My photograph of the Bodhisattva statue

Photo from the Harvard website of the same sculpture
The sculpture above is a statue of a Bodhisattva, carved in marble with extensive traces of original polychromy and gold leaf. It is quite large, 62 1/2 inches tall, about life sized. It is highly adorned with a lot of jewelry, which is typical in this period of sculptures of Bodhisattvas.  It is dated to the Sui Dynasty, 581-618 A.D., which was when China was finally reunified for the first time in the four centuries after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D. This sculpture, along with its companion, which is not on view currently at the museum, and which I featured in a post before, was key to my education in art history. When I was a student at Harvard, I wasn't particularly interested in Chinese art, but this sculpture and a few others at Harvard impressed me nonetheless. It is large, fairly complete for its great age and in a remarkable state of preservation with its remaining paint and gold leaf.  And it is beautiful, very finely carved.  It also has great seriousness, and grandeur with its elegant slim proportions and hieratic straight pose.  It is quite unlike later Chinese sculpture which is lush and curvy and not so interesting or impressive to me in general.  

The next pieces must all come from the same find, they are all of marble, and retain a lot of their original paint and gold leaf.  However none are as fine as the Bodhisattva above, see below.

Statue of a monk at Harvard

Statue of a Bodhisattva at Harvard

2nd statue of a monk at Harvard
These are all my photographs, as these sculptures are not displayed against the glass exterior walls.  All are marble, and about 3 feet or a little more in height, and all date to the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.  They are all very similar to each other, the two monk sculptures are a pair, and the Bodhisattva is very related in its quality and style.  All are well preserved in terms of their surface, missing only their hands, but none are particularly finely carved. 

Seated Bodhisattva at Harvard

2nd seated Bodhisattva at Harvard

The pair of seated Bodhisattvas, also from the Grenville Winthrop bequest, are Northern Qi Dynasty, and are nearly intact, only missing the upraised right and left hands respectively.  Of very fine quality and also preserving a great deal of original paint, gold leaf and surface, the relate to the other sculptures above, but are carved of limestone, and may come from a different site than the others. 

Marble Buddha head at Harvard
The marble Buddha head above is exquisite and one of my favorites even though it is a fragment, whereas the prior works discussed are all nearly intact. From a life sized sculpture the quality of the marble, surface and carving is exceptional.  It has the deeply meditative expression that one finds in the best of Buddhist sculpture. Again, the head was backlit, so it does not photograph well in situ.

Small marble seated Buddha at Harvard

Detail of the seated Buddha above

Another detail of the seated Buddha above

 One of the greatest revelations was this small seated marble Buddha at Harvard, also Winthrop collection, that I don't remember from my youth. It was certainly there, but I may not have really noticed it. Only about 24 inches tall, it is intact and preserves most of its original pigment and surface. The pure white marble shines with its polished surfaces, contrasting the white skin areas with the painted clothing and lotus throne. The halo behind the head is also painted. The hands are exquisitely detailed with the palm lines and articulation of the fingers all clearly carved.  Between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand the Buddha holds a small jewel, and the toes are also clearly carved and detailed of the foot visible opposite that hand.  It, like the others above, is Northern Qi Dynasty, and may well come from the same find as the 3 marble sculptures featured. 

All the sculptures above come from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D., which was a particularly brilliant moment for Chinese Buddhist sculpture. There are a few other pieces at Harvard worthy of mention that are before and after that period.

Gilt bronze Buddha, Harvard
Foremost among the other pieces is this gilt bronze seated Buddha, which is one of the earliest and best of the surviving early Chinese Buddhist sculptures. It dates to the 3rd to 4th Centuries A.D., early Northern Wei Dynasty and strongly reflects the Indian, specifically Gandharan, prototypes on which it is based.  It is large for a bronze, over 12 inches tall, and of much better quality than most other surviving early Chinese Buddhist bronze sculptures.  One reason for the rarity of Chinese Buddhist sculpture from this time was a pogrom against Buddhism that destroyed the temples and sculptures in 460 A.D. This destructive purge seems to have been singularly successful in nearly erasing any trace of Buddhism, but was short lived, as immediately after the temples were rebuilt and there is much sculpture surviving from the later Northern Wei Dynasty.  This bronze is so Indian in style that out of context it would be taken at first glance for a Gandharan bronze Buddha. Only a few small stylistic details make it clear that it is Chinese and not Indian in origin.  As such it is a wonderful illustration of how Buddhism and Buddhist art reached China through contact with India.

