Mmm.. Antique jewelry… Damn. Antique jewelry.

Sometimes I wish I had never found out about how prevalent looted goods are in the antiques trade. Browsing an auction catalog of gorgeous historical pieces I could never afford used to be purely pleasurable. Now a pall is cast on every lot that has no record of ownership prior to 1970, and oh man are they legion. From my experience, they’re the vast majority of artifacts on sale.

Sardonyx cameo of Emperor Constantine, 4th c. A.D.The latest catalog to make me drool and sigh is from an upcoming Christie’s sale. On December 11th, 179 pieces of ancient jewelry ranging from 3700-year-old engraved Minoan gemstones to an early 4th century sardonyx cameo of the Emperor Constantine will go on the block.

I love jewelry and I really, really love ancient jewelry, so of course I go check out the offerings, and the first things listed are 57 engraved Minoan gemstones dating to 1700-1450 B.C. All 57 of them come from a “Swiss private collection”.

Swiss private collections are like the antiquities market version of the Canadian girlfriend you met at camp. Sure, it could be genuine, but it’s been used as a front too many times to be taken at face value. None of these beautiful and precious Minoan talismans were published before 1980, which is another red flag.

Then there’s the no-name not-even-a-country provenance, like the 3rd c. A.D. Roman onyx cameo which Christie’s says is the “THE PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN GENTLEMAN” (caps original). They claim it’s been in a “European private collection” since the late 19th early 20th century, but given all the fogginess and anonymity I see no reason to believe them without evidence.

Sotheby’s covered for loot purveyors like Giacomo Medici and Bob Hecht for decades, claiming their stolen goods came from some obscure unpublished collection. After a while it became an open secret in the industry. Hecht’s stuff came from an “old Swedish collection”, Medici’s an “old Swiss collection.” Sometimes they bothered to forge some provenance docs, sometimes not.

At least the heart-stoppingly beautiful Constantine cameo is legit. Look at the provenance and literature fields, how specific and detailed they are. Big difference, right? Not surprisingly, it’s the top lot with an estimated value of $150,000-250,000.

Also not looted are a pair of bracelets made in the 19th century by a jeweler who collected sixteen Roman intaglio ringstones (ca 1st century B.C.-4th century A.D.) and set them on gold chains. The bracelets can be linked together to make a choker.


Anyway, next time you come across an article about antiquities on sale or peruse an auction catalog, look for the ownership information. Ignorance may be more blissful than awareness, but it’s not as salutary.


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Comment by Gayle M
2009-11-22 09:27:02

I hope these don’t sound like dumb questions, but first, why the 1980 boundary? I’m assuming some laws were put into effect at that time, which made it harder to buy stolen goods on the black market or something? And second (a more general question), weren’t most of these things at some point (even if that point was 1453, e. g.)stolen from somewhere or someone? I’m not asking that to justify nefarious doings on today’s market–just interested in your ethical/historical take on the question.

Comment by livius drusus
2009-11-22 11:28:50

They’re not dumb questions at all. They’re questions I’ve asked in the past, in fact.

The 1970 date is the cut-off point established by the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. (There’s a quick rundown and a link to the full text of it here.) The United States ratified it in 1983, so in theory that means dealers, auction houses, private collectors and museums operating in the US are bound by law to ensure antiquities are not plundered or stolen.

There are also many national laws from the antiquity-exporting countries (Italy’s dates back to Mussolini in the 30’s) that disallow the removal of ancient items.

The sad thing is that it’s not so much about a black market as the entirely public, even prestigious, antiquities trade in general, typified by the major auction houses. It’s a constant stream of recently surfaced antiquities that feeds their sales. They’re supposed to make a good faith effort to ensure they’re not selling stolen goods, but instead they look the other way, sometimes actively conspiring with the sellers to perpetuate a cover story for why nobody has ever seen these pieces before.

We don’t know if these pieces were ever plundered before. They certainly may have been. The Staffordshire Hoard seems to have been plundered by a marauding soldier who then buried it. The Sarpendon krater, on the other hand, remained untouched in an Etruscan tomb for thousands of years before Italian grave robbers dug it up in December of 1971.

In the process they damaged the tomb irrevocably. They punched holes through the door, walls and roof, then after they were through taking stuff, intentionally dumped all the excavation rubble into the holes to cover up their tracks. The rubble included pottery shards, sculpture remnants, the destroyed parts of the tomb itself and of course, dirt.

You can imagine what that does to the archaeological integrity of the site. All that careful, tedious work archaeologists do, examining layer after layer with toothbrushes to carefully pinpoint ancient dates and activity just can’t be done anymore to a looted site. The loss to all of us is incalculable, far beyond the value of a given artifact.

This is what spurred the UNESCO Convention: an attempt to keep these precious, finite resources about our past from being radically and continually destroyed just because the Met wants something old and pretty to show off.

Comment by livius drusus
2009-11-22 11:29:18

Whoa. That was long. I hope it’s not TMI, Gayle. :blush:

Comment by Gayle M
2009-11-22 12:47:51

Thanks, Livius–I wasn’t aware of the all the recent legislation on this, or the morally questionable (perhaps that’s generous) role of museums and established auction houses.

And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as TMI on historical topics!

Comment by Mr Lemming
2009-11-23 19:44:43

“there’s no such thing as TMI on historical topics!”


Comment by livius drusus
2009-11-23 22:10:06

You are both very forbearing with my prolix prose. :thanks:

Comment by Mr Lemming
2009-11-23 19:44:20

I’m not that into jewelry generally speaking, but damn that Constantine cameo looks so fine! I have also now decided to someday own an authentic Roman ring of some sort. I had no idea they were plentiful enough in the world at large to go for four digits; I always assumed awesome like that cost at least in the tens of thousands. I have to admit though, it wouldn’t be taken care of very well… I’d wear it! :yes:

Comment by livius drusus
2009-11-23 22:10:58

Oh I’d wear it too, for sure. If it survived 2000 years, it can survive our lifetimes.

Comment by Diamond Auction
2010-08-29 02:41:17

I like such kinds of historical topics, thanks for the post and keep it up.

Comment by badran ghosn
2012-03-08 05:35:28

dear pal ..if we like it or not..treasure hunters will dig..and collectors will buy…i know 3 tomb burglers that said to me ..give us a job to feed our families and we will stop…and we as collectors play partly important in keeping history..those treasure hunters use to brake ancient glass more…when i told them you will pay 1000$ for it they took more care…so i got now on youtube some items us and europe major museums do not own….

Comment by ajju ali tata
2012-03-09 17:53:14

i like dis

Comment by badran ghosn
2012-03-11 09:28:28

well ..we in near east know exactly that all those items that been looted will get a new id and will be legal…in one historical city they found hundreds of ancient jewelry per mounth..i saw a loop clean 12 carat carved emerald 600 bc !!!…the middle man make an insult during negotiation so they stop the deal…they got a blue zappire too!!!now did any one search the uk and usa troops while leaving irak???ha ha ha..all these matars are not legal…

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