Skip to main content

Financial Innovations and the Sponsorship of Archaeological Excavations

This post will address the second of the Milken Institute's proposals to fund archaeology (see my earlier comments on leasing). The second solution is to "Develop museum/collector partnerships to sponsor archaeological digs".

This solution advocates the role of the private collector.
Because museum lease models include only a few of the players within the value chain, another option would include a limited participation level for individual collectors who have spending power to generate substantial revenues. Countries of origin have been historically reluctant to lease items to personal collections. However, the bias against collectors ignores the demand that drives the trade, creating a vacuum in which billions of dollars cross through the black market.
In one sense this is an old model. Private individuals (and museums) supported bodies such as the Egypt Exploration Fund (see the example of Sir Henry Wellcome) and then received a share of the finds (so-called partage which I have discussed before). Thus the Middle Kingdom blue faience hippopotamus found at Abydos in the EEF's excavations passed into the collection of the Revd William MacGregor (and from there eventually into the George Ortiz collection).

The Milken Institute report suggests that a collector sponsors an archaeological museum whose staff will then conduct excavations.
A portion of the yield would be distributed among all funders through either a loan or, potentially, a purchase, with the most prized and unique pieces staying in the home country. Should the dig produce nothing of salable value, the local museum would use as collateral either excess inventory from previous excavations or the loan of a currently exhibited piece.
This immediately raises questions. While archaeological museums are repositories for archaeological material, are they also initiating archaeological work? And should excavations be conducted merely to generate finds that can be passed to the market? And would such excavations favour the type of sites that would produce "museum quality" items? But what about non-elite sites? There is nothing here about a research-driven archaeological strategy. After all, we are dealing with a finite resource.

And who would make the selection of finds? What would be the criteria? Would distribution take place after full study, conservation and publication?

I wonder what the J. Paul Getty Museum feels about the way it is presented in the report.
The Getty Museum, for example, might partner with two private collectors to fund a dig in Italy.
Would "source" countries prefer to see an archaeological project sponsored by an institution rather than by private collectors?

There is another issue. Would collectors sponsoring excavations sign up to an ethical code? Would they stop acquiring antiquities that surface on the market without histories (prior to 1970)? Would they apologise if they have acquired such antiquities in the past?

Comments

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.