Monday 16 September 2013

The Speaker's Mum's Geegaws

The coin dealers' lobbyist Peter Tompa attempts to be provocative ("Unprovenanced Egyptian artifacts for Sale in Washington, D.C. suburb?" September 16, 2013). This starts from the premise "Anti-collector archaeologists have maintained that artifacts without a demonstrable provenance back before 1970 must be considered looted". He cites no reference there, not surprisingly, the ACCG and its pals are notorious for the frequency with which they are cavalier with facts and their  total inability to back up statements if challenged.

I do not think anyone has actually said that if an artefact has no provenance, it "MUST be looted". I think, given the expansion of the market since then, that we all accept that there is a fair chance that it is, but its not a foregone conclusion. Those struggling to combat the damaging effects of the no-questions-asked market (which of course does not include Mr Tompa or any of the people he is representing here who wish to maintain the status quo) are in fact saying something else.

This begins however not with "archaeologists" as such, but the Association of Art Museum Directors (it's the US Art Historians to blame Mr T.!). They suggest that one cannot comfortably buy something of unknown provenance (watch the lips Mr Tompa) which has a collecting history which cannot be verified back to before 1970. Some of us are suggesting that the same measures should be seen to apply to private collecting (though readers will know that I personally have advocated adopting a more modern cut-off date for the documentation of the material they contain). What we are saying is that an ethical collector would avoid something which cannot be verified as complying with a certain transparency of collecting history which places an object beyond suspicion. Mr Tompa and his dealer pals would prefer everyone to adopt an approach based merely on what is "not illegal" which gives them more room for manoeuvre. 

So here he launches into his spiel, no doubt hopping from foot to foot with excitement as he shrilly muses:
one wonders if the archaeological blogosphere will condemn former U.S. Speaker of the House  Tom Foley, his wife, and his wife's mother for the sale of these Egyptian artifacts "purchased in the 1960's."
Firstly, there is no need for the apostrophe for a plural. The ACCG may be trying to cultivate their contacts with loutish anti-archaeological metal detectorists, but surely there are certain standards to be upheld.  Secondly I am not sure that all of the archaeological blogosphere, the European part, will be as overawed by the consigner's husband's former position (highlighted by Mr Tompa with a link to a wikipedia article) as some Americans apparently are.

Anyway, since Tompa insists, let's have a look at this lot in the category "Antiques and Collectibles - Decorative Arts, General" (so "decorative" and not "scholarly"), Lot # 302A (oops, eh?):
Description: Group of 3 Egyptian objects
Group of three Egyptian object having two bronze figures and a vessel. ++ Figure: 5" ++Figure2: 3" ++Vessel: 3 1/2". Purchased by Heather Foley's mother in 1960s. Provenance: The property of The Honorable Thomas S. Foley, former Speaker of the House Of Representatives and Mrs. Heather Foley.
Estimate: 400.00 - 600.00
The Foleys however are selling some other figures, a number of pieces of eighteenth and nineteenth century works of art (lots 300-302) and I see no mention there of collection history or export licences. Two Later Period bronzes, and a "vessel". The sellers really should inform themselves a bit better, it's a Hellenistic oil lamp. There is one like it hereThe auctioneer's photos are muddy crap, from them that chunky Bastet looks suspicious to me.

Would we "condemn  [...] Tom Foley, his wife, and his wife's mother for the sale of these Egyptian artifacts purchased in the 1960's"? No, I don't think so. I assume Mrs Foley's mum-in-law's estate is not documented in any detail in the public domain. Surely the point that is being made is that we accept that due to changes in social attitudes, people buying stuff in the 1960s (like Mr Foley's mum-in-law) cannot fairly be treated in the same categories as a collector who in 2011 bought the same stuff in the same way.

So, I'd condemn anyone who'd buy these items now, in 2013, without insisting on getting a letter of legitimisation signed and dated by The Honourable gentleman (whose signature presumably is well enough known to be verifiable) that, to the best of his knowledge these items were purchased by his mother in law (name) and any details he may know of where, when and in what circumstances. I would hope Mr Foley would be honourable enough to give such a letter if asked and enlightened enough to understand why it is needed. I would condemn any collector who having such a document does not put it in a safe place, in an archival quality folder, and ensure that it is transferred it together with the artefact to its next owner. Looking at the photos, I'd also advise any collector thinking of buying these items to go along and look at them in the flesh.

Vignette: Mr Marcos will be watching the sale of his gifted santos with interest.

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