Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Mystery objects From Unnamed "Private Collection" at Trimontium

 A new museum that charts the Roman invasion of Scotland has been gifted an “incredible” collection of artefacts from a life-long private collector (Alison Campsie, 'Donor shares 'incredible' collection of artefacts with new museum of Roman invasion of Scotland' The Scotsman Tuesday, 31st August 2021), Alongside local finds, donated by National Museums Scotland (NMS) from John Curle's excavations  between 1905 and 1910, 

Parade masks, weapons and tools are among those items donated to the new Trimontium Museum in Melrose [...] The mystery museum donor, who is German and lives partly in Edinburgh, has been a collector of Roman military ware since childhood and has decided to now share the highlights of his collection with the public. Dr John Reid, chairman of the Trimontium Trust, said: “These are incredible artefacts, they are top-class artefacts. We could never afford to bid for them at a national level. "They are Roman military objects that are as close to the original condition as possible, which just puts them on a completely different level.” 

 The vignette shows "one of the cavalry masks donated to the new Trimontium Museum by a private collector, who is partly based in Edinburgh". Such items are very popular among collectors and several dozen of them, all of them unprovenanced, have passed through online auctions in recent years. Not all of them, I feel are authentic antiquities, not all of them I also feel have been excavated and exported legally. Which is why this "anonymous German collector" and Trimontium Museum should come clean about the precise collection history of all of the items loaned by a "private collector". The days of public institutions openly displaying items of dodgy and unstated origins surely are over. The article contains no hint that this is the case here. The displays (below) seem a bit skimpy on the labelling so the public can ascertain what they are looking at and where it came from.

Trimontium museum showcase

It will be interesting to see what the museum's policy has been here. The manner of dealing with loans or donations of artefacts from private collections is precisely the kind of situation that Renfrew (2000) was talking about twenty years ago. The Code of Ethics of the Museums Association also deals with this kind of situation: 
Museums and those who work in and with them should: [...] acquire, care for, exhibit and loan collections with transparency and competency in order to generate knowledge and engage the public with collections [...] 2.4 Conduct due diligence to verify the ownership of any item prior to purchase or loan, and that the current holder is legitimately able to transfer title or to lend. Apply the same strict criteria to gifts and bequests. 2.5 Reject any item for purchase, loan or donation if there is any suspicion that it was wrongfully taken during a time of conflict, stolen, illicitly exported or illicitly traded, unless explicitly allowed by treaties or other agreements, or where the museum is co-operating with attempts to establish the identity of the rightful owner(s) of an item.
It seems that although the museum has been open a month, its website is not yet completed. Hopefully this information will be available online in due course. 

Reference: Renfrew, C 2000, 'Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (Debates in Archaeology)' Duckworth.

Hat tip Rogue Classicist and Donna Yates

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