A bust of the Roman Emperor Caracalla will be auctioned off October 28 by Bonham’s. The auction house estimates the bust will bring 250,000. The lot description says the bust dates to the period after he murdered his brother and co-emperor Geta and their website lists the provenance as the current owner having a receipt from Mr. Dennis Leen, Beverly Hills, California dated 1976. But Dennis and Leen is not a individual but an exclusive interior design company in Beverly Hills who curently specialize in high quality antique reproductions.
This information brought me up short. Is a receipt from a company that is known for producing high quality antique reproductions considered adequate provenance for a bust that supposedly dates back to the second century? So I called Dennis & Leen to check to see if they ever dealt directly in the sale of antiquties. After checking some company references, a manager at their flagship store in Beverly Hills assured me that yes, earlier in their company’s history, they did sell genuine antiquties. But is this provenance adequate to stave off a repatriation claim or justify the estimated price?
The ideal provenance would track the item from archaeological site through each successive buyer. Is it risky to purchase such a piece with repatriation claims snatching away pieces from even prestigious museum collections?
“The laws are extremely complicated and changing all the time,” says Patty Gerstenblith, specialist in cultural property law at DePaul Univeristy. “But you can buy objects that predate national ownership laws and any bilateral agreements between the U.S. (or U.K.) and the country of origin if ownership can be traced for at least a couple of decades.”
Anxious prospective buyers of any antiquity can check the international database of lost and stolen art. The U.S. State Department also maintains a website that tells you which countries have bilateral agreements and emergency rulings currently in effect. The website includes an image database of restricted artifacts.
The best protection, of course, is to buy only from dealers who offer a complete refund if anyone brings a claim of ownership or improper importation. A warranty of authenticity that validates the claimed date or period of the artwork is simply not enough.
Setting values on antiquities can be difficult as well, especially with prices soaring as countries crack down on cultural exports. Like most collectibles, antiquities are worth whatever the prevailing market will pay. So how do institutions like Bonham’s or Sotheby’s go about determining what a collector or museum will pay for a piece of ancient artwork that they plan to auction? Although many of the large auction houses rely on their experience with past sales, they also turn to the experts at museums or research universities to help them authenticate pieces. The Getty Center has assisted both Christie’s in Los Angeles and Sotheby’s in New York to research items they have been asked to sell.
Back in 2005, artnet.com issued a press release that they would soon begin listing all gallery and auction antiquties sales in their database to help potential buyers and sellers determine equitable values. Brian McConville, Artnet’s director of sales, said the tracking service would help establish prices more universally. The search service charges $3.50 per individual search or $29.95 for 10 searches in a 30 day cycle.
Artnet’s search price is obviously geared toward museums and galleries who may be investing large sums in particular items and need precise comparative values to justify their purchases to board members or shareholders. For those of us who don’t have 250,000 lying around to invest in a bust of a Roman emperor but would like to place a finger on the pulse of the antiquities market, checking Sotheby’s sold lot archive for the latest antiquity transactions there can be fun without running up a tab.