Monday, 27 July 2020

Knowledge destruction, confusion and collecting

Suzie Thomas and Bonnie L. Pitblado have written a 'Debate Article' for Antiquity: 'The dangers of conflating responsible and responsive artefact stewardship will illicit and illegal collecting'. They create a 'straw-man' suggesting that some archaeologists assert 'all private owners of cultural material ... have ill-intent or engage in illegal behaviour'. Take, for example, the pharmaceutical millionaire Sir Henry Wellcome whose collection of Egyptian antiquities form the core of the Egypt Centre at Swansea University. The collection is drawn, in part, from his share of finds from the archaeological excavations that he sponsored, as well as from purchases on the market, often from old (and named) collections. Thomas and Pitblado do not provide any evidence to support their (flawed) assertion (made in the abstract for their article). Which archaeologists have made this universal claim?

Their opening paragraph suggests that 'early archaeological expeditions purchased artefacts for museum collection to complement material from their excavations'. Their citation points to excavations in Egypt but does not specify a time period. If we look to Greece, the early excavations of the British School at Athens (from its opening in 1886) would not support this claim. There is somehow a lack of clarity in what Thomas and Pitblado are trying to assert.

The focus of the paper is about the relationship between 'private artefact' collectors and archaeologists, and specifically 'to counteract the damage done by stereotyping all members of the collecting public and the archaeologists who work with them'.

Let us imagine a largely unexcavated archaeological site with a Roman component in a rural part of England, say East Anglia. For the sake of argument let us say that the site was 'investigated' by metal-detectorists. Did they have permission from the local landowner? Was any damage sustained to the archaeological record? Was any contextual information lost?

But let us take this a step further, imagine that a set of impressive Roman bronzes was found and then removed from the UK. These bronzes were then sold by, say, a Manhattan gallery to a private artefact collector who keeps the figures in their apartment and occasionally loans the objects for an exhibition in, say, a university museum. Would Thomas and Pitblado commend the private collector for 'saving' and 'sharing' the bronzes? What if the collector claimed to have purchased the bronzes 'in good faith' through the 'licit market'? Would Thomas and Pitblado find such an explanation acceptable? Would they feel able to include the bronzes in an account of Roman East Anglia? How would such a scenario relate to their claim, 'we do not condone either the illicit trade in antiquities or the collection of artefacts in violation of any law'?

Would Thomas and Pitblado suggest that this rifling of this (imaginary) Roman site was acceptable because those conducting the search were taking exercise 'outdoors', 'socialising', and taking an interest in the latest technology? (These specific examples are taken from the section, 're-nuancing motivations'.)

Who, in this fictional example drawn from eastern England, are the individuals 'contributing to archaeological knowledge'?

Thomas and Pitblado go on to cite the SAA statement encouraging the recognition of 'the importance of privately held collections as potential sources of information about sites, and the irreplaceable loss of this information when responsible and responsive stewards are ignored or treated disrespectfully'. As it so happens I am writing about a high profile private collection that contains material that I suspect comes from a specific site: but the information either has been lost or has not been disclosed. The result is that the objects are not a potential source of information about a specific site. Indeed the conclusion is that there has been an 'irreplaceable loss of ... information'. This aspect of knowledge destruction is left unaddressed by Thomas and Pitblado.

Thomas and Pitblado conclude: 'When we work with and listen to others, it is better for everyone—and it is better for archaeology'. Are they listening to those, such as Sam Hardy, who are raising genuine concerns about the destruction of the archaeological record?

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Saturday, 4 July 2020

Septimius Severus from Santa Maria Capua Vetere

It has been reported (by ARCA) that a portrait of the emperor Septimius Severus that had been stolen from the Antiquarium of Santa Maria Capua Vetere in November 1985 has been seized at Christie's New York (June 2020) after being offered at auction by them on 28 October 2019, Faces of the Past: Ancient Sculpture from the Collection of Dr. Anton Pestalozzi.

According to the stated history, the head first passed to Jean-Luc Chalmin, London. Chalmin also supplied antiquities to the Stanford Place collection and to the Fleischman collection (apparently the fourth most important supplier). The Severus then passed to Galerie Arete in Zurich in 1993. (The same gallery appears to have handled ex-Becchina material.) It was then sold to Dr Pestalozzi.

How did the portrait appear at auction when it had been reported as stolen? Was the history of the piece checked? What was the due diligence process?

