Cycladic Heads, Christie’s, and Problematic Provenance

In this post, Forging Antiquity Team member and Macquarie University PhD candidate Richard Bott examines a catalogue of antiquities recently offered for sale.

During an auction held in April of this year (2022) in New York, Christie’s sold the head from a Cycladic figurine, of the early Spedos type, for $252,000 USD. While this, in and of itself, is rather unremarkable—an unfortunately large volume of Cycladic figurines were looted in the 20th century and now circulate that antiquities trade, some fetching similarly high prices—the provided provenance (ownership history) is rather interesting. According to the provenance supplied by Christie’s, this piece was supposedly owned first by the Swiss antiquities dealer Heidi Vollmoeller, who acquired it sometime in the 1960s; then by the Merrin Gallery of New York, who acquired it from Vollmoeller in the 1980s; then by a private Canadian collector who purchased it in 1990; and then it was acquired in 2015 by the unnamed individual who sold it through Christie’s: the current owner remains unknown. Further investigation, however, suggests not all is right with this narrative.

Along with the ownership history, the listing for this head draws attention to its publication history, having first surfaced in a 1984 article by Pat Getz-Preziosi. In this article, the head features only briefly appearing in a picture with 17 other heads as stylistic comparisons for the sculptures that form the article’s primary focus.

Left: Screenshot from Getz-Preziosi’s 1984 Nine Fragments of Early Cycladic Sculpture in Southern California, pg. 7 (original figure caption included). Head from Christie’s auction top row, second from right, circled. Right: Head sold at auction by Christie’s.

Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the identity of the then owner of the head (and the other 17) was unreported by Getz-Preziosi. The reader is informed only that these heads are all part of a single “Private collection” and the photo was provided by the collector. However, given the date of the article and the (albeit somewhat unclear) ownership history provided in the auction this year, two options now present themselves. According to the provenance provided by Christie’s, the private collector Getz-Preziosi mentions must be either Heidi Vollmoeller (Galerie Heidi Vollmoeller) or Edward Merrin (Merrin Gallery).

If one begins by assuming that these figures are indeed valid links in the provenance chain, the question becomes why would they, established dealers, wish to remain anonymous? After all, publication and associated effective guarantee of authenticity can sometimes increase the value of an antiquity. One possible explanation can be found in David Gill and Christopher Chippindale’s influential 1993 paper, Material and Intellectual Consequences of Esteem for Cycladic Figurines*. According to Gill and Chippindale (pg. 634), some dealers, like Vollmoeller, held onto Cycladic material for over a decade to ensure a constant, but controlled stream of material entering the market. While this might explain why a dealer would remain anonymous in publication—allowing material to be published drives up value and provides a guarantee of authenticity, while obscuring one’s identity means a piece can enter the market whenever the dealer decides—there are peculiarities with this narrative worthy of further consideration.

In 1976 an exhibition of Cycladic material was held at the State Museum of Baden (Badisches Landesmuseum), in Karlsruhe, Germany. One of those who publicly lent material was none other than Heidi Vollmoeller: some of Vollmoeller’s material was then offered for sale at the 1989 Basel art fair (Gill & Chippindale 1993, 634). Why Vollmoeller would be comfortable publicly disclosing that she owned material in an exhibition but not in a publication seems odd. Similar unusual circumstances surround the supposed ownership of the head by the Merrin Gallery. In 1989, the Merrin Gallery ran an exhibition entitled Masterpieces of Cycladic Art from Private Collections, Museums, and the Merrin Gallery. Interestingly, in the associated exhibition catalogue, which features colour photographs of 27 objects, the head supposedly then owned by the Merrin Gallery does not feature. As this would have been an excellent venue to publicise a sculpture that was presumably available for sale (it was supposedly sold the year after to an unnamed Canadian collector) the absence of the head is rather surprising. While dealers do sometimes obscure their association with certain antiquities, that both dealers featured in this provenance chain were willing to publicly demonstrate they owned other, related Cycladic material while hiding their association with the Christie’s head seems odd.

A more substantial issue with the offered provenance arises when one begins searching for the other heads featured in the 1984 photograph: a third possible, and seemingly more likely, owner emerges. Since 2019 at least three more of the heads from the photograph were offered for sale. First, in May of 2019, the head in the bottom right corner of the 1984 photo was offered for sale through the Artemis Gallery. Secondly, in July of 2019, the head in the middle row, third from right was offered for sale through Christie’s. Finally, in May of 2021, the head in the top right-hand corner was put up for sale through Lyon and Turnbull.

