Archive for May, 2009

Yes, it’s me, procrastinating again. I just wanted to post something I was watching on YouTube (hey, I need a break- I’ve been reading about suicide all morning!)- it’s an Irish comedian named Dara O’Briain talking about a particularly egregious misnomer: a lapdancing club called ‘Medusa’. Watch it here, from about 3 minutes in or so. A quick warning- there is some strong language and (of course) adult themes.

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My final exams begin two weeks from today. Yes. I’m terrified.

While revising for my course on “Collecting (in) Ancient Greece and Rome”, I thought I’d peruse one of the biggest and most controversial sales of very recent times, the Yves Saint Laurent collection, which was done by Christies auction house in late February this year. The information on the Christies website is very comprehensive, including a Flickr slideshow of the auction, which took place over several days.  You may have heard of it because the Chinese government was calling for the return of several bronzes which were taken as plunder in the Opium Wars with the British in the 1860.

This is what concerns me: I was examining many of the incredibly beautiful ancient pieces which were sold (all for much more than their estimation value) when I decided that this procrastination might be put to good use if I examined the records of the provenance of each antiquity. For those who aren’t so immersed in the art world, provenance is all to do with where the item came from and who has owned it over the years. It’s like the chain of custody in police practice, and it helps to ensure that the piece isn’t a forgery. There’s lots of literature about this on the Internet if you’re interested in finding out more.
Anyway, as I was looking through all of this, I began to notice a pattern. The vast majority of the antiquities on the auctioneer’s list lack any provenance before 1980, when they popped up in some gallery.  If an artifact lacks provenance like this, it’s usually a great big problem- it can mean that the artifact was removed illegally from its findspot.

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of the “Culture Without Context” dogma of institutions like the MacDonald Institute, but the simple fact of the matter is that such removal is illegal, and galleries and museums who knowingly allow and support such activities are at fault. Nevertheless, the people who find these items, either through intentional looting or through an accidental find, often have little to no incentive to hand them over to the governments which claim automatic possession of them. Unlike England, Italy and Greece have no Treasure Trove laws to reward those who discover antiquities on their land, so the market offers a tempting alternative. Without some kind of pecuniary incentive, the result of handing a beautiful artifact over to the government or smashing it to pieces with a shovel is the same.

What is to be done, then? From a purely scholastic viewpoint, artifacts can often tell us very little if the situation of their findspot (its original location, what was found nearby etc.) is unknown. From a purely aesthetic standpoint however, these objects are often of great beauty (like this head of Dionysos from the YSL collection that I am now in love with) and worth saving for that reason alone. So, should auction houses, musuems and galleries refuse to buy or sell items which have no provenance, or should they buy them to preserve them from destruction, even if to do so involves breaking the law and furthering a business which deprives scholars of information? I should add that information about a find can bestow much more value on a piece.  Which do you think would be valued more highly: a random, if beautiful, sculpted torso, or the same sculpted torso discovered in the Golden House of Nero?

Tricky stuff.

Edit: If you’d like to find out more about issues with antiquities, this blog is particularly good.

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