The Art World Redefines Ownership

In September 2022, the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned 27 ancient artifacts valued at more than $13 million to their countries of origin. Twenty-one objects headed to Italy, and the other six to Egypt. The items — which ranged from a statuette of a Greek goddess from about 400 B.C. to a terra-cotta kylix, or drinking cup, valued at $1.2 million — were seized in the preceding months by the Manhattan district attorney’s antiquities unit on the grounds that they were looted.

About five years earlier, the team, led by Matthew Bogdanos, had swooped into the TEFAF New York fair and seized a Persian limestone bas-relief from the booth of Rupert Wace, a London dealer. The artifact had previously been displayed for decades in a Montreal museum, the gallery said in a statement at the time.

As TEFAF New York gets underway this week, the art and antiquities market is facing more and more pressure to give back objects that were smuggled out of their countries of origin, whether recently or in colonial times. The notion of provenance — where an object came from, and who its previous owners were — is being redefined, and the goalposts are being shifted. That’s making some dealers uneasy about showing work in New York for fear that it might be seized, several art professionals said in interviews.

To Derek Fincham, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston who specializes in cultural property law, the interventions by Mr. Bogdanos and his team come not a moment too soon.

“The law has long rested on the idea that you cannot sell what you do not have,” he said in an email interview. “Prosecutors like Bogdanos are enforcing the law and ensuring that stolen and looted art does not infiltrate the trade.”

Dr. Fincham noted that the art and antiquities market had for too long been a “no-questions-asked” environment. It took documented cases of looting and dismemberment of monuments — particularly in newly independent states whose cultural treasures were being sold illegally — for UNESCO to adopt a convention in 1970 to stop the illicit movement of cultural objects.

“If anything,” he argued, prosecutors like Mr. Bogdanos “should be encouraged to go further, and not merely secure the return of objects, but also hold accountable the individuals buying and selling this material.”

A white-ground terra-cotta kylix (or drinking cup) from approximately 470 B.C., valued at $1.5 million was among more than 20 artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Credit…The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The looting and smuggling of cultural properties is by no means a thing of the past: It continues unabated in conflict-torn regions such as the Middle East. For instance, the French police are investigating the purchase by the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum of millions of dollars’ worth of Egyptian relics which had been trafficked and illegally sold. The former director of the Louvre Museum in Paris, Jean-Luc Martinez, is facing charges in a case involving the relics, charges he denies.

To the management of TEFAF (The European Fine Art Foundation, a not-for-profit organization run by its constituent dealers), provenance is and always has been a serious matter, on which the fair’s reputation depends. At the main fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, a team of some 200 vetters fan out before the fair opens to verify each booth and its contents, occasionally questioning an object, requesting further documentation, and in the absence of persuasive evidence, removing it from a stand.

TEFAF New York alone has 54 vetters — more than half the total number of booths (91), said Will Korner, head of fairs at TEFAF. Previously, after graduating with a degree in archaeology, he worked for the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of lost, looted or stolen objects.

Mr. Korner said a milestone in public sensitivity to provenance was the Islamic State’s capture and destruction of whole sections of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in 2015-16.

After that heart-stopping tragedy, provenance suddenly became “no longer a niche interest, but something thrust onto every single newspaper,” Mr. Korner explained. “People started talking about antiquities and cultural property being associated with real-world events.”

Ever since, the expectation of faultless provenance “has filtered through from the trade, from the collectors and from the museums into the wider general public,” Mr. Korner said, adding that if an object from Syria suddenly appeared before an antiquities dealer, provenance is “something that all of this trade should be thinking about.”

A guest viewing art displayed at the TEFAF art fair held at Park Avenue Armory, NY.Credit…Joe Carrotta for The New York Times

Until 2021, TEFAF New York consisted of two annual fairs: one in May, focusing on modern and contemporary art and design, and another in October, with a focus on ancient art, old masters and period furniture. That fall fair was shut down by TEFAF after dealers said they weren’t generating enough sales.

A handful of galleries at TEFAF New York still deal exclusively in older art. This year, they are Galerie Chenel, Ariadne and Charles Ede. A fourth gallery — Donald Ellis Gallery — focuses on Native American art.

Charles Ede, a London antiquities gallery founded in 1971, has attended every TEFAF New York so far. At last year’s fair, in May 2022, it sold more than a dozen Roman antiquities, including a very large marble head of a man, which went for $320,000, according to a TEFAF news release.

The gallery’s director, Charis Tyndall, said in an interview that as far as Charles Ede was concerned, “provenance has always been extremely important,” adding: “We cover all our tracks.”

She noted that her gallery always made sure that no object offered for sale had ever been “recorded as being a problem” by governments, the police, Interpol or the Art Loss Register.

A highlight of her booth this year will be a Greek terra-cotta calyx krater from Sicily (c. 400 to 370 B.C.) with provenance that can be traced back to the early 1800s. It was purchased in Naples at the time by an Englishman who was the heir to the Nostell Priory, one of the great historic houses of northern England; the collection was shown there until its dispersal in a 1970s Christie’s auction, she said.

Ms. Tyndall noted that Charles Ede had always been “ahead of the curve” in terms of provenance, paying attention not just to the law but to shifts in market tastes and mind-sets. And she noted that the market in antiquities had in fact shrunk — but not because of a lack of interest.

“The demand is still there. In fact, the demand is increasing,” she said. “We just don’t deal in as much as we used to,” because “we can’t find the material.”

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