A few days ago, a very shocking and depressing addition to my personal monitoring of the global antiquities trade, especially in regards to Southeast Asian artifacts, was brought to my attention. I’m talking about a distributor called BC Galleries (http://www.bcgalleries.com.au). Formerly a member of sothebys.com, and with clients ranging from individuals, to museums, to other galleries, they have operated out of Melbourne, Australia, since 1976 (with a website for international transactions online since 1999). The company has two major financial associates that lend their operations the air of legitimacy. CINOA (Confederation Internationale des Negociants en Oeuvre d’Art, or International Confederation of Art and Antiquities Dealers Associations) is based out of Brussels, a city notorious for antiquities trafficking in its own right. It represents over 5,000 dealer organizations in 22 countries, all of whom must sign the membership charter to be legally allowed to use the CINOA logo for marketing. Within Australia itself, BC Galleries is also a prominent member of the Australian Association of Art and Antiquities Dealers (AADA). This nation-wide confederation of dealers allows those interested to browse affiliated galleries by State/Territory, or by primary category of antiquities for sale. Their website even contains a message board on which exclusive viewings of specific collections are advertised to the well-to-do visitor or local of the major Australian cities (Sydney, Melbourne, etc.), with the rare objects on view described with the same “hidden jewel,” and “National treasure” language that galleries catering to the super-rich tend to employ world-wide. Although, admittedly, much of what is offered for sale by most listed dealers will have nothing to do with the looting of ancient archaeological sites, what I uncovered in my perusal of the BC Galleries’ website and on-line catalogues demonstrates that BC Galleries isn’t one of them. One can only assume, then, that the stated “goal” of CINOA to “encourage high ethical standards within the trade” must only apply to the aggressive and concentrated use of expert appraisers to remove forgeries from the collections of signatory galleries. It appears that this “ethical concern” does not, howerver, cover the very brazen sale of recently looted antiquities.
The site is organized into two major catalogues; one for “Antiquities,” and the other for “Tribal Art,” both of which contain artifacts from around the world. The “Tribal Art” catalogue consists solely of artifacts of ethnographic, or relatively recent ethnohistoric, provenance (with “provenance” in this case usually being the name of the ethnic group from which the crafts-person derives, or at the very least, the region/country where the object was acquired from). Importantly, no ‘paper trail’ is provided up front to explain how these often rare or bulky items came to be for sale through BC Galleries (with a few exceptions being objects that are stated to come from “old collections”). Although a potential buyer can fill out a form to “request more information,” what certainty is there that the information provided will be accurate? This problem is even more severe in the case of the “Antiquities” offered for sale, which also span the globe in their source locations. They range in listed date from late 19th/early 20th centuries backwards (to the inclusion of a few mounted collections of European Palaeolithic stone tools), and even include 185 items under the category of “natural history” (fossils, insect specimens in amber, meteorite fragments etc.; all of which have their own illegal harvesting problems).
A basic tabulation of the raw numbers of artifacts for sale (determined from the number of individual entries in each section of the “Antiquities” catalog, segregated by general geographic region and/or time period) reveals some interesting, but unsurprising, patterns. The most obvious pattern is that specific regions of the world currently undergoing conflict, instability, or just generally suffering from insufficient monitoring of the antiquities trade comprise the largest categories of artifacts for sale. For example, “Southeast Asia” as a whole produced 325 entries on the days I monitored the website, while 250 entries come from “South Asia,” 193 entries derive from “Bactria” (read Afghanistan), 147 under “Pre-Islamic Iran” and 257 items under the very broad category of “Islamic Art.” Rather high tallies under the categories of “New Kindom” and “Late Period” Egypt, “Neolithic” and “Shang-Han Dynasties” China, and “Mesopotamia” might be partially due to “accidental finds” entering the market after, say, a farmer, discovers small artifacts in his fields and sells them to a middleman. Some of them also derive from the decommissioning of old museum collections or auction house lots (Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Mossgreen Auctions being just three examples listed on catalog records), but certainly not all of them. Even if a particular artifact can be shown to have passed through a different auction house before it was offered for sale again through BC Galleries, this says nothing about the conditions under which that artifact initially arrived on the market.
Very importantly, no distinction whatsoever is provided to the website viewer/potential buyer to discern how and when an artifact entered BC Gallerie’s possession. Granted, some of the artifacts in the larger categories, especially “Islamic Art,” are ethnohistoric pieces dating (reportedly) from the 19th-20th centuries, but the diversity, and occasional rarity, of objects for sale, especially those small and easily transportable artifacts coming out of currently “hot” areas like Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, practically guarantees that recent loot is being sold. I suspect that there’s no section of the catalog specifically labeled “Iraq” because, with so much attention focused on the high profile artifacts looted from new sites, old sites, and the National Museum of that country, the perceived risk was just too great. This is in opposition to the very small item counts for every other category, especially those archaeological cultures and countries in the Classical World for which the looting problem has been much more publicised and actively pursued, such as Greece, Turkey, and Italy. This is not to say that looting has been stamped out in those locations (far from it), nor that low tallies for a specific category (e.g. “Pre-Columbian”) on the days I devoted to searching the website should be viewed as reflecting the permanent state of the market. Indeed, the dealers that supply the global antiquities trade would always have to contend with fluctuations in “product” availability.
