Check your provenance

As has oft been pointed out (sometimes with magnificent style), even the Big Three auction houses, which are the most visible, most monitored and apparently most diligent actors in the antiquities market, have a problem with provenance – or the lack of it. Judging by their auctions, that problem remains.

(This post is long, but not as long as it appears; it includes summaries of all of the lots in the auctions.)

Apologies to David Gill for the title. I agree that distinct discussion of archaeological context and collecting history would be preferable to “provenance”, which can be used to mean both, and which can be used to imply a secure archaeological context where there is only an incomplete – or inaccurate – collecting history. But now people who are looking for “provenance” can find it – or the lack of it.

And I agree with the need for authenticated collecting histories – so it is interesting to see how responsible auction houses are by their own standards, when they seemingly accept “oral histories” that may offer false provenance, as Bonhams did for antiquities that had been looted from Ma’adi Museum in Egypt in 2002.

Diligent auction houses reject antiquities without collecting histories

Antiquities dealer James Ede insists on the ‘intense efforts‘ that have been ‘made in the last 25’ – now, 27 – ‘years by the auction houses, the trade… to stop illicit material coming on to the market’. That would be since 1989, when (for instance) Sotheby’s New York auctioned an undocumented bell-krater vase from Italy that, as Christos Tsirogiannis has explained, actually reached the market through (later convicted) dealer Giacomo Medici. According to Ede, traders ‘have made huge strides’; ‘things have improved dramatically‘.

Antiquities Trade Gazette editor Ivan Macquisten is keen to distinguish ‘the responsible, legitimate trade’ from ‘the crooks’; ‘leading members of the legitimate trade’ have ‘radically tighten[ed] due diligence and enforcement’.

Antiquities dealer Sue McGovern defends the already ‘heavily scrutinized and regulated’ trade; ‘antiquity objects without a collection history (provenance) are rejected by dealers, collectors, and auction houses alike as a bad investment’. ‘Auction houses implement the highest standards of due diligence.’

Who am I to disagree? I accept the trade’s own judgement that it is far more diligent now than it was before. I accept the trade’s own judgement that the auction houses are the actors furthest away from the illicit trade. I accept the trade’s own judgement that the auction houses display the highest standards of due diligence of any actors in the market.

Due diligence

Central Asia, South Asia and South-East Asia are not places that I discuss often in my work, although conflict antiquities have been extracted through the British Empire’s plunder of Tibet, which subsidised its massacres there, where its forces plundered more than a thousand gilt bronze statues of Buddha from one monastery alone in 1904; the industrial looting of Cambodia, which financed massacre, genocide and repression; and China’s previously systematic, still now sporadic plunder of Tibet, which implements as well as underwrites ethnocide of Tibetan (and) Buddhist culture(s).

Conflict antiquities have blighted Afghanistan and Pakistan, Indonesia and East Timor, too. However, the trade in Asian (particularly Buddhist and Hindu) antiquities provides insight into the operation of the global antiquities market.

As the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) asked the other day: “How many repatriated (previously looted) Khmer statues can you name?” ARCA CEO Lynda Albertson named seven statues that had been returned to Cambodia in the last three years. The statue of Balarama had been auctioned through Christie’s twice – first in 2000, then in 2009. Although it was stopped by Cambodia’s intervention, Sotheby’s auction house had planned to sell the statue of Duryodhana on the 24th of March 2011, even though its own consultant had warned it that the statue was “definitely stolen“.

And they are merely prominent examples. Investigators around the world, driven by Poetry in Stone author Vijay Kumar, and the Idol Wing of Tamil Nadu’s police continue to secure the return of antiquities to India, many of which have been sold on the open market and bought by major museums. Has the antiquities trade – and in particular, as its most diligent representatives, have the auction houses – radically improved their due diligence since their handling of Duryodhana in 2011?

Have they radically improved their due diligence since their handling of antiquities from Italy, which Christos Tsirogiannis revealed had reached the market through convicted dealer Gianfranco Becchina and through suspect dealer Noriyoshi Horiuchi and the convicted trafficking Aboutaam brothers, which Christie’s London had planned to auction on the 1st of October 2015?

The provenance of lots in Christie’s auctions in 2016: a sample from Central, South and Southeast Asia

So what is the “collection history (provenance)” of the objects in Sale 12168 of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, and Sale 12255 of the Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, at Christie’s New York auction house, on the 15th of March 2016?

