Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Cost of Ethical Collecting

A common argument among collectors is that an item with provenance will cost more than one without. This is simply not true in many cases. I found these examples in 30 minutes on Trocadero.com

(no prices listed, but even offers export papers with the item)

And these from Collector Antiquities, Dr. Bron Lipkin's website:

All are reasonably priced items. You may have to look a little harder to find provenanced items, but they are certainly there, and you can get them for about the same price as un-provenanced items elsewhere. As you are looking, you'll see that many items say "from an old French collection" (or some variation of that). I was asked once how you know if that's true, a seller can put anything they want in a listing. Simple, you ask for proof. If a seller is making claims of provenance, a buyer has a right and a responsibility to ask for proof of those claims. An ethical seller will have no problem providing that information. There's also no reason why you shouldn't ask about provenance even if there is none listed. The argument I hear from sellers about that is "I don't want to tell the buyer where I got it, then they will just skip over me and go right to my source". Sorry, that's not good enough. That argument fails for a few reasons. The
first and most important is how does a buyer know that is the real reason that information is being withheld? And while I'm sure that does unfortunately happen, I don't think that's the usual. If a lot is sold by an auction house, providing that provenance is not going to lead anyone to a source where they can get it cheaper. Another reason is that antiquities are unique objects, once an item is sold, there is generally no other like it. Lastly, dealers usually sell to each other at a discount, they are normally not going to make the same deals for collectors as they would for other dealers, expecting future reciprocation. The only way to make sure you are not buying a recently looted item is to ask for provenance. If a seller won't give me that information, I won't buy from them. Period.

There has been much written lately in blogs and forums regarding unknowingly buying illicit items, one such example was discussed in the Ancientartifacts forum on yahoo, with the end result being talked about here:

As it turns out, these shabtis have a high probability of being recently looted, and made their way to ebay and other sellers. The disturbing thing is that nobody down the line asked for proof of provenance. Why not?

Kudos to both Dr. Bron Lipkin and Rolf Kiaer for doing the right thing. I don't know where Rolf Kaier acquired his item, but Bron Lipkin got his from a seller he trusted and put his faith in. This highlights the importance of asking for paperwork to back up provenance claims, even with a dealer you trust. While a building a relationship with a dealer you can trust is very important to a collector, that trust should not replace due diligence, and you should still ask questions about how the item was acquired.

It doesn't have to cost you more to collect responsibly, so why would a collector want to risk more damage to the historical record by possibly buying a recently looted item?

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