Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Human body parts - price on request

Washington portable antiquities dealer, Sue McGovern-Huffman "Sands of Time" is offering many "exquisite rare and collectable" antiquities "that date from between 4000BC to the 8th century AD. Geographically, they originate from Egypt, the Near East and Europe and include objects fashioned from marble, bronze, glass, gold, pottery and stone". And human flesh. Dessicated. One item of "ancient art" and "culture" being offered by this dealer is the barbarously lopped-off foot of a human cadaver. Ostensibly it is a fragment of Egyptian mummy ("Item ID: EM806 An Egyptian Mummified Foot, New Kingdom ca 1550-1069BC") , but the only "provenance" offered is "Private Delaware collection acquired in the 1930's". Unlike the UK and many other countries, the USA seems not yet to have any firm laws on the commercial use of human tissues and body parts (see a number of scandals involving US funeral homes in recent years). I wonder then if the Washington dealer could get collectors and put up on her website for sale ("price on request") the blackened foot of a Blackfoot Indian, or some Anasazi ankle bones, or maybe an "Indian skull" or two. If she feels it is ethical trade to openly sell ancient body parts, why not all ancient body parts? I wonder what value in dollars she places on her newly-acquired lopped off foot?

UPDATE 25/2/09
I see Mrs McGovern reads my blog. The chopped off dried shrivelled human foot which she was trying to sell yesterday* has been replaced under the link I originally gave here (and with the same inventory number) now with a picture of a wooden foot [I have replaced that link in the post above so the original message makes sense]. The webpage currently states that it also is "New Kingdom" and was apparently acquired in the 1930s and ended up in a "Delaware collection" - how many New Kingdom feet does this dealer have from the same collection? This one has a price though: EUR 509.28

Lest readers think as the result of Mrs McGovern's switching the pictures that this blog's author cannot tell the difference between a wooden foot from a Delaware collection and a broken off bit of corpse, the original webpage was up long enough to find its way into Google cache, links here and here which should work a while. The link to the mummified foot from a Google search now reads: Sorry, this product is not currently available.

So how has she disposed of the original item which had the inventory number EM 806? How do you get rid of bits of dead bodies in Washington if you decide not to try to sell them? Aren't there laws about at least that?

A while ago there was a discussion about all this on Yahoo's Ancient Artefacts discussion group (from 7th Feb 2008 onwards). It turns out that not only did dealer Ernie Krumbein have another unprovenanced ripped-off dessicated cadaver foot for sale (not the same one, initially he mistook it for a hand), but a lot of other members had other body bits. "Jeffkeith2001" has a mummy head ("i[t] doesnt give me the creeps and I promise to keep it safe and respect it the best way I know how"), Chris Simons has a finger, Bob "Manor antiques" has a "beautiful mummified hand [...], wrapped in linen [...] I had a special glass case made for it, with a royal purple velvet lining. It sits atop my fireplace in the living room"... . Now we are constantly being told by the pro-collecting lobby that portable antiquity collectors take these things and use them to "learn about the past". I can see where that argument might have some grounds for believability (though personally I do not accept it is as simple as that) in the case of coins and egyptian amulets and other "art"work with pictorial messages for example. I do not see that a piece of dried human flesh falls into the same category. We all know what a foot looks like, we most of us have two of them. I do not see what one can "learn about the past" having a hunk of corpse in a velvet-lined case on the mantelpiece. That sounds more like curio-collecting, cheap thrill generation which has nothing to do with advancing any "personal vision of the past", or "learning about other cultures". This kind of collecting seems to cater for the nastier side of "bragging rights", trying to get the neighbour's kids talking about the collector in hushed tones ("he's got a real MUMMY on his mantelpiece"). A nasty business.

UPDATE OF THE UPDATE (March 1st):I can see Mrs McGovern regards human feet - real or sculpted a touchy subject and since I last wrote has now totally removed from her site the page to which the link above refers. Originally it was a shrivelled piece of human cadaver masquerading as "culture", then it was a New Kingdom sculpted wooden foot with the same inventory number and stated to be from a "Delaware" collection like the corpse chunk (and a NK canopic jar top now apparently sold). Now that page has gone and the wooden foot has reappeared on another page... here (until she changes the description and moves it again I guess) - but looky here... it's got a new inventory number, date and description, "EW713 An Egyptian wood foot from a statue, Middle Kingdom ca 2040-1783BC" and NOW it is provenanced "Private Californian collection" (is she making this up or getting her inventory confused with all this readjustment of inventory numbers?) With manipulation like this going on in the open, what in this trade is there that one can actually trust? But the price has gone down to $ 495.00 (EUR 391.50 ) perhaps because the dealer herself is no longer sure where it came from. The saga of the Footprints in the Sands of Time goes on and on... Pathetic.

*(Steven John wrote on Ancient Artifacts yesterday about the dealer's new website: "Only one criticism. On the 'New Items' page.. that mummified foot scares the pants off me!")

It seems these are not Sue McGovern's own feet with the clumpy shoes apparently straddling an ancient pot from "Private Californian collection, acquired in the 1960's and then by descent"(sic). This is apparently an attempt at antiquity-dealing humour.

1 comment:

Phil Davis said...

"No traffic in human body parts!" is a slogan I can endorse wholeheartedly. We're on the same side on this one. In fact, in this regard I'm considerably more "radical" than you are. I'm very uncomfortable with any excavation of human graves at all, whether by looters or archaeologists. I think people who have survived the passage of time interred the way they wanted to be, grave goods and all, should be left that way. I'm perfectly aware of the knowledge that can be gained by excavation of graves, but the principle that some potential knowledge comes at too high a cost has been pretty well established. There's no doubt, for example, that Mengele's twin studies contain data of potential value, and some medical researchers have advocated use of this data, but most reject it categorically, because of the way the information was gathered. (Before you invoke Goodwin's Law against me, I'm emphatically not comparing archaeologists to Nazis. My point is different; simply that some information is off limits. I put knowledge obtained by grave robbing in this category.) This is not some delicate squeamishness about bodies; I'm perfectly OK with excavation of bodies at Pompeii for example. It's the act of disturbing the undisturbed past that bothers me. I remember thinking, even as a kid, what if the Egyptians were right, and they needed their attendants and model boats? My ultimate point is simply that respect for the past can take different forms, and what's obvious to one person may be not at all obvious to another.

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