Based on the estimates, the twenty-four lots in the two sales are worth around $5,862,500 (between $4,745,000 and $6,980,000). On average, each lot is worth around $244,271 (between $197,708 and $290,833). Surely, with that much money at stake, sellers have sufficient incentive to provide documentation; intermediaries have sufficient incentive to share documentation; and buyers have sufficient incentive to select securely documented antiquities…

Christie's lots and estimates for sales 12168 and 12255 on 15th March 2016

Christie’s lots and estimates for sales 12168 and 12255 on 15th March 2016

Pre-1970 provenance?

I would have compared the values of the objects with and without collecting histories that can be traced back to before the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. But there are so few with pre-1970 provenance that it would have been meaningless.

For the record, the four lots with pre-1970 provenance are worth an average of $179,375 (between $148,750 and $210,000); the twenty lots without pre-1970 provenance are worth an average of $257,250 (between $207,500 and $307,000); excluding the outlying Kunzang Akhor, the nineteen other lots without pre-1970 provenance are worth an average of $244,474 (around $197,368 and $291,579). The antiquities with shorter collecting histories are worth more money than the antiquities with longer collecting histories.

[One of the antiquities with pre-1970 provenance, the bronze figure of Ganesha from India that surfaced in 1963, surfaced in the hands of “Willy W. Wolff, Inc.” Jason Felch has reminded me that William Wolff was a dealer who openly discussed his illegal export of antiquities from across South and Southeast Asia – ‘India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Japan, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam’. Is he an ethical source for a responsible trade?]

[Also, I didn’t find “Willy W. Wolff, Inc.” in searches because his (company’s) name was Willy H. Wolff, Inc.]

Pre-1995 provenance?

So, I have compared the values of the objects with and without collecting histories that can be traced back to before the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Like the 1970 benchmark, it is entirely arbitrary. The relevant countries’ antiquities laws are older; their standard theft laws are ancient. And I have unquestioningly accepted the earliest, vaguest alleged provenance as genuine provenance. When Neil Brodie sampled auctions from Christie’s London and Sotheby’s New York between 2010 and 2012, he only accepted verified provenance.

Serendipitously, there are twelve with and twelve without pre-1995 provenance. On average, each of the twelve lots with pre-1995 provenance is worth around $216,042 (between $177,083 and $255,000). On average, each of the twelve lots without pre-1995 provenance is worth around $272,500 (between $218,333 and $326,667). Even the antiquities with very short collecting histories are worth more money than the antiquities with longer collecting histories.

Indeed, the most valuable lot is a gilt bronze figure of Kunzang Akhor. It is estimated to be worth between $800,000 and $1,200,000, but that is not because it was published long ago; that is clearly and precisely because it is superior to “any published examples”. The Buddhist sculpture from Nepal surfaced in an unidentified “private collection” in Thailand at some time “since 1998”. It was last auctioned through Christie’s New York on the 23rd of March 2010.

Even if the outlying Kunzang Akhor is excluded, the average estimate for the lots without pre-1995 provenance is still around $206,364 (between $165,455 and $247,273); the antiquities with very short collecting histories are still worth almost the same as those with longer collecting histories.

Lots in Christie's 15th March 2016 auction of South Asian and Southeast Asian art by date of earliest source

Lots in Christie’s 15th March 2016 auction of South Asian and Southeast Asian art by date of earliest source

Pre-1995 provenance for sculpture?

If the four paintings are excluded, the average estimate for the eleven sculptures with pre-1995 provenance is around $234,091 (between $191,818 and $276,364); the average estimate for the nine sculptures without pre-1995 provenance is around $271,667 (between $216,667 and $326,667).

Excluding the outlying Kunzang Akhor as well, the average estimate for the remaining eight sculptures without pre-1995 provenance is around $180,625 (between $143,750 and $217,500), so the sculptures with longer collecting histories are finally worth significantly more. Otherwise, yet again, the sculptures with very short collecting histories are worth more than the sculptures with longer collecting histories.

Lots in Christie's 15th March 2016 auction of South Asian and Southeast Asian sculpture by date of earliest source

Lots in Christie’s 15th March 2016 auction of South Asian and Southeast Asian sculpture by date of earliest source

A self-regulating market?

