Skip to main content

Is UK cultural property for sale to the highest bidder?

The UK government has recently placed temporary export bans on two archaeological finds.

The first is a bronze mirror, dating to 75 BCE, that was found by a metal-detectorist in a shallow grave at Chilham Castle in Kent. (Part of the grave group now resides in the Canterbury Museum.)

The second is a bronze horse and rider found just outside Cambridge in eastern England.

Bronzes do not count specifically (in England and Wales) as “Treasure” under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act as they do not have “metallic content of which at least 10 per cent by weight is precious metal”. The Act does allow for such finds to be included if “The Secretary of State may by order … designate any class of object which he considers to be of outstanding historical, archaeological or cultural importance.”

Both pieces are clearly important in cultural terms. The mirror is described as follows:
As the only Iron Age mirror to have been discovered in Kent, it is important for the study of this type of object. Only 17 complete decorated mirrors dating from the Iron Age have been found in Britain. This is one of the earliest, and is especially significant because it comes from a known context which was subsequently investigated by archaeologists using modern excavation techniques.
The justification for stopping the export of the bronze rider is stated:
the statuette is of outstanding aesthetic importance, and of outstanding significance for the study of art, religion and society in Roman Britain.

The two pieces will leave the country unless the money is found: £35,000 for the mirror £22,066.81 for the rider.

Such prices only encourage some to conduct deliberate searches for archaeological material. Damage to archaeological sites remains a problem in England and Wales in spite of the much publicised Portable Antiquities Scheme. Only this month it was noted that North American coin dealers can claim to offer coins "straight from the ground" of Suffolk (see report). In the wake of the 2009 publication of the “Nighthawking Survey” Keith Miller, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for English Heritage, is reported to have said, "To say the problem has gone is absolutely untrue".

Icklingham in Suffolk yielded Roman bronze figures that were acquired by North American collectors. And the site continues to attract regular searches in spite of the opposition of the landowner.

Yet it now seems that archaeological finds that are deemed to be “especially significant” or “outstanding” for English national culture are being offered to market forces.

And worse than that. In the case of the horse and rider from Cambridgeshire, the “ransom” price seems to be more than twice the figure that the market could achieve.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

Sardinian warrior from "old Swiss collection"

One of the Sardinian bronzes of a warrior was seized from an as yet unnamed Manahattan gallery. It appears to be the one that passed through the Royal-Athena Gallery: Art of the Ancient World 23 (2012) no. 71. The collecting history for that warrior suggests that it was acquired in 1990 from a private collection in Geneva.

Other clues suggested that the warrior has resided in a New York private collection.

The identity of the private collection in Geneva will no doubt be telling.

The warrior also features in this news story: Jennifer Peltz, "Looted statues, pottery returned to Italy after probe in NYC", ABC News May 25 2017.

Attic amphora handed back to Italians

The research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has led to the return of an Attic red-figured amphora, attributed to the Harrow painter, to Italy (Tom Mashberg, "Stolen Etruscan Vessel to Be Returned to Italy", New York Times March 16, 2017).

The amphora is known to have passed through the hands of Swiss-based dealer Gianfranco Becchina in 1993, and then through a New York gallery around 2000 (although its movements between those dates are as yet undisclosed).

During the ceremony, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., the District Attorney stated:
“When looters overrun historic sites, mine sacred spaces for prized relics, and peddle stolen property for top dollar, they do so with the implicit endorsement of all those who knowingly trade in stolen antiquities” More research clearly needs to be conducted on how material handled by Becchina passed into the North American market and into the hands of private and public collectors.