Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Antiquity is in the Eye of the Beholder

Barakat galleries (London, Seoul, Amman, West Hollywood, Hong Kong) aim to be a "mirror of all ages and cultures" and in their  Masterpieces of Biblical Art, they had a Bronze Age Limestone Votive Sculpture that was sold last night:

Bronze Age Limestone Votive Sculpture SKU PF.0167 Circa 2500 BC to 1500 BC Dimensions 8″ (20.3cm) high x 6″ (15.2cm) wide,   Medium:  Limestone,   Origin:  Northern Syria,   Gallery Location USA
With his arms clasped reverently to his chest, this powerful figure stands in awe before some god the world has now forgotten. He evokes a distant age, a time when man felt more helpless before the forces of the cosmos. Even after all these centuries, his quiet dignity in the face of the unknown has the power to move us.
Barakat (fair use for purposes of criticism and comment)
That's it. What a sales spiel!  The object was first spotted by Professor Erin Thompson [@artcrimeprof] John Jay College (CUNY), NYC who described it as looking like a "fossilized heap of Weetabix". The bidding stood at $12k last night when I last saw it. First of all, as Prof Thompson remarked, who in their right mind would buy a dubious object from what has been for some time now a heavily looted conflict zone with absolutely no information about how and when it left Syria (
Rebels, Rojava or Regime?) and entered the US, and what its collecting history was? Perhaps it has "none", which raises all sorts of questions. At one extreme, somebody was careless with the documentation, at another somebody deliberately deleted all trace of its recent past, and a third option is that the object has no past because it is a recent production that the dealer mistook for an antiquity.

Note that the gallery did not give any proper description at all of what is on sale. In particular, that condition report is scanty, yet it is in the condition in which the object is that part of its biography is embodied. Any dealer/auction sale should treat the task of describing what they've got a little more seriously than, "here's a few random arty pictures not necessarily showing all angles, you pays for what you sees". And that is what we had here.

Like the potential buyer was, I'm looking at these pictures and trying to see the object in four dimensions from them. I see the left arm is oddly deformed, and not clasped on the chest in awe or not. The figure seems to be holding a rectangular object (a book?). But oddly there is not a photo showing that left arm properly.

Stylistically, there are a muddle of associations, the head as it is today seems to want to be Mohenjo Daro or a star-gazer, while the figure as a whole also reminds one of Yemeni stuff. Perhaps this stylistic melange is the reason why the dealer does not want to go into details. But one does wonder about the stature of a dealer that describes a chunk of stone a dozen or so centimetres tall as "powerful".

Barakat (fair use for purposes
of criticism and comment)

The front of the figure has a recent scar, cutting through the brownish patina to reveal the limestone is grey. It looks like a glancing plough or mattock scar, hinting at the process of how it came onto the market. But then there is a second scar on the back of the head. If you zoom in and look at the back, the patina is scarred and scuffed as though this item was at some time in a box of rocks.
How and when did that happen? But then the same scuffing is absent from the front and sides, and the edges of the protruding arms and nose. In one photo, the arm seems to be formed from a sawn surface. Or is it? Because one prominent element of the object is not described at all, the oblique scar of the chin. The dealer makes no reference to that.

My first question, looking at the profile is what form this had in the first place. Secondly, why is the fracture so flat? Has the object split along a bedding plane or joint? Is the right shoulder another fault in the rock? The dealer makes no reference to that and should (for example how many inner faults might this object have?).

Barakat (fair use for purposes
of criticism and comment)
But then look at the back (keeping the blocky profile and the back of the head and neck in mind). Doesn't that look like a bedding plane, with that rectangular slabby bit behind the left shoulder? This is where I start to get really suspicious. Look at the bottom edge, where there is a break. Remember the right side has been carved out of a flat surface. So that bottom edge is chipped quite a lot, apparently after breakage, and you can see before the scuffing. So the implication is that the complete figure was broken and the upper part subject to some rolling or bashing process, chipping the edge of the break.... but not the arms, angular shoulder (OK, the nose is battered). That's a bit odd, and I would expect the dealer describing his goods to mention this.

I am a bit puzzled what the lower part of this "artwork" is supposed to have looked like. There is no indication of a waist having been below the break. Was this a rectangular stela with a head on top? Was it a fully round figurine that tapered lower down, to end in small feet? What parallels can be adduced for any of this in the art of "Northern Syria"? The dealer does not say. But he opines that it is "Bronze Age". Why? He does not say.
All my own work, based on subjective
 interpretation derived from  what
one can glean from description
by Barakat (fair use for purposes of
criticism and comment).
Because the problem is that the odd chipping an weathering of the back of this object could equally mean that somebody found a slab of limestone with a weathered broken edge meeting a flat edge almost at right angles, with a nice weathered bedding plane, and got creative with it. One might very well interpret it like that. There is nothing in the seller's description (including the photographs) that conflict with that interpretation of what we see presented. And that means the object would have been manufactured to look as if it had been broken. The shadows in the photos prevent us from seeing in detail any differences there might be between the patina on the front, sides and back. And again, the seller says nothing about this. ("Caveat emptor, but I'm not gonna help you"?)

So what actually is this undocumented chunk of stone said to be ancient and said to be from Northern Syria ? The opinion of Mr Barakat is that this is a "masterpiece (sic) of Biblical (sic) art" dated by him to the Bronze Age, I think there are good grounds to ask on what this opinion is based apart from "because I say so". The antiquities trade sorely needs to start taking the description of their goods more seriously, to avoid any misunderstandings.
hat tip Erin Thompson

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