Skip to comments.Problems of Sumerian art, looted and fake antiquities from Iraq (My title)
Posted on 04/16/2003 12:12:03 AM PDT by hotpotato
. "Look, it's a no-brainer because, unless you know for a fact this Sumerian piece has been in some English lord's collection for years, you can bet you're probably trading with Saddam Hussein and it's probably all stolen stuff with cooked-up, fake provenances. As a museum director, don't even bother with it, just hands off."
FORT WORTH _ The Kimbell Art Museum is working to recover $2.7 million from a New York antiquities dealer after returning what was advertised as a rare Sumerian statue that the Kimbell bought last year, according to sources familiar with the transaction.
Museum officials would not comment on why the statue was returned.
American archaeologist John Russell, a leading expert on Near Eastern antiquities, said museums commonly return ancient artifacts to their countries of origin if the pieces have been determined to be stolen. But Russell said: "You never hear about people returning things to a dealer. That's the sort of thing that would normally stay quiet. I haven't heard about anything like this before."
Sources say a valuable torso was sent to the Kimbell as collateral as the museum and the seller work out details of a refund.
Phoenix Soho, the New York dealer that sold the antiquity to the Kimbell, is run by the Aboutaam (also known as Abutaam) family of Lebanon, one of the art world's most secretive and aggressive buyers and sellers of antiquities. Members of the family have had one reported confrontation with legal authorities in Europe, involving a recent raid of their Geneva offices by Swiss and Italian authorities. The Star-Telegram has learned that the Aboutaams are the subject of a federal tax inquiry in the United States.
Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art, described the Aboutaam family as "major dealers."
"You could talk to any museum curator that deals in ancient Near Eastern art," he said, "and they could tell you that they are major players."
Toward the end of last year, the Kimbell completed the purchase of the Sumerian sculpture from Phoenix Soho. The acquisition was never publicly announced, and the statue was never displayed at the museum.
Sources said the piece was a 15-inch prophetlike male figure of white alabaster stone, with a feathered skirt and exaggerated, wide eyes. It is considered to be a religious figure and is estimated to date from 2600 B.C.
One of the unusual aspects of the purchase, according to a source familiar with the transaction, was the seller's insistence that the transaction be concluded by the end of last year in order for the Kimbell to take advantage of an estimated $300,000 discount Phoenix Soho was offering. Because of this time limit, sources say, the Kimbell was still authenticating the piece after the purchase.
"My gut feeling is that someone after the fact took a look at this object and told the Kimbell that it was wrong," one source said.
Kimbell Art Museum Director Timothy Potts, citing confidentiality issues, would not discuss any aspect of the transaction.
Several experts familiar with acquisitions similar to the Kimbell's say that there are usually two reasons a piece of antiquity is returned. Either the buyer discovers that the documentation covering the artwork's history of ownership and origin (its "provenance") is vague, contradictory or suspicious, or the buyer learns that the piece is a forgery or was fraudulently represented as being more valuable than it actually is.
"It would say fake to me, if a discount price system was at play," said Neil Brodie, an archaeologist affiliated with the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge, England. "If an antiquity comes on the market and appears to be undervalued, you immediately start asking questions, suspecting its authenticity or its original method of acquisition."
Potts - whose expertise is in ancient art and archaeology, which would include Sumerian art - made only this statement on the matter: "The acquisitions since my appointment as director have maintained the Kimbell's standard for outstanding quality and importance, and the museum's interests have been fully protected in their acquisition contracts."
Kay Fortson, president of the Kimbell Art Foundation, responded in a written statement: "The Board is confident that all recent art acquisitions have been appropriately considered and approved and that the Foundation's interests have been fully protected."
Potts made clear that he would not reveal the name of any dealer he regularly works with, which would breach a well-known etiquette in the museum world. A premium is placed on privately conducted transactions. Because of this emphasis on discretion and the highly secretive nature of the international art and antiquities market, most sources for this report asked not to be identified.
