Thursday, 21 August 2008

Antiquities, coins, shells, butterflies and stamps

Apparently in the case of ancient collectables taken for entertainment or profit from archaeological sites:
In the opinion of most collectors, requiring a full provenance […] is an extreme, completely impractical and unreasonable approach.

Yet these same portable antiquity collectors try very hard to present to the outside world a picture of themselves as scholars who “study” and “preserve” these artefacts.

I wonder whether they would accept that from a scientific point of view there is a difference between a Victorian herbarium or lepidopteric collection where each specimen is precisely labelled with origin, habitat and date of collection and an album of “pressed flowers/butterflies from Wales 1882”? One can serves as a scientific resource (informing about habitats or even varieties now no longer in existence for example), the other is a mere curiosity. The same goes for old collections of fossils and minerals where the old labels can give information about outcrops no longer accessible. Serious conchologists document as precisely as they can the origin of the specimens they acquire and only acquire items that can be so documented, how different that is from a collection of pretty shells from various sources. Many other serious collectors compile catalogues of their acquisitions and keep a record of where they come from and when and how they were acquired. That is what gives their collections any scientific value, gives them fuller value as a source of information. Failing to record this information merely makes them into accumulations of geegaws and curios.

There are many stamp collectors who tries to ‘make up a series’ or collect all those that come to hand with pictures of buses, or aeroplanes, or Olympic sportsmen. No doubt they can learn something by reading about the countries from which those stamps came, or the events/objects depicted on them, or how many perforation variations there are in a certain issue. Those who collect stamps call this “philately”. Postal history however is an area of philatelic study and one of the sources of its knowledge is the relationship between the stamp, its canceling (postmark) and the cover it is on. The philatelist who soaks the stamp off the cover to get something to put in their album may be ‘preserving’ the stamp and displaying it nicely, but destroying individual pieces of evidence for postal historians. While one would hope that even the most ignorant stamp-seeker would recognize a scorched envelope from the last flight of the LZ 129 Hindenburg for what it is, postal historians delve into many less obvious areas. This seems to be an analogy for what happens when archaeological finds are ripped from their context and become mere curios which have been stripped by dealers and collectors of a whole layer of their historical value without any information on provenance.

So are the majority of personal portable antiquity collections a fully valid resource for the multi-aspectual study of the past either now or in the future, or are they merely selfish accumulations of curios?


Anonymous said...

Paul, remember a comment I made to you earlier. As a collector, I would be prepared to pay much more for a coin with provenance. Leaving aside issues of looting, it makes the coin much more interesting! Don't blame collectors for not being interested in provenance; point the finger at dealers, particularly the bottom feeders. Collectors should encourage dealers to record (and pass on) details of provenance.

Paul Barford said...

Yes, I agree. I am a strong believer in responsible collectors taking a more active role in determining what is happening on the market.

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