Away with the Pharaohs; Surely the Owner of Christie's Can't Have Paid [Pound]500,000 for an Ancient Egyptian Statue Actually Made 80 Years Ago?

Article excerpt

Byline: SUSAN MOORE

IT seems that the law of caveat emptor applies even to owners of auction houses. Christie's French owner, Francois Pinault, finds himself in the unhappy position of having paid around [pound]500,000 at an auction in Paris for a statue of the Pharaoh Sesostris III which he now believes not to have been made during the pharaoh's reign in the 12th Dynasty, around 1837-1818 BC, but nearer to 1920 - AD! Worse still, a Paris court has refused his request to revoke the sale, and has ordered him to pay costs and damages to the expert in charge of the sale, the auctioneer and the vendor.

M Pinault bought the 57cm-high statue at the Hotel Drouot in November 1998 at an antiquities auction organised by Olivier Coutau-B?garie in conjunction with the expert Chakib Soutine. His request to rescind the sale came after the Paris daily Lib?ration published remarks after the auction by the Middle Kingdom expert Professor Dietrich Wildung, of Berlin's Egyptian Museum, claiming that he had reasons to suspect the statue of being a 20th century fake.

Professor Wildung is not alone in his opinion. In April 1999, however, two Louvre specialists appointed by the court concluded that the statue was indeed a "unique masterpiece from antiquity" - though they also conceded that it displayed imperfections of detail.

These, they explained, suggested that the statue was probably made in a royal workshop after the pharaoh's death, but before the end of the Middle Kingdom (about 1630 BC).

Recently, a court ruling has also absolved the sale expert Chakib Soutine, stating - and this is the stuff to chill any collector's blood - that the "criteria for dating works of antiquity cannot reflect the same rigour as for more recent works" and that the statue's date had not been a determining factor in buying the work.

So what should we make of this particular salutary tale? First and foremost, that anyone entering a market with a lot of money to spend and no specialist knowledge ought to ensure they take good advice. A more experienced buyer in this field - I am assured - might well have been more wary of the scale, appearance and means of manufacture of this particular representation of one of the great pharaohs of Egyptian history and Egyptian art.

Most significantly, perhaps, the statue is an odd size - most statues of pharaohs tend to be either much bigger or, less usually, smaller, with granodiorite generally reserved for monumental figures.

It might also seem that the stone had been cut with steel tools. Had the statue come to the block without these apparent anomalies, and with an impeccable provenance, a seasoned collector might well have expected it to fetch not [pound]500,000 but something akin to [pound]1.5 million. Some might say that this whole episode serves to confirm what could be described as the institutionalised solidarity of the French system - and how notoriously difficult it is to get any redress when buying on the French market. …