By Tom Westcott
London, 24 October:
Reports that stolen Libyan artefacts were put up for sale in Dubai and withdrawn by Christie’s, the . . .[restrict]auctioneers are completely incorrect, according to Matthew Paton, Head of Communications at Christie’s.
“We don’t actually deal with classical works of art in Dubai,” Paton told Libya Herald, “so the story is irrelevant to that site.”
The news report, which stated that Christie’s had alerted authorities after receiving antiquities stolen during Libya’s revolution, was carried by a UAE English-language daily, The National.
“In terms of the Libyan antiquities,” Paton said, “there was a misunderstanding between our man who was interviewed and what was interpreted from what was said, which was if anything did come to us, we would alert the authorities. But actually we haven’t had anything come to us [from Libya] .”
There had been speculation that the antiquities marketplace would be flooded with stolen artefacts following the Arab Spring, but Christie’s have not found that to be the case. “There isn’t actually that much that’s come from Libya,” said Paton.
“We tend to be the last place you would ever want to go if you did happen to have something you shouldn’t,” Paton explained, “because it does tend to get identified straight away. Even if a stolen artefact makes it into the catalogue, it is then publicised on the website, sent to academics, museums, and the art loss register. This is just such a public process that it tends not to happen.”
In April 2011, however, a stolen Libyan artefact did slip through the net of Christie’s rigorous checking procedures: the first-century head of a statue of Flavia Domitilla Minor, the daughter of Emperor Vespasian. Excavated in Sabratha, the statue had been on show in the local museum until thieves smashed it and made off with the head in 1990.
When the head was listed at Christie’s, the original ‘auction lot’ notes apparently stated that it was part of a private Swiss collection and had been acquired in 1988.
The respected online history blog (http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/14677) maintained that several archaeologists alerted Christie’s to its dubious origin and theft from the Sabratha Museum. However, the auctioneers proceeded with the sale and later said they had received no such information before the head went under the hammer.
The head of Flavia Domitilla was purchased by an Italian collector for £91,250. Paton told Libya Herald that the head was an exceptional case. “It had gone through the checks and we were informed after the sale that there was a concern there and so we immediately cancelled the sale,” he said.
Even if they are not being offered for sale at Christie’s, there are still missing Libyan artefacts, many of which were stolen during the revolution. The greatest recorded loss was a collection of ancient coins, jewellery and statuettes. These antiquities went missing from a bank vault in Benghazi early on in the conflict, when looters drilled through a concrete ceiling.
Missing artefacts are thought to have been stolen either by common criminals, or members of the regime who knew their real value and used the closing moments of their power to steal such artefacts.
A sackful of Roman antiquities was recovered last year when a convoy of forces loyal to Qaddafi were intercepted heading south from Tripoli. The cache included 17 stone heads as well as terracotta fragments. These were later put on display in Tripoli.