‘Social art history’, with its emphasis on matters such as patronage and reception, is hard to practise with many of the most famous works of Roman art because they surfaced centuries ago, back when little or no attention was paid to the matter of ﬁndspot or archaeological context. We thus have no idea what the inscriptions once associated with these objects said, where and with what other works they were displayed, or how they were used and reused. The result is a curious inverse proportion in Roman art historiography: often the most canonical pieces are those about which we are the least informed. As for heightened awareness about the problems of ‘undocumented’ and ‘unprovenanced’ antiquities, this has so far applied only to objects that surfaced after the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. But as the case of the Metropolitan bronze suggests, a full account of ﬁndspot and ownership history is even more urgent in the case of the most famous works because we are generally so much less suspicious of them than we are of newly-surfaced objects, and because we are likely to assume that the frequently-repeated ‘facts’ surrounding their origins are more reliable than they really areCollecting histories matter. There is a limit to the amount and types of information even a 'high art' object can give us by and in itself.As scholarship advances, it places new values and new needs on objects curated by former generations. What are today's collectors passing on?
Vignette: Metropolitan Gallus, Roman third cent AD (Wikicommons)