Thursday, 18 August 2016

Al-Sabah Collection of Ungrounded Antiquities

Prudence Harper and Martha Carter
at a recent book signing event.
Jane Jakeman , ''
The al-Sabah collection in Kuwait consists mainly of superb silver and gold vessels. Almost 100 pieces, dating from the earlier stages of the Hellenic trail to the advent of Islam, are described in The Arts of the Hellenized East [...] it is painfully apparent that scholarly assessment was greatly hampered by lack of provenance. [...]  It would, however, limit the global interchanges of scattered pieces if auction records were cited and auction houses had to disclose who was selling unprovenanced work, which could be enforced by wealthy purchasers refusing to buy unless this was made public. Some Egyptologists have called for every antiquity to have a passport, as for cars and race-horses. Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, remarked to me on the al-Sabah treasure: “No European or American museum could put together such a collection now, not so much because of costs, but provenance issues.” Silence may well cast a shadow over a collection. [...]  No-one doubts that the al-Sabah family are good collectors in the sense that their objects are carefully conserved and published. But does this justify in general the multitude of unscrupulous dealers in the market and the placing of the object at the whim of a private owner? It used to be argued in favour of slavery that some owners treated their slaves well.
Perhaps a start can be made by boycotting purchasing the catalogue and visiting this accumulation of shiny trophies. Let collectors like this realise that what they do with the common heritage is of potential concern to us all, and that their activities are subject to social approval. Perhaps only the withdrawal of social approval, and increased public scrutiny is the way to increase the appreciation among no-questions-asked collectors and dealers of the need for social responsibility.


David Knell said...

I do cringe at the use of the word "arts" to describe ancient objects. The word is much beloved by certain museums that restrict their holdings to only the flashiest examples of any type, perhaps because it is well suited to that pompous and superficial approach to history. By definition, it focuses attention on the objects themselves - almost as if they existed in a vacuum to be admired for their beauty and artistry alone - and thus tends to sideline their deeper historical and social significance. In such "arts" centric frameworks, the objects are very often presented as though even their wider context were only worthy of a mere label or footnote and their immediate context were of no interest at all.

Small wonder then that, unless it entails the name of an impressive former owner, the concept of provenance holds little meaning to the people who run some museums with that focus.

Paul Barford said...

And David has written that up as a post on his blog:

worth reading.

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