Friday, 25 November 2022

When is an Amber Coloured Substance not Amber?


There is an interesting case concerning when a single misidentification in a sales spiel can change perceptions about the past. In ancient times, there were only a limited number of sources known for amber. The antiquities dealer 'Sands of Time' held a Black Friday Sale (It's here, it's happening, it's the sale you've been waiting for! ❤️): 

MA2217 A rare Sumerian Amber Seal of a Lion ca. 3000 BCE [...] $1,950 USD
sensitively modeled from amber, rendered in the form of a recumbent lion with small vertically drilled eyes, with small alert ears, the legs bent, the underside depicting two felines surrounded by dots. Vertically pierced for attachment. A very rare example in this medium. [...] Provenance:
Property of a Philadelphia collector.
From the property of a London gentleman; thence by descent;
previously in an important private Mayfair, London, UK, collection, acquired after 1970,
accompanied by a paper by Professor W.G. Lambert.[...]

But, an email sent accidentally to a forum reveals what lies behind that dealer-garble:

Hi Sue, I want to inform you about one of the items in your Near Eastern Gallery, the brown Sumerian lion-form stamp seal ca. 3000 BCE. I am the Philadelphia collector who consigned this to Arte Primitivo. The only reason I purchased it from TimeLine Auctions is that it was purportedly amber, as per the note by Lambert, which would make it very rare. I showed it to Max Bernheimer at Christie’s, and he immediately determined that it is definitely not amber, although he thought it was genuine. I then performed a salt water test on it, and it did not float, as amber would, confirming his conclusion. That was the main reason I decided to sell it (at a loss). I agree with Howard Rose’s opinion that it is probably brown agate. I thought you would want to know about this.
Best regards,
Lee Simerman 
Oops, eh? Now actually there is a fair difference in 'heft' (the technical term for specific gravity) between amber and agate,* so just having it in your hand should tell an experienced dealer (or gemstone collector) the difference. Professor Lambert should have known. But here is the rub. Nowhere in the Washington dealer's "provenance" (she means collection history) is there mention of Howard Rose's Arte Primitivo (East 65th Street, New York city) why? And where is TimeLine Auctions mentioned? Is that the "London gentleman"? Presumably in both cases the item would be in the catalogues of both sales, so why is that fact not mentioned? Furthermore, "in an important private Mayfair, London, UK, collection, acquired after 1970" does not place the export before the relevant legislation. So where is the mention of the export papers? Note how this collection history emphasises ownership, but obscures the agency of the antiquities trade in the process of moving it from one place to another. Sue McGovern-Huffman is the President of the "Association of Dealers and Collectors of Ancient and Ethnographic Art".

Oh yes, and let us just mention US amateurs dunking dugup antiquities in "salt water" in the absence of any other more technical way to analyse the artefacts they acquire.

 * as the gemological specialists at "TimeLine Auctions Inc. Gregory, Bottley and Lloyd (Gregorys) Est. 1858" would know: Amber 1.08, Agate 2.60 - 2.65.


On an antiquities collectors' forum near you: Sue McGovern 7:19pm #97664
Hi Lee, Thanks for the heads up, and apologies for the delay in responding, it has been a busy time. It is interesting you raised an issue with this seal because I’ve gone backward and forward on it before thinking it is amber. I’m not convinced it is brown agate because it is very light, and quite transparent without the agate markings. I’ve pulled it from the website to restudy the piece, and given the background you’ve now provided, will have a professional gemologist take a look at it. Will keep you updated,
Again, very much appreciate your input and hope you had a great Thanksgiving weekend.
Whoah. It was up on the dealer's website as "amber" (very rare and significant is it is Sumerian) even though in reality the dealer has "gone backward and forward" on the identification of the raw material, and even though that has happened, at no time before the sale did she contact a proper gemologist, and in both the title and description, the object is stated categorically to be amber. Secondly what does the term "agate markings" mean? I presume it means it is not banded, but then semitranslucent brownish unbanded cryptocrystalline quartz [chalcedony] is called "carnelian" (and if opaque jasper, or if darker in colour sard). All have more or less the dame SG, but McGovern does not quantify the value of her "light". It is an interesting exercise to Google the term ""Sumerian carnelian"", despite all the museum collections that have been digitalised and online, the hits form a very interesting and thought-provoking pattern. Although some entries have been deleted from the internet leaving a very vestigial entry, it does look a little as if the term mainly occurs in the listings of just two dealers, one in the US and one in the UK. If so, these dealers are maybe creating new knowledge about trade relations of southern Mesopotamia between c. 4100-1750 BCE, or maybe they are doing siomething else. Question, how is a "professional gemmologist" going to tell whether the object is an authentic antiquity without any information about the archaeological context it was supposedly found in?

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