Skip to main content

Archaeological remains "ripped from their context"

David Welsh, "a tireless defender of ancient coin collecting", has recently commented on looted antiquities (BritArch, August 18, 2008; see also Paul Barford's "Ethical Dealing" [August 24 2008]).
Artifacts that have been "ripped from their context" are of no further use to archaeology, according to what I have seen on this list. They might as well be in the hands of collectors who will study them as artifacts, as any other place.
I was interested in the phrase "ripped from their context" and find it comes in The Medici Conspiracy (2006) in a discussion of looted Roman frescoes.
The frescoes ... had been rudely and crudely ripped from their context and sold off to people ("collectors") who might profess to care about archaeological objects but obviously had no interest in the original and proper context.
(Three chunks of the wall-painting indeed passed into separate North American private collections; two have now been returned to Italy.)

The phrase also appears in the "Statement of Concern" for the Biblical Archaeological Society.
We also recognize that artifacts ripped from their context by looters often lose much of their meaning.
Welsh has perhaps unwittingly acknowledged that there are indeed intellectual consequences of looting. Looting removes the archaeological context.

Welsh effectively asks, should private collectors retain objects derived from looting?

But the issue, demonstrated by the Italian government and the returned pieces in the Nostoi exhibition in Rome, is this: do returning antiquities provide a disincentive for collectors of recently surfaced antiquities?


Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

Sardinian warrior from "old Swiss collection"

One of the Sardinian bronzes of a warrior was seized from an as yet unnamed Manahattan gallery. It appears to be the one that passed through the Royal-Athena Gallery: Art of the Ancient World 23 (2012) no. 71. The collecting history for that warrior suggests that it was acquired in 1990 from a private collection in Geneva.

Other clues suggested that the warrior has resided in a New York private collection.

The identity of the private collection in Geneva will no doubt be telling.

The warrior also features in this news story: Jennifer Peltz, "Looted statues, pottery returned to Italy after probe in NYC", ABC News May 25 2017.

Attic amphora handed back to Italians

The research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has led to the return of an Attic red-figured amphora, attributed to the Harrow painter, to Italy (Tom Mashberg, "Stolen Etruscan Vessel to Be Returned to Italy", New York Times March 16, 2017).

The amphora is known to have passed through the hands of Swiss-based dealer Gianfranco Becchina in 1993, and then through a New York gallery around 2000 (although its movements between those dates are as yet undisclosed).

During the ceremony, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., the District Attorney stated:
“When looters overrun historic sites, mine sacred spaces for prized relics, and peddle stolen property for top dollar, they do so with the implicit endorsement of all those who knowingly trade in stolen antiquities” More research clearly needs to be conducted on how material handled by Becchina passed into the North American market and into the hands of private and public collectors.