Friday, 17 August 2007

"Private collectors are a potential threat to our cultural heritage"

There has been a suggestion in Current Archaeology that "there are many benefits to having a thriving background of private collectors" within the context of the British Archaeology.

I disagree.

Current Archaeology (Number 211, Sept/Oct 2007, p. 49) has published my response in which I use the illustration of the "Icklingham Bronzes" looted from Suffolk (UK). The North American private collectors were Shelby White and Leon Levy who acquired them through the Ariadne Galleries in New York. (See memorandum from Neil Brodie presented to the UK Department of Culture Media and Sport.)

The bronze "Portrait Head of a Youth" which I cite was displayed in the Harvard University Art Museums exhibition, The Fire of Hephaistos (1996) no. 31. The "provenance" (i.e. find-spot) is given there as "Found in Suffolk, in southeastern England; purchased in 1988".

The catalogue entry laments, "Unfortunately, we have no way of discovering more about this youth with tousled hair, what his body looked like, what his pose was, nor even the material of the body to which this bronze head was originally attached".

Too right: the looters got there before the archaeologists. The archaeological context has been lost for good. It cannot be retrieved.

David M. Wilson, the then director of the British Museum, noted the fiction that the "Icklingham Bronzes" "had been brought out of England in the 1940s and had then been in a Swiss private collection" before surfacing in the New York gallery in 1988 (The British Museum: Purpose and Politics (1989), p. 34).

Perhaps Shelby White can understand why archaeologists consider private collectors are a potential threat to our cultural heritage.

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