Michael Backman - lecture at SOAS, January 27, 2015
'Profiting from History: A Dealer's Perspective on the Business of Art and its Contribution to Art History'
- the role dealers can play in the preservation of cultural artifacts
- the dangers posed by museums' excessive provenance requirements
- the US antique ivory ban
Art dealing and art history is a huge area and one could talk for hours on the topic. But what I’ll do instead is to focus on how dealers protect cultural artifacts,
and how dealers interact with museums.
I’ll also talk about the growing problem of provenance, with respect to museum and their acquisitions.
Now, a lot of nonsense is said about dealers.
Tell someone you deal in antiques, particularly Asian antiques, and it’s assumed you’re involved in smuggling or looting.
It’s often assumed that the only way an item has found its way to the West from Asia or from Africa is because it was stolen or looted.
Why is there this perception? Why have the practices of some tainted the profession as a whole?
Antiques and art and even art history tend to be associated with the middle classes and the wealthy, and it is my contention that a sub-current of the attacks
on dealing are essentially ideologically driven and relate to an old-fashioned, left-wing dislike of private property, the wealthy, and those who collect.
Increasingly, museum administrators, particularly in the US, have contributed to this, often to the horror of curators.
The increasingly Draconian provenance requirements of US museums – what I would term Provenance Fascism - as well as attacks on the ownership of
antique ivory even when it is many hundreds of years old are a part of this ideologically-driven attack on dealing and collecting.
Increasingly, objects with incomplete provenance are assumed, without any evidence whatsoever, to be stolen or looted. Objects are deemed to be guilty until
they are proven innocent. Rather than protecting our cultural heritage, this perception is harming it.
And when I say ‘our’ I mean all of us - because cultural artifacts belong to us all, in this century of high mobility and migration, where the linkage between place
of ancestry and place of residency grows ever tenuous. Multicultural cities deserve encyclopaedic, multi-cultural museums.
If the Elgin Marbles belong to the Greek people then fine – let’s send some of them to Melbourne in Australia which has the world’s third biggest Greek
population after Athens and Thessaloniki.
The discomfort some have with the ownership of cultural artifacts also seems part of the growing ‘sorry’ culture that has swept the West in recent years
whereby we project our own insecurities onto others, so that they become targets for our pity and apology. Sometimes this is valid. Often it isn’t.
The great ideological battle between right and left - capitalism and socialism - has been fought and won and it is the right that has won. But there is one area
left where the fight over the right to property and ownership continues and that is the area of cultural property. These rights are not absolute.
There are some very necessary restrictions. For example, the trade in fresh ivory is disgusting, as is the trade in freshly stolen and looted objects. But in terms
of trying to control the bad aspects of the antiques and antiquities trade, I would contend that we have gone too far, and museums have gone too far in their
requirements for proof of provenance.
It’s interesting how the term ‘dealer’ has taken on negative connotations. I can think of only one other type of dealer, and that is the drug dealer. Dealers in
contemporary art have managed to re-label themselves as ‘gallerists’. Even book dealers are now ‘book sellers.’
Of course, some dealers have contributed to looting and antiques smuggling. But there are wrongdoers in all professions. There are academics who fabricate
their survey results to get published – but that doesn’t mean that all academics do that.
Dealers help to create markets for many old items that otherwise would be thrown away, and they bring back to life items that have been lost or forgotten.
Let me explain how this operates by describing what we do – in my gallery; how we operate. From our premises just off Regent Street, we specialise in Asian,
Colonial and Tribal art. This specialisation is driven by UK provenance.
Almost all our stock comes from old collections here in the UK, although sometimes the immediate provenance of an item will be obscured if, for example, it
passes through an auction house.
The UK colonised much of the world and so we are very fortunate to have an enormous pool of items here because of that.
