Saturday 16 April 2011

Collectors' Vandalism of Islamic Art,

Souren Melikan has a piece in the New York Times (Century-Old Vandalism of Islamic Art, and Its Price, April 15, 2011) about the way so-called cosmopolitan ("cultural property internationalist") collectors dismember unique handwritten manuscript books to separate the attractive pictures from the text which does not interest them and call it "Islamic art". To me, this is a very precise parallel to the way that so-called cosmopolitan ("cultural property internationalist") collectors encourage the dismemberment of unique archaeological sites and the separation of the attractive objects from their context which does not interest them and call it "Ancient art". Its the same thing, the same vandalism. This is how Melikan's article begins:
A chorus of praise greeted the “record for an Islamic work of art at auction” achieved when a painted page torn from a royal Iranian manuscript, the Shah-Name or Book of Kings, brought £7.43 million at the Sotheby’s auction of the Stuart Cary Welch collection on April 6. Little was said about the destruction of the greatest manuscript from 16th-century Iran, intact until 1957 when the French collector Maurice de Rothschild who owned it died.

The extraordinary manuscript commissioned for the library of Shah Tahmasp (1524-76) was acquired by Arthur A. Houghton Jr., a bibliophile whose interest lay in rare English books. He was presumably advised by Mr. Welch, who had long been buying manuscript paintings from Iran and Moghul India. Soon after, Mr. Houghton began breaking up the manuscript. In November 1976, seven pages appeared at Christie’s. Many more would follow, sold through art galleries and at auction, notably at Christie’s London on Oct. 11, 1988.

This astounding example of calculated vandalism perpetrated by a cultivated man is perhaps the most extreme where Eastern art is concerned. But it was by no means unusual. Ripping apart the thousands of precious painted manuscripts removed from Iran, India or Turkey and taken to Europe in the 19th and 20th century was routine among Western dealers. It allowed them to make a bigger profit[...]

Manuscripts from Moghul India, where Persian was the language of literature and administration, suffered a similar fate. In the Sotheby’s sale, a page painted with a scene featuring a ship sailing in choppy waters had been cut from a manuscript. The upper line reproduces a couplet by the 14th-century poet Hafez (not identified in the catalog) and the lower line has a couplet by another poet that does not rhyme with the former, which Sotheby’s does not mention. This botched assemblage, carried out in the 20th century, would be unthinkable in a manuscript of Persian poetry. Pompously dubbed “a page from the Salim [the future emperor Jahangir] album,” the beautiful but mishandled painting brought an astonishing £193,250.

The late Mr. Welch, who studied neither Persian nor Arabic, used to say that it is not necessary to know the languages to look at the paintings. To look perhaps, but to see, and to understand their meaning, it is. Had he mastered a reading knowledge of Persian, the American collector might have realized how intricate the connection is between the image and the written word.
I think the same goes for the commercial dismemberment of the archaeological record, it is clear that the dealers and collectors one talks to about it have not the foggiest idea about how the 'text' of an archaeological site is 'read'. They think its all about who gets to hold the 'pictures'.

In the context of this discussion about destroying archaeology to get out the geegaws, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the names Houghton and Wel[s]h. I assume that the Arthur A. Houghton ("junior" - this one?) is not related to the Arthur A. Horton of CPRI, but who knows? One ripped up manuscripts to sell the dismembered bits on the international market, the other has misgivings about the CCPIA intended to curb the treatment of foreign archaeological sites in the same way, the distinction seems to me to be a fine one. (There is a Corning glass connection).

Melikan talks of the effects of the way foreign collectors treat this cultural property in the following terms:
Detached from their volume and framed as “Persian miniatures,” book paintings are reduced to an arbitrary construct suiting the desire of collectors unaware of the nature of the art. The artificial construct fits into the overall reinvention of the Eastern world by the West.
He refers to the "misapprehension of historical reality that goes together with this reinvention", which again seems to me a perfect parallel to what happens when artefact collectors (such as the coineys) set out to rewrite history on the basis of a few decontextualised and visually attractive "pieces of the past" in their grubby hands.

Collectors of ancient dugups claim a special and privileged familiarity with ancient cultures which somehow magically infuses into them from possession, but Melikan highlights a number of examples of complete ignorance of these matters exhibited by both collectors and the cataloguers of the auction houses which sell these decontextualised "art works".

