In Selling Antiquties Bad Provenance Tarnishes Good Character
December 5, 2019
On August 20, 2013, Neil Kingsbury of London pleaded guilty to three charges of fraud for making false representations about the provenance of thirteen Egyptian antiquities he had sold or offered for sale at Christie’s and Bonhams. He pleaded not guilty to a fourth charge of possession of stolen property: a fragment of a red granite relief depicting a Nubian captive.
Researchers at the British Museum spotted the fragment in the catalogue for a Christie’s London antiquities auction scheduled for May 2, 2013, and contacted Hourig Sourouzian, an archeologist who has conducted excavations at the Amenhotep III mortuary temple at Thebes. She immediately recognized the fragment and confirmed that the relief had been discovered at the temple in 2000, and had been placed in secured storage. No one knows who removed it or when.
Mr. Kingsbury may very well not have known that the fragment had been stolen. Nevertheless, it was his perhaps unwitting attempt to sell that particular piece of stolen property that led to the exposure of his multiple misrepresentations of provenance. Kingsbury had consigned six items for sale in Christie’s May auction. He had told Christie’s that he had inherited the artifacts from his uncle, who had served in Egypt during World War II, and had remained there for several years afterwards before returning to the UK. In the auction catalogue, Christie’s listed the items as “property of a gentlemen,” and described their provenance as “private collection, UK, acquired Egypt 1940s; thence by descent.” The prosecution said that Kingsbury, himself, had bought the items at a souvenir shop in Egypt. It did not say when.
Kingsbury’s lawyer said that his client was of “good character” and “did not plan to commit a crime,” and that he had “no knowledge that [the fragment] was stolen property.” That begs the question: why did Kingsbury falsify the provenance of the thirteen items he consigned? His misrepresentations suggest that he was aware of the UNESCO Convention of the Means of Protecting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. (See Repatriation of Cambodian Art…, February 23, 2013)
The UNESCO Convention not only blocks the sale of artifacts which were not demonstrably in private hands or on the market before 1970; it has the unintended consequence of sending the prices of objects with pre-1970 provenances sky-high. A New York Times article published on June 14, 2013 illustrates the dramatic difference provenance can make. A marble head of Zeus dating from the late first or early second century was up for sale in a Sotheby’s New York antiquities auction on June 5, 2013. A Sotheby’s expert was able to locate a negative of the sculpture that had been recorded by the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut in 1934. Estimated at $25,000 – $30,000, the sculpture sold for $125,000. The next day, at a Christie’s New York auction, a glass beaker described only as “early Roman, 4th century” was valued at $10,000 – $15,000. It was intact, making it especially rare and valuable; however, it went unsold.
Regardless of his knowledge about the fragment from Thebes, Kingsbury’s multiple misrepresentations of provenance suggest something less than “good character.” At a preliminary hearing on September 4, 2013 he was released on bail and a trial date has been set for late February 2014.
Photo: The Artnewspaper.