There are people all around the country who might have had a grandfather who served in India, or an uncle who was in Malaya. They were not all dragging
back the Elgin Marbles. By and large they brought back small ethnographic souvenirs – things that were sold to them by the locals. Much of this material is
now under-appreciated or misunderstood. Quite often it will be mis-catalogued even by the big auction houses and so a big part of our job is to locate these
items, research them, give them the correct attribution, and then offer them to museums and private collectors around the world. Essentially, we are bringing
back into circulation lost and forgotten cultural objects. This is what good dealers do.
I deal in Asian art but I never go on buying trips to Asia and I’m annoyed when people assume that I do. We do not buy from source countries. There are
various reasons for this. We like the colonial provenance of UK items. Items tend not to be tampered with here. Their condition is often better. It’s usually illegal
to take antiques out of India, and so on.
The London Chinese art dealer Giuseppe Eskanazi recalls in his memoirs a speech given by Sherman Lee, the legendary director of the Cleveland Museum
of Art. Lee said in the speech, ‘When a curator comes back from a trip and says ‘Look what I have found!’ I say to him, ‘Remember, a dealer found it before
you.’ That is very true!
Much of this finding is underpinned by copious research. We are dealers but more than that, we are researchers. I spend almost every working day
researching objects, and then writing them up. A good dealer is a curator and a researcher, and in many instances might well have better knowledge than
many in museums simply because of the volume of items they see and handle, and because they are risking their own money all the time.
But perhaps the main difference between museum curators and good dealers is that one is paid by the taxpayer. Another difference is that most museum
curators especially in this country are paid so poorly. (In my view museums should charge admission fees and I would use that money to pay creators a decent
So books are very important to what we do. The library that we have in our gallery encompasses thousands of books and periodicals.
Here is an image of part of it at our library.
Knowledge and learning are just so essential to being a good dealer, and to emphasise this we list all the books that we have and use on our website.
A good dealer should have a lot of books - I’m mindful of a famous American tribal art collector who said that the first thing you should do when you go into a
gallery is to see what books the dealer has. If you don’t see many books then you should leave.
It’s also important for dealers to travel – to visit museums, temples, things like that – and to see the context of the items they have. There are some dealers
who claim to be expert in Asian items for example but they have never been to Asia. Like I said, there are frauds in every profession.
One of the most satisfying things that we do when we rescue lost or misidentified objects is to place them in museums. In the last four years alone, we have
sold a total of 87 objects to some 15 different public museums in America, Europe and Asia. More broadly, we have sold around 2,000 objects during that
period. And probably most of these have been in the hands of families or auctioneers who did not fully understand what they had.
To illustrate this, what I’ll do now is to show you several objects that we have handled in the last few years, most of which are now in public museums.
The first object is this silver bowl. It is the size of a large punch bowl.
This was circulating around the London antiques trade for several years. No-one seemed to know what it was. I spotted it and with some research was able to
identify it as a memorial Muktad bowl made for the Parsee community in Bombay.
It’s a very rare thing and with the correct identification we were able to sell it to the Asian Arts Museum in San Francisco where it is now on display. The
Parsees are dying out so it was wonderful to find such a great Parsee item and have it preserved in a museum.
Sri Lankan Comb
The next item was in an elderly lady’s collection. She lived in Worcestershire. It was sold at a country auction last year and was catalogued as a 19th century
Indian ivory comb. In fact, it was made in the 17th century in Sri Lanka and is one of the finest known examples of its type. It is now in the Rietburg Museum in
Indian Tent Hanging
The next item was also found in a country auction and was described as a ‘West African textile.’ In fact, it is a rare and complete 18th century Indian tent
hanging. It is almost 7 metres long.
Several museums wanted this but in the end we decided to sell it to the Art Gallery of South Australia, and they immediately included it in an exhibition they
Sri Lankan Stupa
The next item was offered to me by a very good dealer here in London. She showed it to me in her Chelsea flat.
We weren’t sure what it was at first but eventually it became clear that it was a solid silver reliquary stupa from Sri Lanka, and inside was a reliquary chamber
made entirely of silver.
It is about half a metre tall. It is now on display in the National Gallery of Australia.