I believe Antiquarium dealer Joseph Coplin, who judges that antiquities ‘with the very best provenance sell for a premium of up to 100 per cent’. [Smuggler-directing, confessed illicit dealer Willy Wolff also secured 100% markups. Wolff told the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Dallos: ‘Such overseas acquisition [was] a costly business’, for which he was ‘able to mark everything up by 100%…. “My asking price was my selling price. The museums were lined up when I returned from a trip.”‘]

However, I suspect that the premium for provenance may be conferred on antiquities that have any documentation at all. After all, Katharyn Hanson found that “Mesopotamian” antiquities with any paperwork were offered for 74% more than ones without; I found that “Near Eastern” antiquities with any paperwork were offered for 65% more than ones without.

The value of the painting of Arhat Angaja jumped from its estimate of €20,000-€30,000 to its sale for €65,000 when it surfaced at an auction in Paris in 2015, then to its expected $120,000-$180,000 at the auction in New York in 2016. And Christie’s offers little or no information about the origins of most of the objects in these auctions. Why doesn’t the auction house demonstrate, advertise its due diligence?

This is the case even though James Ede has insisted for at least sixteen years that the trade ‘all keep stock books,… all keep records and copious records…. There is no question of not knowing who the last person was you bought it from. It would be madness for us not to know.

Ede first argues that the knowledge may be kept secret as a matter of commercial confidentiality, then that it may be kept secret as a matter of client confidentiality, then that ‘things with a more interesting provenance are worth more money. I want to put this information out but I am constrained from doing so by the person who sold it’.

As Neil Brodie has recently reminded, auction houses (and other intermediaries) in the trade are ‘active commercial agents’ that are ‘in business to make a profit‘. Just how often do sellers sacrifice nearly half of the worth of their assets in order to preserve their anonymity?

Ede insists: ‘We do educate our clients as much as possible to keep all documentation together but inevitably down the line that evidence, the documents, the catalogue, and so on and so forth, will perhaps be lost by the second party down the line. We cannot cater for that. We try and educate people to keep all documents together but there are many, many thousands of objects which are tiny and it is impossible to have a large document to go with every tiny object.’

Yet the antiquities in this auction are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When there are hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, why don’t collectors demand proof of complete supply chain due diligence?

In the case of the bronze figure of Shiva and Parvati that surfaced in London in 2000 but can apparently be traced back to India in the 1960s (which is expected to sell for $250,000-$350,000), Christie’s stated that it was an important sculpture, guarded by its priests and only removed from the inner sanctum of its temple once a year for a public procession.

In the case of the “extremely rare”, uniquely Khmer Avalokiteshvara from Cambodia (which is expected to sell for $200,000-$300,000), Christie’s associated it with a specific temple in Cambodia, because it was so “strikingly” similar to others there. Yet it can only be traced back to one of Christie’s Amsterdam auctions in 1988.

And it prompts awkward questions. How did Avalokiteshvara lose his feet? Were his legs broken to remove him from a temple? How did he lose his forearms? Were they severed to make him easier to transport? It is impossible to say.

Similar misfortune befell a sandstone Jina Kirthankara from India (which was in France by 1988), a sandstone Jina Mathura from somewhere in the region (which has no advertised collecting history), a limestone Standing Buddha from China (which has left no online trace) and a sandstone Khmer Baphuon deity from Cambodia (which has no advertised collecting history), all of which were auctioned during Asia Week New York, 15th-24th March 2013.

Such misfortune also befell a sandstone Vishnu from Cambodia (which has no advertised collecting history) and a sandstone Shiva Bhikshatana from India (which surfaced at Sotheby’s New York on the 2nd of June 1992), both of which are going to be auctioned at Asia Week New York, 10th-19th March 2016.

These data appear to complement Neil Brodie’s market analysis. Length of collecting history sometimes somewhat correlates with price, but one does not cause the other; they are both are caused by quality. Autoregulation does not work (or exist).

Summaries of lots

An illustration from a Devi Mahatmya series: Suratha and Samadhi seek advice from Medhas (Lot 302, Sale 12168)

The 1810-1820-dated illustration from a Devi Mahatmya series, where Suratha and Samadhi seek advice from Medhas, was “acquired” by someone “in the United Kingdom” on the 6th of November 2013. However, it is attributed to the nineteenth-century Royal Mandi Collection in India (which I have necessarily treated as “by 1820”).

