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The Power of Plausible Provenance'?

Sotheby’s sale of Pre-Columbian antiquities from the Barbier-Mueller Collection; Society for American Archaeology Meeting, Austin, April 2014

Donna Yates

on 15 June 2016

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Transcript of The Power of Plausible Provenance'?

Protest these auctions publicly to influence the outcome of sales and to introduce doubt into the market.
Sotheby’s sale of Pre-Columbian antiquities from the Barbier-Mueller Collection
Greg Lee
Trafficking Culture Project
Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research
University of Glasgow
Antarctic, Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre
University of Tasmania
Donna Yates
of the antiquities market
Buyers will voluntarily select antiquities that are 'safe' investments; government regulation of the trade is unneeded.
'the market will police itself'
Free market neoliberal approach
Source Countries
Question the authenticity of the objects
Threaten legal action
Inspire public scrutiny
How do the actions and activities of these actors *interact* under conditions of intense international controversy?
Collection Barbier-Mueller Art Précolombien
22–23 March 2013, Sotheby's Paris
Josef Mueller
Son-in-law. Has administered the collection since 1970s. Added to it and 'sought to create a synchronous whole'
A 'Swiss collector'. Originally collected modern art. First bought a Precolumbian piece in 1920.
Museu Barbier-Mueller
d’Art Precolombí
Opened 1997
Shut 2012
Spain tried to buy the collection to save the museum but was unable to do so due to
Fetched €10,296,300; half of estimate
165 out of 313 lots did not sell
Nearly half the lots sold exceeded pre-auction 'high estimate'
Provided some provenance info for all object
Emphasized 'Old Collection'
Implied artifacts were safe from foreign claims of ownership
Demands return of items citing Peruvian ownership law and restrictions against antiquities trafficking
Also demands the return of objects,
but only 51 of
them. Say that 79
pieces are fakes.
start to grumble
Source countries had no quick, clear pathway to challenge ownership and sale
Costa Rica
Objects were in the possession of Barbier-Mueller and Sotheby's France
Burden of proof
usually on claimant
Auctions rarely halted due to source country complaint
Difficult to 'prove' an antiquity is stolen
Key Findings
We found pre-1970 listed artefacts to have odds of sale twice that of items with later surface dates, with a 95% confidence interval for this odds ratio of [1.26, 3.27]

Among items which sold for less than €1,000,000, there was no significant difference in realised value for objects listed with pre-1970 surface dates and those listed with later surface dates.

We developed a model for the probability of sale as a function of listed surface date. Countries lodging repatriation requests had significantly higher (p = 0.03914) rates of sale across the entire listed surface date range of the Barbier-Mueller auction

Among countries that lodged repatriation requests, pre-1970 listed artefacts were strongly associated with higher rates of sale (p < 0.0028). We found an odds ratio of 2.26 and a 95% confidence interval [1.31,3.95]. Among countries which did not lodge repatriation requests no detectable differentiation in purchase pattern by binary surface date was found (p = 0.8085)

Around 2/3 (69%) of the realised value of the auction arose from items listed with pre-1970 surface dates. This reflects our findings that average realised values are approximately constant regardless of surface date, and that artefacts listed with pre-1970 surface dates sold approximately twice as often.

Pre-1970 objects sold "better"
Objects from countries that lodged return requests sold "better.
Most of the realised value of the auction was on pre-1970 objects.
No evidence that purchase price is dependent on surface date among items sold for less than €1,000,000
In this auction:
Buyers purchased objects associated with pre-1970 surface dates more frequently than objects with later surface dates when objects are associated with source-country protest.
Consistent with 'auto regulation'
But what is being autoregulated?
1970 appears significant to buyers. Should it be?
Buyer concern for 'authenticity' does not appear to be addressed
Appears to offer little to source countries
Debating auction "success" is misplaced
is a distraction
Observed buyer behavior offers insufficient protection
Frustrated source countries are unable to effectively intervene in auctions
The destruction caused by on-the-ground looting is not addressed in any way.
Buyers not shielded from repatriation requests or authenticity issues
(auction houses can lie)
We must develop a regulatory framework that is actually capable of protecting cultural heritage.
Perhaps protect buyers too...
'Auto regulation' and the current regulatory regime fail at their intended purposes
While there is some evidence in this auction that buyers prefer pre-1970 items, post-1970 items are still openly sold. Authenticity is still an issue for buyers and lack of adequate redress is still an issue for source countries.
And, of course, we aren't quite sure what this would look like, but....
Seller must provide proof that object left country of origin in accordance with the law, not 1970 line

Proof (documentation etc.) must be freely available to all observers and potential buyers

Both sellers and consignors must face penalties for offering illicit or fake objects for sale

Potential claimants (source countries) must have a clear way to make their claims
Those are not things you can 'autoregulate'
They are in the best interest of the buyer
Dealers/Sellers/Auction houses 'lose' their largely unregulated market
The Power of Plausible Provenance'?
There is no evidence to show that buyers pay less for more recent objects (if anything, the reverse is true)
Any perceived risk is not reflected in market price, only purchase frequency; we don't have data on who bought what but the trend is consistent with the speculation that more buyers are willing to purchase pre-1970, those that don't care happily pay similar prices for more recent objects
Full transcript