Never Would I Ever: Are Collectors Really Duped into Buying Fake or Looted Antiquities?

Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, recently told The Atlantic that “I would never intentionally buy anything forged or stolen.” Green’s passion project is the Museum of the Bible, and he has directly or indirectly funded many of their purchases. These purchases now include, as The Atlantic details, nearly twenty ancient papyrus fragments stolen from Oxford’s Egyptian Exploration Society. Add those to the 5,000 looted papyri Green has already returned to Egypt and the nearly 10,000 cuneiform tablets and other antiquities he had to admit were smuggled out of Iraq. Plus the Museum’s expensive collection of fake Dead Sea Scrolls.

Green’s claim seems unbelievable. It’s hard to believe that someone spending millions of dollars on thousands of antiquities would have failed to ask questions about authenticity or provenance. But Green’s conviction is shared by many collectors, even though my research has convinced me that anyone who has purchased antiquities in recent decades probably has fakes and illegally looted and smuggled objects in their collection.

One of those purchasers of potentially troubled artifacts is Alan Dershowitz. He and his wife Carolyn Cohen sold a substantial part of their art collection through Christie’s New York in May 2012, as he prepared to retire from Harvard Law School. These sales included 27 ancient artifacts from Dershowitz’s collection, which sold for a total of $155,250. These antiquities include 11 erotic Roman lamps (10 clay and one bronze), one statuette of a couple making love, and a necklace in the shape of a man squatting on his own giant testicles.

Dershowitz was a member of the defense team during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. I started to look into Dershowitz’s antiquities purchases after noticing that he was giving remote interviews about the trial from a room crowded with art. Dershowitz, who has served as a legal advisor for an array of notorious clients, from Claus von Bülow to O. J. Simpson to Jeffrey Epstein, has also been noted for his art buying — and for his occasional trouble selling this art.

A 2012 New York Times article indicates that, besides the antiquities sold at the 2012 Christie’s auction, Dershowitz owned at least an additional three ancient Egyptian artifacts, including the lid of a painted wooden coffin (confusingly described as a sarcophagus in the text of the Times piece), painted mummy head covering, and an entire granite sarcophagus. The article’s accompanying photograph shows additional objects which seem to be antiquities, including pre-Columbian sculptures.

Dershowitz told me over email that he “never owned any illegal antiquities. Everything was bought and sold through reputable auction houses and checked by experts.” Whether you agree with his political stances or not, Dershowitz is an intelligent person with a vast knowledge of the law. But without exact provenance information, he is just as likely to buy fake or looted antiquities as anyone else participating in the antiquities marketplace today.

Take Dershowitz’s set of terracotta oil lamps. Christie’s (which did not respond to a request for comment) auctioned off 12 of these for him, dating them to around the 1st or 2nd century CE. The auction house’s description of the images on these lamps is so straight-laced as to be nearly indecipherable (“one with the woman’s legs spread, crouching over her lover in the mulier equitans position”). In essence, most of these lamps have pornographic images. I don’t know why anyone would need to own not one but two objects showing ancient Romans going at it doggie-style, but then again, I’m not Alan Dershowitz.

Before you, too, rush off to form your own collection of ancient porn, a word of warning: erotic art is one of most-often faked categories of antiquities. Ancient terracotta (baked clay) lamps, which held oil and a wick, were cheap and common in the ancient world. They were often made by pressing clay into a mold. When baked, they are fairly sturdy, so a lot have survived. Ancient Romans were fans of molding erotic scenes onto these lamps (mood lighting plus inspiration all in one!), and many of these have also survived.

But not enough to satisfy collectors. Many ancient lamps on the market today are fakes, made by forgers who use ancient molds to stamp out new lamps or sculpt them freestyle. And there’s a long tradition of forging erotic lamps. For example, the British Museum holds a lamp made in the 18th century, when someone took an authentic ancient undecorated lamp and glued in a modern erotic top to increase the value.

Art collectors have been obsessed with dirty ancient art since the Renaissance. And forgers know that people who want to buy erotic antiquities are especially easy to fool. They’re usually more interested in the erotic part than the antiquities part, so they’re not as likely to scrutinize it. And it’s easy to convince them to keep the purchase a secret and not ask too many questions about where the seller got the object. The resulting erotic fakes can be completely ludicrous (I recently tweeted about an online storefront selling a series of painfully fake ancient Roman dildos — or, as the case might be, fake ancient Roman painful dildos).

Even if Dershowitz somehow avoided buying fake antiquities, his collection faces an ethical hurdle: where did the antiquities come from? Most antiquities-rich countries, including Egypt, Greece, and Italy, have long outlawed the export of their ancient art. But auction houses make their money only from art they sell — not art they turn away. Christos Tsirogiannis, who researches the market for looted cultural objects, has detailed how auction houses’ “due diligence” process “selectively removes or disguises tainted sections in the true collecting histories of illicit antiquities coming up for auction.” Major auction houses have had to admit repeatedly in recent years that they sold fake art or were fooled by fake paperwork into selling looted antiquities.

One statuette, which was previously sold by Christie’s in 1999, was described as a “South Arabian bronze erotic group” from the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE. It’s difficult to say anything about the statuette’s authenticity, since it’s so encrusted that practically anything could be under its patina. It would in fact be more problematic if it’s genuine, since, as researcher Paul Barford pointed out, “South Arabia is an art-trade euphemism for Yemen.”

Yemen’s ancient sites have been so heavily looted that collectors are warned not to buy any antiquities that could be from there, specifically including ancient Roman figural statuettes. During the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, “entire museums were emptied” for the antiquities black market. When Dershowitz bought this “South Arabian” antiquity in 1999, was he unwittingly purchasing a fake made not that long ago, or an antiquity ripped from a Yemeni archeological site during conflict? It’s nearly impossible to know.

Relying on auction houses to certify antiquities as genuine and legal isn’t good enough. Anyone sophisticated enough to buy antiquities should know this, and the rest of us should no longer allow them to excuse themselves with a lame “I didn’t know.” So, if you’re in the market for some Roman lamps, but don’t want to contribute to the destruction of the past, let me suggest the completely legal and very cute replicas of Potted History — complete with giant penises, if that’s your thing.

America's only full-time art crime prof. As seen on CNN, NPR, NYT, etc.

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