Saturday, November 15, 2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt

The death of collector Nelson Bunker Hunt was announced in October 2014. A number of obituaries have appeared in the British press:


Only the Telegraph mentioned his collections of antiquities and coins:
Forced into personal bankruptcy that required them to liquidate assets, the brothers auctioned off immense collections of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic coins, raising more than $30 million. Sotheby’s in New York sold their art collections, and they were even forced to offload household items, including an enamel teapot which went for $20.
The frontispiece of the 1983 catalogue was the Etruscan terracotta antefix that was acquired by Laurence and Barbara Flieschman and returned to Italy from the J. Paul Getty Museum. The cover shows the Kyknos krater that was returned to Italy by Shelby White.

The Euphronios cup from the Hunt collection is the starting point for Vernon's Silver's The Lost Chalice.

As I noted back in 2008 the returns to Italy included pieces from significant North American private collectors.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Beau Street Hoard


It was encouraging to hear last week from Verity Anthony about the Beau Street Hoard. The hoard was discovered in 2007 during excavations in Bath by archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology. As a result we know the precise context:
The mass of fused coins lay in a right angle created between the walls of a Roman building (probably the corner of a room). It was tightly packed in on the other sides by two stones, forming a stone-lined chamber. 
The  hoard was not removed until its 'full extent was established and its position accurately planned and recorded'.

Careful conservation work revealed the outline of the original bags in which the coins had been deposited. Sampling work was able to identify that the bags were made from 'skin product'.

The hoard itself contained some 17,500 Roman coins, originally deposited in 8 bags.

The Beau Street hoard is now the subject of a British Museum colour booklet by Eleanor Ghey (2014). It is a good reminder of the amount of information that can be gleaned from a properly excavated, conserved and studied Roman coin hoard.

I was very struck by the imaginative ways that the Beau Street Hoard has been used to engage with the local community through a series of projects.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Micropasts and issues with PAS data



It was instructive to listen to Dr Neil Wilkin yesterday at the Society of Museum Archaeology annual conference. He was talking about the Micropasts project and the use of crowd sourcing. It was good to hear a discussion of the digitisation of the card files as well as the images from the Horsfield archive (see here).

At one point Wilkin appeared to have to defend the intellectual reliability of the data provided by PAS. I think that he is right to be cautious. How far can we trust the information supplied with the reported objects? Are these largely reported or "said to be" findspots? Is the PAS information triangulated by more secure information from the Micropasts project?

And what about all the unreported finds?

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AIA and St Louis

The Archaeological Institute of America has issued a statement about the sale of antiquities by the St Louis branch of the organisation ("New AIA Statement on the St. Louis Society", November 4, 2014). The AIA's Governing Body has highlighted three reasons why the St Louis branch should not sell (and I have restructured the format):

  • First, the objects from Egypt were entrusted to the Society by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt in 1914 for the benefit of the citizens of St. Louis and were intended to be placed in a public institution where they would be used for public education and scholarly study. Selling them breaks this fundamental commitment, now a century old. The citizens of St. Louis have been deprived of part of their legitimate heritage. 
  • Second, the objects were obtained by division from an authorized excavation, thus enhancing their scholarly and educational value. Such objects should remain in the public domain, not sold off in a manner that risks removing them from public view. 
  • Third, the actions of the St. Louis Society have seriously compromised the Archaeological Institute of America itself as an organization that upholds the value of preserving, studying and presenting the record of the human past for the benefit of future generations. 

The Egyptian objects on sale at Bonhams last month were withdrawn and purchased by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The St Louis Art Museum clearly feels that it wants to display Egyptian antiquities and even went as far as acquiring a mummy mask that subsequently turned out to have been excavated at Saqqara (and allegedly removed from the archaeological store).

Now some Mesoamerican pieces are due to be sold by Bonhams in New York.

The ArtNewspaper has drawn attention to the issue ("St Louis society attempts second sale of antiquities", November 6, 2014). Washington Paid Lobbyist Peter Tompa has now added his voice to the debate (as a comment to the ArtNewspaper):
In the golden age of archaeology, archaeologists were collectors and some wealthy collectors were amateur archaeologists. Now, its seen as heresy for an AIA chapter to sell a well-provenance piece which has somehow become inalienable for the ideologues that run the organization. Hopefully, this episode will prompt a much needed discussion of the issue and how the AIA's positions have only alienated itself from others who also care about preserving artifacts from the past.
He conveniently overlooks the AIA's position in order to promote the position maintained by those organisations who retain the services of his law firm. I note that the IAPN has increased its contribution to Bailey & Ehrenberg by $10,0000 in 2014.

Tompa's incautious language ("heresy", "ideologues", "alienated") highlights the insecure position held by the lobbyist.

I hope that the St Louis Society realise their responsibility to retain the objects for future generations in St Louis. It is not too late for their officers to withdraw the pieces from the sale.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hecht and Haverford College

Jason Felch has reminded us of the impact of toxic antiquities on museums. This time he has looked at the collection of Greek pots at Haverford College. The collection was derived from George Allen who worked for Hecht's Hesperia Art in Philadelphia. Interestingly one of the pieces looks like it comes from a known looted temple in Turkey (but we need to wait for Felch's publication).

