Thursday 16 February 2012

Questions About Two Bearded Blokes: The Montreal Thefts

.I have been looking at that Egypto-Roman head stolen last October from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and wondering where it came from. What actually is it? It is described in the media reports as
"a marble head from the Roman Empire, dating from the first century AD. [...] small, about 20 by 21 centimetres, and had been part of the permanent collection of the Montreal art institution for decades.
The only photo released at the time of the announcement of the theft (for example the one above from the Montreal Gazette) is not too informative. I would like to see some shots from other angles. On what basis is its authenticity affirmed? What stylistic parallels are there in fact and how close are they? How did it enter the national collections and where in "the Roman Empire" was it dug up/knocked off from? Or did it just "surface"? Like Montreal's Fraggonard drawing for example? Looks a bit odd to me from the material presented in all the news releases.

While we are at it, could the Museum tell us how the knocked off bit of Achaemenid palace relief ("Head of a Guard, Fragment of a low relief 5th c. B.C. Sandstone 21 x 20.5 x 3 cm") got from Persepolis (really?) into their collections? Why is the top corner rounded off so oddly? What has been done to turn a piece of monument into (too, it seems) portable art? Is this real or recently produced? What is its collecting history? According to the Montreal Gazette: "The Persian piece [was] donated to the MMFA by Cleveland Morgan in 1950...", where was it before then?

Does it not too look rather suspicious, for example when you compare it with the images of the soldiers on the actual walls? Is not the head dress rather crude and linear compared to those on the walls, and for example this example sold recently by Christie's? Why does it have vertical tooling on the stone not visible on blocks on the wall even if photographed in raking sunlight?

Even if they are kosher antiquities with unimpeachable collecting histories establishing they really were both knocked off real monuments, what is the point of displaying these trophy pieces extracted from a larger whole in a Canadian museum? What does the museum goer get from looking at a sawn-off bit of a relief that says nothing about the message of the actual art-work concerned, which was the whole relief? Surely is this Persepolis relief fragment not a good case for going back to the site with the long-term aim of restoring the wall it came from?

The Art Market in action Persepolis April 2009

(Photo Copyright Sanaz Shirshekar). What kind of person would buy such a block with the marks of the circular saw visible on all four edges? Somebody who cares about the heritage of the past, or some selfish lout who does not care as long as he gets his hands on a bit of it all for himself? (and it makes no difference if they then try to offload it onto a local museum afterwards)

UPDATE the suggestion here that the Persepolis head might be of modern production, later turned out to be wrong, when it was found where it had been taken from by a study of old photos. 


Dorothy King said...

Christie's London sold one of those reliefs in the summmer of 1994 - and Saddam Hussein tried to claim it back as looted. It sold because someone was able to find paperwork going back to the 19th century showing it had been legally acquired off the Ottomans (receipts rather than a Firman).

I know exactly what you mean about the cut marks - and know nothing about this particular relief ... but most of them were legally acquired and exported a long time ago.

Paul Barford said...

This is (reportedly) from Persepolis, not Iraq.

But if Montreal Museum can show us the nineteenth century receipts, or their equivalent, that would be great. Less great if they cannot.

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