How UNESCO's 1970 Convention Is Weeding Looted Artifacts Out of the Antiquities Market

How UNESCO's 1970 Convention Is Weeding Looted Artifacts Out of the Antiquities Market
At Christie's, this Egyptian painted votive linen (c. 1300-1200 B.C.) sold for $782,500, more than six times the high estimate.
(Christie's Images LTD. 2012)

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.


Proof that auction houses have become acutely aware of the problem is provided by the policy that is quietly followed at one of the two international companies dominating the auction market. A few months ago, as I congratulated Florent Heintz, international head of the antiquities department at Sotheby’s, about the number of ancient Roman sculptures ensconced in the cultural past of Europe that he has been handling of late, the expert replied, “This is what we are looking for right now.” The latest antiquities sale held at Sotheby’s New York, on June 7, certainly bears out Heintz’s words.

The four top lots in the auction had all reached Western Europe by the 19th century. The highest price, $902,500, greeted a Greek marble stele from the third quarter of the 4th century B.C. The funerary monument is carved in low relief with the figure of a young man clutching a dove in his right hand. A dog stands on its hind legs, hoping to snatch the bird. A certain rigidity about the sculpture is not fully compensated for by the rendition of the subtly wistful expression of the deceased youth, who smiles ever so faintly.

Fortunately, the history of the stele made up for any such weaknesses. The story of its discovery was recounted in 1877 in the journal of Classical studies Parnassos. The marble was dug up in Athens on June 27 of that year, on the grounds of the property of a certain Michael Melas. In 1900, it was described and illustrated in Volume II of the corpus of Attic Funerary Reliefs compiled by the classicist Alexander Conze. Other publications followed in the late 20th century, including Christoph W. Clairmont’s Classical Attic Tombstones, Volume I, in 1993. While on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1964 and 2011, the gravestone acquired an aura that further contributed to its performance. At $902,500, the stele far exceeded the $500,000 high estimate.

The second-highest price paid at Sotheby’s on June 7 illustrates even more dramatically the impact that a recorded past in the history of European collecting now has on the market in ancient Roman sculpture. The statue described under lot 33 reproduces the model known as the Dresden Artemis, after a famous sculpture in the Albertinum Museum in Dresden, Germany. Both appear to go back to a Greek original by Praxiteles praised to high heaven in ancient Greek and Roman sources. An intact life-size marble figure carved in Rome in the late 1st or early 2nd century A.D. would have much in its favor. Unfortunately, the statue is missing its head, its right arm, and part of its left arm, and the drape covering the right leg is badly abraded.

Luckily for the consignor, the circumstances in which the figures were discovered offset these peccadilloes. Frédéric Pollette, a French businessman who served as a consular agent for France in Porto Santo Stefano, owned a villa above the small Italian port. One day, Pollette hit upon ancient remains on his property and uncovered a structure dating from the first half of the 2nd century A.D. or possibly earlier. Marble revetment plaques and fragments of mosaic ground decoration came to light. Even more gratifying for the collector, three marble figures of ancient goddesses also turned up — Artemis, Kybele, and Athena — all missing their heads. The art historian Etienne Michon reproduced the statues in his study of the “Excavations Conducted at Porto San Stefano,” published in 1889 in Volume 9 of the journal Mélanges d’archéologie et d’histoire, after which they were lost sight of until 2011, when Heintz rediscovered Artemis in a Canadian collection.

The impact of the statue with its verifiable credentials in 19th-century archaeological history was spectacular. Its unsatisfactory condition notwithstanding, the statue brought $398,500, exceeding the high estimate of $250,000 by more than half. The Canadian owner also consigned the seated Kybele discovered by Pollette. Exposed to rainfall for more than a century, the second Santo Stefano statue had suffered erosion and staining, but the recorded 19th-century discovery saved the situation: The damaged Kybele found a taker at $86,500 (est. $80,000–120,000).

If remodeled in the 18th century according to the ideas then prevalent about what ancient art should look like, even composite statuary stands a fair chance. This was demonstrated with what Sotheby’s presented under the grand headline “A Marble Figure of Sophocles, Roman Imperial, 1st/2nd Century A.D., With 18th Century Restorations.” Heintz warned in the catalogue that “the head (probably not belonging) [was carved] after a Greek portrait of Sophocles of the early 4th Century B.C.” Change “probably” to “definitely” and the characterization becomes accurate enough: In Roman art, a draped figure clutching a scroll is the traditional image of an orator, not a playwright like Sophocles. Dealers in the 18th-century antiquities trade disliked incomplete figures and routinely polished off any traces of damage that might deter clients. Heintz matter-of-factly cautioned that “the base, feet, forearms, tip of nose, eyebrows, back of head, and various drapery parts [have been] restored in marble” — “restored” being polite parlance for recently made up. The expert also dwelled on the provenance. And that made all the difference in the world.

Only a born researcher like Heintz would have thought to consult the collection of plates edited in 1929 by Paul Arndt and Wilhelm Amelung, Photographische Einzelaufnahmen antiker Skulpturen (“Individual Photographic Plates of Ancient Sculptures”). There he discovered, under number 3099 in series XI col.  28, a view of the Neoclassical entrance hall at Marbury Hall, the grand country house in Northwich, Cheshire, where James Hugh Smith Barry installed his Roman sculptures from 1801 on. The statue can just be seen in the distance. Heintz also listed a series of publications illustrating the piece, from the Comte de Clarac’s Musée de sculpture antique et moderne, volume V, 1841, to Gisela Richter’s The Portraits of the Greeks, volume I, 1965. Glamorized — and guaranteed to be a legitimate acquisition — by its long history, the composite statue estimated to be worth $80,000 to $120,000 realized an astonishing $158,500. Call it a world auction record for what collectors and dealers disparagingly dismiss as a “marriage.”

