Thursday, July 26, 2007

The scale of the market for Egyptian antiquities

The return of antiquities to Italy and Greece has perhaps diverted our gaze from one of the other major sources of what appear to be recently surfaced antiquities. Between 1998 and 2007 Sotheby's in New York held over 20 sales over antiquities with some 1300 lots of Egyptian objects. This aspect of the sales was worth some US$41 million.

Many of the antiquities returning to Italy from North American museums have consisted of Athenian and South Italian pots. Yet these categories are a small element in value to Sotheby's in New York. Athenian figure-decorated pots have only raised some US$6.4 million, and South Italian pottery (Apulian, Lucanian, Campanian) just under US$1 million. In other words the sale of Egyptian antiquities is 6 times more valuable to Sotheby's than Athenian pottery, and 40 times more valuable than South Italian pottery. Or to put it another way, should we be more concerned about the damage to the archaeological record in Egypt than to what has been happening in Greece and Italy? (And that is not to belittle the very real destruction that has been taking place in those countries.)

But are the Egyptian antiquities at Sotheby's coming from old collections? Where the history is known (and presumably 'safe' to disclose) this is stated in the catalogue entry. (Confusingly the art world uses the term 'provenance' which usually points to the collecting history.) Nearly 70% of the Egyptian antiquities auctioned at Sotheby's New York appear to be unknown before 1973. Over 95% have no declared find-spot.

What are the material and intellectual consequences of collecting Egyptian antiquities?

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