Friday, 13 July 2012

The False gods of the Antiquitists

Collector Kyri criticises me for using, in my blog post  "New York Times on Mongrel Artefacts", the term "mongrel" of artefacts with no proper pedigree ("I hate these labels of orphan, toxic or mongrel, when talking about ancient works of art") but surely that is exactly what we are dealing with. Like dogs, racehorses and members of the British aristocracy, an object without any kind of proper pedigree certainly differs in today's antiquity market from one that has a verifiable kosher collecting history. he continues:
As for the antiquities themselves, well, here is a nice quote: "our museums are full of objects that speak for themselves, to the public and to scholars, without knowledge of their full, or even any provenance. To claim an object without context is worthless is pure nonsense." Sir John Boardman*, now who are we, mere mortals to argue with a demi-god like Boardman?
Hmm, but if you read the quoted fragment in the context of the rest of the text you see that the "knowledge" of which Boardman speaks is knowledge about the object, based on how it looks, and building on 'non-source-based knowledge' (as the Polish theoretician of historical sources Jerzy Topolski has it). I am not sure which arguments he is referring to when he says people claim that a Greek vase is actually (rather than metaphorically) "worthless" because it has no collecting history. It seems to me that this argument may be changed by the factors discussed in my post, that an object might be intrinsically "worth" something as an antiquity, but conditions on the market are perhaps changing so the people who have so carelessly bought them will soon be faced with a situation caused by changes in public attitudes where they cannot get rid of them of they have no documentation showing them to be untainted (I think that is the work Kyri was looking for instead of "toxic").

On the contrary, I think some museums contain objects which are in themselves not terribly "informative" unless you know you are looking at Gandhi's glasses and food bowl, Washington's walking stick, or Nelson's perforated uniform. In May I was in Berlin and what was intended to be a brief visit just to see the Libeskind building of the Jewish Museum there was prolonged due to the nature of the exhibition. First of all the number of "objects" needed to tell ("experience") the story was in fact minimal. The section "Paths of German Jews: The Underground Axes" made a great impression on all of us, each showcase contained a single object, wholly mundane, a teacup, a candlestick - but what made them so arresting was the detailed story attached to them.

In this museum, a German teacup of the Interwar period such as can be picked up on any fleamarket is a valid museum object BECAUSE OF the context, and that context can only come from knowing where that particular items came from. And how many stories have been lost by all the fleamarket teacups that are sold anonymously? Yes, by collecting old porcelain, we can see what an early twentieth century teacup looks like, see what kind of flowers painted on the side some housewife found attractive. That is only superficial "knowledge", but that information from "acute analysis of form and content of figure work, such as is commonly practiced on collection and museum objects" tells us nothing about those tastes in space and time and social context unless we know more details than "surfaced in a Wrocław in January 2011".

Boardman may be a demi-god to collectors and vase afficionados, though I doubt whether such a broad (and yet at the same time narrow) generalization really can stand, even if we focus attention on "objects d'art". When however we see dugups as archaeological source material, and especially when we extend that view beyond addressed sources (those that were created specifically to impart information, for example by putting pictures and writing on them), the glib statement quoted above ceases to have any broader sense or application.  

And even if it did, would it diminish the artistic, aesthetic, emotional - or whatever - values of an object treated as a "work of ancient art" if we had fuller information about its collecting history and source? I think many collectors would argue that this is NOT the case. One very well might suggest that in fact the only reason why it is 'traditional' to ignore this is because it would reveal how many of these "art objects" bought by these collectors and traded by these dealers have in reality surfaced (from 'underground') on the market recently by less-than-legal, and less-than-ethical means. That is, one might suspect, the real reason why dealers and collectors have collectively and consistently been so careless about asking questions about precise origins and curating the documentation of the answers.

* J. Boardman, Archaeologists, Collectors and Museums, in: Whose Culture? The promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, Ed. James Cuno, Princeton and Oxford (2009), S. 107-124.


kyri said...

hi paul,boardman does give a couple of good examples,of where context is insignificant,
"the gundestrup cauldron,found in a danish bog,in circumstances that tell us nothing whatsoever about its date or significance,beyond the fact that it got to denmark at some time"
also he talks about "a famous greek vase in new york,we know who made it,when and where,with only 2 percent loss in knowledgde of what etruscan grave it came from" the euphronios krater.
boardmamn was just taking a swipe at some people who claim that context is everything and an antiquitie without it is worthless,which of course is not the case,as the euphronios krater shows.
of course context is important and in an ideal world every piece would have a lable on it with a find spot ect,but unfortunately we dont live in an ideal world,but a world driven by greed and self gain.
as for boardman,i think you will find that he is not only a demi god to greek vase collectors,dont forget he was a field archaeologist ,excavating sites in greece before we were born and we cant just brush off the thoughts of a man that has dedicated his whole life to archaeology and the understanding of the ancients.

