One Huub Meyer was assured by members of the Yahoo AncientArtifacts discussion list that “most” [Egyptian] antiquities are “sold legally and were excavated legally for example in Egypt as for 200 years the local, Egyptian, government did not care much about its own culture, and no records were made of the hundreds of thousands of objects that were exported”. He remains however sceptical and replies:
I think that 90% of the items that are now in the antique shops are more recently excavated. I think it is not possible that those items are excavated more than 200 years ago. I know a Guy who is collecting items in the Near East, than brings them to Europe and sells them to major antique dealers over here, no questions asked… I know for a fact that he Sold items to Dick Meyer, Mieke Zilverberg, Akanthos (now living and selling in Belgium) and others. And did you see the items sold by Stormbroek, no way that they were excavated more than 200 years ago… correct me if I am wrong. Also In Belgium, France and England he sold items to several major antique dealers (Drees Gallery in Brussels) no provenance asked, in fact they know were the items are coming from. I myself purchased some items from some major dealers in the Netherlands, not once they did give my proper provenance out of themselves, I always hat to ask them. I also remember a few years ago 90 % of the antique sellers in archeology were closed in London (Mews Gallery or something) for selling looted items. In France, England and Germany there are large archeology auctions several times a year, I do not believe that all those items were excavated more than 200 years ago. I think it is simply not possible that there are so many items on the market that were excavated more than 200 years ago.
Me too. Although this message looks like provocation (and one can imagine a number of reasons why it might have been made), let us look at the dealers he mentions.
Dick Meijer was mentioned in a previous post, the photos of the interior of his shop show mostly what seem to be (Dutch and Spanish ?) post-Medieval ceramics, which suggests he is more of a general antiques seller than a specialist antiquities dealer. He has no website I can see, but sells stuff on eBay and from the feedback we can access his old auctions, where we find comments like the object concerned comes from “a private collection of all kind of items, collected in the before 1950-1980”, “private collection from The Netherlands, of Pre Columbian pottery etc. collected in the 1950-1960. in Mexico”. A cuneiform tablet is provenanced “Privat collection Wally Elenbaas, artist the Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Solt by the estate actionhouse Rotterdam”. (This is the deceased artist). A money back guarantee covers authenticity issues, but no mention is made of documenting licit provenance.
Mieke Zilverberg’s website (Kunsthandel Mieke Zilverberg, Rokin 601012 KV Amsterdam) offers Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins and archaeological objects “from Egypt, Western Asia, Greece, Etruria and Rome, ranging from 3000 BC to 500 AD“. We are assured that “Kunsthandel Mieke Zilverberg undertakes not to purchase or sell objects until we have established to the best of our ability that such objects were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property“. No indication is given how this is striven for, apart from a mention of the Arts Loss Register. She gives some objects the vague provenance “ex private collection [+country]” but others have more explicit ones, including a number in which inclusion in two (successive?) collections are cited. Nevertheless there is no hint that the purchaser will get any kind of documentation of the provenance beyond what is stated on the website.
The Drees Gallery website (Nelly Drees, Rue des Minimes 22 B- 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium) claims it has a “fine selection of Ghandaran artefacts, as well as a fine selection of Greek, Sassanian and Roman gold, silver and bronze coins. The art of south-east Asia (Myanmar-former Burma) […] is well represented”. No mention is made anywhere of any acquisition policy or maner of exercising “due diligence”, and sometimes gives the formulaic “private collection”, “[nationality] individual collector”. In many cases objects have no indication of provenance (“A certificate of authenticity will be delivered to the buyer’s request”. How about a written guarantee of legitimate origins instead?)
Stormbroek Ancient Art Gallery (Stormbroek antiquities/ Ancient Art Gallery Stormbroek BV, Ekkersrijt 4411, Son en Breughel, Netherlands – proprietor seems to be A.C. Wouters):offers “thousands of collectibles and antiques direct from European Private Collections. A touch of history: Ancient artifacts, coins, antiques and collectibles from the Bronze Age, Celtic, Roman and Medieval to the 20th century“. The website seems to be down at the moment. Stormbroek was discussed here earlier as the seller of a Wenneb… shabti. Also just now a Dutch collector of shabtis remarked that “Stormbroek has sold these pieces to the major dealers as he also sold large amounts of shabtis to many dealers with uncertain provenance“. Hmmm.
Akanthos might be “Akanthos Ancient art and Antiques” (Oever 7, 2000 Antwerpen, België [other addresses seem also to be listed]) but it seems to be off-line at the moment.
[There have been a number of galleries in England called the “Mews gallery”, it is not clear to which of them Mr Meyer might be referring, anyway, as we all know, no BRITISH dealer would ever offer objects of uncertain or tainted provenence would they?].
While there may be no foundation whatsoever in Mr Meyer’s allegations that these Dutch and Belgian dealers are knowingly buying ancient material of tainted origins, the standards of documentation which each of them seem to be offering does not allow the concerned buyer independently to check how in fact many of the items they sell came to the market. It is not even a matter of accepting a dealer’s word for it (relying on a dealer’s good “reputation”). Stating that a dealer has determned that the collection they bought something from was made between the 1950s and 1980s self-evidently is insufficient (especially as within that 30 year period there were decisive legal watersheds). The “estate sale” sales pitch is a commonly used ploy by dealers to say “I don’t know anything about where this comes from and the guy who does is dead so you cannot touch him or me for it“. Either the object has a documented provenance or it does not and in the latter case a truly reputable dealer would not touch it.
If a hypothetical dodgy dealer was slipping illictly-obtained goods onto the market alongside other items, how on earth – given the current state of the facilities offered by dealers such as the ones mentioned here to would-be ethical collectors to check – would it be possible to determine them? Anybody can say any old object comes from “an old Ruritanian private collection” and refuse to provide any documentation or further information. We all know that such “provenances” are worth nothing without the ability to verify them. They are also meaningless if the fact that they were in a particular collector’s ethically-obtained collection cannot serve to show that the object itself had been legitimately obtained. A collector buying items no-questions-asked from a mixture of due-dilligent and dodgy dealers has a contaminated collection. The mere fact that an object comes from that particular collection is not enough to establish licit origins. Or do we accept that objects become legitimate by passing through such contaminated collections? How on earth can the current laissez faire system operate to exclude the passage of illicit items onto a legal market? Given that the present situation is intolerable, how could collectors and dealers improve on the present system (I use the term loosely), or is the only way to achieve that going to be through strict registration and regulation coupled with an aggressive public relations campaign condemning no-questions-asked collecting?
Photo: Relief from Portus apparently showing the supplying of a Roman antiquities dealer in goods.