Tang Buddha at Harvard
This seated sandstone Buddha is one of the most famous in the collection as it epitomizes high Tang style art of the mid 8th Century A.D., which was the height of the greatest period of Chinese civilization.  China at this time was the pre-eminent world empire, and its capital, Chang'an, was the most populous city in the world at this time, with a population of some 2 million people. China was very cosmopolitan at this time, the silk route brought people from all over the world into the empire and there were foreign sections in Chang'an reflecting the empires reach and diversity. The art is supremely confident and completely Chinese. You can see that in the sculpture above, the features and style are totally Chinese there is no mistaking it for anything else, and yet it has not lapsed into the softness and lassitude that characterize later Chinese sculpture. This Buddha comes from one of the cave temples at Tianlongshan, which was a major center of Buddhist worship patronized by the imperial family.  It is large, nearly life sized at 43 1/2 inches tall, and very finely carved in sandstone, preserving traces of its original polychrome.  It is featured in most survey books on Chinese sculpture as it is is one of the best examples of its type extant.

Clay and stucco Bodhisattva sculpture at Harvard

3/4 view of the stucco Bodhisattva above, at Harvard

Last I will mention this worshiping bodhisattva above, which is rare survivor and example outside of China of an important class of sculptures which don't survive because of their fragile materials. It comes from a cave temple in Dunhuang and was part of an assembly of 8 attendant figures around a central seated Buddha.  Dating to the early Tang Dynasty, this reflects the high cosmopolitan style of Chinese art of this time, sensuous, luxurious, but still serious in intent and feeling.  The medium allowed for great freedom of the modeling, it is only because it was in a cave that this fragile medium survived. It is one of the only and best such sculptures in the West. 

All the sculptures above come from one collection and bequest, that of Grenville Winthrop, who left his extensive and varied art collection to Harvard in 1943.  The scion of one of Massachusetts oldest and most distinguished families, Winthrop was a pioneering collector. When going through the Harvard Museums I was struck by the fact that invariably, any work of art that caught my eye, had come from his collection. The range is quite amazing, the most beautiful Pre-Raphaelite works at the museum came from him, as well as much of the ancient art there, from Greece, Rome and most notably China.  In reading up on him subsequently, I learned that he developed the best collection of Ingres outside of France, among other things. It was the Chinese collection he amassed that struck me when I was a student and still does now. He collected nearly 600 ancient Chinese jades, and many bronzes, as well as the early Buddhist sculptures above. 

A quote from him in response to an appeal from the Smithsonian Institution for his collection sums up his aim in giving it to Harvard:

"I admit that more people of the "general public" will visit Washington than Cambridge, but I am not so much interested in the general public as I am in the Younger Generation whom I want to reach in their impressionable years and to prove to them that true art is founded on traditions and is not the product of any one country or century and that Beauty may e found in all countries and in all periods, provided the eye be trained to find it."

His aim was certainly achieved, his collection made an impression on me when I was young and opened my eyes to Chinese art, which later has been of great benefit to me.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Asia Week, New York, March 2015, over heard trash talk!

I was just in NYC earlier this week, to preview the Ellsworth Collection sale at Christie’s and see Asia Week. On view in different galleries, mostly on the Upper East Side, are a range of dealers, from Europe as well as New York and America, covering the full gamut of Asian art, from ancient to contemporary, and from Japan, Korea to Indian and Southeast Asian, and of course Chinese.  I focus on the few dealers who handle ancient art.  One of them was exhibiting at Friedman Vallois, on East 67th Street and Madison Avenue, from Milan, Dalton Somare. I am not familiar with them, but was very impressed with what they had on view, see below.

Gandharan Head of a Buddha
  Prominently featured and very well displayed was this immense colossal head of a Buddha, Gandharan, from India, 2nd to 3rd Century A.D.  Carved of grey schist, it is 68 cm tall, about 27 inches.  A fragment from a larger sculpture, possibly a composite sculpture, it is a very imposing head.  And beautiful.
side view of the Gandharan Buddha head

While generally classical in style, as Gandharan art is, it has a very Indian cast of features. Highly stylized the eyes are strongly projecting, and the lips sensuously curved, the eyebrows arched and the nose straight.  The surfaces are polished to a soft sheen, which I have seen on some Gandharan schist sculptures but not that often. It is a really beautiful and impressive head.  They had a few other very good and unusual pieces as well, but this stood out. 

I went from this exhibition to another further up Madison Avenue, to a small gallery who also handles Gandharan art, but of a much more modest scale.  There were a few people there engaged in conversation, a visitor and a man who I took to be the dealer.  The visitor was saying that one had to be so careful of fakes and the dealer responded that when you see a piece so large and exceptional, you have to be suspicious. He could only be talking about the head I just saw.  The coincidence was pretty amazing, but I wasn’t particularly surprised, this head was a stand out, and would attract interest and talk.  However, the opinion of the dealer is one of the things that is wrong with the market, and illustrates how it operates.

