Tuesday 13 September 2022

An Oddly Dwarf Crossbow Fibula

The TimeLine Auctions Ancient Art, Antiquities and Coins sale Tuesday 6th September 2022 - 10th September 2022 is over, and some buyer has walked off with an item, one presumes feeling fully informed about what they have received, and happy with their purchase. It's a really odd piece. First let us note the small size, 34 mm. The estimate was GBP (£) 2,000 - 3,000 but the object sold for £2,340 (inc. bp). Here's what the buyer was told. It is not much:

Posted on You Tube By TimeLine Auctions Ltd.

A gold crossbow brooch with three ogival knops to the headplate, square-section bow and U-section rectangular footplate decorated with edge notches; pin and catchplate to reverse. 1 3/8 in. (6.45 grams, 34 mm). 

Ex private European collection.
Acquired by the current owner in 2001.
This lot has been checked against the Interpol Database of stolen works of art and is accompanied by AIAD certificate no.11326-189857. 

LITERATURE: Cf. Biscottini, P., Sena Chiesa, G., Costantino, 313 d.C. L'Editto di Milano e il tempo della tolleranza, (Constantine, A.D. 313, the Edict of Milan and the times of the Tolerance), Milano, 2012, the Louvre fibula in fig.163, p.253. 

FOOTNOTES: In the late Roman Empire, the children of Imperial officials and dignitaries, who were part of the Militia Armata and the unarmed Militia, acquired symbols and titles of the father, from whom they usually also inherited their profession. The quality and size of the fibula could link it to the son of a military commander, a vir illustris or vir nobilissimus, and therefore belonging to a puer illustris or nobilissimus.

What? Females also wore them. First of all, note the pompous "gonna-quote-Latin-to-ya-so-you-think-I-must-know-wot-I'm-talking-about" narrativisation. What this misses out is that fibulae like these do seem to have been (at least in part) symbols of rank, and wear worn in a conspicuous place to express that... on an outer garment. Fibulae had a function. So how big is the loop on the underside of the bow, how much of an outer garment could be gathered there to be fastened? What's the gap between the inner edge of the lateral onion knobs and the projecting end of the catchplate, 7mm?  Then the pin, how far does it actually penetrate the catchplate? A few millimetres at the most, yet it is gold (?), a soft metal. This object looks to my eye totally unfunctional. 

"Gold" it says. No analysis is quoted. It has a very odd matted surface. Why? The catchplate is constructed very oddly. When I first saw this, the 3D video had not been added to the website and there was a single photo. When we see the underside and the pin mechanism and catchplate there are a number of odd features. The knops are not "ogival", the term usually used by fibulologists for these is "onion shaped". 

Photo: TimeLine Auctions

Video screenshot: after TimeLine Auctions

Photo: TimeLine Auctions

Photo: TimeLine Auctions

TimeLine (using a random source) quotes a parallel in the Louvre, here is the online catalogue entry for the gilt copper alloy object Bj 948 / Br 2006/ Numéro d'entrée : MND 877, acquired in 1909. Note that this object is not only very different in its proportions and detailing, but also twice as long. Note also the form of the catchplate of the Louvre example.

The collection history of the TimeLine object is a bit bald. It is being sold from an anonymous "private European collection" and it was "acquired by the [anonymous] current owner in 2001" but it is not in the "Interpol Database of stolen works of art ". But, so what? If it was clandestinely dug up by a metal detectorist from a child grave in Crimea, or on the Danube or in deepest Berkshire in 1998, passed to Todor Ograda in Vienna or Munich who sold it on, it would not be in the Interpol database  either, and could quite possibly have (no-questions-asked) reached an anonymous "European collector" by 2001. The stated collection history in no way a guarantee that the object is not looted, nor is is in any way documentation that this object is "grounded" by having been documented as removed from an undoubted closed archaeological context. Is it?

It has the appearance of being cast (there is an odd 'flash' on the left side of the upper face of the foot), but the weight suggests that it is not in fact solid. This remains unclear. I am a great fan of interpreting toolmarks, and find the notches on the upper face of the foot, on the upper face of the lateral arms, and in particular the slot in the catchplate (which looks to be cut) of great interest. There would have involved some very thin needle files, but they were clumsily used. The surface of the gold has some very odd texturing, irregular voids all over them, how did this survive the beating out of the thin sheets that one might suppose were used to create a hollow object? Why is the surface so 'soapy' in appearance? Was this low quality gold alloy that has been 'pickled' in some way to produce these features? If so, how/why and when? Is it my imagination, or is the gold of the knops of a different 'fabric' from the bow and foot? Is there a bubble in the soldering of the left knop to the transverse arm? The knops are also damaged in a way that is not seen elsewhere on the object. Why? 

What I find particularly astounding is that in several places (see third photo) and despite it having been in a collection for (at least) over 20 years, you can see brown clayey soil adhering to the surface in several places. About ten seconds with a soft cotton bud and deionised water would have sorted that out, but for some reason the object's previous handlers wanted to leave it on. It seems that dealers like to leave the dirt on to make it clear that "this is a dugup", with all that entails. Personally, I think that for an object that is claimed has been above ground and in somebody's (one trusts, well-maintained collection), it's one of the first things that raises my suspicions that there might be something (ahem) "not quite right" about any artefact that ("re"-)surfaces for sale on the secondary market in such a state. [hint: if you are going to remove such gunk from artefacts of uncertain origins yourself, wear gloves and cover the table with something, it is often not "just soil", if you get my meaning. Sometimes however under that superficial gunk layer there might be surprises, sometimes it is there for a reason].*

All in all there are a number of features of this brooch, the bucket-shaped catchplate, the extremely short foot with perfunctory and careless decoration, the apparent inability to use it for what these fibulae were used for, that would have me asking the vendor a whole load of other questions before considering buying it (not least what documentation they have of legal excavation and export). But then, that's just me. 

Of course you can always ask for a "condition report"....

*Moroccan fossils too.   

Hat tip. I'd like to acknowledge the help with this post of fibula-canny collector 'Renate' with whom I discussed a lot more about this than is in this post. Thanks.

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