The problem of orphan antiquities

Thursday 27th May 2021 at 16:24
Prior to 2010, few dealer or auction catalogues recorded provenance or ownership histories unless the item had belonged to a well-known person, provenance was simply not considered important at the time. Provenance is now quite rightly regarded as very important in establishing the legitimacy of an object. However, there are millions of antiquities circulating that have no recorded provenance, often relatively low value, but widely collected items.  This does not mean they are looted and illegitimate, as trade detractors often claim, but simply that the provenance information has been lost during the many years, even decades, that an object has been circulating on the market. Such antiquities are often described as 'orphan'. For dealers and collectors, orphan antiquities, which account for the vast majority of items on the market, present a problem, major auction houses may not take consignments where provenance is not demonstratable, museums may be less likely to give opinions on such objects, the legitimacy of orphans may be questioned despite an overwhelming likihood that they entered the market quite legally long ago. Proposals need to be found to account for orphan antiquities and ensure their legitimacy.
Recently, the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, the University of Geneva and UNIDROIT hosted an international conference on the theme of orphan works. Here Vincent  Geerling, Chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) reviews the Conference and some of the interesting presentations and solutions proposed.

Joanna Van der Lande, Chair of the UK Antiquities Dealers Association also presents her thoughts on the issue of orphan antiquities and these can be read here