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Italian Art Dealers Seek to Change Rules for Modern and Contemporary Art

September 25, 2015. Currently, Italian law provides that any artwork created more than 50 years ago by a dead artist requires an export license for sale even within the European Union, regardless of its market price. Italian art dealers, auction houses, and gallerists assert that the law makes it impossible for Italians to compete internationally, and severely constrains growth in the Italian market. The 2014 European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) art market report (p 13) shows that Italy has only a 1% global market share and only 3% EU market share, compared to 19% for France and 63% for the UK.

Italian law not only has a 50 year threshold to require a government permit, it has no monetary threshold beneath which a permit is not required, which Italian dealers say has led to a huge backlog of applications. Both France and UK laws establish a monetary threshold that requires a government permit only for more valuable works.

Italian art dealers also state that expanding the 50-year threshold to 100 years is necessary for them to compete with other EU nations in the modern and contemporary art markets. The art trade group hopes to present a list of proposed amendments to the Italian cultural ministry after an October 2, 2015 roundtable at the Biennale Internazionale di Antiquariato di Firenze.

The dealer organization did not raise the issue of changes to Italian export law on sales of ancient and ethnographic art. Although antiquities are sold in the TEFAF fine arts fair, they represent such a tiny fraction of total global art sales that they did not merit a mention in the TEFAF analysis. Despite media and archaeologists’ claims that there is a major international market in antiquities, the facts show otherwise.

Image Fortezza da Basso, home to the Biennale.

Realities of the China Art Market

September 25, 2015. The China Association of Auctioneers and artnet have released the 2014 edition of the Global Chinese Art Auction Market Report, the only comprehensive published report examining the global market, including the markets in mainland China and overseas. The report may be downloaded here.

Highlights of the report, as summarized by artnet, are:

– 2014 marked another cooling period for the global auction market of Chinese art and antiques, as worldwide sales fell to $7.9 billion (¥50.5 billion), a 31.3% decline since the market’s peak in 2011.

– The number of lots consigned globally in 2014 was comparable to 2013; however, demand for these lots was lower. In 2014, the sell-through rate dropped to 48.1%–the lowest in five years.

– Regionally, sales in mainland China witnessed a 9.3% drop year-on-year (and a 40% decrease since 2011), while the overseas market was considerably more stable, and saw only a marginal decrease of 1.1%.

– Fulfillment of payment has long plagued the auction market in mainland China. In 2014, up to 63% of all lots sold for over ¥10 million were left unpaid or only partially paid. This non-payment rate is up 22% from 2013.

– The Beijing and Tianjin region continues to hold the majority market share in mainland China; however, decreases in this share suggest the market is slowly gaining ground in other regions, particularly the Yangtze River Delta region.

– Overseas, North America overtook Europe to become the second-largest external market for the sale of Chinese art. Europe witnessed a significant contraction in sales, purportedly dropping 29.7% from 2013.

– Over the past several years, there has been a considerable decline in the number of high-value lots. Comparing 2014 to 2013, this number has fallen from 429 to 389 worldwide.

– Some of the greatest decreases at the high end of the market were seen in mainland China, where only one lot sold in excess of ¥100 million, versus 11 during 2011. Additionally, works selling for over ¥10 million dropped 57% over the last four years in China; whereas lots selling for under ¥10 million fell 10%.


Image: POLY auction, By Luemmaiod (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Collectors, Congressmen, Museums and Musicians Challenge Ban on Antique Ivory

July 31, 2014.  A mid-May modification of endangered species regulations by the US Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has done little to limit the ban on the possession, trade and transportation of antique ivory. Excessive documentation requirements to show that an object is antique in the latest Director’s Order 210 Appendix A may make almost all trade in antique and ancient ivory unlawful. Newly introduced bills known as the Lawful Ivory Protection Act (H.R. 5052 and S. 2587) would remove the regulations imposed in 2014 if passed by Congress.

