Tuesday 31 July 2007

Many Getty Returns?

Midnight on 31 July is approaching - and we are waiting to see if the dispute is resolved between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Italian Government. [See report in the LA Times]

In November 2006 the Getty agreed to return 26 items. Many had been identified from Polaroids seized in the Geneva Freeport on premises associated with Giacomo Medici. The 26 items had been acquired between 1971 and 1996; they included 6 items from the Fleischman collection. Many had appeared as Masterpieces of the Getty Collection. (See my 1998 review.) There are clear links with Atlantis Antiquities (jointly owned by Robert Hecht and Jonathan Rosen), Robin Symes, and Galerie Nefer in Zurich (Frida Tchacos). The evidence is telling and a full discussion of the 26 items by Gill and Chippindale is in press.

At least nine other pieces from the former Fleischman collection appear in the Polaroids. Five had passed through the hands of Fritz Burki, 2 through Symes. Non-Fleischman material include objects acquired from Antike Kunst Palladion of Basel. There appears to be a strong case for the Getty to return these items to Italy - and for them to be added to the 26.

Then there is the acrolithic statue (whether or not it came from Morgantina). It surfaced in a Swiss collection and passed through the hands of Robin Symes. Its history looks suspicious. (And it also seems that the surfacing date of 1939 was fabricated.)

The Getty Youth or Fano Athlete is a different matter. It seems to have surfaced in the 1960s prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. That is not to say that there is moral pressure for the Getty to return the sculpture - but the issues are different and the negotiations can follow a different track.

If the bronze athlete is removed from the equation for the moment, can this dispute be resolved to the satsifaction of both sides? Failure to return antiquities which feature in the infamous Polaroids will only further tarnish the Getty's reputation. The clock is ticking.

Monday 30 July 2007

Brussels Oriental Art Fair III

The Museum Security Network has carried a news story from The Hindu about the Brussels Oriental Art Fair (BOAF) III and the problem of recently surfaced oriental antiquities.

I note from the BOAF Press Release that:
'Participants will ensure that they exhibit Oriental and Asian antiquities of a quality compatible with the requirements of a high-level fair and they bear sole responsibility for the items they exhibit. Items which are of doubtful origin and in general items which B.O.A. Organisation considers are not of the quality expected for presentation at the Fair may not under any circumstances be exhibited there'.
So how do you ensure that a piece is not of 'doubtful origin', i.e. has not been removed from an archaeological site by illicit means? The suggestion is that vendors should contact The Art Loss Register.

Imagine the answer.
'When the artefact was deposited in its archaeological context 800 years ago, the then owner did not register it with The Art Loss Register. There is no record in our database.'
So you can sell with a clear conscience ... surely?

Saturday 28 July 2007

The antiquities collection of 'the worst man in the world'

When Jonathan Pine enters Crystal, the home of Roper ('the worst man in the world'), he passes through a gallery.
Greek torsos, marble heads, hands, urns and stone panels of hieroglyphics stood or lay about in disarray. Brass-bound glass cabinets ran along the walls crammed with figurines. Hand-printed signs declared their provenance: West African, Peruvian, pre-Columbian, Cambodian, Minoan, Russian, Roman, and in one case simply "Nile".
Richard Onslow Roper, trader of arms, shipper of drugs, is based in Nassau, the Bahamas. And he collects antiquities.

Arms, drugs, antiquities come together.

But this is fiction.

Pine is the eponymous Night Manager created by John Le Carre (chapter 16).

The real world is so different ... isn't it?

Thursday 26 July 2007

Wartime 'loot'

How many archaeological objects residing in collections were uncovered during wartime activities? I recently noticed this (modest) one now in the Kestner-Museum in Hannover, Germany.

An Early Corinthian oinochoe formerly in the Putzer collection (Hannover) was found at the southern end of the Corinth canal ‘auf der athenischen Seite’ (inv. 1988, 108; pl. 14, 1): the significant date for the find is given as 1943.

What else has been removed under similar circumstances?

