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.