Art law United Kingdom

“Overvalued” ewer exported

UK government rejects committee advice, accepts Sotheby’s £20m valuation

The ewer at Christie's

LONDON. The UK culture department rejected advice from its Export Reviewing Committee over a recently discovered Fatimid ewer. Instead, it accepted a Sotheby’s valuation of £20m—soon after the ewer had been sold at Christie’s for £3.2m. A confidential Sotheby’s report, released by the government under the Freedom of Information Act, describes the rock-crystal ewer as “the Holy Grail for any collector or museum of Islamic art”.

However, the Export Review­ing Committee felt the ewer was overvalued, with its true market price being closer to £3m. Nevertheless, the £20m figure was accepted by the government, which meant that no national museum could attempt to match the price.

The astonishing story of the ewer began at Lawrences auctioneers in Crewkerne, Som­erset, when it came up for sale on 17 January 2008 as “a French claret jug”, estimated at £100-£200. Two Islamic dealers recognised that it was, in fact, a very rare Fatimid ewer, and it went for £220,000. The sale was subsequently annulled and the consignor sent it to Christie’s.

Properly catalogued as having been made in Cairo in around 1000AD, it was offered at Christie’s on 7 October 2008, with an estimate “in excess of £3m”. It sold for £3,243,000 (with buyer’s premium), only just above the reserve. The purchaser was London resident Edmund de Unger, whose family owns the Keir collection (The Art Newspaper, July-August, p3). He applied to send the ewer on long-term loan to the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin.

Questioned

We have now discovered that the value given on De Unger’s export licence application was £15m. Understandably, this was quest­ioned by the Export Re­viewing Committee, since a recent auction price is normally regarded as the appropriate figure.

De Unger responded that the October 2008 Christ­ie’s auction had taken place at “the lowest point of an international financial crisis”. He also added: “It was widely believed that a key buyer of Islamic art was going to bid and would be certain to outbid any other possible bidders. A number of parties told the applicant after the sale that they would have bid had they not been deterred by a belief that they would be outbid by this key buyer. In the event, the key buyer did not bid for the ewer.”

The Export Reviewing Committee deliberated, concluding that De Unger had “not provided any specific information that a potential purchaser would now be willing to pay a higher price” than that reached at auction. It therefore recommended to the culture secretary that he should defer an export licence with a valuation of £3,243,000, allowing a UK public collection to make a matching offer.

De Unger made direct representations to Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which subsequently decided that an independent valuation should be sought.

Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s, Christie’s rival auction house, was then approached for advice by DCMS. Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s head of Islamic art, described the ewer as the “Holy Grail” in his valuation report of 25 March 2010. Gibbs added: “That only one collector realised this on the day of its auction resulted in one of the biggest surprises and upsets in the history of the Islamic art market.” This comment could be interpreted as suggesting that Christie’s might have failed to market the ewer properly (although the object was well publicised before the sale).

Initially Gibbs gave an £18m to £25m valuation; when pressed for a single figure, he said £20m.

Berlin show

No further action was taken by the Labour government in the run-up to the general election, but on 28 May newly-installed Conservative culture minister Ed Vaizey announced his decision to accept the Sotheby’s figure. This has caused some concern, since the auction house could be seen as having a financial incentive to “talk up” the market.

An export licence was deferred by Vaizey until 27 June—but at £20m no UK public collection could even contemplate trying to raise the funds. The Fatimid ewer was then exported to Germany, and is expected to go on display in Berlin’s Museum of Islamic Art early next year.

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