Saturday 13 February 2010

But is it Art? Collecting Human Body Parts, Legal? Ethical?

In today's Antiquities, Ancient and Ethnographic Art auction on, Artemis Gallery Ancient Art (Robert and Teresa Dodge, Elaine Jamieson: Erie, CO 80516) sold off Lot 263:
A Very Rare Egyptian Mummified Foot Estimate $7,000 - $9,000 New Kingdom, extremely rare mummy's foot. Traces of gilding on bandages. Toenails in perfect shape. Prints still intact on bottom of toes. L[ength].7-1/2 [inches] PROVENANCE: Old America collection from the 1920/30s Condition report: Fragmentary.

Well, let us start with that "provenance", "Old America (sic) collection" is not a provenance. It gives no cultural context to the object at all, in fact it does not even identify the object as from Egypt, let alone ancient Egypt (its a human foot wrapped up in linen and dessicated). Howactually is it "dated" to the New Kingdom (as opposed for example to Ptolemaic or early Coptic?)

Let us assume it is ancient Egyptian as the seller asserts. Is this "very rare"? Well, I have just spent three months living in the Theban necropolis, and in my wanderings in the bits the tourists do not usually go, I very frequently came across ancient human remains lying where they'd been thrown out of the tombs by people later using them for one thing or another. Not "rare" at all there. I must admit however the idea of picking bits up with the thought that in Colorado some uscrupulous idiot will pay thousands of dollars for it to sell over the internet never really crossed my mind. More generally I put them carefully in a nearby place where the'd be protected from the sun, tourists trampling and scavengers, I guess I should add to that list of threats US portable antiquity dealers and collectors. The idea of taking it home and displaying it (even as a form of "protection") far from theplace where it was laid to rest really is abhorrent as it would have been to the individuals involved in the funeral.
The "object" (its not really a "portable antiquity" is it? Neither is it really "ancient art") is not really "fragmentary", it's holding together quite well accordiong to the photographs. What it is however is a fragment broken off what was a complete body and the bits scattered to the four winds, in this case to the USA and sold off through the Internet. That seems extremely disrespectful of the bearers of the ancient culture portable antiquity collectors claim to be honouring by their collection.

Who would buy such a thing and what for? Which of the "justifications" usually trotted out to make portable artefact collecting sound beneficial (sic) could one apply here? I really cannot think of a single one that would excuse this kind of treatment of human remains.

A few days ago a member of a collecting forum with a conscience raised this point:
Does the fact that this poor individual died so long ago make this alright? I'm ready to accept the sale of grave-goods and associated funerary artifacts, but people collecting actual body parts? Come on, you'd need to be some kind of ghoulish dracula to put in a bid for that. Anyone that puts in a bid for this should be put on some kind of serial killer watch-list, just in case.

Leaving aside the idea that for some reason this person thinks it is "alright" to loot graves for "grave-goods and associated funerary artefacts" for commercial reasons, the question about the sale of human tissue is a perfectly cogent one. In fact it did not raise much of a reaction from collectors, but after the auction was over the dealer Bob Dodge triumphantly announced:

For those of you who were watching the earlier thread about our Egyptian Mummified Foot, it sold today for $6K and there were multiple bids - I guess there are a lot of potential serial killers out there, right? That was a really crazy post...

I personally do not think it was a "really crazy" post at all, whether or not the dealer wants to admit it or not, that was clearly a very valid question being asked. Just to put the answer in context, this is a picture from the Artemis Gallery website of the US dealer in dessicated human tissue, playing hide and seek with a tribal mask (if it is real, potentially an object of religious significance to some group too)

Bob Dodge

As far as I can see the legal situation in the US is rather confusing about the sale of human tissues. The law is clear about remains coming from Native American graves, but I am having difficulty finding what it says about digging up non-Native graves and selling the remains found in them, or the sale of human tissue cut from living bodies, though I assume there must be such legislation as there have been a number of police actions taken as a result of scandals about the running of cemeteries and the unauthorised selling of human body parts over there. There also does seem to be some legislation which governs the movement of such material across the borders of some states, which seems to add to the confusion. EBay does have a global policy which forbids the use of its facilities for the sale of such material (and when notified, has quickly taken down auctions which violate it) , but as far as I can see does not have such a policy (at least one displayed in an obvious place). This is rather odd, but then they use the same get-out as EBay: it is merely a "gateway linking bidders to traditional auction events broadcast in real time via the Internet".

Does the fact that somebody has taken it upon themselves to become a collector of portable antiquities somehow excuse them from the norms by which others live? Would you let your children go alone to do their homework to the home of a neighbour who you know has human bodyparts in the parlour? What kind of a person would that be? Archaeologists have codes of ethics and professional practice which would not allow them to keep such items in their parlour - why would collectors not feel restrained by a similar sense of ethics and what is and what is not respectful treatment of human remains?

