Sunday 5 April 2009

Taking care of the Past? Rather not.

Antimo Russo who has been living in Hong Kong for four years writes on the Yahoo Ancient Artefacts group that he needs a suggestion from artefact collectors in the group:

about a restoration of a Sword and two daggers All three Items are DONG SON bought from Vietnam. They have Bronze Handle and Iron Blade. I bought it "as found", the handles are in good conditions, the blades have rust and decay (start to have also some pitting on the edge.I would love to restore the blades .

Well, I suppose the first question one must ask concerns the purchase of "as found" Dong Son culture metalwork by a private collector in Hong Kong. Vietnam has export controls. So who sold Mr Russo these antiquities and what kind of export licence do they have? He does not say.

So he wants to conserve the items in his care. Sadly however he knows not the first thing about it so is looking for "suggestions" from other enthusiasts on the Internet group - though does not supply even a photo to show what sort of state they are in. He does however have an idea how he will go about it:

"somebody here ask me to utilize a product called Fertan(it is a rust converter but do not turn the metal black as the usual similar products) The final color is greish and the treated part do not assume a "plastified effect". May I have a suggestion from some expert on how to restore it? I do not want incurr in a loose of value of these beautiful pieces!"
I think we may safely presume that Mr Russo (who earlier had contacted the group about some coins he wanted to sell "for a good price") is mainly concerned about the financial rather than archaeological value of the items he has appropriated for his personal entertainment and maybe profit.

This is pretty typical of the milieu. Fertan is a water based tannic acid mixture. Yes, it will convert "rust" into a black ferro-tannic compound, which can be brushed off. But to use it properly, the "rust" has to be wet, grease-free and also with any loose dirt and thicker crust removed. In other words, if the iron looks like one might expect an iron blade in contact with copper alloy to look like after a number of millennia buried in damp tropical soil - that's the entire original surface and any evidence of organic remains preserved in it. The object is not an iron object with rust on it - like the car bodywork that Fertan is produced to be used on, but a complex structure of fragile and unstable corrosion products around an eroded metal core. Some untrained amateur soaking it in a water-based acid car body rust stripper in the bathroom or garden shed is the last thing you'd want to have done to it. Conservation of archaeological metalwork is a complex discipline.

My advice to Mr Russo would be one word: "don't". I would then urge him to hand the archaeological objects he is so obviously incapable of treating properly to a museum which has trained personnel that can.

The Portable Antiquities Collector's Code of Ethics I discussed earlier here has a few words on this: "(4) Recognise your role as custodian/ Do your utmost to ensure the wellbeing of the objects in your care./ Consider the condition of artifacts prior to purchase and whether you will be able to carry out any necessary conservation or repairs. Any intrusive operation should ideally be carried out by a competent professional."

Certainly something as drastically intrusive as Mr Russo is contemplating should not be carried out at all. That certainly would be neither responsible nor ethical collecting.

This is important since it is so often claimed by private collectors that museums and government agencies are failing to do look after items in their care, and that collectors are in some way curating pieces of (somebody else's) past for future generations to enjoy. Not by dunking them in things like car bodywork rust stripper they are not. They are simply destroying them.

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