This story will be making very uncomfortable reading for other museums that acquired objects from Hesperia Art - and not just in North America.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Minerva, coins and the Salisbury Hoard

I have been working through some of the names associated with the Salisbury Hoard (through Ian Stead's 1998 volume). He has a section on an Arnold Saslow:
An American dealer, Dr Arnold Saslow, had bought two axes from Martin, and my [sc. Stead's] letter to him provoked a furious response. He was one of the largest coin dealers in the USA, and had bought the axes at a fair at which he had probably spent $10,000 — how could I expect him to know what he had purchased from Martin! It would seem that American dealers do not have to keep strict records, unlike their British counterparts, and one got the impression that export licences were of little concern to someone as important as Dr Saslow.
Dr Saslow's name occurs in one of my earliest essays on the market: a review article, written with my then colleague Kevin Butcher, for Antiquity 64 (1990) 946-50 [online]. The subject was the first set of numbers for Minerva: the international review of ancient art and archaeology (first published in January 1990).

I see that we wrote this: 'Minerva's archaeologically responsible image has however been tarnished by an article by one of the Contributing Editors, Dr Arnold R. Saslow'. We then proceeded to unpack Saslow's views on the alleged looting of coins in Turkey. We returned to Saslow later in the review article over the issue of the suggestion that 'good' coins fakes were being produced in Turkey.

It would seem that the issues raised by the looting of an archaeological site in England can be linked to a wider debate over the damage to archaeological contexts in the Mediterranean region.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Does Britain "condone systematic looting"?

I have been doing some work on the Icklingham bronzes that were apparently removed illegally from a Suffolk field. Neil Brodie, then in Cambridge, wrote a rather good letter in response to Peter K. Tompa (Washington Post 9 November 1999; with response 5 December 1999). Brodie talks about the Icklingham bronzes that "were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the United Kingdom and now are owned by an American collector". Brodie contrasted the Italian approach to that adopted in Britain: "At a recent conference held to discuss these issues, delegate after delegate from around the world expressed amazement at the British system, which allows the private excavation of antiquities and which, in the words of one participant, condones systematic looting."

Tompa did respond to Brodie (Washington Post 23 December 1999) and accepted that the Icklingham bronzes was indeed an "incident".

There are several things to note looking back at this exchange in 2014.

First, the present proprietor of the Icklingham bronzes has yet to return these objects to Suffolk. She has returned material to Greece and to Italy, so why not the UK?
Second, does the "private excavation of antiquities" continue in the UK? (I am not sure about the word "excavation" here.) This is exactly the point that I made in the Papers of the Institute of Archaeology in 2010 ... eleven years after Brodie's letter. And have there been any changes in the last four years?

Is it time that we heard more about the protection of unrecorded archaeological sites in the UK and less about the recording of portable stuff that has been hoiked out of the ground?

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Monday, October 27, 2014

The Intellectual Consequences of Collecting Archaeological Material

Context helps to explain archaeological material. There is information about the specific location, the stratigraphic relationship with other objects, and the association with related material. 

It is easy for archaeologists to document the looting of archaeological sites. And the Medici Dossier, the Becchina Archive, and the Schinoussa Images have made it possible to identify objects that have entered the market.

But we also need to consider the limitations of discussing such 'unexcavated' objects. Chris Chippindale and I explored some of the issues relating to Cycladic figures, and I have published a study of the intellectual consequences of acquiring the Sarpedon krater. I will be exploring further issues at a seminar in Cambridge this week.

Among the areas that the seminar will consider are:

  • Athenian red-figured pots attributed to the Berlin painter
  • Etruscan architectural terracottas
  • Apulian cavalry armour
  • Apulian pottery
  • Classical bronze statues
  • The Icklingham bronzes
  • The 'Crosby Garrett' helmet
  • The Sevso Treasure
Do archaeologists, and especially those dealing with the classical world, need to see how little material comes from secure contexts?


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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Curator, the Fax and the Mummy Mask



I remain puzzled by the St Louis Art Museum. It seems that less than one year after acquiring the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mummy mask (the one with the name erased from the hand), a distinguished Egyptologist from a major international museum faxed a member of the curatorial team at SLAM drawing attention to the link with Saqqara.

It also seems that another museum-based Egyptologist encouraged the leadership team at SLAM to contact the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), in part because it was known that the archaeological store at Saqqara had been 'disturbed'.

The leadership team at SLAM will need to explain how they responded to this information. Or did they wait until Zahi Hawass contacted SLAM's director of February 14, 2006?


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Thursday, October 23, 2014

James Cuno Revives "Culture Wars"

I have been unimpressed by James Cuno's attempts to be a commentator on the looting of archaeological sites. I have reviewed his works elsewhere:

Now Cuno has decided to reopen the discussion with an essay, "Culture Wars: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts
", Foreign Affairs November / December 2014.

Cuno overlooks some issues that are very relevant to the debate about repatriation. What about the Egyptian material from the Tomb of Tetatki that had been acquired by the Louvre? Is the AAMD 2008 acquisition policy as tight as Cuno suggests?

Cuno limits the information about the returns to Italy as a result of the Medici Conspiracy to what was displayed in the Nostoi exhibition in Rome (and Athens).
it was the Medici scandal that eventually led the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Princeton University Art Museum to send those 69 objects back to Rome in 2007.
To that list of institutions (some linked to Gianfranco Becchina rather than Giacomo Medici) we could add (among others) the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Toledo Museum of Art. The Dallas Museum of Art took the initiative to return material without being asked. And there are other major collections in North America where acquisitions are linked to Medici (e.g. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). And my running list from 8 major museums adds up to 326 items returned. (And then we can add in material from a private collector, auction-houses, and dealers.) It does look as if Cuno has down-played the scale of the problem. And while we talk about figures, over 60% of the objects returned from those museums were acquired in the 1990s or 2000s.

Cuno also could have discussed the loan of archaeological material from Italian collections to museums such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and to Dallas. And Princeton was allowed to retain some material although the title was given to Italy.

Perhaps Cuno needs to reflect on the lessons derived from the Medici Conspiracy and respond to the constructive comments by thoughtful museum directors such as Maxwell Anderson.

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