Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Sotheby's Chastened Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

Sotheby's has transferred its regular sales of antiquities and Indian art from London to New York, prompting the heads of the company's Antiquities and Indian and Islamic Art departments to resign. In a short statement, the auction house acknowledged that its decision was in response to "recently expressed concerns" about "issues of patrimony and heritage." While Sotheby's officials refused any further comment, the action was widely interpreted as a response to allegations by British journalist Peter Watson that employees of the auction house had engaged in widespread smuggling of antiquities. In Sotheby's: The Inside Story (see abstract of "Rotten Apples: Sotheby's and the Antiquities Market," ARCHAEOLOGY, May/June 1997), Watson alleged that certain employees had spirited artifacts out of Italy, India, and Cambodia in violation of their export laws.

Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that concentrating all antiquities sales in New York will limit what Sotheby's can auction. He notes that American courts have sometimes honored foreign countries' claims for the return of illegally exported artifacts and that the U.S. has imposed import bans on objects originating from a half-dozen countries under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In Britain, he says, there are "no customs to speak of, no laws [prohibiting the entry of illegally exported items]. It's wide open."

"London has been called the smuggling capital of the world," says Ricardo J. Elia, a Boston University archaeologist and a leading critic of the illicit antiquities market. "The trade in antiquities in London will continue. There are so many other dealers and auction houses there that this is not going to have any impact on the volume of trade." Jerome M. Eisenberg, an antiquities dealer in New York and London and editor and publisher of Minerva magazine, characterized the decision as a "public relations ploy." Transferring the London antiquities and Indian offices, he says, will have "virtually no effect on their total sales. The gross antiquities sales of Sotheby's and Christie's together are less than one-half of one percent of their total art sales."

Though antiquities sales constitute a small share of Sotheby's business, they have accounted for a large share of the company's headaches. Sotheby's will not abandon the antiquities market, says Elia, because "there's a tradition of the antiquarian who builds museum collections. It's still a high-prestige arena." He adds that the smuggling scandals will end only when "dealers and auction houses stop dealing in unprovenienced antiquities."

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America