Clockwise from top left: Screenshot from Getz-Perziosi’s 1984 article with sold heads circled. Head sold by Artemis Gallery in May of 2019. Head sold at Christie’s in July of 2019. Head sold Lyon and Turnbull in May of 2021. Colour photos are screenshots taken from the respective auction websites, with the exception of the Artemis Gallery Cycladic head which was taken from an archived version of the auction from ‘’.

Of these three pieces of Cycladic sculpture, two (those sold in 2019) feature provenances that clearly contradict the provenance that accompanied the head sold in April of this year (the reported provenance for the third head only states it came from a private Swiss collection and was acquired in 1992). According to the reported provenances, both heads sold in 2019 were in the possession of the dealer Nicolas Koutoulakis up until his death in 1996 (the head sold through the Artemis Gallery states that Koutoulakis acquired it in the 1960s and no acquisition date is given for the other head sold through Christie’s). Given that the 1984 Getz-Preziosi article states that the photo in which all four head feature contains material from a single private collection, it would appear that these heads were owned initially not by Heidi Vollmoeller, but by Koutoulakis.

Further circumstantial evidence supporting the Koutoulakis narrative can be found in a 2008 article by Getz-Gentle (née Getz-Preziosi). Here, Getz-Gentle states that Koutoulakis was the primary dealer in material from the infamous ‘Keros Hoard’ and responsible for supplying other dealers and collectors, that he “exhibited [material] anonymously in Karlsruhe in 1976” (emphasis mine), and that he “had proper photographs taken” after meeting Getz-Gentle in 1968 (2008, 300-304). These additional details suggest that Koutoulakis had access to a large volume of Cycladic material, had a good enough relationship with Getz-Preziosi to provide “proper photographs,” and that while happy displaying his material publicly he preferred to remain anonymous. While none of this proves a definitive link, it certainly does reinforce the suggestion that Koutoulakis had ownership of the Christie’s head.

         If one accepts now that head offered for sale by Christie’s in April of 2022 was owned by Nicolas Koutoulakis at some point, why then was this fact hidden? After all, it was clearly outside of Greece by at least 1984 and, given that it was offered for sale at Christie’s in New York, it could legally have entered the US according to current US law. Well, according to Getz-Gentle (2008, 303), “current dealers and collectors are made nervous by evidence that Keros was indeed the source,” presumably because of the well-publicised looting that occurred there during the mid-20th century. Given that the majority of what is now referred to as ‘Keros Hoard’, of which the Christie’s head is part of, is thought to have gone through Koutoulakis’ hands it makes some degree of sense that the seller may want to obscure this association. Moreover, Koutoulakis is notorious for his role in the sale of looted antiquities, featuring in the famous ‘Organigram,’ which detailed the flow of looted antiquities from Italy. With pressure increasing in recent years for those who now hold looted antiquities that passed through Koutoulakis to return them, it is certainly possible that the seller of the Christie’s head wanted to hide Koutoulakis’ involvement. After all, $252,000 is hardly an insignificant amount of money. Admittedly, it is difficult to place too much faith in one provenance narrative over the other given that none is presented with verifiable support. While the cumulative weight of evidence does suggest that Heidi Vollmoeller did not own the Cycladic head sold at Christie’s earlier this year, without further evidence the exact provenance of the Christie’s head remains unclear. Even if Koutoulakis did own the head, this does not clarify the later narrative: after all, it is entirely possible that Merrin (who also has a history of dealing in looted antiquities) acquired the head from Koutoulakis in the 1980s and then sold it to an unknown Canadian. Likewise, no matter how unlikely it may seem, it is still possible that Vollmoeller was also involved somehow. The only way to avoid these confusing provenance webs is with greater transparency from all involved: the auction houses and dealers who sell these works, the collectors who buy them, and those who continue to willingly publish them with hidden provenances. In this case, one thing is, however, clear. At some point, someone has obscured the provenance for at least one of these sculptures.

Richard Bott (@RichardBott7)

*Unfortunately, it appears the 1993 article by Gill and Chippindale is not open access. All other works noted in this article are available through the hyperlinks provided.