Greek archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, a veteran of skirmishes involving auction houses that often sell illicit antiquities to the highest bidder, is critical of Christie’s upcoming auction for an ancient Greek helmet.
In the past, he states to Greek Reporter in an exclusive interview, the same auction house has sold items of questionable provenance in the past, despite its stated recommendations to collectors that they should “buy from a reputable place.”
Tsirogiannis, an Associate Professor at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies,
University of Aarhus, Denmark has been responsible for a number of repatriations of artworks after his research uncovered their true origins. He has often voiced skepticism of the entire antiquities market.
“Christie’s state in their website about ancient helmets (point no. 9, about provenance): ‘In practice, this means that collectors should buy from a reputable place and learn as much as they can about a helmet’s recent provenance and ownership history, and date that
history back as far as possible,'” he says.
However, the Greek archaeologist adds, “When Christie’s refers to a reputable selling place, primarily they mean themselves. My work over the last 15 years proved that Christie’s often have sold illicit antiquities, linked to convicted dealers,” he charges.
“Many of these objects, after my identifications, were subsequently repatriated to their countries of origin where they were stolen from. Therefore, in reality and despite what Christie’s state and advertise, in some cases they do not ‘date that history back as far as possible’, as they are not checking these objects first with the databases of illicit antiquities held by several state authorities, much before they offer them for auction.
Upcoming Christie’s New York auction features Minoan vases, marble Cycladic figurines from 2,600 BC
“In the same way, ancient Greek and other helmets are being offered by the market
without proper documentation that can verify through and through their legal former ownership and trade.”
Christie’s New York will be the setting for a live auction beginning at 10 AM on October 12 that is simply titled “Antiquities,” which also features besides the range of ancient Greek helmets, a Minoan two-handled cup dating back to ca. 2,000 BC; two Cycladic marble female figures from ca. 2,600 BC; and a Cypriot amphora from ca. 750 BC.
As part of a helpful online message regarding the upcoming auction, Christie’s offers a “Collecting Guide to Ancient Greek Helmets,” enticing potential buyers with the phrase “Helmets give you unique access to the past.”
“Patinas vary and are a matter of taste”
Hannah Fox Solomon, Antiquities Head of Sale and Specialist at Christie’s New York is quoted as saying in the guide “Many buyers are looking to understand the ancient world through physical objects.”
Remarking later in the Guide that “Patinas vary and are a matter of taste,” Christie’s also notes “You can use (helmets) to track developments in society” — for example the advances in bronze metal work and helmet design over the centuries.
“No two patinas are the same,” Christie’s points out regarding the Ancient Greek helmets. “‘Different patinas appeal to different tastes: some people really like that crusty, luscious textured surface while others prefer a smoother matte finish. The colours range from malachite to azurite to maroon and shades of brown,’ says Solomon. ‘Sometimes you even get a golden colour, called a river patina. It’s up to the buyer to pursue what appeals to them.’
On its website Christie’s shows a bronze Corinthian helmet, which it says was “property from a distinguished private collector,” which dates back to the Archaic period, from 525-475 BC.
Christie’s sold ancient Greek helmet for $855,000 in 2020
An incredible $855,000 was collected by Christie’s in the online auction for that item, which closed on June 16, 2020. The estimates for the helmet had been from $300,000 to $500,000.
“As with many objects on the market, condition has a major impact on the value of a helmet,” Christie’s notes in its Guide for potential buyers.
“‘Some helmets are perfect, but some helmets have evidence of what we call the “death blow”,’ says Solomon, referring to damage on the side of the dome. ‘While I can only hypothesize whether or not that is true, occasionally you’ll find helmets with damage that makes you wonder if it was the result of battle.’”
The battle that is now raging in the art world is whether or not any person or entity should own items of enormous historical import, and in a larger sense if any nation has the right to display antiquities that are part of the intrinsic history of another nation or culture.
Movement to “decolonize” museums worldwide
A drive to “decolonize” Museum collections has gained traction in the past year especially, as some major institutions have least have made noises publicly regarding the movement to return items that are most emblematic of a nation of culture to their place of origin.
Dr. Amy Lonetree’s seminal book “Decolonizing Museums” led to the movement for institutions to take a hard look at how they portray the cultures whose objects they display — and whether or not they should have these objects at all.
The four guiding principles of her decolonization effort are: Truth telling and accountability; rethinking ownership; an organizational culture shift of any museum, supported by systems and policy; and Indigenous Representation.
Elizabeth Marlowe, the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Chair in liberal arts studies, an associate professor of art and art history, and the director of Colgate’s Museum Studies Program, says “People have started thinking really critically about the authority that museums have to shape these narratives, especially when the objects are still part of the living cultural and heritage traditions of various communities today.”
How this burgeoning movement will play out regarding the coveted objects from Ancient Greece, which collectors and museums lust for the world over, remains to be seen.
Tsirogiannis offers some hope, however, in the fight against the illegal antiquities trade in what happened recently in Spain. “A good example which verifies my points is the recent case of the ancient helmets stolen from Spain, as products of looting in the 1980s, which ended up in the private collection of Christian Levett, before they were repatriated to Spain,” he tells Greek Reporter.
And he is not alone among Greek archaeologists and other specialists who are endeavoring to make a difference.
A hard-working student in Aarhus University, who recently took his master’s degree, fellow Greek Dimitris Klouras, has just now “embarked on researching such cases of basically unprovenanced helmets in the global market,” Tsirogiannis says, offering hope that more items of extraordinary historical import will one day be returned to their place of origin.