The next item turned up at a country auction where it was catalogued as an Indian scroll. In fact it is a northern Thai Vessantara Jataka narrative scroll – no
less than 36 metres or 120 feet long. Being so long, I didn’t think it was all that commercial.
But I was worried that if I didn’t buy it someone else would and they might cut it up. So I bought and it is currently being bought by the Tropenmuseum in
Amsterdam where it will be preserved for future generations of scholars.
Thai Betel Box
The next item was catalogues simply as an ‘oriental box’. In fact it is an early 19th century Thai betel box lacquered and inlaid with mother of pearl. And the
reason why I was very excited by it was because it shows quite accurately topographical scenes of the Chao Phraya River at Bangkok. And included are
scenes of European sailing ships. Of all the discoveries we have made, this for me is probably my favourite. It’s now in a museum in Singapore.
Batavian Decanter set
The next item is a decanter set. It was offered at Bonhams in Bond Street where it was described as Indian. It isn’t. It is 18th century Dutch colonial and was
made in Batavia. We bought tis and it is now in the same Singapore museum.
Filigree Perfume Box
One final object is this one. I was contacted last year by an art valuer in the US saying that a client of his owned this box and was told that it was 19th century.
He asked my opinion. I told him that it was much earlier and I asked if I could buy it and I made an offer. The family of the client had bought it in an antique
shop in London in the 1930s. The offer was accepted. The box it turns out is a perfume set quite similar to one on the British Museum which was seized from
Tipu Sultan’s palace at the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799.
Here is an image of the BM’s example. And here is what is left of Tipu Sultan’s palace after the British decided to teach him a lesson. I took this photo a few
weeks ago when I was in South India.
So these objects are now all in museums, except the last one. But it is getting more difficult to sell to museums on account of the incomplete provenance
Much of the Asian art we have in the UK clearly has been in the UK for decades if not much longer. But proving that with documentation often is difficult.
Rare and fabulous things can well turn up at car boot sales or in estate auctions and it’s usually impossible to find out all the provenance details to satisfy
But why should a great object that tells us something very interesting about the past be condemned because it turned up at a car-boot sale with its colonial
provenance obscured, or because the 90 year old lady who owned it is now dead and no-one knows how she came by it.
Private Collectors and Collecting
We sell to museums but we also sell a lot to private collectors. Too often today, private collectors are viewed with suspicion – in the same way as are dealers.
But the course of art history owes much to private collecting.
Many of the world’s great museums are only great because private collectors amassed extraordinary collections and then gave them to a museum.
James Stourton in his book Great Collectors of Our Time provides collecting biographies of dozens of important private collectors around the world since
1945. Their scholarship and their curating has added immeasurably to the course of art history.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been the beneficiary of 3,000 items collected by Nelson Rockefeller, for example. And another 2,600 items
donated by Robert Lehman. We refer to these individuals as collectors but of course they are curators who happen to own what they curate. It is their
scholarship and their donations that make most museums worth going into.
Right now, Room 2 of the British Museum has a wonderful display about collectors and what they donated to the British Museum from their collections.
It is an important reminder of just how important private collectors are to public museums.
We all love museums. But they do not exist for their own sake. They are charged with collecting and preserving cultural property on our behalf. In this regard,
they are our agents; our servants.
Perhaps the biggest threat today to the preservation of cultural property going forward are the museums themselves, particularly in the US but increasingly
here, with their insistence on proof of provenance often stretching back to before 1970.
The rules derive from the UN’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural
Let me provide one example of the operation of the rules in this country – with respect to the British Library –
Clause 10 of The British Library’s ETHICAL FUTURE ACQUISITIONS POLICY states:
‘The policy of the British Library is to refuse to acquire items that have been illegally excavated and or illegally exported from their countries of origin since
1970. The general expectation should be that the British Library will only consider the acquisition of antiquities and archaeological items exported from their
country of origin before 1970 where proper documentation can be provided. Exceptionally, where such documentation does not exist, as is sometimes the
case, the Board reserves the right for the Library’s curatorial staff to exercise their best judgement as to whether to recommend such an item for purchase or
inward loan. In such circumstances the British Library would require the vendor or donor to provide a signed written statement confirming the circumstances
behind the object being offered to the British Library, and may in some cases demand a sworn affidavit to that effect.’
