Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Orphans" and Recently-Surfaced Antiquities

As far as I recall, the use of the term "orphans" for antiquities without recorded histories or find-spots was first used for Cycladic figures (Pat Getz-Preziosi, "Prehistoric Stone Images of the Greater Mediterranean Area", in Ariadne Galleries, Inc., New York, Idols: The Beginning of Abstract Form, 30 November 1989-31 January 1990; and cited in Gill and Chippindale 1993: 657):
With orphaned Cycladic images, as with orphaned images from other regions, one can never be certain in what context they were used, although the chances are good that it was a sepulchral one.
Getz-Preziosi (Getz-Gentle) expanded on her view of "orphaned" Cycladic figures in a letter to us (quoted in Gill and Chippindale 1993: 612).

In the Cycladic context, we suggested that the Museum of Cycladic Art ("the Goulandris Museum") in Athens collected "orphaned" Early Cycladic marble figures (Gill and Chippindale 1993: 606). This idea of "orphans" was developed to include objects where the context has been "lost" (Chippindale and Gill 2000: 500). Among the examples cited were bronzes from Northern Syria and a leaded bronze figure from a Chinese Han tomb.

P. Watson and C. Todeschini dedicated a chapter of The Medici Conspiracy to "The Puzzle of the 'Orphans'" (chapter 15). Maurizio Pellegrini talked about "the sale of the orphans" in connection with the sale of fragments from once complete pots. Indeed it is possible to see this phenomenon among the items returned from the J. Paul Getty Museum to Italy. In one case, the Douris phiale (formerely Malibu 81.AE.213), the first fragment (or should that be "orphan"?) was given to the Getty by Werner Nussberger in 1981; and Galerie Nefer (owned by Frida Tchachos, wife of Werner Nussberger) then continued to sell parts of the remaining pot over several years (1985 and 1988). (Further fragments were loaned anonymously to the museum in 1992; see Gill and Chippindale 2007.) Watson and Todeschini conclude their chapter with this:
the full picture regarding the sale of orphans remains murky.
Philippe de Montebello in his speech to the National Press Club in Washington DC (April 17, 2006) followed Chippindale and Gill to apply the term "orphan" to objects without find spot.
As archeologists have said, these unprovenanced objects are orphans, as their parentage through the absence of a known find spot is lost. But would these same archeologists abandon an orphaned child on a cold rainy day in the street or would they look for an orphanage? We museums are the orphanage of these objects. Nor can I stress enough that museums do not hoard. They bring the works they acquire into the public domain. We display them. We publish them electronically as well as on paper.

So to those who say do not buy an unprovenaced object, no matter how unique, brilliantly conceived and masterfully crafted it is, I would again ask, and what do you propose should be done with that object? Of course, it is to be deplored that works of ancient art are removed clandestinely from their site. Much knowledge is lost as a result, but we should not compound that loss by helping the work of art to disappear. That would be a violation of our raison d'être.
Clearly de Montebello applies the phrase to all antiquities that have no recorded find-spot or history ("unprovenanced"). And some of the "orphans" once in his care have now been returned to their cultural home.

Michael Brand follows de Montebello, and uses the phrase "orphan" in this wider sense in his interview with Lee Rosenbaum.

Bibliography
Chippindale, C., and D. W. J. Gill. 2000. "Material consequences of contemporary classical collecting." American Journal of Archaeology 104: 463-511. [JSTOR]
Gill, D. W. J., and C. Chippindale. 1993. "Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures." American Journal of Archaeology 97: 601-59. [JSTOR]
-. 2007. "From Malibu to Rome: further developments on the return of antiquities." International Journal of Cultural Property 14: 205-40. [Abstract and on-line]

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