Paul Barford said...

John Boardman does not actually happen to be the ONLY man on earth who has "dedicated his whole life to archaeology and the understanding of the ancients". I think there are quite a lot of us. I would say that as an archaeologist he would be pretty isolated in stating "context is irrelevant".

Even the object-focussed PAS is saying that context is ALL-important. Its what (they say) makes the difference between "responsible artefact hunting" and mere looting.

I'm well aware of the examples he gives, I do not think they are "good" examples. The Gundestrup cauldron for example, is the ONLY question its date and what it shows on the sides? I would say that is a very superficial approach to the wider issue of what it was doing where it was found, not only how it had got there, but what its significance was to its last users. And for that, its context of discovery is essential. Just having it surface on the market "from an old Swiss collection" totally OBSCURES that last story (as in the case of the Greek vases in Etruscan tombs). I certainly think its associations and situation within a specific assemblage of other items is more than a mere "2%" (!) of the information, that is just plain ridiculous.

Boardman is here narrowing the scope of the information he seeks ("who made it,when and where"), and so from that point of view rejects the evidence for addressing the other - equally valid - questions. But is that selective, superficial and biased vision of the past what we are after? Or are we not trying to build up a more complex one?

As I said, what harm does having "too much" information about an object's origins cause? Compare that to the losses when we have too little.

No, I do not think it is enough to say that we do not live in an ideal world, that's just a cop-out, it's an excuse for not trying, not INSISTING on the best possible practice. Surely that is what responsible collecting is about, not accepting cop-out excuses and calling on "authorities" to justify inaction.

Boardman is wrong, context is important.

Why do you think the IADAA put that quote on their website?

kyri said...

"a good excavated context is indeed a valuable starting point"
boardman,page 123,whose culture.
context is important,i agree and im sure boardman does to,he has never said it is not important,never,only that sometimes it only gives you part of the picture,the antiquitie itself is also another part that cant be dismised outright for not having context as some of his fellows are claiming.
your right in that you can never have to much information.his comments are more of a swipe against fellow archaeologists that totally disregard these antiquities and indeed suggest that "they should even be destroyed" and he says it is a "censorship of scholarship",boardman is not pro looting but he is allways thirsty for knowledge.
of course ,boardman,like trendall and many other giants in archaeological terms, of his generation canot understand the mentality of their fellow archeologists who refuse to even handle these "orphan" pieces.
it is sad that his quotes are often used by dealer lobysts ect,im sure that he never intended to be seen as supporting a "no questions asked market" but he had something to say and he said it and i agree with him that every piece speaks for itself,with or without context.

as for insisting on a proper practice,i fully agree and its nice to see the auction houses moving in this direction,allthough i do have sympathy for a collector who bought a piece in 1978 in good faith,from say christies, when anonymous sales were the norm and now the very same auction houses refuse to handle the piece.when i consign a piece to auction i have to fill in provenance declaration certificates and supply a paper trail,mind you,it seems some people are still getting away with anonymous sales,at major auction houses even now,as i found to my dismay at the last sale i attended,but that is a story for another day.

Paul Barford said...

" sometimes it only gives you part of the picture"
Well, that's it isn't it? Only being satisfied with part of the picture.

"cannot understand the mentality of their fellow archeologists who refuse to even handle these "orphan" pieces" The rationale is set out quite clearly, it is not because they actually think the artefact per se is "unimportant" (remember I asked for documentation of such sentiments). Instead it is but because giving them legitimacy encourages the circulation of objects without definable collecting histories. In the context of the fight against the circulation of illicit articles under the umbrella of the general lack of transparency, I think that is the right approach. If collectors want their objects to be seen as of value by ALL, then pay more attention to acquiring only documented pieces and curating that information.

kyri said...

hi paul,hear is a piece by kathryn w tubb,concerning her book "antiquities trade or betrayed",in it she sums up that there is a schism in the archaeologists camp between people who would study,[in this case conserve] unprovenanced antiquities and those who want nothing to do with them.

Paul Barford said...

Yes, but look why THESE professionals will not touch potentially dodgy stuff, it's illegal.

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