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The Sevso Treasure and "Unprovenanced Antiquities": A Response to John H. Merryman

Ruth Leader-Newby made a wise observation about the Sevso Treasure:
The tragedy of the Sevso Treasure is that it is futile to attempt a guess at its provenance. ... it is interesting to note that the countries which rumour has associated with the Sevso Treasure, and which tried to claim possession of the hoard in the New York court case held to establish its ownership (Hungary, Croatia and Lebanon) have no record of similar material being found in their soil previously. In fact, any one of the Roman Empire's many provinces could have been the home of the treasure.
There are clear intellectual consequences that are linked to the hoard's loss of archaeological context. Where was it displayed?

John H. Merryman has now issued a working paper on the Treasure that addresses the issue of "unprovenanced antiquities". I prefer the term "recently surfaced", though "hoard without documented history" could be used. I suspect that there is somebody who does know the find-spot of the hoard. After all, few believe it has been sitting forgotten in somebody's attic.

Merryman reviews the quantitative research undertaken by Chippindale and Gill (though he is apparently unaware of Chippindale et al. 2001; and see also figures for Egyptian sales at auction in New York) and finds:
These data confirm that a large proportion of the antiquities traded on the international market are unaccompanied by reliable information about findspot, context and subsequent history. The data also provide inferential support for the claim that many of the objects lacking documentation may have been removed from the ground and/or smuggled abroad in violation of source nation laws and international conventions.
However since our study of private classical collections (Chippindale and Gill 2000) some of the items from the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman (see Gill and Chippindale 2007a, uncited by Merryman), and the Shelby White and Leon Levy collections have been returned to Italy. Lack of documented history and find-spot had suggested that they had been removed from archaeological contexts in an illicit manner; and there must be a reason why these pieces have now gone "home". Merryman concludes:
There is little room for argument with any of this. The data appear to be unchallengeable, and the authors’ statement of material and intellectual consequences is persuasive.
He then turns to the issue of publishing recently surfaced antiquities and cites the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) "Statement of Concern". But this is a problematic statement as I have demonstrated with the example of the inscribed ivory pomegranate. Let me repeat an earlier comment:
The pomegranate is a good reminder that forgers choose something that people want to be true, and will prove both intellectually stimulating and commercially rewarding.
Indeed last year's spat over University College London (UCL) and the incantation bowls was not entirely unrelated to the BAS statement. There are good intellectual reasons for making scholars think twice - I put it no more strongly than that - before publishing works of "ancient art" that are undocumented before 1970. (See also some of the issues surrounding the publication of an archaic bronze krater in a contemporary North American private collection.)

Merryman then moves to the role of the private collector in the formation of the North American museum collection (White 2005, uncited by Merryman). But the return to Italy of objects from these recently formed private collections either suggests a naivety concerning the origin of the pieces or a willingness to ignore the concerns of the archaeological community that sites were being destroyed to supply the market. (And the Medici Conspiracy, also missing from Merryman's bibliography, demonstrates this issue all too well; see Gill and Chippindale 2007b). The Nostoi exhibition in Rome includes material from four significant North American private collections.

Merryman then turns to "source nations". There are broader issues here. Is an antiquity that has been removed illicitly from its archaeological context somehow less "unprovenanced" because it forms part of a private collection in, say, Athens rather than Manhattan? He has strayed from the issue that is central to archaeologists, the destruction / protection of archaeological contexts, to the one beloved by collectors and museum curators, ownership.

But I find a mismatch in Merryman's approach. If he argues for our shared ("cosmopolitan"; see Appiah 2006 [also surprisingly missing from his bibliography]) culture, does it matter if North American institutions (such as the AIA) and legal courts are in the forefront of protecting world ("cosmopolitan") heritage? Can North American import restrictions help to reduce the destruction of archaeological sites on, say, Cyprus?

He poses the more difficult question about what should be done with the Sevso Treasure. The archaeological context for this find has, as far as we know, been lost for ever. Is the Treasure best displayed in some public collection? Where should that be? Should anyone benefit from the transaction? Should any profit be handed over to a cultural body for the benefit of world heritage? Is there a legal solution?

Merryman concludes with a reflection on the conflict between the two "sides" and a plea to find common ground. Yet there is an unresolved tension: museums and collectors want to acquire, and archaeologists wish to preserve and protect archaeological contexts as a finite resource.

So how do we move forwards?
  • We need to explore the possibilities for short- and long-term loans of archaeological material from source countries to museums and institutions.
  • We need to have more transparency over the acquisition of newly surfaced antiquities.
  • We need to accept that looting has intellectual as well as material consequences.
  • We need to acknowledge the ethical as well as the legal issues surrounding collecting.
  • We need to find a workable solution for "unprovenanced antiquities" like the Sevso Treasure.
  • We need to listen to both sides.
Appiah, K. A. 2006. Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers. London: Allen Lane. [Worldcat]
Chippindale, C., and D. W. J. Gill. 2000. "Material consequences of contemporary classical collecting." American Journal of Archaeology 104: 463-511. [JSTOR]
Chippindale, C., D. W. J. Gill, E. Salter, and C. Hamilton. 2001. "Collecting the classical world: first steps in a quantitative history." International Journal of Cultural Property 10: 1-31. [IJCP]
Gill, D. W. J., and C. Chippindale. 2006. "From Boston to Rome: reflections on returning antiquities." International Journal of Cultural Property 13: 311-31. [IJCP]
Gill, D. W. J., and C. Chippindale. 2007a. "From Malibu to Rome: further developments on the return of antiquities." International Journal of Cultural Property 14: 205-40. [IJCP]
Gill, D. W. J., and C. Chippindale. 2007b. "The illicit antiquities scandal: what it has done to classical archaeology collections." American Journal of Archaeology 111: 571-74. [AJA]
Leader-Newby, Ruth E. 2004. Silver and society in late antiquity: functions and meanings of silver plate in the fourth to seventh centuries. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Merryman, John Henry, "Thinking about the Sevso Treasure" (March 12, 2008). Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 1105584 Available at SSRN:
Watson, P., and C. Todeschini. 2006. The Medici conspiracy: the illicit journey of looted antiquities from Italy's tomb raiders to the world's great museums. New York: Public Affairs.
White, S. 2005. "Building American museums: the role of the private collector." In Who owns the past? Cultural policy, cultural property, and the law, edited by K. Fitz Gibbon, pp. 165-77. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press / American Council for Cultural Policy.


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