USFWS responded to widespread criticism by collectors, museums, the antique trade, and numerous musician organizations in recent months by changing the applicable dates of some of the new rules rather than addressing the underlying problems in the regulations. Even if artworks and instruments are truly antique, they can no longer be legally traded unless they have the required documentation regardless of how long they have been in the U.S. Observers have stated that USFWS’s proposed scientific testing and detailed appraisals cannot reasonably be undertaken for hundreds of thousands of ordinary ivory objects, leaving them in legal limbo.

The Art and Antique Dealers League of America and the National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America have suggested establishing expert panels to review and authenticate old ivory. Musicians and orchestras are concerned that the rules have made it impossible to buy or sell many antique instruments that include ivory and have sought the complete exclusion of instruments from the ban. Small amounts of ivory were frequently used in the construction of older string, wind, and percussion instruments and bows, including many fine instruments less than 100 years old. Arian Sheets, Curator of Stringed Instruments at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD, testified before a Congressional committee that: “In most cases, current owners of objects containing ivory lack documentation of the import of the ivory into the United States, which could act to effectively ban the sale of even antique objects which have been in this country legally for decades or centuries…the ability of the National Music Museum to add to its collection would be severely impaired.” In addition, the U.S. musical community is likely to see more incidents such as the June 2014 seizure and eventual release of seven violin bows belonging to the Budapest Festival Orchestra en route to concerts at Lincoln Center – requiring the musicians to borrow unfamiliar bows from U.S. musicians and to pay $525 in fines.

The new rules also affect a vast array of commonplace ivory antiques; they have the potential for making thousands of Americans who dispose of estates and heirlooms into unwitting criminals. A report by New York auctioneer Lark Mason outlines common types of ivory objects numbering in the hundreds of millions currently in the U.S. that the USFWS regulations would make illegal to sell across state lines.

The problem appears rooted in the failure of state and federal officials to enforce past regulations against the trade in modern, illegal ivory. Antique and art dealer associations have long urged that there be stronger regulation and licensing enforcement of the ivory trade. They say that for years, federal and state agencies have failed to provide adequate funding and staffing for customs interdiction, state-mandated registration and documentation. Yet this is the front line to stopping poached ivory from entering the U.S.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, John E. Scanlon, Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade, stated in May 2012 (Scanlon_Testimony) that a clear political message from on high was required to combat the illegal trade in wildlife. Opponents of the new regulations have countered that such a message was unlikely to discourage poachers in rural Africa, but that the regulations would stop law-abiding art dealers from selling genuine antiques in the future.

Former Congressman Jack Fields, an original co-sponsor of the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988, testified recently against the current USFWS regulations and in favor of H.R. 5052 and S. 2587 , legislation that would walk-back the new regulations to allow trade in legally imported ivory. Fields stated that the new regulations would deprive conservation-supporting countries such as Zimbabwe and Tanzania of needed resources from permitted scientific culling of animal populations, eliminate jobs in rural, subsistence communities, remove national park service workers in Zimbabwe and Tanzania from remote areas, thus making it easier for poachers to decimate elephant herds, and take workers in the front line of preserving elephant populations out of the area in a time of historic drought.

The USFWS regulations’ documentary standard appears to be extraordinarily high and the requirements to demonstrate age prohibitively expensive for all but a small fraction of antique ivory objects. While it is welcome news that, “articles that meet the ESA antique exception may be sold in interstate commerce, imported, exported, and used in other ways that would otherwise be prohibited under the ESA, without an ESA permit,” unless the rules allow for achievable criteria for establishing the age of an object, the so-called “antiques exception” will actually exclude the majority of antique and ancient ivory art objects, instruments, and furniture from sale.