The problem arises in just how stringently such rules are applied. It usually depends on who is in charge.
There are hundreds, and possibly thousands, of palm leaf manuscripts from Burma, Sri Lanka and India in the UK for example which were acquired by British
expatriates during the colonial era and which were brought back to Britain at that time.
These often turn up at country auctions and in car-boot sales without any provenance and usually with a description as bland as ‘an Eastern manuscript.’
Clearly these have not been smuggled into the UK in recent years. No-one would bother. Commercially, they have little value. But culturally, many are
important and worth protecting.
So it would be absolutely appalling if the British Library stopped acquiring these because provenance prior to 1970 could not be established. The British
Library is there to protect literary heritage and not be a party to its loss, which is what it will be doing if the 1970 rule is applied too zealously.
Of course it is very important that artworks are not stolen, but then that is what the various stolen art registries are for.
As a dealer who has an interest in common-sense, there is nothing more dispiriting than having to detail the provenance, for the benefit of a US museum, of a
silver tea pot that was made in India for the British market so that the museum can be assured that it has been outside India since 1970. Just last week a
museum in Chicago asked me to detail the provenance of an Indian tea caddy that was made for the 19th century British market. It is a ridiculous exercise. By
definition, such items were made for export. The UN Convention was conceived to protect the likes of Ankor Wat. It was not designed to inhibit the free
movement of teapots. This whole thing is nothing more than a form of bureaucratic function creep.
Of course, the rules are most stringently applied to archaeological material and archaeologists have been very successful at pushing the notion that objects
that become separated from their archaeological context have no value whatsoever.
Professor Colin Renfrew, the distinguished archaeologist formerly at the University of Cambridge, has been quoted to say that antiquities separated from their
context of discovery ‘have very little potential to add to our knowledge of the past.’’ (Cuno. P. 14).
Of course this is absolute rubbish.
In some respects the archaeologists who promote this extreme view are just another self-interested lobby group whose prime concern is to protect their
livelihoods and to create a demand for their own services.
Very often, objects speak for themselves. An art historian can tell a lot by looking at an object, even if an archaeologist can’t. It is true that sometimes,
archaeological context can tell us about an item. But of course as James Cuno says in Whose Culture?, a volume he edited, in many instances, the
archaeological context tells us little or nothing. Too often, unless an item can be shown to have provenance prior to 1970 it is assumed to be stolen or looted.
And too often, non-archaeological items are being treated as if they are archaeological, when it comes to the application of the rules.
As I said earlier, objects are assumed to be guilty unless they can be proven to be innocent. The perverse logic is a form of Provenance Fascism. Every item
is under suspicion until proven otherwise.
But of course there is no such thing as a guilty object – just guilty people. The objects themselves are culturally valuable no matter what their provenance
For a museum to reject an item not because it was stolen or looted, but because no-one can find proof of where the object has been year on year for the last
45 years is itself a crime.
Perhaps it is time to reverse the onus of proof: that objects should be assumed to have satisfactory provenance unless it can be shown otherwise. Objects
should be seen as innocent until proven stolen or looted.
But then who should own cultural artifacts anyway?
Princeton University’s Kwame Appiah says in James Cuno’s volume in relation to ancient sculptures of the Nok people of Northern Nigeria:
‘We don’t know whether Nok sculptures were commissioned by kings or commoners; we don’t know whether the people who made them and the people who
paid for them thought of them as belonging to the kingdom, to a man, to a lineage, to the gods. One thing we know for sure, however, is that they didn’t make
them for Nigeria.’
The logical extension of Appiah’s argument is that Nigeria, by claiming Nok cultural artifacts for itself is itself committing a form of cultural theft.