Its auction estimate is $15,000-20,000.

An illustration from a Devi Mahatmya series: Suratha and Samadhi seek advice from Medhas. Lot 302, Sale 12168, Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An illustration from a Devi Mahatmya series: Suratha and Samadhi seek advice from Medhas. Lot 302, Sale 12168, Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A granite figure of a seated Ganesha (Lot 294, Sale 12168)

The granite (stone) figure of a seated Ganesha came from Tamil Nadu in India in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and had arrived in the C. T. Loo Collection in Paris “by 1936” – but how did it get between the two?

Its auction estimate is $80,000-120,000.

A granite figure of a seated Ganesha. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 294, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A granite figure of a seated Ganesha. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 294, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of Ganesha (Lot 295, Sale 12168)

The bronze figure of Ganesha had been imported into the USA by “Willy W. Wolff, Inc.” (sic – Willy H. Wolff, Inc.) “by 1963” (and has been in an anonymous collection in New York since the 1st of April 2005), but how did it get from Tamil Nadu in India in the twelfth century (Chola period) to New York by 1963?

And what even is Willy W. Wolff, Inc., which only has one hit on Google, as the source of a “Khmer, Angkor Borei period” sandstone torso of Vishnu that was sold through Christie’s New York auction of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on the 18th of March 2015, which itself can only documented back to the 19th of March 1984? [William H. Wolff, Inc. gets 25 and William H. Wolff gets 113.]

As Jason Felch reminded me, Willy Wolff was the first known source of the broken-legged Bhima from Prasat Chen in Cambodia that was recently repatriated from the Norton Simon Museum in the USA.

Its auction estimate is $250,000-$350,000.

A bronze figure of Ganesha. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 295, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of Ganesha. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 295, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of Shiva and Parvati (Lot 60, Sale 12255)

A twelfth-century (Chola period) bronze figure of Shiva and Parvati was “acquired in London in 2000” and can be traced back to a private collection in Italy that had “acquired [it] in Bombay in [the] 1960’s [sic]” (which I have necessarily treated as “by 1969”). But how did this important sculpture, which was guarded by its priests and only removed from the inner sanctum of its temple once a year for a public procession, get from its temple in “South India” to Mumbai in western India and beyond? How was it removed from its sacred guard in India to the private collection in Italy?

Its auction estimate is $250,000-$350,000.

A bronze figure of Shiva and Parvati.  The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 60, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of Shiva and Parvati. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 60, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A sandstone relief of Durga Mahishasuramardini (Lot 284, Sale 12168)

The sandstone relief of Durga Mahishasuramardini can be traced back to a sale at Spink and Son in London on the 18th of August 1980, since when it has been in the Collection of Guy and Marie-Hélène Weill in New York, but it came from “(either) Gujarapratihara or Madhya Pradesh” in India in the late 8th or early 9th century.

Its auction estimate is $80,000-$120,000.

A sandstone relief of Durga Mahishasuramardini. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 284, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A sandstone relief of Durga Mahishasuramardini. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 284, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

The sixteenth-century gilt bronze figure of Hindu forest goddess Parnashavari was in the Zimmerman Family Collection in New York “by 1981” – but where before 1981? Due to its style, it has been associated with “Newar artists in Tibet”, “Densatil Monastery and the surrounding region”.

Its auction estimate is $150,000-$250,000.

A gilt bronze figure of Parnashavari. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 256, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A gilt bronze figure of Parnashavari. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 256, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An “important”, silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of Buddha Amitabha, which was made in India in the eleventh or twelfth century (Pala period), was “acquired in Hong Kong in 1987“. Also, “traces of cold gilding on face and neck, as well the remains of blue paint in the hair, point to the sculpture having been venerated in Tibet”. Where in “northeast India” and Tibet was it venerated? When and how was it removed from its site of spiritual veneration in India or Tibet and exported to its site of aesthetic appreciation in the United States?

Its auction estimate is $150,000-$200,000.

An important silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of Buddha Amitabha. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 57, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An important silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of Buddha Amitabha. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 57, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

Likewise, a “fine and rare”, silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of (the future Buddha) Maitreya, which was made in India in the (Pala period) twelfth century, was “acquired in Hong Kong in 1987“. Where in “northeast India” was it venerated? It has been associated with a time when pilgrims spread portable icons (particularly bronze sculpture) and texts “throughout the region”, but when and how did it leave India? Judging by Christie’s notes, Christie’s consignors don’t know and do Christie’s customers don’t care.

