While characterised by a liberal dosage of hyperbole, the piece of Souren Melikian in Art+Auction on the increasing importance of collecting history in the major auction houses makes heartening reading on a dull September morning
With the slow but unstoppable force of a juggernaut, the UNESCO Convention for the protection of cultural property, approved on November 14, 1970 — after which year the acquisition of antiquities ceases to be legitimate unless accompanied by an official export license — is reconfiguring the market. Not all nations subscribe to the Convention, and those that do, like the United States, may not enforce all of its provisions. Yet several factors are combining to make the Convention increasingly effective across most Western countries (with some notable exceptions, such as Switzerland). One is the weight of public opinion, led by scholars who deplore the massive loss of historical documentation that the unrecorded looting of archaeological sites entails and the destruction of a huge proportion of buried art treasures resulting from the crude methods to which commercial diggers resort. A second factor, more powerful than concerns for mankind’s buried historical and artistic heritage, contributes to the adoption of the 1970 UNESCO Convention as a de facto rule of thumb. Growing numbers of buyers feel that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Convention will be widely adhered to. Then, costly antiquities first bought after 1970 will become hard if not impossible to sell, and their commercial value will nosedive.I emphasise the importance of the public opinion. The text cites some fascinating examples of 'provenance research' of some Classical antiquities. The main theme is how much (financial) value collecting histories add to objects like this ("the price-multiplying effect achieved by conformity with UNESCO’s cutoff date "), the the peace of mind of the responsible collector comes at a price (but also we note how much the owner loses out if they carelessly 'lose' sight of where they objects they own and may one day put on sale come from). The cases include Classical statuary, but also 'minor' artefacts such as pots and a piece of painted linen (from Deir El-Bahari). Sadly Melikian's optimistic note does not allow him to explore the issues of the unscrupulous who produce invented collecting histories for items backed up by ambiguous (or even faked) 'supporting material'. How frequently is that going on? How watertight are most collecting histories?
This is not to say that undocumented antiquities all fail to sell. Many still do sell, although often courtesy of a lone bidder battling against the reserve. [...] Other signs that the market for antiquities is gradually moving toward total acceptance of the 1970 cutoff date can be detected [...], dealers are paying attention.Well, let us hope so, and that it is followed by a damnatio memoriae of those who lobbied so hard in the 1990s and first decade of this century against the regulation of the market and a cursing of all those careless collectors through whose hands objects passed without a single scrap of documentation of previous history being passed on. Melikian suggests public opinion has been turning against them, now even in the high-end commercial world their actions look like being on the way to condemnation. When will the "mom-and-pop" dealers follow suit?
Give it another 10 years, and undocumented antiquities, not just from Italy but from anywhere in the world, will turn into such hot potatoes that few professionals will want to touch them, and even fewer investment-conscious collectors will hold on to them. At that point, the massive looting that devastates the world’s common heritage buried underground will dwindle to a trickle. Caveat emptor.
The text however is well worth a read. [Note also the cogent points Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani makes about the issue of the "long-entrenched colonialist approach to art history when it comes to the Eastern lands occupied by Rome"].
Souren Melikian, 'How UNESCO's 1970 Convention Is Weeding Looted Artifacts Out of the Antiquities Market', Art+Auction August 31, 2012.