Looting Matters: Sale of Antiquities on a Downturn

Jan 08, 2010, 12:01 ET from Looting Matters

SWANSEA, Wales, Jan. 8 /PRNewswire/ -- David Gill, archaeologist, reflects on the trends in the sale of antiquities over the last decade.

Swansea archaeologist David Gill has been analyzing the sale of antiquities in New York since 1999. Some $300 million worth of antiquities have been sold at Sotheby's and Christie's since 1998. There are normally two sales a year for each of the auction houses.

Around $20 million of antiquities were sold in 2009, down by over $8.5 million from the previous year. This is similar to the levels in 2003 ($20.4 million) and 2006 ($19.9 million). Only 2002 was significantly lower.

Sotheby's seems to have been achieving lower sums. 2009 saw one of the lowest amounts achieved in the decade at just under $8.6 million. The worst year was in 2006 with $6 million. However, in December 2006 ,the auction house sold a single antiquity, the Guennol Lioness, said to have been found near Baghdad and displayed in the Brooklyn Museum since 1948, for $57.161 million.

Christie's, in contrast, has been increasing its market share.

However, during 2009, a number of antiquities were seized from auction houses in New York at the request of Italian authorities. Some appear to have been identified from images seized during police raids on a dealer's warehouse in Geneva.

One trend over the decade has been the decrease in the element of Egyptian antiquities. At Sotheby's, Egyptian objects only represent some 17% of the value of the sales. A study of the median value of the lots in the sales suggests that prices are around their 2004 level.

This downturn raises issues. Are auction-houses finding it harder to offer antiquities with a recorded collecting history or "provenance"? The returns of antiquities from public and private North American collections to Greece and Italy have been a sharp reminder of the issues involved. Auction-houses are having to conduct more rigorous due diligence processes to make sure that they do not unwittingly handle material that has been looted from archaeological sites in recent years.

It could also be that antiquities are no longer seen as a "safe investment" in the global economic downturn.


SOURCE Looting Matters