Monday 3 February 2020

Coffin-Trashing Grave Robbers and an Alien (?) Basalt Head

A few of our US colleagues are having a look on Twitter at some items from the collection of one of Trump's lawyers. Seems fair game.

Anyway, in a sale (2565 Antiquities New York 8th June 2012) there are some of his items being resold. There is the improbably-postured 'erotic South Arabian statue' I commented on earlier from his collection. I do not know why I did not jump on the other two that I spotted now.

Because there, as bold as brass, is a totally sawn-up Egyptian sarcophagus 'fragment' (5000 dollars, Provenance 'Art Market, Europe, circa 1980'). Pretty nausea-inducing. Who would do something like that? Who would buy it, knowing what it has had done to it and why? ('why' is that a complete coffin is harder to hide when taking it abroad than a bit of one the size of a suitcase, that's why). Shame on ANY collector that would buy such a thing and have it in their house, just making a space on the market for someone to supply another one. Collectors often claim they are "preserving art" (sic), but that is clearly not what has happened to this object, which was made to preserve a dead person's body - not as any kind of "art" at all. And where, pray, is that body now? Also sawn up for collectors to gawp at? Somebody has remarked that this fragment is 'over-restored', certainly this part of a coffin would be constructed of just three or more boards joined with a few flimsy pegs and mud-plaster, I bet a lot of that came loose in the sawing. I am not going to try and judge whether it's authentic or not, Christie's say it is... Sadly, it probably is.

Hirsute and Angry, Christies
A basalt Roman head Lot 241 also caught my eye. It is labelled by Prof Erin Thompson "ancient Roman head of the God of Unibrows" which she notes "has no pre-1988 info". That's pretty important because it is said to be from 'Hauran' (حوران‎, modern southern Syria and northern Jordan). So, how and when did it leave? As is usually the case with these auction houses, all you get is a sketchy description, a vague attempt at saying where it was a few years ago, and a few dramatically-lit piccies of the front. Leaving aside the stylistic aspects of what those photos show (or do not)... If you want to see the back or underneath, you'd have had to go to New York to see it in the flesh... 

I'd be curious to see the other sides. I'd like to look at it and understand how it was made and how it got to be in the state it's in. Starting with that, I'd like to see the break underneath. Some ancient vandal lopped it off neatly, just in the right way that a modern collector can easily and aesthetically mount it. It's amazing how often this happened. Perhaps Goths, Huns and Vandals before they were let loose on the ancient world attended "Aesthetic statue breaking" courses.

So this is 'basalt' they say. Odd. Why has it got that pitting, for example on the cheeks? What kind of post-depositional change is that? Or was it the finish left by a certain manufacturing (or finishing) technique? In the photos, over the pitting, it's got a rather waxy-looking (that's how the photographer has made it look) brown coat on the highlights. Almost like somebody has lightly brushed it over with a stiff shoebrush with dried polish on it. That would make me suspicious as a buyer. It resembles the appearance of a sculpture that's stood in the open in a market square and been fondled by lots of people who've just been been selling grubby potatoes and carrots after eating greasy chips. Doesn't it?

Chiselled eyebrows, but
what's this? Christie's
Then all those chiselled locks, why are the lines white? In a stone that has been shaped by percussion, the white is where crystals (in the case of basalt really small ones) have been shattered by the blows of the tool. So... when that object is later buried, its precisely those fractured areas that get most stained and gunked-up. So why not in this case? That's really puzzling and I am absolutely sure that the Christie's 'condition report' (you have to ask for one at the time of sale) gives a full explanation of how this happened. Because obviously, they'd have spotted this and asked the same questions.

I'd also like to know what that condition report said about the 'other' toolmarks on it. We can only see the front, but if I was contemplating buying this thing (and actually it's not something I think Mrs B. would have in the house) I'd like to get a good look at those toolmarks. Certainly a lot of it is chiselled. There's drill marks up in the locks above the forehead, but that's what the Romans did. But all that chiselling is hard on the wrists. It's jolly hard work. So sculptors down the ages have tended to use methods like sawing to block out the rough shape before they get to the wrist-jarring bits.

Sawing, with a saw. Now we all know what a saw looks like and what they looked like in the past, yes? Having that picture in our heads, we can imagine what kind of shapes they could block out and what kind of shape they could not. Yes? And where the projecting bits of the stature-to-be would prevent you getting (for example) a bow-saw in there.

Traces of rotary saw marks? Christie's
So, if the lines on the lower face that I've picked out here in yellow are what they look like, what kind of saw made them? I am really 'interested' in that round-bottomed grove to the right (proper) of the lower lip. Was that mentioned in the condition report? What about the sharp straight edge of the central lock of the beard? Or the, apparently abraded, round-bottomed groove in the middle of the monobrow in the second picture. There is a cut mark on the left (proper) cheek that has almost been erased by later working (or finishing). How was that made? After all, in the second century AD, they did not have rotary tungsten carbide discs... or DID they? Is this the proof the 'Ancient Visitors' devotees need of the use of advanced alien technology in antiquity? What did that condition report say about these puzzling toolmarks? They are, after all, very much part of this object's current condition. Especially in an object that cannot (we are told) currently be documented as in existence much before 1988.

And if both the 'description' and the 'condition report' failed to make mention and discuss such puzzling features, clearly seen on the auction house's own photographs, that says a lot about the 'condition' of the modern antiquities market.


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