Wednesday 23 April 2014

The US Trade in Ancient Egyptian Artefacts: "Saving History"?

Robert A. Kraft discusses a series of eBay sales back in 2005-7 ("Pursuing Papyri and Papyrology by Way of eBay: A Preliminary Report") deriving from the accumulation of art collector/dealer Bruce P. Ferrini. What caught my eye were the very clear examples of larger pieces being dismembered into smaller pieces for better sales results. Kraft demoinstrates this in the case of a piece of cartonnage which later appeared on the market divided into small coloured fragments. What's the point of collecting these if not sheerly as trophies? There is little here for homegrown wannabe archaeologists to "study" (see the trite justifications currently being offered to CPAC for not allowing the US/Egypt MOU). 

Cartonnage fragment in Ferrini Collection when intact (left)
and (right) as sold [some of the pieces had already
been treated with acid to get the papyrus fragments out]
A similar situation was noted in the case of one of the hieratic textual pieces containing the text of the Book of the Dead which had been collected relatively intact and remained intact until at least 2004, but when some fragments turned up on eBay in 2005 onwards, it was realised that they had come from the mutilation of this item to get better sales results. David Howell found that the right side of the text had been divided into at least 19 pieces,  as shown on his  overlaid image of the right side. 

David Howell's overlaid image of the  Ferrini  Book of the Dead dismembered by dealers to sell it
There was also a demotic panel
that had been cut into at least 22 pieces that I can document (and probably a couple of additional pieces unknown to me) cost the various buyers (including myself, for one inexpensive token piece) a total of $761.72 , for an average price of $34.62 (from a low of $13.08 to a high of $84.00).  What the panel would have fetched when it was still intact is anyone's guess, but I suspect it would be much less than the $760 plus that was realized through the dismemberment.
Demotic panel cut into pieces for sale
"the handful of Arabic pieces also exhibited the  familiar slicing of a larger panel into multiple items".

These cases not only show that many collectors buying artefacts (irrespective of where they came from and how they came onto the market about which there are also serious questions) are really interested more in "having" than any more altruistic motives such as preserving or saving history, let alone researching or studying them. The case studied by Kraft also illustrates what can happen when a personal collection is split up. Far from the objects being "saved or preserved', they can then undergo further destruction in order to make a quick sale. There is no way this kind of treatment of ancient artefacts at private hands can be condoned, nor of course in an atmosphere of "collectors' rights" is there any way it can be stopped.

For the record, I do not approve the actions of Dr Kraft buying these items and  interacting with other collectors (all in the US?) who did so too. I am sure these people would say they were "saving information", but would argue that Kraft really has not produced all that much real, reliable information about the ancient world (as opposed to information about how awful the so-called legitimate antiquities trade is) from these activities. 
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