Monday, 13 August 2012

Cleveland Bust: "That World" Already asking Questions, Museum on the Defensive

I feel a bit awkward, usually I am the cynical grumpy critic, while the New York press invariably takes a more positive view of US museum collecting. This time the tables are turned, I wrote a nice(ish) piece on the Cleveland Art Museum's purchase of a marble head, and this time it's the New York Times doing the grumpy cynicism. Randy Kennedy  ('Museum Defends Antiquities Collecting', New York Times August 12, 2012) reckons that the marble bust "for which Mr. Franklin said the museum paid a “significant amount” of its yearly acquisition budget, is likely to raise questions" (my emphasis below):
It was sold at auction in 2004 in France and has no publication record before 1970. But the museum said it believed its history could be traced back to the late 19th century as the property of a prominent family in Algiers.
The main reason seems to be that Mr Kennedy does not trust the dealer. 
Mr. Franklin said he believed that the gallery and the museum knew enough about both the marble head and the cylinder to be confident that they had not been illicitly taken. “We’ve done our due diligence,” Mr. Franklin said, “and we feel that both these objects have a pre-1970 provenance.” 
Ummm, due diligence is not about "feeling", it's about having hard documentation proving beyond doubt. Otherwise you don't buy. Has CMA got cast-iron documentation of a pre-1970 collecting history, or does it just have some vague "feelings".  Tell us about the the Bacri family of Algiers, Algeria, and its nineteenth century origins. Tell us about Fernand Sintes before 1960. Franklin continues that museums also need to consider carefully the long-term effect of the AAMD collecting guidelines "on their curatorial strengths":
“What drives most curators is the desire to purchase and to build a collection,” he said, “and if all they’re going to do is provenance research day after day, it’s necessary but it’s certainly not inspiring, especially for young curators.”
So research into the collecting histories is hard work eh?  Sort of discouraging to the young curators? I have a better idea, make the DEALERS come to you only with objects which have well-documented (let it be well-researched) collecting histories. They charge an arm and leg for the stuff, let them do some of the footwork. Indeed, why not exclude trade with any dealer who is NOT giving you properly documented collecting histories up front? I do not see why Mr Franklin feels that the curators should find out where the object was before 1970, rather than verifying (or having their staff verifying the documentation supplied by the seller). The American art museum director continues:
Beyond that, he said, he wants to send a signal that museums should continue to collect important ancient art under the right circumstances. “Museums should still be buying antiquities, and we shouldn’t shirk that responsibility, and I think it’s almost an ethical responsibility,” he said. “We don’t want to drive these kinds of objects into private collections forever. Or to see all of them end up abroad.” 
End up abroad means back in places like Algeria, France or Geneva? What on earth is this American saying? The only proper place for Classical art is Cleveland Ohio? That nobody else should have it? What arrogance.  Then we have this arrant nonsense: 
“It’s to the benefit of these objects not to be shunted away into the dark but to exist,” [Franklin] said, comparing many artifacts in the market these days to children of divorce. “It’s almost as if the objects themselves need a bill of rights.” 
So, a personified looted object should not be shunned by museums because it is unjust to the "object"?  Basically what he's saying is looting is hard work (all that digging under a hot sun) and the products of all that hard work should not be shunned. This is like the British Museum's PAS saying artefact hunters are "partners", not because artefact hunting is good for the archaeological record - far from it - but they want to get their hands on the "objects". I've not yet heard the BM arguing that it's the artefacts' "rights" to be dug out of the archaeological record and brought into the light by the PAS, but I bet the time is not far off.

UPDATE 13.08.2012:
David Gill ('Cleveland Comment on Lack of "documentary confirmation"') has done some reading around and now notes:
 The Drusus is now on the AAMD object register. Its collecting history is provided:

Fernand Sintes before 1960; sold at auction at Hôtel Drouot-Richelieu Paris on September 29, 2004, lot. no. 340, unknown purchaser; Phoenix Ancient Art, S.A.(2004); sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art by Phoenix Ancient Art in 2012.
It is perhaps noteworthy that the register entry makes the following comment (emphasis mine): "The Cleveland Museum of Art has provenance information for this work back to the 1960’s, but has been unable to obtain documentary confirmation of portions of the provenance as described below..."

Is the earliest documented surfacing of this portrait no earlier than 2004?
What Professor Gill does not draw attention to is the heading of the next section:
which rather puts a different light on the earlier claims.

The documentation they report they have was:
A certificate of origin was issued dated the day after the auction by Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres (deceased 2007), who assisted the prior owner and consigner, Fernand Sintes. The certificate stated the sculpture came from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Sintes of Marseilles; that the sculpture had been in Mr. Sintes’s family for many generations; that the family’s name was Bacri; and that they had lived in Algeria since 1860. The museum contacted Mrs. Sintes who confirmed on behalf of herself and Mr. Sintes that Mr. Sintes’ grandfather, Mr. Bacri, had owned the sculpture; that Mr. Sintes inherited the sculpture from his grandfather; that Mr. Sintes brought it from Algeria to Marseilles in 1960; that he had inherited it from his grandfather prior to bringing it to Marseilles; that the sculpture was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 2004; and that they had worked with Mr. de Serres. 
Is that enough? It is noticeable that the word-of-mouth 'confirmation' of earlier (pre-Drouet sale) collecting history comes from the seller who was putting it on the market in 2004. The reason for acquisition however is that:
The portrait, monumental in scale and of great historical importance, belongs to a major category of Roman imperial portraiture not otherwise represented in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
So, like filling in the gap in a stamp collection then?

Why is a bust which has recently been attributed to a member of the Tiberian imperial family actually (in itself) of "great historical importance" - apart from being the next tangible (purchasable) material object which "illustrates" what the written sources tell us?

Here is the object in a catalogue of detached stone heads being exhibited by Phoenix Antiquities back in 2008. 

Vignette: and here is where it might have come from

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