With Sumerian art, establishing provenance takes on special importance and difficulty, experts said. It is especially important to focus on the ownership history of Sumerian antiquities, most of which originate in current-day Iraq, said Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Because the trade embargo imposed on Iraq after the Persian Gulf War applies to art objects, Sumerian art that does not have clear documentation leads to concerns about forgery or that the object was illegally taken out of its country of origin. Experts say that looting of Iraqi archaeological sites has been rampant since the gulf war in 1991.
"I would say that an extremely conservative estimate is that 70 percent of [Near Eastern] pieces that appear for the first time on the market are stolen or looted" from archaeological sites, said Russell, an international crusader against looting. "I personally believe the percentage is much higher than that."
Even if the Sumerian statue is legitimate, Russell said, its lofty sale price encourages additional looting and the resulting destruction of ancient sites in the Near East.
"Holy cow," Russell said when he was told what the Kimbell had paid for the Sumerian statue. "I'm stunned and horrified. It's a bad thing when something sells for that much money that is so closely connected to a market in looted material. Even if this piece is squeaky clean, it's a terrible thing when it publicly fetches that sort of price. This could be a poster child for the problem in general."
Concerns about the authenticity of Sumerian pieces cause some art experts to steer clear of all but the most established works from the period.
"If this stuff would come to me, I'd probably just laugh and not really be interested in even seeing it, but would then take a quick look if only to know what I think is being smuggled," Hoving said. "Look, it's a no-brainer because, unless you know for a fact this Sumerian piece has been in some English lord's collection for years, you can bet you're probably trading with Saddam Hussein and it's probably all stolen stuff with cooked-up, fake provenances. As a museum director, don't even bother with it, just hands off."
Jerome Eisenberg, director of New York's Royal-Athena Galleries, said, "This area is one where you have to proceed with extreme caution." Eisenberg has been a dealer in Near Eastern art since 1961 and is one of the world's leading authorities on ancient art forgery.
"Though I'm not familiar with this specific piece," he said, "I know that to verify the authenticity of any piece of Sumerian antiquity, you have to send it to a serious laboratory for examination because, frankly, a panel of experts can argue both sides of its authenticity. Candidly, it is this whole problem of authenticity in very rare Mesopotamian art objects that defies most dealers from working with them."
In addition to theft, forgery is a potential minefield with Sumerian art. Eisenberg said a considerable number of rare Sumerian antiquities were forged and put on the international market beginning in the 1950s.
"Most any small object made in alabaster is just easier to carve and make into a forgery," Eisenberg said. "Almost anything in the soft materials of marble or alabaster is easy to copy, and, in the case of a Sumerian piece, it is just not a complicated sculpture."
He also said that any inscriptions, particularly the wedge-shaped imprints of cuneiform, are not nearly as subtle as Egyptian hieroglyphics and can be easily forged.
Phoenix Soho is the American branch office of an international art-dealing concern run by Ali and Hisham (also known as Hicham) Aboutaam, who are reportedly from Baalbek, Lebanon. The Aboutaams are known to have operations in several locations, including a warehouse and gallery in the tax-free zone of Geneva.
Sources in Europe and the United States have indicated that the Aboutaam warehouse in Geneva was raided within the past six months by Swiss and Italian authorities. The raiders reportedly confiscated 70 to 80 terra cotta pieces, mostly vases, originating in Italy, in addition to documentation pertaining to the artwork.
Repeated calls to the Aboutaams' offices and homes were not returned.
When reached by phone at Phoenix Soho's location at 600 Broadway in New York, a gallery official would not confirm her name, comment on the Kimbell transaction or divulge the name of the dealer's owner or its attorney.
Staff writer Tim Madigan contributed to this report.
From Michel Van Rign Art news site - the 2.7 million Sumerian statue was fake
To be "Fair and Balanced", there was a very strong concern about the loss of real, genuine antiquities. Archaeological treasures could become casualties; Much of early civilization's history yet undocumented By ANDREW MARTON
Trudging through and judging what was legit or not at the National Museum sounds like a quagmire to me.