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Thursday, 25 June 2020

Selinous at the Getty

Lex Sacra from Selinous
My next column for 'Context Matters' has appeared in the Journal of Art Crime vol. 23 (Spring 2020). It reviews the range of material from Selinous on Sicily that was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum. One text, acquired from Dr Max Gerchik, has been returned to Italy. Previous publications accepted that some of the objects were derived from "clandestine operations most probably at Selinous".

Other pieces include stelai, architectural elements, as well as other hexametric texts.

Gerchik's other donations to the Getty are considered including material from Italy that appears to have passed through Switzerland.

At least one of the Selinous pieces, a lionhead spout, passed through the Summa Galleries.

For some of the texts:
Faraone, C. A., and D. Obbink. Editors. 2013. The Getty hexameters: poetry, magic, and mystery in ancient Selinous. (Oxford).

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Monday, 15 June 2020

Christie's withdraws four lots

Pelike attributed to the Washing painter
Image from the Becchina archive
Courtesy of Christos Tsirogannis
Christie's has withdrawn for lots from its June 2020 auction after the objects had been identified by Professor Christos Tsirogiannis (Dalya Alberge, "Christie's withdraws 'looted' Greek and Roman treasures", The Guardian 14 June 2020). The four pieces are as follows:

  • lot 25 a bronze Roman eagle identified from the Becchina archive
  • lot 49 a Roman marble hare identified from the Becchina archive; acquired from "Tullio" in 1987.
  • lot 113 an Attic black-figured Band cup identified from the Becchina archive. Reported to be in a private collection, Basel, and consigned to Galerie Günter Puhze, Freiburg; J.L. Theodor collection, Brussels; Sotheby's (New York) 17 December 1998, lot 77.
  • lot 121 an Attic red-figured pelike attributed to the Washing painter identified from the Becchina archive. Surfaced: Sotheby's (London) 14–15 December 1981, lot 236. Then Dechter collection of Greek vases.
It would suggest that Christie's needs to tighten its due diligence process. Did the auction-house authenticate the histories of the lots before they were placed in the auction? Did it check with the Italian and Greek authorities before the sale?

I am grateful to Professor Tsiorgiannis for sharing this information with me.

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Friday, 12 June 2020

Geometric horse due to return to Greece

From the Schinousa archive
courtesy of Christos Tsiorgiannis
A Geometric horse, identified by Associate Professor Christos Tsirogiannis in May 2018, is due to be returned to Greece ("Greece to reclaim ancient horse from US after court ruling", 11 June 2020). The date that the horse left Greece does not appear to have been made public. Were the present owners unable to provide the authenticated documentation?

One of the major concerns for auction houses, galleries, museums and collectors is that the horse is known to have passed through the Basel market in 1967, well before the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Does this mean that countries such as Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey will step up their claims?

A spokesperson for Sotheby's responded:
While we are disappointed with yesterday's decision, it does not impact what is at the heart of this matter – there is, and remains, no evidence to support Greece's claim to ownership of the bronze sculpture.
Sotheby's can be expected to demonstrate conclusively that either the horse was found outside the present state of Greece, or the horse was exported from Greece with the relevant paperwork.

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Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Coins in context

One of the conservators at the British Museum speaks about why it is important to treat coin hoards as part of an archaeological context.

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Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Context Matters: Collating the Past

Context Matters is based on the twenty essays contributed to the Journal of Art Crime over its first ten years. They are supplemented by articles and review articles that were published alongside them. The chapters were written as museums in Europe and North America were facing a series of claims on recently acquired objects in their collections in the light of the photographic dossiers that had been seized from dealers in Switzerland and Greece. They engage with some of the recent debates over cultural property that include the Ka Ka Nefer mummy mask currently in the St Louis Art Museum, and the Leutwitz Apollo acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Two of the essays reflect on the recent and controversial metal-detecting finds in England, the so-called Crosby Garrett helmet and the Lenborough Hoard. The volume contributes to the wider discussion about the appropriate due diligence process that should be conducted prior to the acquisition of archaeological material. 

Gill, D. W. J. 2020. Context matters: collating the past. ARCA. ISBN-13: 978-1734302615.

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Knowledge destruction, confusion and collecting

Suzie Thomas and Bonnie L. Pitblado have written a 'Debate Article' for Antiquity: ' The dangers of conflating responsible and...