Monday 26 April 2010

Portable Antiquity Not Glittery Enough to be a National Treasure

Those collectors and dealers who claim Britain has the "most sensible antiquity protection legislation in the world" would do well to look at another item in the controversial Bonhams antiquity sale. St Pega's Hermitage, Deeping Road in Peakirk, Northamptonshire is a grade-2 listed residence converted from a chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew (as often happens in the case of redundant historic places of worship in Britain) . This stands on the site of the cell of a seventh/eighth century saint St Pega (d. 716, a contemporary of the Venerable Bede). When the chapel was converted to a private dewelling along with the property came a loose fragment of stone. The new owner Nick Evered has for the past eight years kept it in his sitting room:
"It's attractive," he says, but not the sort of thing he would go out and buy; and he could do without the responsibility of looking after it, insuring it and showing it to the occasional visiting scholar. Selling it seemed a good idea.
He assigned the piece to Bonhams – where it is due to be auctioned on Wednesday – and was 'surprised' by the storm that would blow up (Mike Pitts, 'Save Our Saxon Cross Guardian 25th April 2010).

This artefact is now 'Lot number 286W', a rectangular block of limestone covered in winding carvings of beasts and foliage, which is part of a free-standing cross that once stood to commemorate St Pega, England's first known female hermit. This is a good example of the work of the important Peterborough school of Anglo-Saxon art, and one of very few sculptures of this school that can be linked to a place whose significance in Anglo-Saxon times is known.

Graham Jones, an Oxford University researcher and student of early Christian saints, says the stone is "part of the core historical heritage of the country". The property from which it comes is however not a scheduled site, the object is not made of gold or silver or part of a metalwork hoard, so does not fall in the rather narrow definition of national "Treasure" of the current British legislation. The act applies to metals, not limestone. This object therefore is not offered any kind of protection by British law and the owner is at perfect liberty to do as he wishes with it, including breaking it up and making it into hardcore for his new greenhouse if he so desires. Nevertheless, it does form part of the complex of monuments - though is not (now) fixed to the ground, it is a "portable" antiquity, and thus up for grabs.
So what is it doing in a saleroom – from where it could in theory end up anywhere in the world, and, as academics most fear, disappear from public view? [...] The best that we can hope, says Story, is that the buyer will keep the cross locally and make it accessible. However, Peterborough museum is unlikely to be able to afford it. The stone has a guide price of £7,000 to £9,000, but telephone bids have already exceeded that estimate. Evered, who finds himself cast as the villain, says he had no idea of the level of interest in the stone, "was never selling it for the money", and has inquired about withdrawing it from the sale. But to do so could lead to a consignment fee of more than £9,000.
Private ownership of antiquities as a form of curation has one large pitfall, the present "carer" will not live for ever, the present "carer" may after a while tire of the geegaws in the sitting room and stop "caring" about them. Mr E claims he's "not interested in the money", but neither it seems did he think too hard about putting the object in the curation of a public institution, such as the local museum. Thus it is that another privately owned artefact another antiquity that is portable enough to make it to the saleroom, is threatened with going off on some more wanderings through the shady underworld of the market in "ancient art" when it properly belongs either in the monument of which it formed part, or a public archive where it is accessible for study by all.

See also: David Gill, Save the Anglo-Saxon Stone! So what is it doing in a sale room? and vote in his informal poll.

[Now this has worked before], maybe the ACCG as part of its propagation of the benefits that accrue from the private ownership of pieces of the common archaeological heritage should start up a fund to save this piece from disappearing into a foreign collection. About 16 000 dollars should be enough.

Vignette: the house which Mr Evered does not want to keep an Anglo-Saxon cross fragment.

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