Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The trail of a South Italian cavalryman's armour

At some point in the late fourth century BCE a cavalryman from one of the Greek colonies was laid to rest in a tomb in the rolling foothills of southern Italy.

We do not know his name. We do not know his age. We do not know the name of his community. We do not even know what other objects were placed in the tomb.

And we shall never know, because nearly two and a half thousand years later a group of men dug up his grave and packed up his bronze armour.

We do not know the route the armour took. We do not know where it was conserved.

But the set consisting of a helmet, the front and back cuirass, and one greave surfaced on the Köln art market in 1975 where the group was purchased by Joost Kuizenga of Enschede, The Netherlands.

Eighteen years later, in March 1993, the pieces were sold and formed part of the Liebert collection in Krefeld, Germany. In 2001 they were "acquired by or consigned to" Axel Guttmann (1944-2001). For some unstated reason they were returned to Liebert after three months. (Guttmann died on 28 October 2001 but after the next stage in the armour's journey.)

Liebert then consigned the set to Sotheby's in New York where they appeared as a single lot ("A Greek Helmet, Cuirass, and Greave, circa late 4th Century B.C.") in a sale of antiquities on June 12, 2001, lot 68. Although they had resided in the hands of Guttmann for some three months - and there is no apparent evidence they were owned by him - the Sotheby's catalogue entry stresses the pedigree: "Axel Guttmann, Berlin". (This is also stressed in a review of the sale.)

There is no mention of Kuizenga or Liebert. But Guttmann was known as a collector of ancient armour. His name (and endorsement) was valuable.

The helmet, cuirass and greave were sold to an unnamed "private collector" for US$115,750. But he or she did not wish to keep the armour and the pieces were "repurchased not long thereafter" by Sotheby's.

So the pieces were re-auctioned as a single lot the following June (June 13, 2002, lot 67). They failed to sell.

In August 2003, Peter Aldrich purchased the armour from Sotheby's. And in December Widgie and Peter Aldrich presented the set to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Who is Peter Aldrich?

First (in no particular order), he is a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Second, he is a collector of ancient Greek pottery.

And the list goes on.

He also does not have a good track-record of buying at Sotheby's. An Athenian bell-krater purchased from the auction-house in 1995 and presented to the MFA in 1999 was among those antiquities returned to Italy in 2006.

So where does this leave the set of armour?

The MFA's present acquisition and provenance policy states:

"In recognition of the November 1970 UNESCO Convention, the Museum will not acquire any archaeological material or work of ancient art known to have been "stolen from a museum, or a religious, or secular public monument or similar institution." In addition, the Museum will not acquire an object known to have been part of an official archaeological excavation and removed in contravention of the laws of the country of origin."

The paper trail - "the due-diligence research" - suggests that the armour does not appear to have been known prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The Museum acknowledges that the armour "probably comes from the tomb of a South Italian cavalryman".

The museum must be praised for its approach to providing this information as part of its policy:

"In order to ensure transparency and aid potential claimants, all recent acquisitions will be posted with images on the Museum’s website. Inquiries regarding potential claims on objects in the collection must be immediately directed to the Deputy Director who will ensure thorough research and prompt response to each inquiry."

This leaves a few questions.

When was the tomb found?

Has the due-diligence process demonstrated that the tomb was opened prior to 1970?

What was the justification for its acquisition?

The armour

a. 2003.815.1. South Italian-Chalcidian helmet

b. 2003.815.2. South Italian cuirass, front

c. 2003.815.3. South Italian cuirass, back

d. 2003.815.4. South Italian greave

This information is based on the catalogue entries provided on the MFA website (links above).

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