Tuesday 6 April 2010

Artefacts from Archaeologist's Research in Panama Sold in US

From Florida dealer Axel Traugott's Arte Xibalba website on the Trocadero portal:

Three groups of polychrome fragments of Cocle pottery from Panama ca. 500 - 1000 AD, mostly Conte, Macaracas and Parita types, .
CC89A - A great group of 14 assorted fragments, most ranging from 3” to 4” in length, many featuring saurian creatures. Nice study group. 50$
CC89B - A great group of 17 assorted fragments, most ranging from 3” to 6-1/2” in length, many featuring saurian creatures and including a partial plate piece. Nice study group. 50$
CC87 - A partial Conte plate, 11-3/4” wide, depicting a stylized fish. Boldly painted with vivid red and purple paint. 50$

Very attractive they are too. But a "study group"? What is a private collector supposed to "study" on the basis of posessing this material? Now, this is from Panama, so how did it enter the USA? No mention of this is made on the website - which pretty frequently skips over such minor issues for US collectors of archaeological artefacts from Central and Southern American countries as where these things came from and whether individual items are associated with any paperwork (though there is a general statement "Every object purchased by Arte Xibalba has been legally acquired and, if imported by us into the United States, has been done so in strict consideration of all international treaties governing objects of cultural importance").

What interested me in this sale was however something the dealer wrote on an artefact forum but somehow forgot to include on the website... "I have recently acquired a box full of wonderful polychrome examples from the estate of an archaeologist and am offering them in today's client mailing". So these are being offered in a private sale on the basis of emails sent to potentially interested parties, the objects themselves do not appear on the main index of the website. What is interesting is the phrase "from the estate of a archaeologist" - who is unnamed. Who was the archaeologist involved, where did he work, and if this came from his research in Panama, why are these finds not deposited with the archives of that project in a museum or his funding institution?

What were the circumstances which led to them being taken out of Panama, and should they not have been returned? The seller does not say anything about this either on his website, or in the message to the artefact collectors' list informing them of the private sale.

I wonder is it usual for US archaeologists who work in Central America to get involved in the sale of antiquities? For that they'd get chucked out of other countries. Also I thought the AIA was against that sort of thing? So is Panama particularly lenient in that regard? Who was this guy?

Mr Traugott answered in a roundabout way:
As always, full provenance disclosure was made to the buyers of these items and will be made to the buyers of the remaining objects purchased from the estate when I sell them. The specifics are none of your business, but for the edification of the group, this individual was a member of the Archaeological Society of Panama between 1949 to 1958.
Which of course does not make "the individual" an "archaeologist", any more than my belonging to the Warsaw Early Music Society would make me a musician - more is the pity. Neither of course does that answer the question how that material left Panama and entered the USA.

Then puzzlingly Traugott went off on a long tangent about "the appalling state of museums in Panama, a country which has had such a minimal interest in preserving its ancient past, that one could fairly describe them as ludicrous". He then mentioned previous discussions of "the pros and cons of trusting only museums to maintain "patrimony"..", presumably he wants to cast his own role as the dealer of unloved artefacts as a heritage hero providing the objects with an opportunity of better stewardship outside their home country. "Most members are aware of the extensive problems with museum stewardship, as various articles have been posted in this forum regularly over the years". Indeed they have, it is all part of the collectors' propaganda, according to which there are only bad museums. All intended to promote a picture in the collectors' mind of as dealer Traugott says: "the merits of private ownership vs. public storage facilities", adding that he doubts that no "more than a handful of members" is interested in a wider discussion of that issue.

The seller also notes in a later message:
I cited the dates over which the original owner worked in Panama and was an important contributor the ASP simply to show that it preceded UNIDROIT - UNESCO, in my opinion the most important fact of the matter. The fact that these fragments once belonged to a prominent archaeologist makes them really no more valuable or interesting of themselves, they are simply a lovely collection of pottery shards which may make a wonderful study group or fun display for their new owners, none of whom asked for the name...
In other words they were bought by collectors unconcerned with the details of where they came from. The fact that the seller was an "archaeologist" was enough. Of course the logic is faulty of teh suggestion that the owner was a member of an archaeological society in 1949-58 means that the collection was put together before 1970. Neither does that tell us when the objects were taken out of Panama and imported into the USA. Was the archaeologist the importer or the subsequent dealer?

Dealer Traugott also states, though it was not the topic of my question to him about the origins of this group of archaeological finds:
"in my experience, many archaeologists have collections, often (but not always) involving material related to their studies. Over the years I have bought antiquities from the estates of several archaeologists, not all Americans. I have occasionally purchased items from the private collections of members of the archaeological community, including working, retired and teaching individuals, the most consistent seller was French. Big surprise, archaeologists collect stuff (yes, really), archaeologists buy stuff (some buy a lot) and archaeologists sell stuff (gasp! say it ain't so).
I say archaeologists who get involved in the antiquities trade in its current form, unless as part of a "sting" operation, can come to a sticky end.

Here is another private collection of an academic up for sale: Pre-Columbian Collection of Hasso von Winning, Malter Galleries April 2004

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