Thursday, January 24, 2008

Artemis in New York

In June 2007 Sotheby's in New York auctioned a bronze statue of Artemis and a Stag (June 7, 2007, lot 41). The statue had been the property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY (inv. 53:1), and featured in the 1996 Harvard University Art Museums exhibition, Fire of Hephaistos exhibition (cat. no. 35).

Where was it from? The Sotheby's catalogue reported:
According to Ugo Jandolo, the first known owner of the statue and an important figure in the antiquities market of the first half of the 20th century in Rome, the figure of Artemis and the stag came to light fortuitously before the early 1930s during the rebuilding of houses near Saint John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome. In this same area Vatican-led excavations have since exposed the foundations and parts of the walls of private houses or villas dated to the 2nd Century A.D., some of them decorated with wall paintings ... Recent excavations in the neighboring Via dell’ Amba Aradam have revealed an earlier building thought to be the house of the Pisoni and Laterani expropriated by Nero in the mid 1st Century A.D. The statue of Artemis is more likely to have graced the halls or gardens of such grand private residences rather than a public space or building.
The statue was purchased from Piero Tozzo of New York in 1953 and Artemis featured in a number of news stories. There does not appear to be a documented history (i.e. publication) prior to its purchase.

Artemis and a Stag was acquired long before the UNESCO 1970 Convention and the circumstances surrounding its surfacing are not an issue here.

So why comment now? The statue sold for a colossal US$28.6 million.

To put this into perspective, Sotheby's New York auctioned just over US$42 million worth of Greek and Roman bronzes between 1998 and 2007. The total value of sales of antiquities for the same period was over US$216 million (though US$57 million was for the "Guennol Lioness"): over US$112 million of that was in 2007. So Artemis has been a major contributor to the overall performance of the Sotheby's antiquities department.

Lee Rosenbaum has made three postings about the Artemis. First to comment quite rightly on the deaccessioning of the piece:
The thing that distresses me most about the mega-millions raked in by Buffalo's Albright-Knox Gallery in its series of art disposals at Sotheby's (including the $25.5 million hammer price, against a $5-7 million presale estimate, for "Artemis and the Stag," above, at Thursday's antiquities sale) is the museum's ability to get away with this massive masterpiece liquidation without a scintilla of censure from its peers or legal authorities.

Where is the Association of Art Museum Directors, which should be more vigorously enforcing its own criteria for deaccessioning? Where is the office of the NY State Attorney General, which ought to be protecting the public's interest in the public patrimony?
But the statue has not been lost to the viewing public (at least for the moment). As Rosenbaum made clear in the second posting, Artemis had gone on display (as a loan) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

And now there is another issue. Rosenbaum draws attention to claims that the Artemis is of modern creation (Matthias Schulz, "'Ancient' Forgeries Fool Art Markets", Spiegel Online, January 23, 2008):
Stefan Lehmann, an archeologist from the eastern German city of Halle, raises doubts about the piece. He is troubled by the "unexpressive face and seemingly perfect condition" of the sculpture. At first glance, writes Lehmann, the sculpture reminds him of a "classical work from the period around 1800."

Josef Floren, the German author of a handbook titled "The Greek Sculpture," is also skeptical. The "box-shaped base" on which the goddess is standing seems "modern." Floren is also perplexed by the clothing the young woman is wearing. "Something resembling a shawl or a veil is draped across her shoulders. No one in Rome walked around like that."
I doubt that the Met would accept such a high profile loan without believing that it was a genuine piece.

But for all its documented collecting history - some would call it "provenance" - since 1953, Artemis does not have a known archaeological findspot (rather like the Guennol lioness). It is an impressive work, but if it had come from an excavation we would known so much more about its display and appreciation in antiquity. Context matters.

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