It is not just statuary that benefits froma properly recorded past. The auction included a Greek krater painted around 375–350 B.C. with a banquet scene. Attributed to an anonymous artist now designated as “The Painter of Athens 1714,” the scene represents the god Dionysus reclining on a couch and taking part in a wine banquet accompanied by music.The vase was recorded as early as 1869, when the chapter of Durham Cathedral in northern England received it as a bequest from George Waddington, who had been the dean of the cathedral. In 1936, the krater was bought by William Randolph Hearst for his estate at San Simeon, in California. It reappeared when the late tycoon’s works of art were sold at the Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York in 1963 and was acquired subsequently by the collector Jan Mitchell, who loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There it stayed until the executors of his estate consigned it to Sotheby’s. Guaranteed to conform with the UNESCO definition of legitimate acquisition, thanks to its long history predating 1970, and enhanced by the aura of several publications by distinguished scholars, to say nothing of its 49-year display at the Met, the krater rose to $338,500, nearly quadrupling the highest expectations ($90,000) pinned on it.

The price-multiplying effect achieved by conformity with UNESCO’s cutoff date can go even further. Consider the fate of a gold armlet catalogued by Sotheby’s as “Roman Imperial, Eastern Mediterranean, Circa Late 3rd /Early 4th Century A.D.” Such a description reflects the long-entrenched colonialist approach to art history when it comes to the Eastern lands occupied by Rome. The motif of beveled almonds in high relief arranged in quatrefoils is alien to European art. So are the palmettes rising from the inside rim of the bracelet. The grinning masks of a bearded man are part of the Hellenistic legacy that left an imprint from the Mediterranean shores to northwestern India following Alexander’s conquest. A closely related armlet was dug up at Tartus, Syria, in the 19th century, and others have come to light in that land. That the Semitic Near East was occupied militarily by Rome does not make the armlet Roman — by that standard, Flemish painting of the later 16th century should be seen as Spanish, and Indian art of the 19th century as British.

The gold armlet surfaced at Ars Antiqua in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1960, at a time when works of art dug up in the Middle East were arriving on the market in large numbers. Mitchell eventually acquired the object and sent it to the Metropolitan in 1966, where it remained until 2011. The Sotheby’s estimate was $20,000 to $30,000.  Galvanized by its long history in the Western market and the prestige conferred by the Met, bidders sent the armlet climbing to an extravagant $230,500.

To be entirely accurate, proof that important objects were acquired before 1970 does not always guarantee a brilliant outcome at auction. A statue dug up in the 18th century can remain unwanted if the restoration is too awkward. One of Heintz’s brilliant discoveries was not rewarded with commercial success. He traced a marble figure of Aphrodite to Thomas Hope’s famous album Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, printed in London in 1807. The sculpture can be seen in the far corner of “The Picture Gallery” in the interior designer’s London townhouse on Duchess Street. Yet, on June 7, it failed to sell. The ungainly legs restored below the knees presumably dissuaded potential buyers from matching the low estimate, set at $300,000.

Serious damage sometimes appears more acceptable if a sculpture is offered in the condition in which it was found instead of being dolled up. A Greek marble head of Herakles, carved in the 3rd century B.C., obviously after a living model portrayed with considerable talent, made $53,125, well above its $20,000-to-$30,000 estimate. The nose was smashed, as was the left side of the hair. Chips are visible on the cheeks and over the eyes. Yet none of that quelled the bidders’ eagerness to acquire a head that had appeared at auction in Basel in 1963, when the late Herbert Cahn was in charge of the company Münzen and Medaillen (now owned by his son David). How seriously present-day buyers take evidence that an antiquity reached the market before 1970 can be inferred by comparing the June 7 price with those realized in earlier times. In 1969, at Sotheby’s London, the head cost a mere £420, (then $1,000). In 1999, at Sotheby’s New York, it rose to $17,250, still far below the price paid this year.

At Christie’s New York on June 8, those few important lots that could be proved to have entered the market before 1970 also fared brilliantly. An Egyptian painting on linen of immense rarity, 19 inches wide, which was consigned by the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York, and had been published as early as 1906, climbed to $782,500, more than six times the high estimate of $120,000. Datable to the 13th century B.C., the fabric was acquired at Deyr al-Beheyri, near ancient Thebes. Superbly preserved, it is worthy of any major museum.

A life-size fragmentary statue of Venus, which misses its head, forearms, and lower leg, was also well received. Although the history of the work is not documented, 18th-century smoothing of the breaks provides proof of its long presence in the market. It brought an astronomical $482,500. Later, a Roman marble portrait of Empress Faustina Minor, carved between a.d. 162 and 176, soared to $278,500. The consignor’s French family had acquired it not later than the early 20th century.

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. Another Roman head at Christie’s, the portrait of a girl carved around the late 2nd or 3rd century A.D., was allowed to go at $32,500, leaving its hammer price well under the low estimate of $30,000.

Other signs that the market for antiquities is gradually moving toward total acceptance of the 1970 cutoff date can be detected. European museums and some leading American institutions, like the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, divisions of the Smithsonian Institution, will only consider acquiring antiquities that meet this criterion.

More important, dealers are paying attention. Jerome Eisenberg, the New York dean of the antiquities trade, who has been running Royal-Athena Galleries since 1951, is described in a press release issued by his gallery on June 4 as a “leader for many years in the promotion of the ethical acquisition of antiquities by museums and collectors.” The release points out that he “voluntarily cooperated in returning a number of valuable antiquities illicitly excavated in Italy.” Tellingly, Eisenberg was invited to participate in the 1993 UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) convention in Rome, where he gave an address on the subject of ethical acquisitions.

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.

This article appears in the September issue of Art+Auction magazine.