Wednesday 14 December 2011

Antiquities Dealer Edgar Owen: South American Antiquities for Sale

It might be worth looking at some of the things Mr Owen sells. I was quite taken by the range of Central and South American antiquities he has acquired and now has on offer. He assures buyers that they are all "authentic", but somehow fails to note in any of the 55 cases how, when and accompanied by what kind of documents they left the source country. These are: Mexico (all figurines including some Nayarit types - on the ICOM red list), Costa Rica (one), Panama (six), Colombia, Ecuador, and many from Peru. All countries with active looting and smuggling. Several of which now have MOUs with the US Government intended to stop the latter. So how were these items originally acquired and removed from the source country?

All his website offers is that they were all "Purchased by the current owner from a well known and highly respected Manhattan antiquities dealer in the 1990's". So well-known indeed that to give the name obviously is considered superfluous. Under some of the items is the additional, not very precise, information that these items are "From a large New Jersey collection" (one says the collection is a "New York" one). One presumes most of this material is from the sale of a single collection. Interestingly in the case of five items (all figures) there is the information that the object bears what the seller calls "museum numbers" with no further explanation of which museum, and how the objects are thought to have left the museum collection and entered the market. Obviously, in order to set potential clients' mind to rest, there should be (all the more so in the light of the seller's known personal views disputing the rights of state institutions such as museums to lay claim to saleable antiquities). One item has 1966 authentication papers.

Obviously the mention of a single owner who bought these items from a single seller in the "1990s" is not exactly the kind of collecting history which would be required by a responsible collector, anxious to acquire items exported either before antiquities preservation legislation was instituted in the source country or items obtained and exported in accordance with such laws. So where were these items before then, and where is the paperwork which documents their previous history? Whether or not the current vendor considers the legislation of these other countries to be "good" or "bad" laws, some sort of documentary material should be available for clients who nevertheless want goods obtained in accordance with the prevailing laws. Will they get any from Mr Owen? His website does not give any hint about what material of that nature he is able to offer.

What is more interesting is the nature of the material on offer. We do not know what percentage of the whole collection is on sale here, but the objects collected fall into two main categories: pots (red on my map) and figurines (blue on map). Most of the figurines could be characterised by the word "whimsical" and many of the pots (like the one with phallic handles and the "whistling pots") as "novelties". There is very little utilitarian pottery in this collection. The point about this is that so often we hear collectors claiming that by collecting the material they do, they are 'studying' a culture (or cultures), learning about the past and other some such nonsense. Yet, when we have an opportunity to look over their shoulders we so often see something else. The New Jersey Collection we see represented here is a collection of geegaws, not any representative slice of the material culture of a group or groups, there is no "information" here in this cluster of collectables, just trophies. I am sure they looked very attractive and gave the owner a lot of pleasure, and made him look like the proper scholar in the eyes of the guests who came to the dinner parties and cocktail parties he used to throw. I am sure he had some salty anecdote connected with the phallic pot with which he would regale his guests. But let nobody kid themselves that this collection could be used for anything except satisfying some basic selfish and acquisitive streak. Sites were trashed to get this stuff, burials (probably) were desecrated to get some of it (like all those complete pots), but the result was not that an owner in foggy new Jersey would "learn" about the past, but merely bathe in its reflected romantic glory.

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