By the market’s seemingly only definition, profit, Christie’s Paris auction of sacred images and other antiquities from Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, Thailand and Tibet was a success. By any other definition, its results were more questionable.
Unacceptable risk, whether exceptional or standard
I have already highlighted the most exceptional risks, with regard to Cambodia, China and Tibet. Yet standard risks exist in relation to cultural goods from those and all of the other countries, from complicity in the exploitation of deprived communities to funding of organised crime. For example, in recent years, police in central Java caught an ‘ancient statue theft syndicate’ and seized sculptures and fragments of sculptures, including the heads of ninth-century statues of Buddha, which a member claimed to have inherited. Such a striking case highlights the need for complete supply chain due diligence.
As with other commodities, the illicit trade in antiquities is a violent trade. Traffickers murder each other over the proceeds of crime, such as thief Shakthi Mohan in India, who was a member of a smuggling gang that supplied Subhash Kapoor’s illicit business empire. That may be dismissed as a natural consequence of wilful involvement in violent crime, but his blood is still on the hands of the unethical buyers who created the demand for the illicit supply.
Moreover, cultural property criminals also harm innocent people, including people who are trying to preserve vulnerable communities’ cultural heritage. For instance, traffickers murder expert witnesses for their trials, such as archaeologist Lambang Babar Purnomo in Indonesia, who was investigating an organised criminal network that engaged in embezzlement, forgery and fraud.
Unlike scientific studies, I did not only accept verified provenance; I uncritically accepted the handlers’ claims.
2 of the technically 88 lots were withheld from the auction or otherwise excluded from the catalogue. According to the handlers, of the 86 displayed lots, 24 (27.91 per cent) had been documented before the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; 28 (32.56 per cent) were documented between 1970 and 1994 (in other words, before the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects); and 34 (39.53 per cent) have surfaced since 1995. Indeed, 31 (36.05 per cent) of all of the lots displayed at this auction appear to have surfaced at this auction.
Before the sale, based on the estimates, the 86 displayed lots were believed to be worth around €3,150,000 (between €2,486,000 and €3,499,000). On average, each lot was believed to be worth around €36,628 (between €28,907 and €40,686). In the end, 22 of the displayed lots were not sold; 64 were sold.
Outlying data and data display
In this auction, lots’ prices varied so wildly, whether compared to each other or to their own estimates, that it was not very useful to discount each period’s highest-priced lot as an outlier.
Moreover, in the previous auction, I was actively trying to reduce the average prices of recently-surfaced antiquities, in order not to misrepresent the supposedly improved standard behaviour of the art market. In this auction, all of the outlying data represented lots with collecting histories since before the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Nonetheless, one lot sold for more than ten times the average price and another lot sold for more than thirty times the average price. So, those two have been excluded as outliers.
Furthermore, for the sake of readability, since the average price was 407,209 euros, and 58 of the 64 sold for less than that, while 5 of the 64 sold for more than twice that, those 5 were excluded from the graph (because otherwise all of the other data points from €6,875 to €482,500 were almost flattened into a line).
Collecting history (also known as provenance) and market value
According to the handlers, of the 64 sold lots, 21 (32.81 per cent) had been documented before the 1970 UNESCO Convention; 21 (32.81 per cent) were documented between 1970 and 1994 (in other words, before the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention); and 22 (34.38 per cent) have surfaced since 1995. In fact, 21 (32.81 per cent) of all of the lots sold at this auction appear to have surfaced at this auction.
Before the sale, based on the estimates, the 64 sold lots were believed to be worth around €2,481,500 (between €2,067,000 and €2,896,000). On average, each lot was believed to be worth around €38,773 (between €32,297 and €45,250). The auction established that the 64 sold lots alone were worth €26,049,825. On average, each lot was worth €407,029.
Antiquities that had been documented before the 1970 UNESCO Convention
The 21 “pre-UNESCO” lots were believed to be worth around €1,335,000 (between €1,114,000 and €1,556,000). They sold for €24,053,875. On average, each was worth €1,145,423.
Excluding the two furthest outliers, the 19 remaining pre-1970 lots were believed to be worth around €910,000 (between €764,000 and €1,056,000). They sold for €5,312,875. On average, each was worth €279,625.
Antiquities that were documented between 1970 and 1994
The 21 “1970-1994” lots were believed to be worth around €700,500 (between €589,000 and 812,000). They sold for €1,192,925. On average, each was worth €56,806.