This type of casual talk is poisonous to the market. It feeds off the insecurity and ignorance of the buyers, but ultimately, damages faith in the market. From what I could see Dalton Somare are serious dealers who take what they do seriously. The pieces were very select and fine and were very well displayed.  I am sure they do their due diligence and get expert opinions from scholars and perhaps even scientific examinations. I would want both types of opinions and reports on something as extraordinary as this head is.  To tell a buyer that the piece is a fake is unfair, but typical of how dealers undercut each other.  And who is to say differently?  Unless you already know a great deal and are confident of your eye and opinion, it is easy to be swayed but such negative opinions.  And it is corrosive.  I believe it is driven by jealousy.  The dealer so opining had minor pieces in comparison, very nice, pretty, but relatively insignificant in comparison.  No wonder he felt he need to put down this other dealer.

My word of advise to my reader is when you hear a dealer tell you something you just saw is a fake that you think is noteworthy, be suspicious, not of the piece but of the dealer.  They probably have an agenda, and it isn’t pursuit of the truth.

Amazing results, the Robert Ellsworth sale at Christies March 2015

Robert Ellsworth was a pioneering dealer of Chinese and Asian art in New York from the 1960’s into the 1990’s. I unfortunately never got to know him, I did meet him briefly at an art fair, and was impressed by his emerald green jade set in a high karat gold ring. I was told by a friend who would know, that the jade was of such fine color and quality that it was worth 2 million, and this was in the 1990’s!  I never got to see his apartment, which was legendary, large and on Fifth Avenue, full of fine antique American and Chinese furniture and of course, Asian antiquities.  When he died last year, the extensive obituaries lauded his taste and importance as a dealer in early Asian art, and his social connections.

Christie’s got his estate to sell, and did so just this week, in a series of  6 sales over 5 days, the last day being today as I write this.  The sale has been eagerly anticipated by myself and everyone involved in the trade of Asian antiquities. Particularly exciting to me was the inclusion of a number of good early Chinese Buddhist sculptures, which you don’t often see coming up at auction. 

Lot 755 from the Christie's Ellsworth auction

One of the pieces caught the eye of my best client, and that was lot 755, a small limestone statue of Buddha, broken above the ankles and missing its right hand.  It is Chinese, from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D., limestone, and 18 1/4 inches tall. It has extensive remains of paint and some gold leaf, which add to its appeal.  I was poised to bid on the piece, which was estimated $40,000. to $60,000., and I was ready go above the estimate by a bit.  I didn’t get a chance to even bid, the little Buddha sold for 1.5 million dollars hammer price, which doesn’t include the 20% buyer premium! This is an amazing price for what is a sweet, but modest example of Northern Qi sculpture.  I have bought and sold much better examples for a fraction of this price. 

One wonders at this extraordinarily high price, probably a record for this type of sculpture at auction, certainly a record for a piece of this size and condition of this period.  The provenance had a lot to do with it, but should that really justify pricing a piece that I would expect to be priced at $50,000., or $60,000., to sell for 1.5 million?

Robert Ellsworth was a great dealer, and one assumes that his pieces were purchased a number of years ago, but frequently the catalog simply stated for this piece and many others, "The collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, New York, before 2000" What this really means, Christie's had no idea of when exactly or from whom Robert Ellsworth had purchased the piece.  It is safe bet that it was before 2000 simply because of his advanced age and that he had essentially retired from dealing by this time.  However, it is hardly the type of precisely documented provenance that the auction houses claim to require to sell pieces! The reality is that the "collection" was really the leavings of a great dealers inventory, the pieces he didn't sell while active, rather than a collection in the sense of a deliberate gathering of the finest pieces for ones own pleasure of ownership.  Even so, it was an impressive group of objects amongst which were some real gems.  Christie's gave it the full "Liz Taylor" treatment, a hagiography at the beginning of each of the 6 volumes of the full set of the print catalogs which were printed in a larger size than normal.  The display incorporated some of the antique furniture and other objects that Robert Ellsworth had in his home, and the catalog had lots of glamorous views of his 960 Fifth Avenue apartment, showing how he lived with the pieces. 

