Art law News United Kingdom

Guilty plea over antiquities

Suspect admits falsifying provenance of Egyptian items offered for auction in London

Three of the items that were consigned to the Christie’s auction on 2 May, including a granite fragment (right) missing from a Thebes tomb

Neil Kingsbury, of Northwood, London, has pleaded guilty to charges relating to the provenance of Egyptian antiquities that were consigned to Bonhams and Christie’s.

Kingsbury was arrested after misrepresented items were identified in Christie’s London antiquities sale of 2 May. Marcel Marée, a curator at the British Museum, saw the published catalogue a week earlier and spotted that a relief fragment of a Nubian prisoner appeared to come from the Amenhotep III temple in Thebes, across the Nile from Luxor. He contacted Hourig Sourouzian, the site’s conservation director, who confirmed that the relief was missing. It was excavated a decade ago and had been kept in storage.

“Property of a gentleman”

The granite relief was recorded in the Christie’s catalogue as the “property of a gentleman”. Five further pieces, all dating from between 1976BC and 1069BC, were identified as having come from the same person. The estimates were modest—from £800 to £2,000. (One further item, worth around £10,000, was not identified before the auction and was sold. This sale has since been cancelled.)

Christie’s was originally told that the six items had been inherited by the consignor from his uncle, who had served in Egypt during the Second World War and stayed there for a few years afterwards before returning to the UK. The provenance given in the catalogue was: “Private collection, UK, acquired Egypt 1940s; thence by descent.”

All six items were withdrawn from the sale, and Christie’s informed the police and the Egyptian embassy.

Bought in a souvenir shop

Kingsbury, aged 63, appeared at Uxbridge magistrates’ court on 20 August on four charges. He pleaded guilty to the first three, relating to fraud by making false representations on items offered to three auctions: at Bonhams (five items, four of which were offered in one lot), an earlier Christie’s sale (one item) and Christie’s auction in May (seven lots). However, Kingsbury pleaded not guilty to a further charge of being in possession of stolen property (the Nubian prisoner).

The prosecution said that Kingsbury had bought the items at a souvenir shop in Egypt. His lawyer said that he was of “good character” and “did not plan to commit a crime”, and that he had “no knowledge that [the Nubian prisoner] was stolen property”.

The original source of the five other items withdrawn from the May sale does not appear to have been identified, but museum specialists believe that they too could have come from Thebes. It is not known when the temple’s storage space was subject to a theft.

A spokesman for Christie’s says: “This case shows how our procedures, our due diligence and the transparent and public nature of our sales combine to make our saleroom highly unattractive to those engaged in the illicit trade.”

A spokesman for Bonhams says: “As with every item sold by Bonhams, a check had been made with the Art Loss Register and with a number of other experts and institutions, none of whom expressed concern about this lot.”

At a preliminary hearing yesterday, 4 September, Kingsbury's mixed plea was confirmed and he was released on bail, to appear at a plea and case management hearing in November. A trial date has been set for late February.

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