More on the Shahnameh:
Metropolitan Museum NY: 'The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp',
and its destruction here - Thomas Stone: 'The Houghton Shahnameh, The Whole Is Greater Then The Parts but Sometimes the Parts are more Marketable--Book Destruction for Profit'

Vignette: Decontextualised and put on sale: a framed page of the sixteenth century folio 'Faridun in the Guise of a Dragon Tests His Sons' attributed to Aqa Mirak "part of the scholarly collection of Islamic and Indian Art assembled by the late Stuart Cary Welch" (REUTERS/Toby Melville)


Unknown said...
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Paul Barford said...

Sheerin Tehrani wrote to me, but after posting the comment I realised it had an email address in it, and I cannot edit comments, only post them and delete them. So here is what Sheerin had to say without the contact details (Sheerin, I was not sure if you meant me to post the comment or just answer privately - if the latter let me know and I'll delete this):
"Dear Mr. Paul Barford, I read "The Collectors' Vandalism of Islamic Art" with great enthusiasm which parallels archaeological vandalism to the piecemeal sale of ancient manuscripts. It is a shame that the only commissioned royal manuscript from 16th century Persia can be sold piece-by-piece (by its present owner) without any repercussions. I am sure you have encountered the sale of artifacts with significant cultural value through auction houses such as Sotheby's. The lack of regulations in this regard is why I am contacting you. As a first generation Iranian-American, I was saddened to find a piece of my heritage lost forever and would like to ask your opinion, as a world-citizen, about how this world can institute a set of guidelines in preserving cultural heritage, books of literature, and works of art, in order to prevent the destruction of culturally significant paragons. Although in today's global capitalism the collection and exchange of art is allowed, care must be taken in preserving the continuity of the heritage inscribed within each masterpiece. I believe anyone as the rightful owner of artwork, whether a manuscript, painting, or a statue, can sell or auction his/her holdings, but this should not come at the price of the destruction and/or vandalism of a culture's legacy. I feel as a citizen of this world we have a responsibility to preserve cultural heritage pieces and make sure that the piece-by-piece auctioning of an ancient manuscript passes at least the smallest bit of scrutiny by a world body organization dedicated to the facilitation and auction of art while preserving the cultural heritage and continuity of a collectable manuscript. I would like to gain from your valuable insight in coming up with a solution to this dilemma that impacts so many nonpareils from ancient civilizations, third-world countries in particular. If you have any ideas please share them with me. Do you know of any organizations or institutions where I should direct my suggestions or whom I can contact to address this issue?"

Paul Barford said...

Hi Sheerin,
thanks for reading my blog, and thanks for the comment. I am particularly interested when it is the younger generation that is getting interested in these issues; as you say, it is YOUR heritage. Please get involved and spread the word wherever and whenever you can. That's one way to help.

You ask about "how this world can institute a set of guidelines in preserving cultural heritage, books of literature, and works of art", I think we have guidelines. The problem is that they are more likely to be followed in the case of objects in responsible museums and public collections (libraries etc) than those in private hands, where these things are treated as private property - not always to the benefit of the objects concerned.

In this case it is clear that the aim in cutting up the manuscript was financial, in other words this collector was treating art as an "investment" - as financial newspapers are telling collectors to do. I think this is totally wrong-headed.

Should unique and culturally significant objects like this be in private hands anyway? If so, under what conditions? Or should there be a system which prevents really important stuff getting into private hands (and who decides, and more to the point, pays for it?).

I suppose the question is whether one can truly "own" something like this, or whether one is just a custodian. Collectors say (of course) they are, and they will swear blind that they protect the objects in their care (at least as far as it preserves their financial value), but sometimes that simply is not true (as here).

Would it not be nice if the reputable auction houses said, no, we refuse to deal in something like that? This would force the seller to the grubby backstreet auction houses like Messers Grabkash and Runn which would immediately alert purchasers to the sort of transaction involved.

You write: "I feel as a citizen of this world we have a responsibility to preserve cultural heritage pieces"
Absolutely. But self-centred and greedy people will continue to mistreat the cultural heritage as long as society lets them. This will go on until enough people in society say "STOP". We need to make a generation grow up thinking this sort of behaviour is socially unacceptable (because it is).

Which is of course where you come in, try firing off a few letters when you read things like this. Try a bit of activism yourself. Organizations, you do not say where you are, have a look at the SAFE (Saving Antiquites for Everyone) webpage for some ideas and links.

Instead of "scrutiny by a world body organization" I think we need much closer public scrutiny of the whole antiquities trade. Its their heritage and that of their children that is being trashed.

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