Monday 10 November 2008

Pseudo-archaeology on the market

It is not just the opponents of the doctrine of the permanent virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary that are delighted by the news that the court case against Israeli portable antiquities collector and dealer Oded Golan may be "collapsing" as amateur "biblical archaeologist" Hershel Shanks excitedly proclaims.

Many involved in the trade in portable antiquities are probably delighted to learn that demonstrating forgery of unprovenanced antiquities in court is proving to be more difficult than some thought at the onset of this trial three years ago. I imagine also all those who have considerable sums of money tied up in antiquities previously obtained from Mr Golan are also relieved by this news.
Shanks says that the supporters of the authenticity of the whole inscription on the so-called "James Ossuary" have been "vindicated". Not so fast Mr Shanks.
In more than one way, this trial is the antiquitist’s equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial, the eyes of the world are on it, the scientific evidence presented by the prosecution is being questioned by the lawyers and found faulty. It seems that Judge Aharon Farkash is coming to the conclusion that conviction cannot be beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of the evidence before the court. That does not mean these artefacts are authentic antiquities ‘as described". For collectors and onlookers, serious doubts are sown by a number of other circumstances surrounding this case, other items which it has been revealed were found in the search of Mr Golan’s property. Some of them have been discussed in the media which seems, whether fairly or not, to have made its own mind up about what conclusions may be drawn.

Whether or not the trial is concluded with the accusations unproven, I wonder whether the reputation of Mr Golan as a dealer will recover from the revelations. I am sure though that for many portable antiquity dealers Mr Golan will be heralded as a champion against those who question the trade in unprovenanced portable antiquities.

The importance of the ability of fake antiquities to distort our vision of the past cannot be overstated. While however items are bought in the traditional antiquity trade no-questions-asked manner, it is so easy to slip skillful – and not so skillful - fakes onto the market. Moreover those fakes can be engineered to appeal to certain markets, even to the extent of being created to confirm a certain vision of the past, making them more commercially viable. By these means, as police Major Jonathan Pagis is quoted as saying in the film "The History Merchants: […] Another Type of Trustworthy (na'aman ocher)": "Antiquities looters tear pages from the book of our history", but, he says a person who forges an artefact: "adds to them pages that read what he wants them to read."

This is another area in which the antiquities trade is responsible for doing severe damage to our knowledge of the past. There are many examples of this from numismatics and other types of portable antiquity collecting. Oscar White Muscarella writes of the damaging effects of what he calls "Bazaar archaeology". David Gill and Christopher Chippendale draw attention to the effects of the antiquities market and the collectors’ demand for Cycladic sculptures on the creation of a whole new genre of pseudo-antique art. The title of the film "another type of trustworthy" is entirely apposite to the evidential value of unprovenanced artefacts for the study of the past. Why in such circumstances should a collector not be interested in knowing precisely where the artefact he wants to buy comes from and how the vendor obtained it?

Oscar White Muscarella The Lie Became Great: the forgery of ancient near eastern cultures. Brill (Studies in the art and archaeology of antiquity 978 90 5693 041 7.

Gill, D. W. J., and C. Chippindale. 1993. "Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures." American Journal of Archaeology 97: 601-59.

Photo: the so-called "James Ossuary": just clandestinely excavated or clandestinely excavated and then altered?

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

Tom Flyn on the Greenhalgh case in 2007.

One antiquity dealer is quoted as saying
"the trend towards ever more convincing provenance-faking is the most irritating aspect
of the Amarna Princess case and others like it. "I hate fakers and forgers with a passion because they're trying to undermine one of the most valuable tools of the
honest trade — our approach to authentication through diligent provenance research."..."
Ha ha. Try and get a US coin dealer to tell you where the stuff they sell comes from and how they got their hands on it...

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