Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Fordham's Mosaic Controversy

Questions were raised when Fordham University released a self-congratulatory press release about a series of nine Christian mosaics derived from the eastern Roman Empire that it had acquired  in December 2013 from an anonymous donor ("Museum Acquires Rare Early Christian Mosaics"). The announcement was particularly insensitive because an inscription on one of them, mentioning the name of Epiphanios, a bishop there in the 5th century, indicated that the set (and they seem to belong together) came from an ecclesiastical building somewhere in the region of Apameia, Syria - now heavily looted. David Gill goes over some of the questions the press release involved ('Fordham's acquisition of Christian mosaics', Looting Matters Saturday, January 11, 2014).  For an earlier discussion of Fordham on LM see here.

Mounted mosaic
The story is continued on the Chasing Aphrodite blog, which sets some of the doubts raised in the Twitter conversation in a wider context, but then raise other questions ('Fordham’s Folly? Some Answers, Many More Questions about Acquisition of Syrian Mosaics', January 13th 2014). Among the documents available it emerges that the documentation:
included two separate special customs invoices, issued by the U.S. Bureau of Customs and filed with the Treasury Department, which confirm that the mosaics were legally purchased in Beirut on May 19, 1972, and August 4, 1972, and shipped on the SS Concordia FJell and SS Star, respectively, and imported into the United States at the port of Baltimore on June 16 and August 23, 1972, respectively.
It would be interesting to see these invoices and learn whether there is any evidence that incontrovertibly associates them with the items under discussion (photos  for example).

A comment by Elizabeth Marlowe | January 14, 2014 at 12:56 pm  on the Chasing Aphrodite blog is worth citing as it raises a number of issues. She says it is regrettable that the apparent quality of the documentary evidence was not mentioned in the initial press release. This would have been an important opportunity "to raise awareness of the complicated legal and ethical issues surrounding the antiquities market".
I still feel dismay about Professor Peppard’s assertion that these mosaics present us with “everything a historian would want.” I am a historian, and I want a findspot and an archaeological excavation of the church. These could offer invaluable insights into how the mosaics were meant to be seen, how their significance may have changed over time, whose interests they served, what networks their patrons may have been part of, etc. Much as it is a museum’s responsibility to raise awareness of the legal issues, I believe it is a scholar’s responsibility to raise awareness of the epistemological pitfalls of working with art-market antiquities (regardless of when they surfaced or the legalities of their purchase). I’m not saying Professor Peppard shouldn’t have published them, but he could have stressed to the reporter how the fact of the mosaics’ looting (whenever it occurred) robbed us of a lot of very important information. Instead of discussing any of these complicated matters, the article was 100% self-congratulatory, and I think that’s w[hat] pushed a lot of people’s buttons.
Not to mention that we obviously have a selection of the whole mosaics hacked out by the looters, with no way of knowing, for example, the size and shape of the whole panel 9and thus room they came from). My "buttons" are additionally "pressed" by that photo of the parlous conservation of the mosaic, in that private US collection for so long. Not to mention the crack, in all that time nobody did anything about the slurry of cement (that is I suspect just normal builder's cement) over the face of the 'conserved' mosaic in the bottom right hand corner. Bad sixties restoration not undone in the seventies, eighties, nineties or later. There also seem to be salt efflorescences coming out. Where were they kept all these years?


Liz Marlowe said...

Hey Paul- Thanks for the shout-out! The issues I focused on in that comment (esp. regarding the responsibility of academics who work with market antiquities to acknowledge and discuss the epistemological risks) are developed in greater detail in my book, which I just published (hence the shameless promotion here), called _Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art _, with Bloomsbury Academic Press.

Paul Barford said...

Happy to plug it. Less happy about the price, bit steep. It is certainly however a subject worth drawing more attention to, and intrigues me. In my experience, classicists in general seem to me not to "get it" when it comes to portable antiquities and collecting and all that, so a book addressed to precisely that audience is something worth looking at. I will be interested in the reception it receives. You don't discuss coins in any detail do you? Or are they not the sort of "connoisseurs" you were discussing?

Liz Marlowe said...

I agree about the price; I was disappointed that that's where it ended up, although the press did reassure me that it would be available in paperback in 18 months (and I think the kindle price is cheaper, no?). Nothing about coins in it, I'm afraid; the issues are related but not, I don't think, quite the same.

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.