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Corrupting knowledge: inaccurate information

One issue surrounding recently-surfaced antiquities is that the objects may be supplied with misleading collecting-histories. Sellers may be keen for a potential buyer to think that a Greek pot has resided in a collection formed in the 1920s when in fact it was removed from an Etruscan grave in the 1980s. Another seller could suggest that a Roman silver cup was found in, say, Afghanistan as this would be more exotic than Turkey.

I have been considering this concept as part of the wider intellectual consequences of collecting. I explored the theme in my 2010 article for the Journal of Art Crime. I noted how two pieces that passed through Palladion Antike Kunst in Basel, Switzerland (and acquired by Boston's Museum of Fine Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum) were placed in "old collections": those of Karl Haug in Basel since 1936, and the late nineteenth century Rycroft collection. Such misleading information does not relate just to genuine objects: the Getty kouros, considered by some to be a modern forgery, was said to have formed part of the Jean Lauffenberger collection and could be traced back to a Greek dealer in 1930. The kouros was said to have been sold by Gianfranco Becchina, whose wife Rosie was the proprietor of Palladion Antike Kunst.

The Late Roman hoard known as the Sevso Treasure is linked in the broadest sense with several possible countries (including Hungary, Croatia and Lebanon). The Icklingham Bronzes were once said to have been removed from Britain in the 1940s and then formed part of a collection in Switzerland. The Morgantina Hoard was said to have passed through the hands of a Lebanese dealer and then through a Swiss collection in 1961. (The more recent removal of the hoard from its archaeological context seems to have been dated by a coin apparently dropped by one of the looters.) The marble statue of Sabina returned to Italy from Boston was reportedly from an old Bavarian aristocratic collection.

I have also noted that collecting histories can sometimes be placed back in the period before the 1970 UNESCO Convention. For example a series of Late Antique ('Byzantine') mosaics are reported (in recent years) to have passed through Lebanese dealers in Beirut in 1969. Is this a documented (and authenticated) part of the collecting histories? Or an Attic krater can be said to have resided in an undocumented (and unspecified) Swiss private collection for a number of years that would place it (conveniently) in the late 1960s. Another example could be a piece of sculpture that is said to have been in a Lebanese private collection in the 1950s when other evidence shows it was in another country decades later. Or did Apulian pots from an apparent single grave-group form part of a nineteenth-century collection in Switzerland?

Then there are cases where the collecting history supplied by a dealer can be disputed by other informed authorities thus creating two parallel histories? Was a bronze Apollo found in Greece or had it resided in an obscure East German collection?

These case studies show why museums need to be transparent over the collecting histories of objects in their care whether they are acquisitions or loans.

This issue matters. If misleading information accompanies the object, then not only has the original archaeological context been lost, but the piece may be used by modern scholars to construct a false view about the past.

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Comments

Anonymous said…
Somehow I am not surprised at your conclusions. In business, they say that a story is what sells the artefact. For example, if you want to sell a beautiful piece of jewellery you would have to explain how you were inspired when you were making it or how you found it in a second hand market. People still love a good story. Auction houses are not different

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