The exporter or seller must provide documentary proof of age or lawful import but it is not clear what documentation will be sufficient, since the USFWS 210 Appendix Guidance states that, “Notarized statements or affidavits by the exporter or seller, or a CITES pre-Convention certificate alone, are not adequate proof that the article meets the ESA exception.” It suggests a DNA analysis would be sufficient for identifying the species of elephant ivory and sets extremely lengthy criteria for an appraisal that includes scientific testing to determine species, or other ‘definitive’ documentation of provenance. Such extensive testing would be prohibitive in cost for millions of extant antique ivory items.

Recent state legislation could also have the effect of stopping trade in all ivory, regardless of its age. Following the adoption of the new ESA regulations, in New York State, the largest US ivory market, the legislature amended the state’s environmental law on 20 June 2014 to ban sales of elephant ivory, mammoth ivory and rhino horn. One hundred-year-old antiques comprised of less than 20 percent elephant ivory with documented proof of provenance and musical instruments manufactured prior to 1975 may still be sold or transferred in NY state to the legal beneficiary of an estate on death with a special permit. As of this writing, another state law that prohibits all sales and trade in rhino horns and ivory has been passed by the legislature of the State of New Jersey and is expected to be signed into law soon (State of New Jersey, S.2012/A.3128).  In 1976, the State of California added elephants and any parts of elephants to a list of animals prohibited from importation or intent to sell (California Penal Code section 653o). A legal decision in federal court in California in 1983 determined that federal law preempted and took precedence over state law, holding that the Endangered Species Act, together with federal regulations, trumped California’s statutory prohibition on trade in African elephant products by a trader who had secured all necessary federal permits.

A key element, often missing from the domestic US discussion, is the fact that by far the largest market in the world for ivory, and one of the few markets where illegally poached, raw ivory is plentiful, is the People’s Republic of China. Even strong proponents of legislation entirely halting the trade in ivory regardless of age in the U.S. acknowledge that the bulk of all ivory traded in the world goes to China and the second largest importer is Thailand, with the U.S. a distant third.

An obvious alternative, which is to actually enforce laws against importation of illegal ivory and mandate harsher sentences for traders in illegal ivory in the U.S., instead of the fines handed out by courts in recent cases, appears not to have been considered by policy makers. Nor has working internationally to protect habitat in Africa and providing funding and on the ground support to conservationists there. Investigative reporting on the illegal trade provides evidence that not only insurgents but also African armies trained and supported by the U.S. government are engaged in poaching and sending illegal ivory to China and other Asian destinations. Such reports indicate that educating consumers in China and Thailand and demanding foreign government compliance with international endangered species treaties would be a more direct and effective means of preserving seriously threatened elephant herds.


Image: Portrait of George Washington on Ivory, Walters Art Museum, After Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828), Accession no. 38.44/ This miniature is a reduced copy of a full-sized oil painting by Gilbert Stuart of George Washington: the so called “Athenaeum type,” after the best known example in the Boston Athenaeum. The high-lights are enhanced by strips of silver foil applied at the back of the ivory. After Washington’s death in 1799 miniatures of him were very popular among Americans who wore and displayed them as a sign of respect, patriotism and mourning well into the 19th century.

71_00001-2 Image: U.S. Senate Gavels. Ivory. Left, original Senate gavel, used since 1789, when Vice President John Adams may have used it, although he seems to have preferred the attention-getting device of tapping his pencil on a water glass. By the 1940s, the old gavel had begun to deteriorate; in 1952 the Senate had silver pieces attached to both ends to limit further damage. During a heated, late-night debate in 1954, then Vice President Richard Nixon shattered the instrument. Unable to find a replacement through commercial sources, the Senate turned to the embassy of India. The replacement gavel duplicated the original with the addition of a floral band carved around its center. Source: United States Senate.

