Is that a Provenance? Or are you just Looted …?

I’ve been working on looted antiquities recently, and the art market. Whilst there are many people out there who devoted their lives to decrying everything to do with collecting as being evil, I prefer to take a more nuanced approach – there is no problem with buying antiquities, it is legal to do so, but … collectors have to be careful of not buying looted ones, and just because a “provenance” is given does not mean that it has not been faked.
The Weary Heracles has been in the news recently since the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston have agreed to return their upper part of the statue to Antalya where the bottom of the statue was excavated in the Southern Baths at near-by Perge in 1980 … I was rather surprised to read in recent press coverage that the Museum had only been given proof the two pieces matched two years ago, as I had proof before 2003 when I visited Antalya, and after which I discussed it with the donors (Leon Levy had funded the MFA purchase in 1981 from a German dealer in honour of his father). As far as I am aware, proof had been available long before 2003, when I saw how neatly the cast of the Boston half matched the Antalya half … and Turkish colleagues say the match was suggested almost as soon as the MFA’s new piece was announced.
What’s interesting is that the MFA bought the torso and head of the Weary Heracles with what sounded like a long collecting history – that was clearly … as fake as a three dollar bill. And this is bull:
The MFA always denied that was the case, insisting the bust could have been found "any time since the Italian Renaissance".
The bottom was found in 1980. The top presumably around the same time by looters, where it quickly made it’s way to a dealer in Germany (my educated guess is Munich). The name of the dealer was Mohammed Yeganeh, and he vouched for the Heracles having been in his mother’s collection for years, and that she had gotten it off another German dealer in 1950, and provided the MFA with ‘records’. (Maybe I’ve been watching too much Law and Order, but aren’t alibis from mothers usually suspicious …?).
A quick search of "Mohammad Yeganeh" revealed that this Orientalising Sieve Jug also passed through his hands, and was bought by the MFA in 1972. Presumably his auntie Fatima owned it before? Other items at the MFA come from him – see here – and presumably if more museums disclosed his involvement we’d find more family pieces. Such as these silver medical instruments, that he had in 1971, and which Sotheby’s sold in June 2004 as lot 43.
Quite a number of Roman portrait heads from Libya have appeared on the art market recently, often sold with elaborate but fictional histories. Libya may well be a in politically tumultuous state, and Gaddafi’s henchmen may well have been actively involved in selling off antiquities to raise hard currencies, but many great archaeologists have worked there and done a pretty good job of recording their finds … so it’s not that difficult to identify them when they are on the art market. (Or it’s not when you’re working with some amazing Libyan archaeologists, and various police forces, and museums).
The fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia has also highlighted how involved his family were in pillaging archaeological material to decorate the pools of their lavish villas, or to sell off.
North Africa was rich in antiquity, with Carthaginian settlements, Hellenistic kingdoms and then became the bread-basket of Roman and home to her rich. Gaius Marius’ enemy Jugurtha is often described in Roman sources as a semi-barbarian, but in fact he was the grand-son of Massinissa and a Hellenistic prince with a luxurious lifestyle on a par with his peers. It is these Hellenistic monarchs that we often forget but will be the focus of this post.
I also don’t want it to sound as if I’m picking on Christie’s but … theirs are the catalogues I’ve been browsing. I am sure similar general observations would apply to Sotheby’s and everyone else selling ancient art.
One Hellenistic monarch that everyone knows is Cleopatra. She was beautiful, we’re told, and I’ve already discussed what she may or may not have looked like (here).  So if you’re forming a collection, you probably want a head of Cleo, don’t you. Luckily for the new Mougins Museum of Classical Art (their photo above), Christie’s was able to provide one in December 2009 (photo below).
It even has a provenance, not quite going back past 1970, but:
Provenance: Mentezan Family Collection, Belgium, 1972.
I don’t know the collection, but I figured a name was better than “private collection” so I tested out the wonders of Google.
mentezan family belgium - Google Search
All the mentions of the family were in connection to items sold at Christie’s. Okay, Belgium is a country where French is spoken more than English, so I was arrogant typing in the name of the country in English, and I tried again in French …
mentezan belgique - Google Search
Oh dear.
Clearly I was taking the wrong approach. There are not that many portraits of Cleopatra out there, so I thought I’d find the head that way. The Museum is clearly thrilled with it’s important head:
Marble Head of a Ptolemaic Queen.
This work of the Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt is of special interest as its striking similarity to Cleopatra may make it be one of few sculpted portraits of the enigmatic queen in existence.
I saw the British Museum exhibition, I went to the conference, I even bought the catalogue by Walker and Higgs. This will be easy … Oh okay, it’s not because if that’s a portrait of Cleopatra then I’m the Queen of Sheba. The BM exhibition was controversial in it’s re-assignment of huge numbers of heads, many of which are more commonly assigned to Arsinoe II, to Cleopatra VII – and most scholars I know didn’t accept the vast majority of their re-attributions. This one would have been laughed out of the Museum.
The Christie’s ‘Lot Notes’ read:
This head recalls the portrait identified as Cleopatra VII that was found at the Villa of the Quintilii, Rome, in 1784, and is now in the Vatican. Like the Vatican Cleopatra, the present head shares the oval face with a youthful countenance, wide open eyes and a short mouth. … For the Vatican Cleopatra see p. 218 in Walker and Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt.
So let’s see the Quintilii Cleopatra (left) next to the Mougins head (right)
bust1 d5274147l
They are both marble, both female, both have remains of hair, eyes, etc … but that’s about it. The Mougins head may well be a Ptolemaic or other princess but … anyone with a basic knowledge of history would have worked out that there is no way or knowing if that could possibly be Cleopatra or not, because at that age she was still a child and not particularly important. Cleopatra was a titular queen first for her father from her mid-teens, then with her brother, but was one of several monarchs in Egypt and did not become important until later in life. When she did become important she had herself portrayed either as a regal queen or in the guise of a goddess – not a child. God knows where the head comes from, or how it came to be sold at auction in New York, but it is certainly not Cleopatra VII of Egypt.
I also don’t think this head is either Livia or Agrippina, or even Julio-Claudian – but Trajanic (either Trajan’s mother, sister or wife).
Christie’s sold another possible Cleopatra – a re-carved portrait of the 12th Dynasty queen Karomama. She is more likely to be a Cleopatra, but the provenance really surprised me as I did not know Italy issued export licenses for antiquities:
Provenance with Bellini Gallery, Florence, 1955.
But then again it was sold last December in New York, so maybe the Bellini Gallery is in Florence, Florida, or Florence, Texas.
Many Egyptian style sculptures survive depicting Cleopatra but … There are very few Greek-style secure portraits of Cleopatra. She might be exciting to us, but to Augustus she was a defeated enemy. The Quintilii of the villa where her Vatican head was found, were rich Romans of the mid 2nd century AD. They lived almost two hundred years after her death, and to claim that portraits made in this period accurately reflect her appearance is similar to claiming that a portrait I carved today could reflect the genuine appearance of George Washington.
One of the places which has provided us with portraits of not only Cleopatra but of her descendents is Cherchell in Algeria. The reason the lands stretching into Morocco have done so is because this was the Numidia ruled by Juba II, a vassal king to whom Augustus married off Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Mark Anthony.
Cleopatra Selene was queen of rich lands, the wife of one king, and the mother of Ptolemy of Mauretania, another king. She was buried in the Mausoleum of the Mauretanian royal family, as shown by a surviving inscription. She and her family are quite well attested, but her portrait is not – one bust from Cherchell might be her, or an effeminate priest.
Her twin brother Alexander Helios, perhaps because he was viewed as a greater threat being male, led a far more obscure life. So obscure that other than knowing he survived Augustus’ conquest of Egypt we know nothing more about him. Ditto Ptolemy Philadelphus. Alexander Helios may or may not be the infant depicted on this coin of Cleopatra, and he may but probably did not, live to a ripe old age in provincial obscurity. Caesarion as the heir has known portraits, but you’re going to have to take my word that Cleopatra’s other children are pretty obscure.
If we know nothing about Alexander Helios (born 40 BC) after 31 BC, and we have no certain portraits of his much more illustrious twin sister, then why are so many portraits of him available on the art market?
So this 1st century AD portrait of Alexander Helios again sold by Christie’s seems … surprising. Unless they mean Alexander the Great as Helios? Oh, okay, I’m just being picky. At least it has a provenance - “Formerly in a Swiss private collection, 1950s.” - even if that sounds ...
I’m not saying that any of these items that Christie’s sold are in any way dodgy, or that I have any evidence or suspicion to suggest that they were looted – I’m going to take their word that they are what they seem for now. But … it does strike me that if they are pretending to be experts, they don’t know much about the material they are selling – and it’s very easy to pick huge holes in their catalogue entries. And as long as those selling antiquities continue to do so, there will be suspicions about what they are selling ….


