Monday, May 24, 2010

Toxic Antiquities and the Medici Dossier

Followers of Looting Matters will know that the images from the Medici Dossier have helped to secure the return of objects from several public and private collections, as well as from at least two dealers. The Polaroids have also caused the withdrawal of several lots from one London auction-house on at least two separate occasions in 2008 and 2010.

The "toxicity" of these desirable antiquities does not come from questions about their authenticity but rather from the route by which they were removed from their archaeological contexts, passed through the market, and into their present collections. Doubters need to read Peter Watson's Sotheby's Inside Story (1997) or (with Cecilia Todeschini) The Medici Conspiracy (2006). Christopher Chippindale and I wrote a review article on the second of the two works for the American Journal of Archaeology (2007) [pdf].

As long as these lovely objects are valued, there rightly will be a market for them. Working in that market will be some crooks and shady characters, just as there have always been and always will be crooked greengrocers who deal in rotten apples. True. But it does not follow that honest and good citizens have to join the wickedness; they can distance themselves and buy good apples elsewhere. What Watson and Todeschini have proved now to exist is not a barrel with a few rotten apples mixed up with good fruit but a criminal business that is corrupt through and through. And the great U.S. museums that have allowed themselves to be sucked into this world are not—let us remember—the private ventures of spivs and con men but public institutions founded to fulfill ethical ideals and given special and generous financial privileges by our society in recognition of their cultural and public merit.
Do people learn from history? Some museums and collectors who have purchased ex-Medici material (sometimes "in good faith") have parted with their acquisitions. Some auction-houses that have been willing to handle ex-Medici material have gained bad publicity. 

Douglas L. Yearwood in his Journal of Art Crime review of Vernon Silver's The Lost Chalice (2009) reflected on the impact of the Medici Dossier. He commented on some of the recently surfaced material:
questionable provenance or the lack of legitimacy for one small Greek wine cup produced one of the landmark cases in the history of art crime and put the world on notice that the theft and smuggling of arts would no longer be tolerated by law enforcement and would not be condoned either directly or even subtly by the major galleries, museums and auction houses.
Will dealers act honourably if they realise they are handling ex-Medici material? Will those in the market distance themselves from any such objects?

Polaroid of a torso of youth holding a cockerel from the Medici Dossier.

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