Through whose hands are these artifacts passing before arriving at the warehouse? A perusal of those very few individual catalog entries with a previous source listed (no more than 2-3%, by my estimate), reveals a diversity of network contacts, some from decommissioned collections, and others from active dealers elsewhere. Some are based in Australia (e.g., East Australia Trading, Sydney; the Buttonshaw collection, Melbourne; the Whitbourne collection, Melbourne), and some come from overseas (e.g., the Howard Rose Gallery, New York City; the Dr. Giuliana Zanetti collection, Bologna, Italy; the Mohit Collection, out of an undisclosed location in India, and the “private” collection of one Virginia Williamson, out of New Hampshire, USA). The few other collections I found record of did not state any specific location or time period, especially pre-1970s, during which the collection was supposedly amassed. Perhaps this information is only available upon request? It seems more likely that its not offered because its not known. What is apparent, however, is that BC Galleries is one of the better connected wholesale dealers of looted antiquities in Australia today.
Most unfortunately, as suggested above, the vast majority of items for sale only give rough temporal and geographic information by way of “provenance,” and the genuine antiquity of most looted artifacts for sale (whether recently ‘surfaced’, or brought to market many decades ago), is highlighted to reassure buyers’ of authenticity. Many artifacts have their usewear, repair, soil accretions, ‘verdigris patina,’ or chipping emphasized as clear signs that the purchase is authentic. Not to mention the occasional item with thermo-luminescence (T-L) dating paperwork provided! I wonder if the T-L laboratory workers (at Oxford or the University of Wollongong by my observation) had any idea that the artifacts they dated for their clients were looted, and/or were soon to enter the global antiquities market?
Further insult to injury is added via another disturbing, but perhaps inevitable, phenomena that many international antiquities dealers (including BC Galleries) engage in; the use of published academic archaeological references to bolster their authenticity claims. For example, the thorough and relatively current textbook Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia, a c. 2002 overview of Southeast Asian prehistory, was consulted by the writer of the catalog entry for this clay bull figurine (with the atypical inclusion of iron horns). To an archaeologist, this is a characteristic artifact of the late Bronze Age archaeological sites on the Khorat Plateau, northeast Thailand, most commonly found as a grave good. The first such site to be discovered was the eponymous site of Ban Chiang, but several other contemporaneous sites in the vicinity are known to share artifact types and mortuary customs (thought of collectively as the “Ban Chiang Culture”), while even more sites remain to be found, or have already been lost to looting. What is the archaeological community to do? On the one hand, we must be responsible and ethical in publishing site reports and data in as timely a manner as possible. On the other, the last thing we hope to see is our work “used against us” to further the demand for and selling of genuine artifacts… A real catch-22…
I will close with a discussion of a specific photograph from the “new acquisitions” portion of BC Gallerie’s catalog which serves as a great example of how the very unscrupulous antiquities trade can come “full circle.” The photo (and see above left) is of a segment of a bronze spiral bangle, still containing a concreted section of the original grave fill soil and substantial pieces of the forearm of the person interred with it perhaps as much as 2,500 years ago! Although a “Dong Son” (northern Vietnamese Iron Age) affiliation is listed for it, I myself saw identical examples in central and southern Vietnam, and they have also been recovered from salvaged sites in Cambodia. According to the owner of a “souvenir” shop in Hoi An whom I spoke to when last there in January (documented in an earlier post), the most detailed provenance he could recall for a similar, but cleaned-up, bangle (one of many late prehistoric artifacts for sale, including bells and beads) was “from the My Son area.” Most famous for its large complex of Chamic temples, the surrounding area was inhabited for centuries before that, but the late prehistory of Central and Southern Vietnam is very poorly known, meaning that there are undoubtedly many undiscovered domestic and cemetery sites from which artifacts can be accidentally or deliberately removed. As documented, small-ish items at that shop like bangles, small bells, rings etc. would sell for no more than $200USD…and only $650AUD will net you the gruesome “antiquity” in the photo above.
Torn from context, we’ll never know exactly where this came from, nor anything about the person wearing it…and that’s not even mentioning the ethics of having a section of someone’s arm on your mantelpiece! In the 30+ years that BC Galleries has been operating, who knows how many other one-of-a-kind, or equally macabre, artifacts or “specimens” have passed through their doors? What seems clear, however, is that the big names in global antiquities dealing don’t just come from the northern hemisphere. Constant vigilance remains a necessity everywhere.