Metropolitan Museum Acquires Superlative Porphyry Urn; Launches New Multi-lingual Interactive Website

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced the acquisition of an extraordinary early Imperial period Roman urn carved from porphyry, one of the finest of such vessels to survive from the ancient world. The urn is made of a very hard stone of a richly mottled purple-red and shaped like a situla or wine bucket. Instead of the handles ordinarily found on a situla, it has a large and beautifully-carved Silenus mask on either side. The urn is in almost perfect condition, with a high polish on the outside -and still contains remnants of cremated remains. The urn was sold at a Paris auction in 2012 from the estate of the last owner, Patricia López-Huici de López-Willshaw of Neuilly, France, who died at age 98, where it was mislabeled as “A Porphyry Mortar, Italian, probably first half of 19th century.” The Metropolitan Museum has one of the finest collections of Greek and Roman art in the world and the urn will be shown with its other outstanding porphyry artworks. Its purchase was made possible through a challenge grant from Metropolitan Museum Trustee Mary Jaharis and the contributions made by a number of special acquisition funds and donations.

Director and CEO Thomas P. Campbell also announced the launch of One Met. Many Worlds, a new interactive feature in 11 languages that allows visitors to explore more than 500 highlights from the Museum’s encyclopedic collection in English, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. The feature – one of many interactive outreach programs at the Metropolitan, also invites visitors to respond by pairing images playfully, poetically, and creatively. Mr. Campbell said, “One Met. Many Worlds. is another groundbreaking digital tool for experiencing the Museum’s collection. Its foundation is our exceptional scholarship, but it also encourages our audiences to play and explore. This is the first of what I hope will be many multi-lingual approaches to the Met as we strive to reflect the cultures represented in our collection.”

Image: Porphyry vessel with bearded masks. Roman, Early Imperial, 1st‒early 2nd century A.D. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Acquisitions Fund, The Jaharis Family Foundation Inc. Gift, Philippe de Montebello Fund, Philodoroi and Renée E. and Robert A. Belfer Gifts, The Bothmer Purchase Fund, and Mr. and Mrs. John A. Moran, Nicholas S. Zoullas, Patricia and Marietta Fried, Jeannette and Jonathan Rosen, Aso O. Tavitian, Leon Levy Foundation, and Barbara and Donald Tober Gifts, 2014 (2014.215)
Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One Met Many Worlds

Sekhemka Sale Controversy: Egypt Claims Moral Right to Statue in Britain for 164 years

Christie’s $27 million dollar sale of an Egyptian statue brought from Egypt to England in 1850 has been controversial for widely different reasons. The government of Egypt has condemned the sale of the statue of Sekhemka, a royal scribe, which left Egypt legally 164 years ago and has been in the collection of the Northampton Museum since 1880. It appears that no transfer of an Egyptian work of art is legitimate in the eyes of the Egyptian government, although two years ago, the Government of Egypt assured the seller, the Borough Council of Northampton, that it had “no right to claim the recovery of the statue.” Nonetheless, Egypt’s ambassador to Britain, Ashraf Elkholy, said on July 11 that “Sekhemka belongs to Egypt and if the Northampton borough council does not want it then it must be given back.” (Ambassador Ashraf Elkholy’s is known for making controversial statements: in his last major press appearance almost a year ago, in August 2013, he defended Egypt’s military government’s assault on opposition protesters, claiming many of the dead had been shot by their own side.) The Government of Egypt, which has an abysmally poor record of preservation of antiquities in its own storehouses, has claimed a moral right to ownership of all Egyptian antiquities. Christie’s stated it will name the buyer in a few weeks; there is speculation that the new owner is in the Gulf region of the Near East, the location of the wealthiest new global museums.

