Thursday 9 April 2009

"Context" in a no-questions-asked buyer's collection

A portable antiquity collector’s recent insistence that the “context” of portable antiquities in modern accumulations of such items is an important source of knowledge about the past reminded me of a case I saw discussed in the internet a while back and seems worth visiting.

Stephen Herold (M.A., Ph.C., “palaeographer and epigraphic historian, originally of early Celtic manuscripts” and dealer in antiquities) wrote something under the title “The Leroy Golf Antiquities Collection, A reconstruction of a collector’s life and antiquities collection”. Herold published his comments on this collection as “an exercise to see how much can be learned about, and from, such an ephemeral and undocumented collection”. So in other words, a very good test case for some of the assertions made by the pro-collecting lobby about the self-didactic qualities of no-questions-asked portable antiquity collecting, the 'curation' of portable antiquities in ephemeral personal collections, and the creation of "knowledge about the past" through the association of different types of decontextualised objects in "new contexts" formed by the act of collecting itself.

Apparently this Leroy Golf was

an American archaeologist (professional or amateur) who came from Oklahoma and worked in the oil industry in the Middle East in the 1930s and 1940s. While there he assembled a modest collection of artifacts that was exceptional both in its choice of subject and its quality. [...] He returned home around 1950 and died shortly thereafter. He had no family and only one close friend, a Mr. Henderson in Kansas who inherited his collection. Mr. Henderson died in 1974, and by that date the collection was carefully wrapped up and placed in a carpenter’s wooden chest in the attic [...]. Mrs. Henderson died in 2001 and the collection, along with the contents of the house, was then sold to a local second hand dealer. The items were sold by her on eBay or to other dealers in 2002 and 2003. Some of the original items sold on eBay have reappeared on the market within a few months.
Herold claims that this material accumulated by Golf (which he divides into the following categories I. Sumerian Carvings, II. Sumerian Seals, III. North Mesopotamian-Syrian Seals , IV. Egyptian Artifacts ) is an extremely important collection since it is:

one of the few still completely unknown to scholars, and dates from the last period in which the purchase and export of antiquities was still legal. It was assembled at the same time as the famous Moore and Erlenmeyer collections, and with an equally critical eye, but without the expert advice available to wealthy collectors and public institutions. As with these famous collections, provenance, except for the known areas of Mr. Golf'’s employment, is entirely conjectural and analytically derived by scholars”.

Herold asserts that as a collector, Golf had a “critical eye” and was an "archaeologist” (sic) whose “specialty was seals, especially those depicting complex mythological scenes and unusual symbolism”. This is a somewhat subjective assessment. The lack of any sort of provenance for any of the objects is hardly surprising. They are for the most part crude ‘tourist’ fakes bought by somebody whose primary concern was not whence the seller had obtained the items they were selling, but merely accumulating new collectable geegaws motivated by sheer acquisitiveness. The random accumulation of undocumented portable antiquities by this collector tells us something about (one aspect) of the character of a resident of Oklahoma in the big wide world. It has very little value indeed in creating knowledge about the past. Nevertheless the artefacts formerly in that collection are now presumably circulating in the antiquities market, misinforming each successive owner about whatever aspects of the past and ancient cultures that they use them to "learn about".

Photo: a nasty nasty piece of not-antiquity in somebody's personal collection

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