Friday 19 February 2010

Cadaver Collecting in Colorado

Glenn Howard (Ancient Art, Ltd.; Ancient Art International,Inc.; Egyptian Antiquities, Westminster, CO 80036, USA) writes to the yahoo Ancient Artifact list that he was told (by whom I wonder) that the sale of his mummified human foot by Bob Dodge had "stirred a little attention and confrontation" on the list. He writes to tell the members his version of how it came to be on sale in the USA, the "real story behind this mummies (sic) foot....". The text he produces however is clearly crafted to offset the earlier criticism of fellow collectors, and is notable for what it does not say, as much as what it does. Neither is it explained why one dealer is selling another dealer's stock as his own. Let us see Mr Howard's retrospective justification for collecting human corpse parts.

Apparently a "few years ago" dealer Howard was asked by a collector's niece to look over some artefacts when the person's house was being cleared after their death:

"I sorted them in three sections. Fake, authentic, and pieces I was interested in. Among the pieces were two mummy hands, and one foot (in an old Tupperware container). She proceeded to tell me she was going to throw them out. I was shocked by this. I wrote a check out and handed it across the table. I thought she was going to fall off her chair."
Interesting that last comment, somebody invites a dealer to look over some artefacts and is surprised to get a cheque? This obviously is intended to convey that for the former owner, these artefacts really had no value. The fate of the recently acquired pieces of human tissue is then described. Note, no mention is made of whether the foot and two hands belonged to the same cadaver:

One person's trash, is another persons treasured mummies hands (and foot), right? Anyway.... Now.... since then these have been cared for and kept from an certain destruction. I sold one of the hands to a collector that absolutely treasures it.I sold the foot in the auction that honest and well respected dealers Bob and Teresa Dodge worked so hard to make a great success.The last hand? I have have under a hand crafted redwood and glass display case in my private gallery. An interesting note, This hand has an original bronze pin holding the bandage gently into place on its palm. It is fascinating, and in an incredible state of preservation (I guess Tupperware really does keep things fresh!) Seriously. It may have helped in keeping this hand intact. To me personally.... this hand gives me some a the greatest inspiration,and thoughts this Egyptian culture has ever given me in 15 years.I wonder what this hand held [... snipped lengthy romantic speculation ...]? I don't think I will ever part with this hand.... It will sit beside me through life. I will instruct my estate to transfer this hand to a museum or a family member after I pass, as so they can be the next caretaker of this fascinating piece of history. Probably a family member of dear friend. Besides many of us know if would probably end up in an old metal chest down in the basement of a museum, if that's where I sent it. Just as bad as the trash. Not cared for as it should be. [...] So many of you should really think before you go on your insane tirades...".
Mr Howard therefore has given the fragment of cadaver a "good home" (in a "a hand crafted redwood and glass display case" in his private gallery) and "saved" it [for now] from "an (sic) certain destruction". He uses it as his muse, an aid to entertaining speculation about the past. On his demise he intends to will a piece of somebody else's corpse to a family member or friend (as a memento?). He regards it as "insane" to question whether this is ethical collecting.

What of course he does not say is what kind of "good home" he has assured for the foot he also bought at the same time and now sold on, through another dealer. It is not going to any "good home", it is going to the guy that came up with the most cash for it. That could be anyone, the piece could be going anywhere, to a freak show owner or foot fetishist, or a loudmouth drunkard Neo-Nazi wife beater given to smashing furniture perhaps. What actually is the US definition of a "good home" in which to lay to rest human corpses? In fact, whatever that definition is, neither Mr Howard or Mr Dodge seem to have taken any measures to 'vet' the bidders in the foot auction to make the "ensuring it goes to a good home" argument stick. But we note that in the text Mr Howard published on the collector's forum, the destination and type of "care" offered to the foot itself (that is what was being discussed) is mentioned only in passing.

Let us look at his key argument that he saved it: "This would be buried in a landfill right now". The first point is that whether it is the uncaring heirs of one collector or another that dispose of items like this as trash, it still does not resolve the general issue of whether temporarily housing lopped off bits of human cadaver in ephemeral private collections (or with family members and friends of a deceased collector) is an activity which we should be applauding or decrying. Is it actually "insane" to ask such a question about the nineteenth century trophy-hunting attitudes of private collectors in the twenty-first century? I think not. Secondly I wonder whether in the US state where this woman lived it is legal and normal to dispose of human remains in the trash? Some guy's girlfriend's dead baby for example, grandma to save funeral costs, aborted human foetuses, human tissue from hospitals, the hobo that died of cold round the back of the garage. My guess is it is not. So is buying a bothersome artefact the only way to save it from somebody doing something illegal or unethical to it? Or is the motive for buying it the notion of a "handcrafted rosewood display case in my private gallery" and the potential for making 6000$ on the foot and an undisclosed sum on the hand, and the rest is retrospective excuse-making for this behaviour? The reader can examine the whole text and decide.

Renfrew ('Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership') has examined the collectors' "good home" argument (2000, 20-1, 77) and concludes that it "may apply for stray dogs" but not antiquities. I think it applies even less in the case of pieces of dismembered human body, however much one might like to justify their acquisition in order to then ghoulishly stare at it on display in a personal gallery of decontextualised antiquities and speculate whose dismembered and scattered body it is a part of.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Note the equation between a museum and "trash"-- misunderstanding what museums are for: public institutions. But the whole confusion bewteen public and private, between 'saving antiquities for everyone" and "letting everyone buy bits' is central to the antiquities dealers and collectors' worldview

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