Friday, 9 September 2011

My Sir Mortimer Artefact

After my mentioning my fascination with Sir Mortimer Wheeler and pointing out there's a cunie on sale at Bonhams that used to be owned by him and his first wife, Kyri incites me:
take the plunge paul, buy your first piece. After all it has great provenance. you will see how rewarding collecting antiquities [ethically of course] can be.
yes, provenance (collecting history) is a good one, pre-1970, though no information on how Sir M. got it. Certainly I would have no problems with somebody (else) buying it, it even has a decent low estimate (I really cannot follow the logic of the estimates in that catalogue, some are remarkably low). OK, but how "rewarding" actually would be having it in my home? I cannot read the thing, I could fondle it, perhaps sit in a darkened corner with it grasped tightly in my hands and with my eyes shut try to imagine myself back in ancient Mesopotamia or something. But once you've fondled it and done the "imagine who touched this all those years ago" bit and looked at it admiringly from all sides, and showed the neighbours who feign interest, what else is there to do with such a thing? That's what I do not really understand. It's not even pretty.

OK, here's my Sir Mortimer "relic". A long while ago I set out to buy a copy of every book he'd published, I almost managed to do it too, tracking down some rare "Early India" volumes and some of the difficult early Welsh items for example. Most of them are in storage in the cellar, but one came up to the house with me. It was published in 1966 and is not one of Wheeler's best known works.

I found it in a bargain bin in a second hand bookshop by Bristol University. It's still got the price pencilled in: "Ł1.50 scored". I'd read this book earlier (thought it was boring at the time) but did not have a copy. So when I saw this one, I picked it out of the bin, opened it in the middle but found some jerk had been scribbling over it in biro. At first I thought it was a printer's copy, in some places the marks were proof-reading marks showing errors in the typesetting, but then as I studied it, I found that some of it was a discussion with the author, some of it downright rude. The writing was barely legible. Anyway, the book was ruined.

Then as I rejected the idea of buying it in disgust, automatically I opened the front cover to see if the scribbling vandal owner's name was on the flyleaf. It was not, but instead was an inscription which gave me a start. I recognised the handwriting immediately, having spent a while a few years earlier researching the 1930s Verulamium archive for a project I was once doing.

A little nonsense book for Max and Agatha with love Rik

Now obviously the person who'd put that copy in the bargain bin had no idea who this "Rik" was (Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler) nor who the Max was who'd scribbled in a way which suggests the "love" was not particularly reciprocated, still less Mallowan's wife Agatha (Christie of course), with whom Jacquetta Hawkes' biography suggests "Rik" may have had some kind of a romantic attachment at one stage... I suspect if the shop assistant had known, it would have been on another shelf at the back of the shop. The one with the glass doors.

It was a long walk to the cash till as I recall, an irrational fear overtook me that perhaps somebody had seen the expression on my face as 'd opened it and before I got to the till and got my money out, they would snatch it from me and say, "sorry sir, there has been a mistake, this is not for sale". Should I be honest and tell the shop assistant that the book was probably worth a good deal more than one pound fifty? (I think I would have paid any price for it). Much to my discredit, I did not. It now sits on my shelf among a lot of other older books for which I paid considerably more, but this is the one that I keep anxiously pulling out and showing my family and saying when I die, it does not matter what they do with the rest, but remember, THIS book is special. I think they've got the message.

I suppose this is the same thrill as the coiney gets having spotted that something on ebay is a rare variety which neither the seller or other buyers seem to have noticed (I've discussed a US pastor with an uncanny knack for doing precisely that on this blog earlier). Watching the last seconds of the auction ticking away with their heart thumping, "has somebody else spotted it?" is the same as my long walk to the cash till. The feeling of self-congratulation, to have recognised something that was lying under everybody else's noses "for what it is" must be the same. So yes, that's a reward - a happy memory of a moment of serendipity.

But I can do more than fondle my artefact and bore people to death with my tale of how I found this "treasure".* I can read Wheeler's words in an actual copy I know he held in his hands, moreover (if I were interested in him) I would have a bit of an insight into the mind and character of Max Mallowan from his scribbled comments (though would not be surprised to hear he'd done this to a great many other books too). Sadly Agatha did not make any comments in the book I can see.

Whatever Peter Tompa and the rest of the finger-pointers say, in collecting old books and prints etc no resource is destroyed (unlike the digging of archaeological collectables out of archaeological sites). I have not enquired what happened to Mallowan's library when he died (Wallingford, Oxfordshire, August 1978), certainly if the bulk of it went to an institution, some less important books, less relevant to his own work would appear to have been split off and some four years later at least one of them turned up in a bargain bin in Bristol, and at the moment is in Poland. Habent sua fata libelli.

*[my "treasure" I suspect actually has more value as a bibliophilic collectable for most people because of the connection with Agatha Christie - even though physically it is less tenuous than the two archaeologists - "Mortimer who?"]


kyri said...

so paul,you are human after all.the feeling you got when you bought that book is the same feeling i get everytime i buy a piece of greek pottery.i never get tired of "fondling" my pieces as you say[handling is preferebal]
i guess its hard to put into words.
as i am writing this there is an intresting programe on bbc2["digging for britain"
dr.alice roberts has just done a piece on the crosby garrette helmet calling metal detectors treasure hunters and that the laws should be showed the christies auction of the helmet and she was not happy that the nation had lost the piece.this is prime time makes a it on bbc i player if you get the chance.

Paul Barford said...

Yes, funnily enough Kyri, I am human.

Yes, "hard to put into words" which is why I had earlier attempted to do it. The whole function of the blog I began on the Japanese prints was to explore these issues about what the attraction of collecting is, what the mechanisms are. There are a number of academic works on archaeological collecting (mostly museum-focussed) which are very clinical 'dry' accounts, I wanted to produce something on the less material aspects based on experience and self-reflexion. I never got beyond posting a few pictures up (and oddly enough not the one everybody started talking about which is actually my favourite because its the same kind of situation as with the book).

I wanted to use the blog to show I was not "anti-collecting" per se, and explore some of the issues including the grey areas that many types of collecting involve. It seemed an interesting thing to set out to do in the context of the present blog, and one that would have provided a balance to the views presented here.

Sadly that was scuppered by Tompa and Candy and all the other finger-pointers who simply used it as a vehicle to slap me in the face and call me names. Somehow with all the stupid fuss over one issue I have been put off that idea.

Thanks for the CG helmet information, we can't access the iplayer here, but maybe it will be on the BBC satellite services later. Glad to hear the pressure is still being kept up. No, I do not think anyone is "happy" about what happened. The question is whether Britain will get off its podgy backside and do something other than mutter and let the matter pass.

Of course, if its not on already, soon you will be seeing the ITV prog the PAS are involved in glorifying the TREASURE hunters. UK archaeology with its act together as usual then.

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