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'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%?

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