Ancient art sparks controversy

Who has the right to own art treasures that were originally pillaged? Chris Carter reports.

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Not for nothing was the auction last Thursday at Christie's in London called The Exceptional Sale. There were many objects with fascinating histories among the lots. Nevertheless, just one item grabbed all the attention in the lead-up to the sale and not all for the reasons Christie's had wanted, as exquisite as that item was. The lot that was hogging the headlines was a bust from around 1330BC of the ancient Egyptian "boy king", Tutankhamun. With its fine eyes and delicate features, the sculpture is without doubt a work of art. "You're just blown away by the fact that a sculptor, over 3,000 years ago, used all his skills to create the most beautiful representation of the king," says Christie's antiquities specialist Laetitia Delaloye. The Amun Head (pictured), as the piece is known, was expected to sell for £4m. After all, as Christie's says, "so many people have wanted to own this work of art".

That includes Egypt's antiquities ministry. Right up until the day of the auction, the Egyptian ambassador to Britain, Tarek Adel, called for the sale to be delayed so that its provenance could be further investigated. Zahi Hawass, Egypt's former minister of antiquities, went further. "It seems that this sculpture was looted from Karnak Temple," he said. "I don't think Christie's have the papers to show it left Egypt legally; it's impossible. Christie's has no evidence at all to prove that, and so it should be returned to Egypt."

Unattractive truths

Christie's refutes that claim. "While ancient objects by their nature cannot be traced over millennia, Christie's has clearly carried out extensive due diligence verifying the provenance and legal title of this object," the auction house said in a statement. "We have established all the required information covering recent ownership and gone beyond what is required to assure legal title." It is "understood to have been in the collection of Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis by the 1960s" (before being passed on), says Christie's in its catalogue note. That, however, was called into question when Viktor von Thurn und Taxis, the son of the minor German royal, told website Live Science that he did not recall his father ever owning the bust. He was "not a very art-interested person", Wilhelm's niece, Daria, added.

Either way, the wider row isn't confined to the Amun Head. Last October, Iraq objected to the sale of a 3,000-year-old Assyrian stone relief when it was sold at Christie's in New York for $31m. And in January of this year, an Egyptian cartouche that had been smuggled out of Egypt was rescued from a London auction house, The Daily Telegraph reported. Over the past five years, Egypt has recovered 1,500 illegally trafficked objects from abroad. "Sales of antiquities are increasingly sparking disputes over provenance by authorities in countries of origin, such as Egypt, Greece and Turkey," Heba Saleh and James Pickford point out in the Financial Times. That doesn't surprise author Peter Watson, who says in The Times that auction houses play a cynical game: "Sail as close to the wind as you dare, and when you are found out, do whatever you can to avoid admitting the unattractive truth".

"Wildly unethical"

Even if you can guarantee legal ownership, that may not be enough, says Aditi Natasha Kini in The New York Times. "These tokens of a colonial past were pilfered, pillaged and otherwise procured as gifts' from India [to Britain]," she says, referring to the Christie's sale of Indian and Mughal-era jewels in June. "The auctioning of stolen heritage to the highest bidder is wildly unethical. These objects must be given back." The debate continues. As for the Amun Head, Christie's stuck to its guns that "there is an honourable market for ancient art" and the sale went ahead. It sold for £4.7m.

A masterpiece comes home

Vase of Flowers by Jan van Huysum © Uffizi Galleries/Twitter

Germany has agreed to return Vase of Flowers, a painting by the Dutch master Jan van Huysum, to the Palazzo Pitti gallery in Florence. The artwork, valued at €2m today, had been taken by retreating German soldiers in 1943 from a village where the painting and other artworks had been stored by the gallery for safekeeping during the war. However, Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi, and a German himself, waged a high-profile propaganda war of his own to arrange for the painting's return. In place of where the stolen painting was meant to be hanging, Schmidt arranged in January for a framed photograph of the still-life, emblazoned with the word "Stolen!" in multiple languages, to be hung in its place. Germany cracked.

The painting resurfaced in 1991 in a private collection in Germany. Efforts to have the painting returned faltered when descendents of the German soldier into whose possession the painting went demanded €2m for it. They said the painting hadn't been stolen. The soldier had bought it for his wife at a market. German authorities also applied a 30-year statute of limitations. Schmidt has called for Germany to lift any statutes of limitations where Nazi involvement is suspected. The painting is now on its way back to Florence (how much money, if any, changed hands has not been revealed). "At long last [Vase of Flowers] comes home after 75 years," Schmidt told Reuters. "The battle was tough."

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