MLASOWSKY (A.) Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Deutschland 72: Hannover, Kestner-Museum, 2. Munich: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2000. Pp. 88, figs. 13, pll. 63. 3406468225.

The scale of the market for Egyptian antiquities

The return of antiquities to Italy and Greece has perhaps diverted our gaze from one of the other major sources of what appear to be recently surfaced antiquities. Between 1998 and 2007 Sotheby's in New York held over 20 sales over antiquities with some 1300 lots of Egyptian objects. This aspect of the sales was worth some US$41 million.

Many of the antiquities returning to Italy from North American museums have consisted of Athenian and South Italian pots. Yet these categories are a small element in value to Sotheby's in New York. Athenian figure-decorated pots have only raised some US$6.4 million, and South Italian pottery (Apulian, Lucanian, Campanian) just under US$1 million. In other words the sale of Egyptian antiquities is 6 times more valuable to Sotheby's than Athenian pottery, and 40 times more valuable than South Italian pottery. Or to put it another way, should we be more concerned about the damage to the archaeological record in Egypt than to what has been happening in Greece and Italy? (And that is not to belittle the very real destruction that has been taking place in those countries.)

But are the Egyptian antiquities at Sotheby's coming from old collections? Where the history is known (and presumably 'safe' to disclose) this is stated in the catalogue entry. (Confusingly the art world uses the term 'provenance' which usually points to the collecting history.) Nearly 70% of the Egyptian antiquities auctioned at Sotheby's New York appear to be unknown before 1973. Over 95% have no declared find-spot.

What are the material and intellectual consequences of collecting Egyptian antiquities?

Monday 23 July 2007

Counting gigantes in New York

A friend in North America asked me if we were preparing a statistical study of the newly opened classical galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I would hate to be accused of 'bean counting' by the curator of the Greek and Roman antiquities, but Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Greece, Cyprus, Etruria, Rome (2007) was sitting on my desk for use in another project.

A flick through the donors for the 476 entries presented some interesting names. Here are two that caught my eye.

Nicolas Koutoulakis gave a fragment of a glass bowl with erotic scene (no. 388; inv. 1995.86). His name appears in the infamous 'organigram' published in The Medici Conspiracy with a direct link to 'Robert Hechte' (sic). Koutoulakis' generosity goes back a long way and included an Etruscan Pontic amphora given in 1955 (no. 330; inv. 55.7).

The purchase of a Campanian (or South Italian) statuette of a bronze standing male figure was made possible through the gift of Jeanette and Jonathan Rosen (no. 66; inv. 2000.40). Is this the same Jonathan Rosen linked with Atlantis Antiquities and Robert Hecht? How did the bronze first surface?

Does this catalogue contain other equally prominent names in the world of North American collecting? Sadly the histories of the pieces have not been provided. How many objects passed through the hands of names now familiar from The Medici Conspiracy?

Friday 20 July 2007

Antiquities from Cyprus

The new agreement restricting the import of Cypriot antiquities to the US is welcome news. It is encouraging to read that it is now recognised by the US authorities that 'coins constitute an integral part of the archaeological record of the island [of Cyprus]'.

Common sense has prevailed.

But I also note that Sotheby's in New York sold at least US $219,000 worth of Cypriot antiquities (in 39 lots) between June 1998 and June 2006. And what about the other auctioneers, dealers and galleries?

Cypriot is a minor component of the sale of antiquities at Sotheby's New York - less than 1% in value for this period. But Cypriot antiquities on offer without any recorded history or find-spot are almost certainly the 'fruits' of recent looting. How will the new legislation alter the future pattern of sales?

Thursday 19 July 2007

Who are the radical archaeologists?

A new term, ‘radical archaeologists’, appears to be emerging for those opposed to the destruction of archaeological sites by looters.

It apparently originated with the journalist Steven Vincent (since killed in Iraq) in his 2002 article 'Exposing the radical archaeologists':
'In numerous interviews with radical archaeologists, I've detected a kind of aesthetic tone-deafness'.
(The piece appeared in Orientations, 'the magazine for collectors and connoisseurs of Asian art'.)

