Friday, 20 December 2013

Deaccession Debate: Christie’s Potential Shopping List of Detroit Institute’s Art

The painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Wedding Dance,” c. 1566, currently in the Detroit Institute of Arts is a favourite of mine (many archaeologists like Bruegel for the material culture, especially pottery shown), and it is one of the star items featured on the valuation of portions of the DIA collection which was made public yesterday. You can see the document from Christie’s Appraisals, Inc. here ("Fair Market Value for Financial Planning"). Quite apart from the questions raised by the whole issue of selling off museum collections like this, where practicalities come into conflict with idealism, I see some problems emerging here.

Like the two items of African and Oceanic Art in "phase 1" (p. 2). One of them is ivory, the other a Benin bronze, for goodness' sake. I can see that being even more controversial when it was merely in the collection. I am sure American collectors will be happy to see all that American art (pp 4- 11) sold abroad spreading US culture in foreign parts, just as they assiduously collect other people's culture - but what about that "American Indian Art" (p. 12)? It's from the Ojibwa (north or south?) and British Columbia. The other bit of pre-colonial art of the Americas is hidden away at the end of the list (p. 81) - how did that get on the US market? In contrast, on pages 13 to 19 we see the "phase 1 antiquities" - and spot a telling caveat: "assumes the source of origin (sic) and provenance is (sic) such that the work could be traded freely within the United States". It is interesting that the value is not considered to depend on whether the item could be legally exported out of the US to another country - also dependent surely on how it came to the US market. There are a couple of interesting Mediveal European "architectural elements" (p. 20-33) portableised and taken to America - there's loads of them listed, how did they get on the market? These have no caveats... The 'phase 1' Chinese antiquities (p. 34) comprise a Yuan bowl, but then also a dugup Shang bronze (nice to see the caveat there too). There is none on the Chola-period sculpture from "South India" on page 56, rather odd in the circumstances of another discussion going on about antiquities from precisely this region now.

Talking of caveats, note the ones on two items, 127-8 and 131 on p. 35-6, and 173 on p. 46.  - ooops? Looking through the extensive sell-off list of European "Furniture, sculpture and decorative objects" (pp. 35- 46) it is interesting to note, despite the fact that many of these medieval sculptures would have been made for altars in European churches and private chapels and their coming onto the market might have involved dodgery (theft), none of these objects have any caveat about value being dependent on their origins. Why? Surely these should be treated in no way different from any other portable antiquities cum art, like Greek pots and naked Roman marble torsos.  The only caveats on the extensive list of phase 1 sell-off items originating in the Islamic world on pp. 57-63 also concern authenticity rather than origins. Odd.

PHASE 2 gets even worse. Now in the African and oceanic Art (p. 85) there are two Benin bronzes (and two bits - one 'ceremonial' -from Papua New Guinea).  There is another Ojibwa object on page 89, then loads more sell-off antiquities.  The same caveat is there, many of these items come from grave-robbing (sarcophagi, cinerary urns), but the Dacian helmet is not in the list. Then (page 93) there's some decontextualised - no doubt very pretty - pictures cut out of a medieval manuscript book . The Chinese antiquities on pages 94-98 are not felt to merit a collecting-history-caveat. There are the same issues as before with the two "European Furniture, sculpture and decorative objects" (p. 100) - one possible authenticity issue. Note the delicate suggestion that other items in the collection might not be what they were bought as. 

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