"There were multiple bids and it sold for 6000 $", to whom? And what are they going to use it for? To take out of its box at coctail parties to entertain his guests?

Illustrations: the human tissue in question from the original Artemis Auction; Bob Dodge from his own website, vignette, still from The Mummy Returns


Anonymous said...

That's really vile.

Bob Dodge: what a pernicious moron

Jessica said...

First, I must say I have purchased from Artemis Gallery's LiveAuctioneers auctions (and no, I did not buy the foot). I've always been more than impressed with the genuine artifacts they offer and with how upfront, honest and communicative Bob and Teresa are. Most experts are much harder to get ahold of, and not as thorough, candid, or nice as they are. They go out of their way for seasoned collectors and newbies alike. That willingness says an immense amount about a person.

With that said, I fully respect human remains. While I would absolutely never own a human foot beyond my own two, I also would never be so presumptuous or arrogant as to assume that my moral code and belief is superior to anyone else's opinions, beliefs, or moral code.

Why is Bob Dodge (a very nice guy, actually) the scapegoat in all of this? I'm certain he didn't trot over to Egypt, chop it off, and schlep it back to the USA himself. If you're going to be upset with anyone, direct the blame to the original foot thief.

This was someone's collection item, seen as a prized piece of ancient art. Bob Dodge, through Artemis Live, brokered a sale to someone else who wanted it for their collection. Simple supply and demand. He did not break any laws... perhaps he offended you and your moral code, but I'm pretty sure that's the beauty of the United States - freedom to live one's own ideals, so long as one does not violate any laws.

The same concept that allows you your opinion of contempt allows Bob Dodge the opinion that brokering this sale was not a moral crisis and also allows the buyer and seller of the foot their respective opinions of the item as art.

To 'John' - you must not know Bob. There are many rude things you can call him which are reasonable (I'll even give you pernicious, since he clearly injured some social ideals), but he's not a moron.

Please note, I'm in no way affiliated with Artemis Gallery and no one but myself has inspired me to comment or even knows I am commenting. However, after reading all the outcry on this issue, I wanted to throw in my two cents.

We each live by our own moral and ethical code. Certainly, I will never chop someone's foot off to display in my parlor (or buy a foot for that matter). But, some people look at that mummified foot and see a rare art form and a small window into history. I'll keep on legally collecting my scarabs, and they can keep on legally collecting their mummified feet. To each his own - that's fine with me.

Paul Barford said...

Tell me scarab-collecting "Jessica" if that is your real name (hidden profile) do you really think a piece lopped off a human cadaver was produced as "ancient art"?

"anyone else's opinions, beliefs, or moral code"
but what about the person whose foot this was, and his family? Do you think this is what they envisaged happening to their departed father, brother, uncle, son? We happen to know quite a bit about Egyptian beliefs and basically this person would not happily say" "yes, smash my body up and cart the pieces off", would he? So what right has a dealer or collector to ignore that? Disrespect, disregard that? And for what? I really do not believe the person who bought this is "studying" it. I am sure it is being "owned" and displayed for a cheap thrill, posing maybe as an erudite.

"Why is Bob Dodge (a very nice guy, actually) the scapegoat in all of this?"
because he chose to be involved in the sale, if he'd been selling goulash made of strangled kittens, do you think we should "not mention it" because despite all that "he's a nice helpful guy"?

Why CAN'T we talk about this sort of trade, based on real cases? This is what really happens on the antiquities market.

"If you're going to be upset with anyone, direct the blame to the original foot thief."

it seems to me with things like this with no intrinsic value, but which achieve a value because somebody will buy them without a second thought (because he knows he'll find a similarly unthinking customer), I think the dealer is as guilty as the thief. Decent dealers don't touch dodgy stuff. Decent dealers would not want to be seen offering dodgy stuff. Dealers who will not baulk at selling anything encourage the looters.

"Simple supply and demand".
Exactly, stop the demand, and supplying no longer pays. The mummy-smasher having learnt that US dealers will give him cash for a bit of a cadaver is out there with his axe looking for another tomb right now probably.

"I'm pretty sure that's the beauty of the United States - freedom to live one's own ideals, so long as one does not violate any laws".

Oh wonderful. Ta ra tra tra la la..

So it is not in any way illegal to trade in human body bits in the US then? Is that so? Perhaps you could answer the question about this in the blog text.

"some people look at that mummified foot and see a rare art form"
I see a human foot removed from a grave. And then sold.

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.