Thursday 13 November 2014

Bonhams Antiquities Sale: Glasgow Academic wins AIA St Louis more Bucks?

As is well known the AIA has a policy of not publishing unprovenanced antiquities, in order not to give them value. Lord Renfrew pleads with archaeologists not to discuss or write about unprovenanced artefacts in the hands of private collectors for the same reason. Many archaeologists (they tend to be classicists and those working on addressed sources such as papyri, ostraca and coins) say this policy is wrong as it means that valuable, if contextless, information does not get disseminated. Roberta Mazza organized a conference last month on the topic.

There is a nice illustration in yesterday's Bonhams sale of the effects of scholarly interest. Two mesoamerican collectables were up for sale which were supposed to be curated for public benefit in the AIA St Louis collections, but somehow were 'liberated' and put on the open market. There was some discussion about the ethics of that over the past few weeks, in the course of which it emerged that one of them had been excavated by Sylvanus Morely, an iconic figure in pre-Columbian archaeology and Donna Yates innocently wrote about it on her blog. This immediately gave them an added bit of a narrative, and buyers like stories.  As archaeologist Tom Guderjan said in The Art Newspaper: “With this provenance [tied to Morley], it is certain the value of the objects has likely doubled”.

And lo and behold, when the hammer fell that object went for $21,250 (Bonhams' estimate was $6,000 to $8,000 - but then they'd apparently not identified/been given the full collecting history). Dr Yates is understandably a bit annoyed at this ('Ethically questionable AIA St Louis Maya vessel sells for well over 2x estimate at Bonhams', 13 November 2014).
Bloody hell [....] I’m actually feeling pretty dark about it. I’m the first one to link the vase to Morley online. I’m going to have to try to sleep at night thinking that perhaps that linkage inflated the price. [...]  Someone else would have found that, right?
Probably, why on earth should we archaeologists have to keep quiet about what we know or have found out just because there are collectors around? But that's why it is time for us to work harder to explore and raise awareness about the effects of any relationship between archaeologists and other professionals 'in the know' and the buyers and sellers of antiquities, and just what we tell them and how. I need not add that in my personal opinion that applies also to, and indeed especially to, the Portable Antiquities Scheme of England and (for the moment) Wales, and its approach to digging collectables out of archaeological record for personal entertainment and profit. The 'Scheme' is apparently blithe about the huge amount of Scheme- and collecting-related misinformation not only in the UK, but spread right across the collecting world, and they do not seem to give a damn about their responsibilities in that regard.

I wonder if St Louis AIA had a sleepless night over the sale? What will they be flogging off next? Any Native American stuff still in its collections or have they already flogged that off too?


David Knell said...

Well, if it's any consolation to Donna Yates, the other lot she mentioned (Lot 149: Zapotec Figural Urn) sold for only $3,750, well within the original $3,000–5,000 estimate. I suspect that the doubling of the price for Lot 156 (Maya Effigy Vase) was motivated more by the fact that it is 'prettier' (the art market being shallow as always) rather than a consideration of the increased depth of its academic credentials. I think Dr Yates need not lose any sleep.

Paul Barford said...

I see mr Sayles has read your comment, David but for the life of me cannot follow the logic of what he says about it, what is he on about? The guy's losing the thread it seems.

it seems to me that the market value of a dugup ancient object is dependent on what some greedy jackass with few scruples will pay for it to add it to their collection.

Mr Sayles will no doubt explain in due course how he intends putting a monetary value on the archaeological information an object is part of until hoiked. I would say that is about as difficult to price in financial terms as a child's smile. Go on Sayles, tell us how you'd price either before you attack others for suggesting that it cannot be done.

Not everything, Mr Sayles, has its price. Honor and fairness also. Or do you disagree?

David Knell said...

"I see mr Sayles has read your comment, David but for the life of me cannot follow the logic of what he says about it ..."

I don't think there's a great deal of "logic" to follow; it's more in the nature of a outraged but irrational protest against my gentle dig at the art market.

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