Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Ungrounded Oddly-Tooled Odysseus, Munich Meleager, the Pageboy and Black Gunk

Detail (Bonhams online catalogue)
A Byzantine silver plate 23.5cm diameter estimated to sell for £200,000 to £250,000 and believed by its sellers to date from around the mid-6th to mid-7th Century AD leads Bonhams sale of Antiquities on 2nd October in London (lot 142). It shows Odysseus dressed as a beggar welcomed home from the Trojan wars by his dog Argus.
The shallow dish is double-skinned with a rounded rim and a short circular foot. The interior has a finely incised and chased relief scene which has been identified as depicting Odysseus [...] A servant Eumaeus stands to the left of the scene wearing a short tunic and boots, a sack over his left shoulder. A bust of the goddess Athena emerges from clouds above. The reverse of the plate shows a finely chased profile head of a man [...]. 
The reverse is very odd, the decoration is extremely badly worn, especially on the central roundel (how?) yet the projecting footring shows no comparable damage. Does the condition report discuss whether that worn central medallion was inserted in a later bowl? The collecting history is pretty shaky. Bonhams tell us: "Provenance: UK private collection, London, acquired in London on 06 September 1976 and accompanied by a copy of the receipt" (copy? Where's the original?). "London 6th September 1976" is no "provenance", where was it before then?

It seems there are a number of issues that the condition report will have to deal with. Zooming in on the photos in the online catalogue reveals a number of oddities.  Like the odd crack by the hero's right foot. Why is the grey 'corrosion' (if that is what it is) apparently over the black oxidation? The plate has been (over) cleaned, why was this corrosion not removed together with the adjacent oxidation on the highlights? While on the topic of cleaning, look at the parallel scrape-marks on Odysseus' right shoulder and behind his head (under the leaves). What, actually is that black material? Oxide or pitch? Why has the plate been left in that condition? The chasing is very variable in quality, and a number of tools seem to have been used to make the lines, that used to make the curving line under the dog's belly and on the hem of the hero's robe on his left ankle look most interesting. I wonder what the technical analysis of the condition report says about all this?  Do prospective buyers also get a copy of the conservation report saying what was done to the object between coming out of the ground (or wherever it originated) and the time it entered Bonhams? Obviously, since the object is not as-dug, and something has been done to it,  full transparency about what it actually is they are buying would require that. The catalogue photo seems to suggest the whole thing is disgustingly covered in fingerprints (see the tree behind the seat/altar).

No control stamps are mentioned in the description. Among the parallels cited by Bonhams are a plate in the Hermitage showing a seated goatherd (inv omega 277, Bonham's do not say there's a picture of it in the Internet), and a plate showing Meleager and Atalanta setting off for a hunt, Hermitage inv. no. ω 1 (see an internet picture here)  and a plate showing Meleager in the Bayerisches Nationalemuseum in Munich (inv. L.56/113 ). I really wonder whether the first two really are  at all comparable, stylistically and technicall. I also wonder about the actual origin of the Bavarian one which like the "surfaced 1976" Bonham's plate  is much more gauche than the other two. Likewise I am not at all convinced that the Art-Deco hairstyle of the youth on the Bonham's plate can be parallelled in Byzantine art. Bonhams seem also to have been bothered by this, and in support of their dating cite only "an early 6th Century marble relief fragment from Constantinople, now in Berlin, depicting a servant with very similar headwear and drapery" (do they mean this piece which is in a sleeveless tunic but has a different hairstyle?)

This youth on the Bonham's plate is really problematic, there is a cloak hanging down behind him, but no cloak shown on the shoulder facing the viewer, he has a sack on his left shoulder (you can see the upper part of the sack behind his shoulder) which he holds with his right hand which evidently passes through his upper left arm (!). The placing of the feet is awkward and his right leg is bent backwards. The pageboy haircut though is really anachronous, it looks very Art Deco, Jan Szczepkowski.

This illustrates all that is problematic about the current no-questions-asked antiquities market. Quite why the sellers (Bonhams and the present owner) insist such a gauche provincial piece was made in Constantinople is unclear. The cited parallels do not really match, so the dating is less than certain . If really ancient, the plate could have been in use and deposited over a wide area of the Justinianian /Heraclianian empire or even outside it - Ukrainian steppes for example -  and dug up at any time and exported without any surviving documentation. The buyer observing the lack of documentation of licit excavation and export however can feel comfortable that, unless a dealer's archive surfaces, if any foreign laws were broken, they are "they-can't-touch-you-for-it" - safe ("bought in good faith").

I'd say though that this is a very clear case of an "ungrounded", to use Elizabeth Marlowe's phrasing, artefact and why the lack of grounding is significant. On the basis of the information available in the catalogue, this object appears to have technical anomalies. Perhaps they are explained away in convincing detail in the condition report. The artefact also seems to have worrying stylistic and iconographic anomalies (in my personal opinion not explained away convincingly in the seller's description as we have it). By accepting this ungrounded artefact - which in the current state of play, it seems, cannot be documented as being in existence at all before surfacing in the UK (not a former Byzantine province) in September 1976 -  into the canon of Byzantine silverware, are market-led art historians not allowing the picture to be clouded by the inclusion of unverifiable 'evidence'?

There has been some recent discussion of this piece between classicists on Twitter, and one of them said the piece was bizarre and probably not authentic "look at the hands". The hands really are truly awful, and not like those on most silver of the period. But then, look at the hands on the Munich  Meleager plate. Very similar. But then, where did that, with its misshapen legs and stilted pose, come from? The danger is that by comparing one ungrounded item in an auction house catalogue with another ungrounded item that ended up in the museum (but had come there from the no-questions-asked market in ungrounded artefacts-sold-as-art), art historians are building up a false network of connections, defining a style on the basis of a series of artefacts which may not be what they seem?

1 comment:

heritageaction said...

I think it's rather touching how the two-legged dog is holding up a trotter.

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