Earlier this week, it was reported that Kim Kardashian West was named in a civil suit filed by the U.S. government alleging she was the intended recipient of an illegally imported ancient Roman sculpture. Federal agents seized the sculpture in 2016 when it entered the U.S. and are now seeking its forfeiture. According to the complaint, officials from Italy have examined the sculpture and stated that it was looted and smuggled from Italian soil. (A spokesperson for Kardashian West told CNN she "never purchased this piece" and that "this is the first that she has learned of its existence." Kardashian West is not a defendant in the lawsuit, which does not allege any wrongdoing on her part.)
The complaint says the allegedly looted sculpture was sold by an established dealer and shipped by a reputable international customs broker.
Allegations of art looting and smuggling conjure up images of clandestine, backroom deals and the black market, but the allegations in this case suggest that in most cases, nothing could be further from the truth.
The legal complaint states the sculpture had been exhibited at the foremost annual global art fair, where Dealers, private collectors and museum curators from around the world to do their shopping from a selection of carefully vetted gallery stock. The court papers say the allegedly looted sculpture was also sold by an established dealer and shipped by a reputable international customs broker. Given all these checks and balances, could an illicitly obtained antiquity really slip through the cracks?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes — and far too easily. For years, ancient works of art have been looted from archaeological sites and storerooms and smuggled across international borders, only to appear on the legitimate art market. From there, they make their way into private and public collections. Unlike the situation with, say, cars or real estate, where a wary buyer can get a certificate of title confirming their ownership, there are few safeguards in place to assure buyers of fine art that their purchases are legally on the market. This is especially true for antiquities like the sculpture allegedly bound for Kardashian West.
A savvy art buyer will know the key to making sure their purchase is aboveboard is to scrutinize its provenance; that is, the record of its history of ownership. A close examination of an object’s provenance can reveal whether it was stolen or smuggled in the past and whether it’s on the market legally. But records of provenance are especially easy to falsify for ancient and archaeological materials.
Why is this? While we can be sure that a painting by Rembrandt has been in circulation — somewhere — between the time it was created and today, it’s almost never known when an ancient work of art on the market was literally removed from the ground (whether licitly or illicitly) and, therefore, when its collecting history began. Without firm documentation of its provenance, we might guess with equal confidence that an antiquity has been in circulation for a week, 10 years or a 100 years.
The difficulty in verifying the provenance of ancient works of art is a loophole that can be exploited easily by unscrupulous sellers. In recent years, we have seen several art dealers arrested for selling looted antiquities. These dealers allegedly convinced clients that their wares had long been out of the ground by providing conveniently unverifiable information about provenance. Authorities claim indicted antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor allegedly obtained signed statements from private collectors with false attestations, such as one saying the collector purchased a figure from "a European collection in 1969," according to the blog Chasing Aphrodite. Dealer Nancy Wiener, who was arrested in 2016, likewise allegedly offered vague statements of ownership, such as stating her objects had been in a “European collection” for decades, the blog reported. (Both cases are still pending.)
By saying the objects had lengthy histories in private collections, dealers sought to assure buyers they had not been recently looted or shipped in contravention of export and import laws. Nevertheless, the objects had allegedly been recently looted, and many have since been returned to their countries of origin, Chasing Aphrodite reported. As long as buyers accept sellers at their word and do nothing to try to verify the information they’re given, plundered antiquities like those offered by Kapoor and Wiener will continue to change hands freely.
This brings us to the sculpture sculpture linked to Kardashian West. According to the complaint, it was offered for sale with the following provenance: “Old German collection, bought before 1980.” At first, this may sound reassuring. But it also raises questions: Whose collection, exactly? How old is “old” (is “before 1980” now “old”)? And most importantly, where did this information come from? Is it based on documentation, publications or someone’s recollections? How can a buyer be reasonably sure this information is true?
Asking these pointed questions does not necessarily imply the information is false or the dealer offering the sculpture is behaving dishonestly. Legitimate objects may go through the art trade with the same provenance statement passed along from owner to owner, the source long since forgotten and the information never called into question. However, illegitimate objects pass through the trade this way, too. Therefore, before committing to a sale, buyers need to ask: If my ownership to this object is challenged in the future (as is now the case with the seized Roman sculpture), will I be able to prove that I own it legally?
It may seem unfair that buyers, not sellers, are saddled with the responsibility of due diligence in this scenario. Eventually, though, even good-faith purchasers will face legal, financial and reputational repercussions if they are believed to have looted works of art in their possession, the present news story being a perfect case in point. It behooves art buyers to do their homework before any money changes hands. If private collectors, dealers and museums refuse to buy poorly documented works of art, they can help sustain a demand for well-researched and legally obtained antiquities. But if buyers purchase undocumented works of art and accept statements like “Old German collection” at face value, then archaeological looting and the illegal trade will continue to flourish.