More widespread criticism of the sale – much of it from the museum community – was based on the projected use of the funds from the sale to double the size of the Northampton Museum and develop community outreach programs. Museums’ ethical guidelines strongly discourage selling artworks to raise funds for anything other than new acquisitions. A representative of the Northampton Borough Council said that the sale had been vetted, that the statue had not been exhibited for four years, and that in that time, no one had asked to see it. Northampton will retain $13.8 million of the sale price; in an agreement negotiated just before the Christie’s sale, the current Lord Northampton, whose ancestor donated the statue, will receive about $10.4 million, based on an agreement made in 1880.  See more here: Barefoot Egyptian Statue to be Sold By Northampton (Shoe) Museum

Image: Christie’s, scroll

Sales and Exhibitions in June: Themes of Communication Across History and Culture

A number of exhibition openings and sales in June focused on how ancient themes resonate within contemporary art and culture. Each explores the formal similarities within ancient and contemporary art . The underlying theme of each event, however, is that art is capable of transcending a specific national identity and serving as a means of communication across cultures.

A selection of 72 stunning artworks drawn from the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Asian Art Museum “challenge visitors to confront the extremes and the ambiguities of beauty in the special exhibition “Gorgeous.” The exhibition, on view June 20 through Sept. 14, 2014, utilizes objects spanning two millennia and dozens of cultures to bring together “artworks that, in a variety of ways, extend beyond conventional notions of the beautiful.” Highlights include paintings, sculptures, photographs, and design objects by Bruce Conner, Dan Flavin, Torres, Jeff Koons, Meret Oppenheim, and others. From the Asian Art Museum are a 1,000-year-old Indian sculpture of the Hindu deity Durga victorious over the buffalo demon; a gilded and jeweled Burmese Buddhist bowl; a Korean textile with complex geometric designs; a decorated sixteenth century Persian Qur’an, silk scrolls and gold-surfaced ink paintings from China, and much more.

A group exhibition presenting ancient objects alongside contemporary paintings at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, ‘From Pre-history to Post-Everything,’  reiterates a theme familiar since the early days of celebrated gallerist Andre Emmerich: ancient art forms inform and inspire contemporary art. The show provides the opportunity for a visual dialogue between the abstract forms found in the arts of ancient cultures and the forms explored by today’s youngest generation of artists working with abstraction. The ancient objects are from the Pre-Columbian Americas to China. The new works are woven, hand-dyed, painted, sewn and industrially manufactured materials.

A Paris sale reminded the art world of the integration of ethnographic sculpture into the conceptualization of modern art in the early twentieth century. The sale at Sotheby’s of an extremely important Fang sculpture from Cameroon also exploited the link between ethnographic works and early twentieth century abstract art – and the building of the collection at the Musee Quai Branly. A large standing figure from Cameroon sold for $5,914,099, a world record price: it is the last privately available sculpture of only ten known from the Fang Mabea: all other works that are known of this type are in public collections. The sculpture was first exhibited as part of the collection of Félix Fénéon, a Paris art dealer who discovered many of the artistic talents who became the masters of Neo-Impressionist and Modern painting; in 1972 it was acquired by well known gallerist Jacques Kerchache and became on of the icons of his collection.

In 1990, Kerchache published a  manifesto in Libération, a monthly magazine of the new Left, titled “For Masterpieces of the Whole World to be Born Free and Equal [in] the Eighth Section of the Grand Louvre.” The Louvre, which had long resisted the inclusion of such works, finally installed what was termed “arts from Remote Places” including African, Oceanic, Pre- Colombian and and Native American artworks in the permanent collection of the Palais du Louvre — in part in response to Kerchache’s campaign.Kerchache argued fiercely for the inclusion of artworks from cultures still often regarded by critics as “primitive” in major museums, Kerchache stated:

“The discourse says ‘no men should be excluded from culture’. But the morality of three-quarters of humanity is excluded from the Louvre. There is still a great paradox. Everyone talks about the great Louvre of the 21st century. Everyone talks about the pyramid. But what is important is what happens below.”

From “A Masterpiece and a Manifesto: from Félix Fénéon to Jacques Kerchache,” by Marguerite de Sabran.




From the “Gorgeous” exhibiyion: Yasumasa Morimura, Portrait (Futago), 1988; chromogenic print with acrylic paint and gel medium; Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Vicki and Kent Logan; © Yasumasa Morimura; photo: Ben Blackwell