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Phoenix Rises from the Antiquities Ashes

For a antiquities gallery that, by its own admission, is trying to clean up its act, Phoenix Ancient Art got a reputation whitewash in Ron Stodghill‘s article in yesterday’s NY Times Sunday Business Section, Do You Know Where That Art Has Been?. Phoenix is clearly pleased with this story: It has posted the piece on its website.

Stodghill reports:

The Aboutaams [owners of the gallery, based in New York and Geneva] are remaking themselves and their business. In a trade that has been full of grave robbers and forgers adding patina to new objects, they are busy digging up documentation for everything they sell in an effort to polish their reputation.

But if they have become so meticulous about provenance, why were they offering, as late as 2003, the ancient Greek bronze, “Apollo Sauroktonos,” (Lizard-Slayer), which, by their own admission, bore an ownership history that “was dubious at best,” according to the Times report?

As it happened, the Cleveland Museum admired that piece and then did its own scientific research, showing that the life-size work, attributed to Praxiteles (but not necessarily “by” that sculptor, as reported by Stodghill) had been out of the ground for 100 years or more. If that’s the case, then the Louvre ought not to have so readily capitulated to recent Greek demands that it not borrow the Apollo for a Praxiteles exhibition. Greece threatened that if the Cleveland loan stayed, its 19 loans to the show would go.
But back to Phoenix: The Times’ assertions about the gallery’s new policy of providing “detailed descriptions of…provenance” didn’t quite jibe with my own experience visiting its exhibition last fall of The Painter’s Eye: The Art of Greek Ceramics (images here).

The only provenance listed for some 14 of the 25 works on sale at the gallery was enigmatic at best: “Formerly in the collection of C.J.D., Switzerland.”

The catalogue introduction stated:

It is with great confidence that the collection of Dr. C.J.D. greets the public, displayed in its entirety for the first time. The collection mirrors the concerns of the collector: in this case, a scholar and connoisseur of Greek vases whose exacting eye for rarity, condition and, above all, artistic quality were honed both in the university classsroom and as an observer and participant in the European art market.

Collected during the course of his archaeological studies in the 1960s and early 1970s, C.J.D. had the singular opportunity to supplement his scholarly research with the development of his instincts as a collector. The end result is a distinct group of ceramics of great academic importance, each vase presenting an element of painting or iconography that differentiates it from the canon of related works.

For another work in the exhibition, a “Red-Figure Kylix with a Music Teacher and Schoolboy,” the only provenance listed in the catalogue was: “Ex-European art market, acquired in the 1980s.”

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these objects. I’m only saying that despite the claim that the Aboutaam brothers “are busy digging up documentation for everything they sell,” transparent antiquities dealing may still be an oxymoron.

an ArtsJournal blog