Friday, December 24, 2010

Another auction record price expected, albeit tainted by claims of illicit provenance

2010 was the year of record auction prices: for painting and any artwork generally (the Picasso sold at Christie's for $106.5m); for sculpture (the Giacometti sold at Sotheby's for $104.3m); for rare books (the Audubon classic "Birds of America" sold at Sotheby's for $11.5m) and for Chinese art (the Qianlong vase sold at Bainbridges for $85.9m). The market has undoubtedly shown remarkable depth in buying power emanating largely from Russia, China and the Middle East (it is widely believed that the mysterious buyer of the record-breaking Picasso could only have been either Russian or Middle Eastern) and it is no wonder that this has been accompanied by the rise of art funds, art securitization and even the launch of an art "stock exchange" in Paris.

The Art Newspaper is now anticipating what could be the first record auction price for the new year: £3.5-4.5m for a Benin ivory mask, which would make it the highest price ever paid for an African artwork. The top-end of the market for Chinese art has been dominated by Chinese buyers making patriotic purchases so it will be interesting to see if a similar trend arises in the case of the iconic mask when it is auctioned at Sotheby's in London on February 17. That the mask is believed by many to have been looted by the British "in the infamous punitive expedition of 1897 when the British invaded Benin, looted thousands of artefacts, burnt Benin City and sent Oba Ovonramwen, the King, into exile" makes it much more likely that the buyer will indeed be African. But what of the allegation that Sotheby's is actively participating in trafficking illicit antiquities? When it comes to antiquities, the statistics are staggering -- it's been held that the provenance of approx. 80-90% of antiquities on the market would raise legal issues (S.M. Mackenzie), the resolution of those issues often being impossible given the origins and age of the antiquities. While it would not make sense to freeze virtually all sales of antiquities, sales of those that are suspected to have been illegally exported from their country of origin should not take place unless and until those suspicions are put to rest. Otherwise, the auction houses and dealers involved will be feeding the market demand fuelling looters all over the world (the causal link between market demand and supply for looted antiquities has been conclusively proven in my opinion).

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