Robert Ellsworth had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time.  He formed friendships with people who were able to advance his career early on, starting in the 1940's, and was dealing when the art market was really just forming for Asian art in Post War America.  He bought his apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue in 1975, when someone who was just rich, but not super-rich, could buy a great apartment in NYC.  From there he entertained and showed his wares in grand style.  He had the means and the courage to purchase the legendary Christian Humann collection, called the Pan Asian Collection, in 1981.  This gave him the inventory for his career. Christian Humann was an heir to the Lazard family banking fortune, who created the Pan Asian collection. I was told by Matthias Komor, who knew all of these people, and for who I worked for in the early 1980's, that Christian Humann's family was very disappointed that upon his death, there was no money but an apartment full of Asian Art.  It was considered one of the greatest collections of early Asian art ever assembled, and Ellsworth's purchase of it was a stroke of genius.  However, the little Northern Qi Buddha, lot 755, was not from the Pan Asian collection, nor were many of the pieces in the auction. 

I think this illustrates one of the facts of the art market, particularly for antiquities, its irrationality.  I’m happy to see a Chinese Buddhist sculpture sell for so much, it helps validate what I’m dealing in. However, I don’t expect to get this type of price, although I wish I could!

A story of two Busts in the Metropolitan Museum

I want to start addressing in my posts, one of the central issues in dealing with ancient objects, that is authenticity, and how what role it plays in the market.  To start, I will tell the story of two exceptional Roman portrait busts, now proudly on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bust of Matidia the Younger, sister of Sabina

Bust of Sabina

These wonderful portraits busts date to the reign of Hadrian, ca 122 - 128 A.D., are complete, including their socle bases, and in superb condition. They do however have a heavy dark encrustation that has proven difficult and potentially damaging to remove, and so has been left on. You can see on the left cheek of Matidia where an attempt was made to scrape it off, and the attempt seems to have been abandoned when it was clear that it was damaging the ancient surface underneath.  Heavy encrustation notwithstanding, these are beautiful sculptures of the highest quality attainable in the Roman period, or any time.  The surfaces that are exposed are gorgeous, with their original soft polish and finish preserved.  I have always admired these busts, and I have known them for decades.

It is nice when ones advanced age becomes an asset, and in this case, it is. I have been involved in the antiquities world long enough to have seen these busts sold twice, and on view at the Metropolitan Museum twice.  The first time was in 1983, at Sotheby's New York, lots 121 and 123. Listed as "property of various owners", they both sold for $154,000., which includes the buyers commission.  At the time, that was a fairly high price, but not outrageously so.  Their provenance was very mysterious, it was rumored amongst the dealers that they came from an unnamed Mexican collection.  Somewhat hard to believe, as their quality and condition would have merited attention from the scholarly world had they been at all publicly known of.  However apparently they weren't, popping up at Sotheby's New York for sale.

Sotheby's June 10&11, 1983 catalog page

Sotheby's June 10&11, 1983 catalog page

 They were purportedly purchased by Basia Johnson, who was collecting mostly old masters, but also some antiquities.  However it was rumored that she never took delivery of the busts, because the dealers who she was buying antiquities from, Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides told her they were fakes. When told this I was incredulous, everything about these busts spoke of their authenticity, their beauty, the perfect ancient style they are carved in, and their condition. While the encrustation was marring, it seemed incontrovertible evidence of their antiquity to me, this type of patina take millennia to form. It was also hard to understand why Robin Symes would damn them, except for they didn't come from him, and he didn't want Basia Johnson purchasing from anywhere but his gallery.  Even at auction evidently. Fortunately, Robin's damning of them didn't carry weight with the Metropolitan Museum, who put them on exhibit, for several years from 1984 to 1989.

A little more than decade after the first sale, the portrait busts came up again at Sotheby's New York, where Robin Symes condemnation apparently meant little.  This was in the December 14th, 1994 New York sale, lots 90 and 91.

December 14, 1994 Sotheby's sale catalog page

December 14, 1994 Sotheby's sale catalog page

This time the busts sold for $290,000., each, hammer price, so the buyers premium would have been added to that. I was in the room, and thus got only the hammer price at the time they sold.  Then, about a year later, they re-appeared on view at the Metropolitan Museum of art, on loan this time from the Dubroff family.  Mr. Dubroff has been purchasing antiquities, only from auction, and loaning pieces to museums. There are a number of his pieces currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, these being two of his best pieces. 

The point of this tale is a cautionary one about how questions of authenticity are used by dealers to sabotage other dealers, and control collectors. There can really be no real question about these busts antiquity, they were raised simply to undercut a buyer's willingness to buy from someone, anyone else, but them.  This is more frequent than one would like to believe and should make one skeptical when you hear a dealer talking about an object being fake that is beautiful and otherwise seems right.