Sunday, 3 May 2015

Nebuchadnezzar in Florida

Photo Christie's media library
This Neo-Babylonian Foundation Cylinder of terracotta inscribed for Nebuchadnezzar II  (605–562 B.C.) stands 20.3 cm  high and is estimated to fetch its seller $250,000–350,000 if sold by Christie's New York, 4 June 2015, as planned.

Where does it come from? It comes from the "collection" (recte unsold stock) of dealer Elias S. David (Max Bernheimer, 'The Elias S. David Collection', My Christies February 11, 2015) to be offered in Christie's 4th June Antiquities sale in New York. Bernheimer Christie’s International Head of Department was notified by the son of the dead dealer that 'back in the autumn of 2014' that he had some interesting stuff he wanted to flog off down in Florida. As Bernheim put it:
Elias S. David (1891–1969) was a prominent antiquities dealer, active in the industry throughout his life. Masterpieces of ancient Near Eastern art passed through his hands and are now in some of the greatest museums in the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His son informed us that he had inherited his father’s stock, pieces that had been in storage since 1969. It was of course a dream scenario for us. When I arrived at the Florida house I was shown many boxes, their contents wrapped in crumbling materials which had not been touched for decades, all attesting to their provenance. Even better, his son had an inventory dated shortly after Elias’s death.
One wonders about the conditions in the David house, when material can lay mouldering just over four decades - what does that say about the conditions some private citizens in the US keep antiquities in? Those of us who have unpacked archaeological material excavated in the 1960s really do wonder about the description of the packing material which "crumbled". 1960s newspapers even are not that brittle. Anyway this David guy before he died had not managed (we are asked to believe) to flog off some star pieces:
"The strength of the collection is the many cylinders, barrels, cones and tablets, chiefly of terracotta but also bronze and stone, all inscribed with cuneiform texts. [...] Other objects from the Near East include silver and bronze vessels, small-scale sculpture and a large group of early amulets and seals. There are also some rare Egyptian items, among them a wonderful group of gold and faience amulets, some small bronze statues and a small alabaster head of Ptolemy
and some other stuff. Bernheim highlights two Mesopotamian objects from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 B.C. 
- large Neo-Babylonian terracotta foundation cylinder which commemorates his re-building of the temple of the god Lugal-Marada at Marad
- terracotta barrel from the same period tells us of Nebuchadnezzar II’s restoration of the Ebabbar Temple of Shamash in Sippar,
This foundation cylinder has a counterpart already in the US, the Walters Museum has an almost identical one, acc. 48.1800. The collecting history is given as: "Sadie Jones (Mrs. Henry Walters), New York [date and mode of acquisition unknown]; Sale, Joseph Brummer, New York, 1941; Walters Art Museum, 1941, by purchase". How reliable is that collecting history? How was it verified?

The US dealer Edgar Banks describes in 1915 ("A Nebuchadnezzar Cylinder", The Open Court vol. 12, Article 4) describes illegal excavations ("illicit labor") at  Tell Wanna Wa al-Sadoum (the site of Marad) which produced these cylinders. He is quite clear, these commercial depredations were carried out in defiance of the laws existing at the time - before Gertrude Bell.

For the laws of the time, see S. Topal-Gökceli, Zur Entwicklung des Kulturgüterschutzes in der Türkei – das Gesetz zum Schutz von Kultur- und Naturgut 1983 i. d. F. vom 14.7.2004, Vorlesungen und Vorträge des Ludwig Boltzmann Institutes für Europarecht, Heft 26 Wien 2006). These go back in the Ottoman empire to as early as 1869 (the 'Asar-i-Atika', Paragraph 2, cited in Topal-Gökceli op. cit. page 16) and there is a similar one from 1874 (Paragraphs 34 and 37, cited by Topal-Gökceli on page 19), both which clearly forbid the export of antiquities. The 1884 law (paragraphs 8 and 12, cited by Topal-Gökceli on page 23) is stronger.  So how can we be sure that the ones Mr David had stashed away, according to Christie's by 1969, had been legally acquired and legally exported from the source country? Or does that simply not, somehow, matter in the case of artefacts apparently on the market before 1970?

The Shamash cylinder in Mr David's stock/collection is also of interest, where did it come from and how did it arrive in the stock of a US dealer? Almost exactly a year ago another of these objects was sold by Doyles ('Cylinder from the restored Temple of Ninkarrak in Sippur, Iraq' PACHI Sunday, 6 April 2014) The auctioneers give the collecting history as: "Ellen Shaffer (later Rare Book Librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Dawson's Book Shop, Los Angeles; sold to Mr. Archie P. Johnston, 1953". At the time, I asked what the evidence was for this rather convenient collecting history and how it was verified.

While we all will see in the Christie's catalogue a few 'arty' top-lit photos of the objects, what's important is seeing those boxes and the state of the 'crumbling materials', as well as the inventory which gives these items their alibi. If the archive was written at the same time as the objects were packed, were its pages also 'crumbling at a touch' and if so, how can we know that the text was read correctly?  Why did the objects lie in boxes 45 years after the death of the dealer, a dealer that had so much capital tied up in some prime pieces? Since by 1969 material of this nature was getting more difficult to obtain, why did the deceased dealer's kids not decide to put it on the market in the intervening period, but left it untouched in mouldering boxes stashed away somewhere? Is there perhaps a reason which prevented them from putting it on the market earlier? These are all part of the collecting history of this "dream scenario" - one that is notable for the number of times the story is repeated (of the type:"found in the back of an old cupboard where a dealer put it and forgot about it since the 1970s"). We have heard this one so many times already that a bit of effort might be put in by the New York dealer to show why we need to believe this one this time.

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