Monday, 16 May 2011

'Chasing Aphrodite' And Other Dirty Art World Deals

The forthcoming book "Chasing Aphrodite" is the subject of a skilful marketing campaign with a lot of pre-publication hype, deservedly so, the extracts show it to be well-written and the subject is an important one. "Chasing Aphrodite" tells a big story about 'major antiquities' and highlights a more general problem, though one which is on the way to being resolved as museums look to their acquisition policies and get ethical. No longer are sale of 'big' items with no provenance (the no-questions-asked market model) as acceptable to public institutions as they were. Now of course we have the problem of the made-up provenances [collecting histories] and the existence of a not-enough-questions-asked institutional market.

The big problem however is still at the other end of the market, the hundreds of thousands of so-called "minor artefacts" dug out of the archaeological record and "surfacing" (from 'underground'?) on the market by various illicit means and being sold to private collectors who still function in no-questions-asked mode alongside items legitimately on the market. It is this whole process, more insidious and just as damaging as the trade in 'big' Getty-worthy items, which needs closer scrutiny. It ranges from the smuggling of shabtis and scarabs, to the bulk lots of metal-detected coins and artefacts stripped from Roman sites in the Balkans to the legalised stripping of archaeological sites of metal artefacts by metal detectorists in England under a misguided policy of tolerance.

But for the moment, let us plug the big story, as setting the scene for the time when the general public can be persuaded to look more closely at what is happening day after day to the so-called 'minor artefacts' that are being gouged destructively out of the world's archaeological record for entertainment and profit. Because this can only happen as long as the public allows it to.

There is a nice pre-publication interview and article on National Public radio (NPR) called 'Chasing Aphrodite' And Other Dirty Art World Deals. The interview well worth listening to (the article is a summary, not a transcript). It talks of the "object lust' which led to the Getty Museum acquiring contextless 'art' objects from dubious sources, from back alleys to basement bank vaults. Author Frammolino says that the "overpowering effects of antiquity" lead to excesses
"People who come in contact with antiquities — the history of it, the beauty of these antiquities, the thought that maybe somebody great had once possessed this — they lose reason," he tells NPR's Renee Montagne.
The Getty Museum had one of the largest acquisition budgets in the country, and perhaps the world which was used in a very savvy way to help it:
build what today is considered one of the most important antiquities collections in the world," Felch says. But that collection would not be possible without the help of a complex web of grave robbers, patrons, wealthy collectors and the complicity of some of the world's most revered museums. "The illicit antiquities trade is kind of the dirtiest corner of the art market," Felch says. "It brought together highly educated, Ph.D. Harvard-graduate curators, and you saw them doing business in bank vaults with people who were in the criminal underground."It might seem an odd partnership, but the brightest minds in the museum world were driven to deal with criminals in the pursuit of objects of beauty. To account for their illicit dealings, Felch says, the Getty adopted a see-no-evil policy. "They danced this very tricky dance for several years, where they publicly denounced the illicit trade and they decried the looting that their acquisitions fueled," he explains.[...]
Collectors and dealers will no doubt be discomfited by the clear expression in this book of the notion that it is the market that is the motor for illicit dealings in artefacts. The book also has a message concerning the customary "good home" argument applied by public museums and private collectors:
The "high" road often taken by antiquities curators — that they are nobly saving what would be otherwise lost pieces — is the core irony at the center of Chasing Aphrodite, Felch says. "The Getty and other American museums over the last decades have justified the acquisition of these things under questionable circumstances by saying that these poor orphan objects have been separated from their archaeological context already, and that we have a duty to rescue them from the market and to preserve them and display them publicly," he says. But the truth was that by buying these objects on the black market, these museums were further fueling the looting that was going on across the Mediterranean.
It is of course worth noting that the museums claim to be rescuing iteems from 'the market' where they could end up in private collections, and private collectors claim to be rescuing objects from ending up in "museum storerooms" where they would not be cared-for or exhibited.

Certainly I think this book will have a great deal to add to the ongoing debate on artefact collecting and in particular expose the hypocrisy of US antiquity dealers' attempts to whitewash the image of the international antiquities trade and its relationship to the looting of archaeological sites.

Chasing Aphrodite
By Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino
Hardcover, 384 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $28
The cover photo shows an ancient Greek depiction of the monstrosity of artefact collecting (right) and trade (left) descending on the fragile and defenceless archaeological record, dismembering it before our very eyes as society stands by helplessly. To save the victim, we need not only to sever the heads of these monsters by legal action, but remove the ground from under their feet by removing public support for their attack on the archaeological record.

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