By this measure, what claim has India and its National Museum in Delhi to Chola bronzes produced in the Dravidian south, a thousand years before the nation
state of India was even thought of? Does New Delhi have a greater claim to a Chola bronze than say a museum in New York? There are more than 3 million
people of Indian descent living in America, so if Indian art belongs to the Indian people, then on that basis alone, American museums are well within their rights
to own and display some cultural artifacts from the sub-continent.
When artists create, they create for all humanity. And very often they create with an eye to making a living. Caravaggio did not paint for Italy. One reason of
course is because Italy didn’t even exist when he was alive. Why did he paint? He painted to make money. You rented him by the hour - which is the truth
about most artisans in most cultures throughout history: they personally were not creating for their society, their culture, or even to honour the gods. They
were creating to earn a living. Their patrons might have had these loftier intentions, but the artisans did not.
If you told a wood carver in the Sepik region of New Guinea that his work might one day be on display in a museum in America or here, probably he would be
thrilled, and terribly proud.
The voice of the artist is never heard when it comes to provenance issues. The opinion of the creator of cultural objects is rarely imagined. Do artists and
artisans want their items shared only locally, or would they rather have worldwide recognition? Of course it is the latter. Almost all artists crave recognition and
only rarely are items made deliberately for a limited audience.
Another reason why museums hold the cultural artifacts of others is because in order to protect those artifacts, it is best that they are not geographically
concentrated in the one spot.
Geographic diversification reduces the risk of catastrophic loss. If all Aceh’s historic objects had been in a state museum in the state capital Banda Aceh for all
the Acehnese people to enjoy then today we would be in a position where there would be no Acehnese artefacts left. The total stock of cultural artifacts of the
Acehnese people would have been wiped out in the 2004 tsunami.
A similar example is of course with the Taliban’s administration of Afghanistan. In 2001, the Taliban decreed that all images of humans were idolatrous and
must be destroyed. As many as 2,500 objects in the National Museum in Kabul were subsequently destroyed. Taliban inspectors went to the museum and
required curators to hand over the Bactrian and Ghandaran figurative pieces which they then smashed with mallets on the spot.
No dealer would have done that!
Another attack on art collecting and art history relates to elephant ivory. As I said earlier, the slaughter of elephants to fuel the modern demand for ivory is a
tragedy. But it’s also the case that ivory has been used in art for thousands of years and this has nothing to do with the modern, illegal ivory trade. It was
used in art when elephants were plentiful and also used for their meat.
Until last year, antiques that include antique ivory could be imported into, and sold within, the US. But last February, the White House changed the rules and
now, it is largely impossible to legally export even antique ivory to the US.
Overnight, the ban wiped out millions of dollars in private wealth, and has removed from active circulation many important and ancient artworks. But how is
legislation shaped in the US? That is clear by the shape of this legislation. It is now illegal to important a 300 year-old Indo-Portuguese salt cellar made in the
Congo, but it is not illegal to important an elephant head and tusks as game trophies if you are American and a game hunter and you killed the elephant
Money talks in the US. Unfortunately, the hunting lobby is the US is better organised than the museum curators lobby – and look at the results.
At around the same time, Prince William was quoted in the media as saying that all the items in the Royal Collection that contain ivory – no matter how many
hundreds of years old they might be - should be destroyed. There are about a thousand objects in the royal collection that contain antique ivory. It is little
wonder that Prince William should profess such interest in an endangered species particularly as belongs to one himself.
But I didn’t notice Prince William attacking the hunting aspect – probably because he enjoys hunting himself.
So to summarise, dealers play a big role in the preservation of art history and cultural artifacts. They help to create a market for such artifacts and this means
that such objects come to be preserved rather than discarded.
There are problems with looting and so on. But to guard against this, museums are in danger of going too far when it comes to insisting on provenance proof
– so far in fact that they will end up harming, rather than helping to protect, our cultural and art history.
When it comes to provenance, it is time to declare all cultural and art items innocent until proven guilty, rather than the other way around. And this will widen
the scope of what we can protect.
Thank you very much for listening.