Thursday, 29 July 2010

So that's what collectors do...

"The monster looks at you -- one eye made extra wide, the other normal. Then he grabs the triskeles with its rotating "motion" emphasized by the central snail coil and shows it to you. This snail-coil had just been the widened eye, now it is a lively banner which shows the ebbing of life. The other eye of the monster now peers at you from behind this banner. What happens after death, occurs in another dimension -- the side that cannot be seen at the same time as the triskeles".
No, not a review of the latest blood and gore-monsters video game in a teenager computer magazine, but an "analysis" of a "finial" in the cabinet of collector John Hooker Esquire which he has posted on the Yahoo "AncientArtifacts" discussion list.
A smith capable of such work would have been of the druid class. [...] Eventually, the design ceases its peregrinations and returns to the above world of the top design its "soul" transmigrated back to the world of the living where death waits, once again, to show you the way around yet again.
The nonsense about life and death forces and invisible themes goes on for a few pages, what is so odd is the object on which Celtophile Hooker sees all this played out is a fragment of what he describes as a "finial" in the 3rd cent. B.C. "plastic style" and the surviving bit is only 23mm tall. He says the (unnamed) dealer misidentified and misdated it, only he, Hooker, knows the real identity.

It was bought from "a U.K. antiquities dealer". It was said to have come from metal detecting "in Oxfordshire", no more specific find spot was given. Says Hooker: "As far as I know, this is the first object in the plastic style to come from British soil" ("Only a handful of objects in this style are known, and they are mostly bracelets and anklets"). The object of course does not figure in the PAS database (nor the UKDFD one) and its current owner in Canada is jubilant: "I said to a friend at the time "If I were a person who issues export permits, I would never give one for this!"." Yeah, well they did, because its not gold and sparkly, and anyway the PAS has not seen it to say how important or otherwise it is/was.

Hooker typically for a collector reckons:
After contacting the dealer in England, I was no closer to learning where, exactly, it was found and who the finder was. [....] Too bad, but not terribly important for a piece like this. Oxfordshire had some significance, but a specific find spot would be highly unlikely to provide any more real information.
On the contrary a piece of datable metalwork as part of a specific site assemblage may have yielded information if that findspot was noted, reported and information collated before the piece was shipped off to a delighted and uncaring collector overseas. Perhaps there is a reason why the metal detector user does not want his identity known and why he's keeping quiet where it was found? Maybe it was found in pitch darkness in a remote location where nobody should be metal detecting, day or night. Or maybe it was one of a group of bronze objects found in a pot split up quietly between detecting pals? Or sold from an address in Oxfordshire on behalf of an metal detectorist operating illegally outside England? If all is legitimate and above board, why actually can there not be any openness about this in the case of a find from England where metal detecting is legal? The fact that the information is nevertheless hidden should be ringing alarm bells in both dealer and collector. But as we see, the collector does not care, "it's probably not important" he persuades himself. The important thing (which comes over very clearly in his message to the discussion list) is that he's got his hands on what he calls the "ultimate" artefact (actually this is the third time I recall hearing that the findspot of an unprovenanced "Celtic" object in the possession of this same collector is "probably not important", the others were a decorated lead spindlewhorl and a linchpin terminal). And now he's bragging about having it, dropping the names of all the Big Boys in the rather incestuous little world of Celtic metalwork studies who have been "enthusiastic" when shown the photos, and now he's bragging to fellow collectors what a clever chappie he is to have got his hands on this little goodie.

And I think establishing the findspot is important if one is going to pose questions like: "Did its owner bring it to Britain [...] Did he arrive as craftsman seeking a new patron? and did he eventually change the course of British Celtic art?". For all we know the field from which it came might be full of continental coins and potsherds because it came with the soil in the flowerpots of imported plants used to lay out the hall gardens.

Frankly I find the discussion typology of fragments of motifs, a boss here, a squiggly bit "like one on the Weedly Bottom Torc Finial" terribly sterile, and all the imagnative narrativisation that Hooker attaches to them mildly amusing. But what angers me is the totally cavalier attitude to best practice in collecting which is what the PAS is supposed to be propagating in England and Wales and has been doing so at public expense for coming up to thirteen years. Where is the evidence of this in this case?

If this object is so "unique", no responsible collector has any business buying it before he gets the full details from the dealer, who got it from somewhere. But of course the Gotta-have-it attitude of the indiscriminate collector - who will of course see himself as the "Good Collector" (giving it the "best possible home" "because only I can appreciate it for what it is" when the experts cannot).

If I was the boss of the PAS (or the Oxfordshire FLO), and am sincerely glad I am not, I'd be on to Hooker for the name and address of this "dealer" and then I'd contact them to trace this find back to the finder to get a record of it (unique or not) in the PAS database. That is the least PAS could do. Of course they will not, after all, reporting finds made during artefact hunting with a metal detector for collection or sale, no matter how interesting they are, is only voluntary isn't it? It is a policy open to abuse by artefact hunters, dealers and irresponsible collectors, who nevertheless (as Hooker himself has on more than one occasion) hold it up as a "model of good practice" that other nations should follow. If it does not work in the UK (If collectors don't make it work in the UK) then why should it be?

Vignette: Another plastic monster.

1 comment:

David Gill said...

The absence of this acquisition from the PAS database is significant - and shows the complete disregard for the reporting process by those who use PAS as part of their rhetoric to justify (as you put it) "no-questions-asked" (NQA) collecting.

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