Antiquities that have surfaced since the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention
The 22 “post-UNIDROIT” lots were believed to be worth around €446,000 (between €364,000 and €528,000). They sold for €803,025. On average, each was worth €36,501.
Overall sale price by length of collecting history
Clearly, with regard to the examples in this auction, antiquities with longer collecting histories appear to be worth more than antiquities with shorter collecting histories. It should also be noted that, in terms of unsold lots, buyers passed on 3 (14.29 per cent) of the 21 “pre-1970” lots; 7 (33.33 per cent) of the 21 “1970-1994” lots; and 12 (54.55 per cent) of the 22 “post-1995” lots. Yet, as archaeologist Neil Brodie has demonstrated, an object’s market value is produced by its quality, not its collecting history.
There is significant evidence for this assessment, even when the market’s claims are uncritically accepted. First, while the sale price of the antiquities that had been documented before 1970 was 484 per cent higher than their estimated value (and the sale price of the antiquities that were documented between 1970 and 1994 was 70 per cent higher than their estimated value), the sale price of the antiquities that had surfaced since 1995 was still 80 per cent higher than their estimated value.
The sale price of the antiquities that surfaced at this auction was 88.58 per cent higher than their estimated value. Potential buyers may have chosen not to buy most of the newly-surfaced antiquities on offer, but they were manifestly willing to buy newly-surfaced antiquities, and they felt sufficiently comfortable and confident to pay an even higher price than the market expected for the ones that they did buy.
Lot 2 was the headless torso of a ‘rare’ statue of Jain Tirthankara, which Christie’s Paris implied had been taken from an important temple shrine in India, which could only be securely traced back to Sotheby’s New York auction in 1992 and which was only claimed to have been traced back to a private collection in the 1980s. Yet it sold for €140,500, 212.22 per cent more than the lower estimate of €45,000.
Lot 4 was a ‘rare’ statue of Kali, which Christie’s Paris advertised as coming through Spink and Son, which was a ‘notorious’ source of looted antiquities. Yet it sold for €35,000, 75 per cent more than the lower estimate of €20,000.
Lot 10 was a statue of Buddha, which Christie’s Paris implied had been taken from a temple in Thailand, which was only claimed to have been traced back to a private collection in the 1990s. Yet it sold for €22,500, 125 per cent more than the lower estimate of €10,000.
Lot 11 (documented by 1981), Lot 16 (documented around 1985), Lot 19 (documented in 1982), Lot 20 (documented by 1969) and Lot 23 (documented in 1981), which were sculptures that were attributed to periods that share names with archaeological sites in Cambodia, were not bought.
Yet other sculptures that were attributed to periods that share names with archaeological sites in Cambodia, Lot 12 (documented in 1971), Lot 13 (documented in 1974), Lot 14 (documented by 1979), Lot 15 (documented around 1985), Lot 17 (documented in 1962), Lot 18 (documented in 1963), Lot 21 (documented by 1969), Lot 22 (documented in 1967), Lot 24 (documented in 1967) and Lot 31 (documented in 1992), were bought.
More such sculptures that surfaced after 1970 were bought (five) than were not bought (four). Lot 18 sold for €47,500, 20.83 per cent less than the lower estimate of €60,000. Nonetheless, altogether, the ten sold sculptures sold for €710,250, 73.23 per cent more than their combined lower estimate of €410,000.
Like so many of the suspiciously-broken sacred images, Lot 25 was a dismembered Buddha. In this case, it was the head of a ninth-century Buddha Shakyamuni from central Java, Indonesia, which was only claimed to have surfaced in the Netherlands in 1981, even though antiquities in Indonesia have been legally protected since 1931, when Indonesia was the colonial Dutch East Indies. Yet it sold for €86,500, 246 per cent more than the lower estimate of €25,000.
Most shockingly, Lot 32 was a plaque (or panel) of deities, which Christie’s Paris implied had been taken from the monastery at Densatil in Tibet, which was pillaged by the Red Guards of China’s “Cultural Revolution” before the plaque surfaced in a private collection. Yet it sold for €56,250, 40.63 per cent more than the lower estimate of €40,000.
If the auction house had reassuring documentation, why did it not publish that documentation, as it published the sales invoice for Lot 50 and the inventory card for Lot 53? Since the auction house did not publish reassuring documentation, why did the buyers buy cultural goods that may be crisis antiquities or even conflict antiquities?