Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Celebrity Antiquities Showoff Highlights a "Low Cost Resource for Museums, Galleries, and the General Public" [UPDATED]

     A very long-       
armed shabti

Some American celebrity published online a group of seven antiquities that they had bought online, two shabtis, two eyes of Horus,  a blue statue of Osiris,  and two cuneiform tablets (that the TV star's description of them reveals they'd not realised they were not "ancient Egyptian"). They published a jerkily- excited Instagram video (spotted first it seems by Peter Campbell and Erin Thompson) showing the purchases and the accompanying "certificates of authenticity". From these, it transpires that the objects had all been purchased from a company in the USA (Museum Surplus, Laguna Niguel, California USA) run by a Ken Martins. According to this URL metrics site, "The domain is 18 years and 0 months old. 126 users visit the site each day, each viewing 3.70 pages", while the LinkdiIn page of Mr Martins himself shows him to be 'Global Practice Leader, Industrial Water at Stantec". He seems to be big in waste water ("over 37 years experience in the design and operations of water and wastewater treatment systems"). Good for him. 

Museum Surplus used to sell on eBay as well as their own website, but the eBay shop seems closed. The website announces
Welcome to MuseumSurplus.com. We are a low cost resource for museums, galleries, and the general public to acquire high grade Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Medieval antiquities, ancient coins, and fossils. We cater to first-time buyers as well as the experienced collector supplying single and lot quantities of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities, ancient coins, and fossils. We sell ancient coins, religious implements, such as Egyptian scarabs and ushabtis and Medieval Christian crosses, ancient jewelry, ancient arrow and spear heads, ancient tools, and ancient glassware and pottery. We also purchase antiquities from individuals, museums, and foundations.
There is quite an extensive stock (more than I remember last time I looked), the fossils are mostly over-priced Moroccan, the bulk-lot discounts are an odd idea. I have not time today to look systematically through the stock, there is a lot there that at first sight look to be authentic artefacts, others less so. I spotted one piece of ostensibly Middle Eastern metalwork that has very similar characteristics to a series of pieces being sold by a dealer that I have taken an interest it. Sadly Mr  Martin's (non-existent) stated collection history does not bringing us any nearer either to how such a group would find its way onto the market. From the visual information supplied, I am less convinced of the authenticity however of some of the other items, including some of the pieces displayed by the US TV star. In these cases we need more information than the seller offers. 

One thing I find odd about the "certificates of authenticity" that we can see on the celebrity's dressing table in the video is that they will give a brief cultural assignation, like  and then give a set of dates, (which do not always match up very neatly with that particular culture as if from a different list). So one of these on the object the TV celeb bought was  "Ancient Egyptian 18th dynasty through Third Intermediate period". That is a time span of some 886 years (that's from here to 1136 - you know, death of Henry I and accession of Stephen and Matilda in Britain).* Actually within this period in ancient Egypt there were some quite significant stylistic shifts, so an antiquity - particularly of the types shown here - should be assignable to a closer time span. That is apropos the expertise that is supposedly (assumed to be) behind the authority of a "certificate of authenticity". It gets worse if you stopframe the video as the purchaser flips through them, the description on the certificate is nothing of the kind... it's a bit of name-dropping narrativisation.  You can pick out the name of Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun.. and, oh, somehow the Ramessids  and all the rest seem to have dropped out. As does anything at all about what the item is made of, where it was found, when and under what circumstances, how it left Egypt with respect to the various laws that existed at various times (so when was it exported?). I also do not see anywhere that explains why the waterworks guy can "guarantee" that it is genuine. The certificates are printed out onto thick paper stock, but lack any signature. 

I'd say the problem was even greater for a buyer in 2022 of two "Babylonian to Assyrian period, 2000-600 BC" cuneiform tablets "manufactured [...]  in Ancient Babylonia, region east of current day Lebanon" - what? Speak plainly man. There are twelve, both fired and unfired it seems, and two foundation cone fragments on the website.  I am not convinced they are all authentic dugups, but some I would say are. I'm not sure about the ones in the jumpy blurry video, one less so than the other. We need more information (as does the buyer). But any that are real, how is a buyer going to resell it if there is not export paperwork. It's just going to be "Hobby Lobby" on a scale of miniature. 

Frankly, if that's all the paperwork they can come up with, low cost or not, I do not see many public museums buying things from a "resource" like this. The general public (and celebrities) should be asking more questions before deciding to even touch something so poorly-provenanced, let alone bring it home. Also just what is the "surplus" referred to in the company's name? Artefacts that were deaccessioned from existing museums? If so, where is the paperwork verifying this? Or are they alleging that these items are all things that allegedly "the museums do not need - surplus to their requirements"? Which museums? In California or all those back on the Eurasian continent? 

So where is this coming from? One page gives a clue: "We have just acquired this collection of Holyland oil lamps.  These lamps were recently excavated in Bethlehem and Jerusalem". Oh. Do the Israel Antiquities Service know? Where is the export licence mentioned?  And the rest? 

*In fact, the seller gives different dates: "1400 to 713 BC"

Update 9th March 2022
A story about the video (including a mention of a Kardashain) made the pages of gossip columns (Julian Sancton, 'Demi Lovato’s Ancient Egyptian Artifacts Draw Suspicion: “I Thought It Was a Joke” ' The Hollywood Reporter, March 9, 2022). The article contains the untrue statement that 'international law largely forbids the trade of cultural artifacts trafficked after 1970 — the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property' [the Convention is not a law]. There is a nice quotable quote from Prof Erin Thompson at the end:
"Thompson recognizes that “holding a piece of the past is really freakin’ cool” to some people. But she urges collectors to do their due diligence. “People are asking, ‘Where did my chocolate come from? Where did my shrimp come from?’ So if you can ask those sorts of sustainability and ethical-labor-practices questions about avocados, you can ask them about antiquities.”"


David Knell said...

No worries about the "collection of Holyland oil lamps". The page in your link reveals that their Certificate of Authenticity includes a "statement of providence" - presumably invoking some sort of divine protection in the event that their provenance is ever questioned.

Indeed, some people may well question the dates given for their lamps since many of them differ by several centuries from the dates given in academic sources and bear absolutely no relation to the periods stated.

Paul Barford said...

..and it is "Herodic period" and "In-tact". Confidence-inspiring?

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