Its auction estimate is $250,000-$350,000.

A fine and rare silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of Maitreya. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 59, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A fine and rare silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of Maitreya. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 59, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

The “extremely rare”, uniquely Khmer Avalokiteshvara is a thirteenth-century statue from Cambodia. The statue’s face is “striking[ly]” similar to portraits of King Jayavarman VII, who constructed Prasat Bayon (the Temple of Bayon) at Angkor, so Christie’s description is “Bayon style”. Its collecting history is only traced back to its sale through Christie’s Amsterdam auction house on the 1st of June 1988, since when it has been in the collection of Dr. and Mrs. William T. Price.

Unfortunately, because we don’t know the statue’s history, it is difficult to explain its condition. How did Avalokiteshvara lose his feet? Were his legs broken to remove him from a temple? How did he lose his forearms? Were they severed to make him easier to transport? It is impossible to say.

Its auction estimate is $200,000-$300,000.

A buff sandstone figure of the Radiating Avalokiteshvara. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 324, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A buff sandstone figure of the Radiating Avalokiteshvara. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 324, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of (the future Buddha) Maitreya has been attributed to a “royal monk” (or prince), Nagaraja (988-1026), around 1025. As the Purang-Guge kingdom’s territories crossed present borders, it may come from “(either) Kashmir or Western Tibet”. Its earliest documented collecting history is almost a thousand years later. It was “acquired from Sotheby’s New York” on the 4th of June 1994.

Its auction estimate is $200,000-$300,000.

A bronze figure of Maitreya. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 51, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of Maitreya. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 51, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An “important” silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of (the immovable/unshakable Buddha) Akshobhya was made in “Western Tibet” in the thirteenth century and “acquired in London” in “June 1994”.

Its auction estimate is $250,000-$350,000.

An important silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of Akshobhya. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 69, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An important silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of Akshobhya. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 69, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A “rare” bronze figure of (the future Buddha) Maitreya, which came from Nalanda in India and was made in the seventh century, was on the London market “by 1994” (and was resold within London on the 25th of October 2000). It is so rare, indeed, that no-one appears to have known where it was in the intervening 1,300 years or how it arrived in London (or, indeed, when).

Its auction estimate is $250,000-350,000.

A rare bronze figure of Maitreya. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 47, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A rare bronze figure of Maitreya. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 47, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of (a manifestation of the god of compassion, Avalokiteshvara) Padmapani was “acquired from Spink [and] Son, Inc., London” on the 8th of February 1996. It has been linked with Himachal Pradesh in India due to “stylistic elements”, but other stylistically similar objects have been found in Kashmir.

Its auction estimate is $100,000-$150,000.

A bronze figure of Padmapani. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 53, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of Padmapani. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 53, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

The “unique” seventeenth-century painting of Mahakala Brahmanarupa from Tibet can only be traced back to an art exhibition in Germany on the 9th of May 1996 (or to the Zimmerman Family Collection “by the 1990s”, which I have necessarily treated as “by 1996”). As it was described when it surfaced on the market (and included in Christie’s catalogue), it was “the finest and largest thangka yet to surface of Brahmanarupa”.

Its auction estimate is $400,000-$600,000.

An important black ground painting of Mahakala Brahmanarupa. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 201, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An important black ground painting of Mahakala Brahmanarupa. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 201, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An “important” bronze figure of the Hindu snake goddess Manasa was made in India in the (Pala period) twelfth century and “acquired in Thailand in 1998“. Was it mislaid in the intervening eight hundred years?

Its auction estimate is $120,000-$150,000.

An important bronze figure of the goddess Manasa. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 58, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An important bronze figure of the goddess Manasa. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 58, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

Likewise, a “rare and important” bronze figure (possibly the personification of Vishnu’s wheel, Chakrapurusha, possibly one of Shiva’s attendants) was made in India in the (late Kushan or early Gupta) third or fourth century and “acquired in Thailand in 1998“. If we knew its source, we could understand its design and appreciate the artist’s intentions. Unfortunately, Christie’s appears not to know.

Its auction estimate is $80,000-$120,000.