Who is using the term now? Alan Walker (a former member of the Numismatic Department of Bank Leu AG in Zurich) in his review of Roger Atwood’s ‘Stealing History’ (2004) asserts,
‘it ought to be obvious that every time one of the radical archaeologists attacks collectors and the antiquity trade in America and in Western Europe for being the primary cause of looting, he may be sincere, but he is neither unbiased nor honest.’
Wayne Sayles of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild in his ‘Ancient Coin Collecting’ blog (‘Open Letter to CNN’, December 2006) makes a series of comments: ‘Any individual who collects such objects (what else is there?), is considered anathema by the radical archaeological element that drives media coverage today.’ He suggests that there is some sort of a lobby group: ‘Sensationalized news coverage is used as a platform from which radical archaeologists lobby legislators and government agencies for restrictions and controls that would effectively make collecting of even minor objects like coins and stamps from other countries impossible.’ Yet Sayles himself supplied the term (quoting Walker’s review) in his submission to the US Committee of Ways and Means (September 2005)

But Walker and Sayles are not the only ones. In March and April 2006 Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, responded to ‘a small group of "radical" archaeologists who say museums' acquisitions of antiquities contribute to the looting of ancient sites’ (New York Sun, April 2006; but similar quote in USA Today, March 2006).

The phrase resurfaces in the published proceedings, ‘Who Owns Objects?’ (2006), based on the Oxford seminar series of 2004. Ursula Kampmann, formerly of Münzen und Medaillen AG Basel, commented, 'The case of Switzerland shows how difficult it is to find a compromise between the unrealistic demands of radical archaeologists and the requirements of competitive profit enterprises.' The editors present Sir John Boardman's position as 'the radical archaeologists have closed down museums' opportunities to collect according to their needs'.

‘Radical Archaeologists’ is a misleading phrase. It was applied to a specific group – whose members were not engaged specifically in discussing archaeological ethics - that emerged in 1996. So an alternative needs to be found. How about ‘archaeologists with integrity’?

Wednesday 18 July 2007

'Meaningless numbers'?

Shelby White, the North American collector of antiquities, recently commented in an interview for The New Yorker (April 9, 2007) that research by Chippindale and Gill is 'reducing the great collections of the world to meaningless numbers'.

We estimate that 'some 85% of the funerary record of the Early Bronze Age Cyclades may have been lost through the pursuit of [Cycladic] figures'. Our study (published in 2000) of seven private and museum collections suggested that 75% of the objects had no indication of find-spot. However there were two interesting exceptions. The exhibition of the Fleischman collection showed that 92% of the items had no indication of find-spot, and the one for the Levy-White collection came out at 93%.

Do these figures matter? Do they indicate how the objects surfaced? It is perhaps telling that among the antiquities which in late 2006 the J. Paul Getty Museum agreed to return to Italy were six items acquired from the Fleischman collection in 1996. The return is hardly surprising: Polaroids showing some of the Fleischman items were seized in Geneva.

Are our figures meaningless? Polaroids seized in the raid in Geneva also appear to show items from the Levy-White collection (and are helpfully listed in The Medici Conspiracy). 7% of the Levy-White collection provided some indication of find-spot. What about the other 93%?

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Does looting matter?

Why all the fuss? People have been looting for centuries. Look at the Middle Kingdom Egyptian mortuary statuette of User that turned up in a Late Minoan context at Knossos on Crete. It seems likely that User's tomb had been looted at some later date (Hyksos?) and the contents dispersed. Is it so different today, some would argue? A tomb is opened, the objects removed. The small items released on the open market; the larger ones turn up in the galleries and auction houses.

But it is the scale of the looting that has changed. This is now big business. Thousands of archaeological contexts are being destroyed each year to supply the market. That means loss of knowledge which can never be recovered. That is why looting matters.

Another Bubon bronze head likely to be repatriated

It appears that a bronze head acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum from Nicolas Koutoulakis has been removed from display and appears to be...