  1. I don't think anyone who buys antiquities at this level automatically believes the attributions that some of the auction houses and dealers put on things, least of all someone like Levett and some of the people who might advise him. He would know as well as anyone that you could have put a zero on the end of the price of the Cleopatra if it was certain that it was her. A large number of experts visited his collection when the museum opened and other leading experts have worked on his museum book, and when you visit his museum the description panels next to the objects seem to often update a lot of what is said in the sales documentation

  2. Yes, the bust shown above is listed in the Mougins Museum catalogue as Alexander and not Alexander Helios, so they caught that as well as you Dorothy. Therefore, what I bet they also caught and you and Christies didn't though, is that this bust has been published several times in the past. In Germany in 1897, 1903 and 1905. So in fact, it has a great provenance and the weak Christies listing must have affected the price. I agree with your comments on other pages that if more people focused on the exchange of information, instead of assuming anything with a weak provenance has an issue, then the market would be fifty times better for it

  3. I didn't realise the Alexander was in Mougins too. The 'Cleopatra' is a beautiful head - but my pet hate is people wanting to assign 'names' to every head. There's the Susan Walker / Sally-Ann Ashton school that has re-assigned lots of pieces as Cleopatra, and the other School that thinks it's impossible to be sure whom half of these heads are. Obviously I'm the latter. I think I was looking for heads looted from North Africa when I wrote the post, and annoyed as hell with Christie's - I really believe they have an obligation to check some of the very dubious sounding provenances they give on items, particularly when the same sellers repeatedly consign items that are dodgy. I've argued time and again that lack of provenance need not mean a piece was stolen, simply that provenances often go missing over time. And the Alexander as Helios type has been published repeatedly, so it would not have been that hard for Christie's to look it up. But since Sarah left they don't have anyone competant there it seems


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