A rare and important bronze figure, possibly of Chakrapurusha. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 42, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A rare and important bronze figure, possibly of Chakrapurusha. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 42, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

Larger and far finer than “any published examples”, the “rare and highly important” gilt bronze figure of Kunzang Akhor (the Buddhist interpretation of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon deity Shenlha Okar) has been in one unidentified “private collection” in Thailand “since 1998” and elsewhere since its last auction through Christie’s New York on the 23rd of March 2010, but it is from Nepal and has existed since the thirteenth century.

Its auction estimate is $800,000-$1,200,000.

A rare and highly important gilt bronze figure of Kunzang Akhor. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 244, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A rare and highly important gilt bronze figure of Kunzang Akhor. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 244, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A “large and highly important” sandstone panel of Revanta and his entourage, “unique to sculptures of the [eighth-century] Pratihara period in north-central India”, was “acquired from Spink [and] Son, Ltd.” in London “by 1999”.

Its auction estimate is $200,000-$300,000.

A large and highly important buff sandstone panel depicting Revanta and his entourage. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 62, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A large and highly important buff sandstone panel depicting Revanta and his entourage. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 62, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

An eleventh or twelfth-century bronze figure of Buddha, apparently from Kashmir, was “acquired in London” in 1999. I don’t doubt the expert attribution of this statue to Kashmir, seemingly due to its style (as no other evidence has been presented).

As an aside, it is notable that like “Mesopotamian” and other such transborder historical identifiers, if there were no documentation of legal acquisition, this attribution would make it very difficult for any state to question whether the statue had been looted or stolen or illegally exported from its territory.

Its auction estimate is $150,000-$250,000.

A bronze figure of Buddha. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 52, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A bronze figure of Buddha. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 52, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A “rare” bronze figure of (Bodhisattva) Avalokiteshvara was made in the “Swat Valley” (Pakistan) in the eighth century and had surfaced on the London market “by 2000“.

Its auction estimate is $100,000-$120,000.

A rare bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 50, Sale 12255, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A rare bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara. The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern, Lot 50, Sale 12255, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

The gilt bronze figure of an eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara has been in an anonymous “private West Coast collection” since 2010, but it is from Tibet and has existed since the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

Its auction estimate is $300,000-$500,000.

A gilt bronze figure of an eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 250, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A gilt bronze figure of an eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 250, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

The seventeenth or eighteenth-century painting of Kurukulla, from “central Tibet”, is only traced back to a sale through Bonhams’ New York auction house on the 19th of March 2012.

Its auction estimate is $150,000-$200,000.

A painting of Kurukulla. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 213, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A painting of Kurukulla. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 213, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

The fifteenth-century gilt bronze figure of Shakyamuni surfaced at Koller Auktionen in Switzerland on the 8th of May 2012 – how did it get there from Nepal?

Its auction estimate is $100,000-$150,000.

A gilt bronze figure of Shakyamuni. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 268, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A gilt bronze figure of Shakyamuni. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 268, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

The painting of Arhat Angaja was “acquired from Ferri-Drouot” in Paris on the 26th of June 2015, but Ferri Drouot is “une société de ventes aux enchères” (an auction house for fine art and antiques). Who sold it to or through Ferri Drouot? When and where did the anonymous previous owner acquire it?

According to Christie’s, this painting ‘belonged to a set of 23 paintings depicting the Sixteen Great Arhats’. So, presumably, they know more than they are saying. ‘Three other compositions from this particular paintings set have been identified: Arhat Nagasena (HAR item no.36291), Arhat Kanakavatsa (HAR item no.36292), and Arhat Bakula (HAR item no.36293).’

How do they know that there was a set of 23 paintings of 16 aspects of this legendary figure? Since they can apparently account for 4 of the paintings, what has happened to the other 19? When such information is withheld, is it because people in its chain of ownership do not want to be identified? Is it because the information is actually insecure? Is it because its release would highlight how little information is known about other objects?

Diligent sellers should not play hide and seek with their diligent buyers.

Its price had already jumped from an estimate of €20,000-€30,000 to a sale price of €65,000. Why, in less than a year, has its estimate jumped again? Is it because, since the auction in Paris, it has any known collecting history?

Its auction estimate is $120,000-$180,000.

A painting of Arhat Angaja. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 215, Sale 12168, Christie's, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

A painting of Arhat Angaja. Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art, Lot 215, Sale 12168, Christie’s, New York, USA, 15th March 2016.

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