Thursday 24 October 2013

The Intellectual Consequences of The Antiquities Trade's "Collecting Histories"

David Gill has noted the withdrawal of an Elamite silver beaker from the market which would otherwise be coming up for sale about now and I would like to discuss this in line with what David has taught us about the damaging intellectual consequences of the antiquities trade. Just before it was withdrawn, I wrote about the scheduled sale: 'Christie's: An Inscribed Silver Beaker of Elamite Origin', (Monday, 21 October 2013), to which I refer the reader for the details.

Ansham, Iran 30°00′42″N 52°24′28″E (Google maps)
According to the catalogue,  (used to be here: Sale 1174, Lot 11) the object reportedly had a pretty secure collecting history - "Provenance Private collection, UK, acquired 1940s-1950s", though the presen The object has recently been restored, the technique described in the catalogue is not a restoration method of the 1940s to 1950s. The beaker has an inscription on it identifying it as from the otherwise (but see below) unknown temple of Napiriša at Anšan in Iraq. The site is unknown, it must have come from diggings on the site preceding its identification and preceding the later archaeological excavations.
ce or absence of any supporting documentation was not noted in the pretty lengthy sales spiel. The current owner's name is not revealed.

This is interesting because a beaker of similar - not to say - identical appearance came onto the antiquities market several years earlier. This one was being sold (for some reason) by a Munich auction house in 2007 and reportedly came to them from an English private collection of the 1970s. Since the same collection cannot be of two different dates, the only conclusion one can draw, assuming the information is correctly and truthfully reported by the sellers, is that objects from the same site were by the 1970s in two different collections. In other words there had been two beakers. 

Were they discovered at the same time, in the same temple deposit (if so, where was the Christie's cup before it reached the present owner in the 1970s
)? Or were there two deposits, one excavated  before the "1940s to 1950s" and a second one excavated before the "1970s"? What would have been the relationship between them? 

We are often assured by dealers and collectors of dugup antiquities that they are "preserving" objects for study, and that what they are doing is helpful to the advance of scholarship. I ask to what extent this is true in a case like this (symptomatic of many, surely) when one cannot even say if the beakers were found together, or indeed, whether there is in fact one beaker or two. 

This also is an additional argument in favour of establishing a portable antiquities record recording (with at least some decent photos) what exactly is held in private hands, and what is known of each object's origins. This would 'grandfather' items already in collections today and hinder newly dug-up material being presented as "from an old Swiss collection". It would also mean that if a seller wishes to change the collecting history, traces of those changes will be detectable in an external record.  


David Knell said...

A resounding 'yes' to your last paragraph. You and I have been advocating the importance of keeping records for years (literally!). And that importance applies as much to so-called 'minor' antiquities as it does to pricey items such as the beaker(s) since the indiscriminate acquisition of the former is every bit as responsible for the ongoing destruction of the archaeological record as that of the latter.

But I can't help wondering if we are hitting our heads against a brick wall ...

Paul Barford said...

Well, I have this little metal spike (its called "responsible collecting"), and using it to pick out the mortar from between the bricks. One day the wall will fall, the more people join in the quicker that will happen of course.

Round the back of the wall the dealers are cursing and spitting and trying to heap mud at the base of the wall to hold it up, but to no avail. The wall will fall.

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