Saturday, 2 July 2011

What You Might Like to Know About the "Naxi at the Rubin" Exhibition

A Washington cultural property lawyer, Peter Tompa of the firm Bailey and Ehrenberg has taken it upon himself to criticise the Rubin Museum's current Naxi exhibition (see the newspaper article on which he bases his assessment here). The Naxi (Nakhi) are a group of people living in the southwest of China, in the Himalaya foothills with a Burmese-Tibetan language and a specific culture. One of the people who has been working on them recently is SAFE's Cindy Ho who has taken a personal interest in this group and been collating information about collections of material created by them in several US institutions and has I believe even visited some of the villages where this material was collected before the Second World War. She has also been able to gain access to material from the Roosevelt family archives - much of it published for the first time ever in the book accompanying the exhibition. Cindy's hard work has been instrumental in the mounting of the current exhibition, and it is this work is the subject of Peter Tompa's ill-willed attacks.

The Naxi are relatively poorly-known in the West and the work on these old collections has resulted in new information coming to light and a lot of this has been shared in the Rubin Museum exhibition, book (exhibition catalogue) and a conference. It seems that the museum is doing a very good job documenting the project and sharing it with the public, and the research stimulated by it is ongoing. Most of us can see this only as beneficial. Not so Bailey and Ehrenberg's cultural property lawyer who engages in uninformed mud-slinging.

The attacks originating in a Washington law firm insinuating that nothing much is known about the manner of acquisition of these items is ill-founded. There is a considerably greater amount of ownership and acquisition information than in the case of objects in many other exhibition. This is because much of the material which is being shown is from two collections, that of Quentin Roosevelt II and another person who spent 1922-1949 studying and publishing Naxi history and religion. This was Joseph F. Rock (1884-1962) who created the first Naxi pictograph - English dictionary. Rock also collected, but as a botanist, he collected the material as scientific specimens. His work is still widely published and referred to. Some of his objects are also on display in the Rubin exhibition, but the US news media has focussed on Roosevelt, for obvious reasons. (There is a fascinating blog here about following Rock's trail.)

Tompa considers it "hypocrisy" that SAFE's president is involved with this exhibition, he alleges the material was improperly exported and suggests this material might have been "stolen under some of the theories posited by the archaeological community". Typically when asked by me to specify to which (and specifically to whose) "theories" he is referring, no clarification was forthcoming - so that accusation remains unsubstantiated. Tompa furthermore seems not to have any familiarity with what is in the exhibition, this is not an exhibition of recently "surfaced" dug-up archaeological artefacts removed by some undocumented means from both the ground and source country. Tompa does not see the distinction between the material his firm is paid to lobby about and these 18th to 20th century antiques obtained by Roosevelt in an officially sanctioned trip in 1939 which from an art history point of view could best be described as folk art, most of it graphic arts (paintings, cards) with religious motifs, bought openly. This material does not consist of antiquities or archaeological material.

Most of the objects on view are owned by museums and the Library of Congress. A small number belongs to Quentin Roosevelt's daughters (QR died at age 29, and widow in 1995). Most of it was collected in situ before the Second World War, none of the material has been bought on the international antiquities or "art" market, except a few items displayed in a reconstruction of an altar which were previously displayed at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich in 1997 and who had bought the stuff from China. (But in fact most of these items are late 1990s reproductions.)

There is a video on the museum webpage of one of the curators of the exhibition, Cindy Ho talking with Susan Roosevelt, about her initial encounters with the Naxi and the discovery of the objects collected by Quentin Roosevelt on view in the exhibition. It seems to me that Peter Tompa seems not to have paid any attention to what Ms Roosevelt specifically says at the end of this clip about the "funny piece of paper". If he had, he would see that his accusations addressed to the Roosevelts and Ms Ho are quite, quite baseless.

Bailey and Ehrenberg's principal "cultural property lawyer" is once again engaging in uninformed and bullying "gottcha". By claiming untruths, his is trying to plant the ideas into people's minds that maybe there's some truth in it. It seems he does not actually know the relevant legislation (China had no legislation covering export licencing of this sort of material in 1939). Neither has he really bothered to acquaint himself with the material concerned. This is just thug-like behaviour. Instead of doing the due research himself to find out all the facts, Peter Tompa once again has chosen to pick things out of context from a review in a newspaper known for its jocular, playful style to twist facts, insinuate and fabricate untruths for no other reason than to perpetuate his obvious need to discredit others who disagree with him. One which of course he shares with many others in the collectors' "rights" advocacy stable, none of whom can present proper arguments to rebut the concerns of the preservationists about the effects of the no-questions-asked market in archaeological artefacts.

If Tompa truly has an issue with the material, since he has raised the subject of illegal activity in a public forum (albeit on a little-read blog), he should go ahead and file a lawsuit or interest the authorities to look into the matter and pick a fight with the current owners of the pieces (Library of Congress, Harvard and the Roosevelt family). At the very least, he should go to the Rubin with his concerns. If Tompa cannot substantiate his mud-slinging allegations, I think Bailey and Ehrenberg owe the Roosevelt family an apology.

The fact is, if Cindy Ho of SAFE were not involved with the project, Peter Tompa would never have given any of this material any thought. His motive here is all too clear, rather than present any real "observations" or facts, he is simply out to discredit SAFE and its members by mud-slinging. But in the process he is not only doing his own cause (and the image of the firm he represents) a lot of harm, but also the Roosevelt family who has so generously supported the project of putting together this informative exhibition.

Anyway, whatever the US trade lobby says about it, if you can, get along to the exhibition - I am sure it will be worth it.

Vignette: Naxi manuscript from the Library of Congress. I believe it shows Peter Tompa as the chicken-headed god of confusion getting his just rewards in the slime pits of hell.

UPDATE 5/7/2011: See the implications of Tompa's further development of his "argument" Baltimore Seizure Cash Coins: When did they leave China?

1 comment:

David Ian said...

VERY interesting. Will for sure go to the show and report back. Regarding Tompa, I actually feel sorry for him, things are not looking up in his world (although I wonder what that might be anymore given the state of mind that all this nonsense portrays). In any case, I sent him a comment which I am sure will go unpublished, as he appears to be quite manipulative with this stuff. The gist of it is asking him to stop, because he's looking very insecure, and that he should not extort money from you to do "research" when all you did was ask him to substantiate a claim, obviously baseless; that he should cease making all those who take numismatics seriously look bad; and most of all, quit slinging mud (and asking someone else to pay him to come up with the mud); and finally, no one cares anymore as he has successfully turned us all off. Thanks for posting it here, where I think many more people to read it anyway.

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