Monday, 9 January 2023

Christies' Macaw Mosaic: A Conspiracy or One For The Conspiracy Theorists? [updated]

   "Macaw Mosaic", cover of old Christie's auction catalogue  

In 2003 Christie's sold a lifted mosaic panel dating (they say) to the second century AD. But there is a problem with it, only spotted in 2021 (Karl Shuker , 'Mystery of the Macaw Mosaic - a (not so) Roman Riddle?" ShukerNature blog July 22, 2021). It was spotted by Brazil-based parrot aficionado Rafael Nascimento
As seen, this mosaic panel is decorated with five bird depictions, shown variously surrounding and perched upon a water vessel, and according to its description in a catalogue produced by the famous auction house Christie's it is of Roman origin and dates from approximately the 2nd Century AD. This attractive artifact was sold on 11 December 2003 by Christie's for the very princely sum of US$ 107,550. Its previous owner was an unnamed private collector who had owned it since c.1980.
What is interesting is that one of the birds shown is clearly intended to be the blue-and-yellow macaw Ara ararauna (aka blue-and-gold macaw). This is a readily-recognisable parrot species native to South America. All macaws are endemic to the Neotropical Americas. Did the Romans penetrate the jungles of this continent 1300 years before western Europeans discovered the way there? If so, this artefact would be immensely important piece of evidence - and yet one that has so far been ignored by researchers into Roman trade patterns ("if this macaw-depicting mosaic truly provided firm evidence of Roman trading with South America, why had it not attracted considerable attention from historians and archaeologists? A detailed online search by me concerning it had proved singularly unable to uncover any evidence of such attention"). Dr Shuker considers it unlikely that the panel has been reworked in recent times to add this bird ("and even if it had been, this would surely have been alluded to in its description by Christie's").
Worth noting, incidentally, is that whoever wrote its description for Christie's catalogue was clearly not well-versed in ornithology. For what they referred to as a pileated woodpecker is actually a hoopoe (bottom right in the mosaic), what they called a greenfinch is a European roller (top right, perched upon the water vessel), and what they termed a chaffinch is a goldfinch (top left). Indeed, the only correctly-identified bird on the mosaic was the partridge (bottom left). Let us hope, therefore, that their dating and authenticity abilities in relation to this particular object were more accurate – but were they?
Interestingly, Dr Shuker has tracked down a reference to this panel in Arthur Brand's 2019 De paarden van Hitler ("Hitler's Horses").
Mentioned almost in passing within Brand's book, moreover, were some most intriguing details relevant to the macaw mosaic. Brand recalled a conversation that he'd had with an enigmatic figure from the art world named Michel van Rijn, during which van Rijn had shown him an auction catalogue whose cover had depicted a Roman mosaic panel depicting five birds around a drinking vessel, one of these birds being a South American blue and yellow macaw! (Although not named, judging from Brand's description of the mosaic panel this catalogue must surely have been Christie's?) Bursting out laughing, Brand had asked where this forgery (his word) had originated. Here is van Rijn's reply:
Tunisia, I think. There's a village just south of Sousse where they churn out fake Greek and Roman mosaics. A regular goldmine.
I wish to make absolutely clear here that I am entirely unaware of any formal, professional confirmation that this particular artefact is indeed a fake, a forgery. Yet if what van Rijn had said about it and the veritable mosaic fake factory operating near Sousse does have merit, might this be why the macaw mosaic panel has signally failed to influence the accepted mainstream views concerning early Roman trading?
He is suggesting that this antiquity is ignored as evidence by a whole profession that quietly accepts that the object is a fake. Now all we need is the conspiracy theorists to latch on to it as evidence of another "archaeological cover-up" (like the "giants", "Lost Ice-Age period civilisation", "alien visitors" etc).

Shuker adds in a reply to the comments:
As I state in my article, I am entirely unaware of any formal, professional confirmation that this particular artefact is indeed a fake, a forgery, but obviously the claim made by Michel van Rijn as reported in Arthur Brand's book is potentially concerning. Ideally, in the light of that, it would be interesting if the mosaic could be professionally, comprehensively re-examined, preferably independently by several different experts, but who knows if that will ever happen?
And how, since the object is in unknown private hands, who-knows-where. And who would fund this re-examination, or are archaeologists supposed to do it for free, for the fun of it - but also so as the archaeological record is not tainted by pseudo-evidence courtey of the antiquities market? And....
Ve 4 August 2021 at 12:26
I doubt it will ever happen Karl, because surely if actually proved to be a fake, it's perceived monetary value would plummet. That would be a hefty motive to disincentize any current owner from cooperating with tests. There may be another possibility though, that the design came to Rome from Egypt, and that the Egyptians had limited trade with South America. This question came up before, re "Cocaine Mummies" and Architectural similarities. Nothing was conclusively demonstrated though. We do know Egyptian reed boats could cross seas. So who knows...
Christies has so far not commented on the blog post.

Update 10.01.2023

In a subsequent twitter thread, the Christie's description is cited from here:
A ROMAN MARBLE MOSAIC PANEL Circa 2nd Century A.D. Composed of minute tesserae in multiple shades of red, green, black, gray and tan on a cream ground, the rectangular panel centered by an elegant water-filled krater with a trumpet-shaped foot, wide flaring mouth and vertical voluted handles, a parrot and a greenfinch perched on either side of the rim, the greenfinch dipping to take a drink, its tail uplifted, a chaffinch on the upper left pecking at a floral, a large partridge below, its wing unfolded, facing right and pecking at foliage, and a pileated woodpecker bottom right, facing left, with additional foliage in the field 44 in. x 32¾ in. (111.8 cm. x 83.2 cm.)

PROVENANCE  Private Collection, circa 1980.

Lot Essay The small size of the tesserae and the subtle color gradations combine to give a painterly quality to this work, especially the shadowing, the detailed feathering of each bird, the highlights of the krater and its rippling water. Similar compositions were popular throughout the Roman world, and all can be traced back to Hellenistic originals. The most famous of these depicts doves perched on the rim of a bowl, thought to be based on the work of Sosus at Pergamon, mentioned by Pliny and preserved in several copies. See for example the version from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, now in the Capitoline Museum, Rome, no. 27 in Dunbabin, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World. For a more closely related scene of various birds around a krater compare the mosaic from the House of the Sun Dial at Antioch, p. 194 in Cimok, ed., Antioch Mosaics.
"Lot essay" translates to "narrativisation". The latter is presumably this one, note no mention is made of why those particular birds are grouped together - not of what material the tesserae of different colours are. Nor indeed how the panel was lifted and mounted. Why are the edges so ragged? This is a description that is less than full. 


Arthur said...

Interesting to see this mosaic popping up again and again. In 2003 I informed Christie's about this piece, declaring it a fake, obvious... But they didn't respond. I left it at that because at the time I was still impressed by 'art experts'...

Paul Barford said...

I think the problem of art experts is that the whole thing is based on a silent "it looks to me like..." which rather should be more explicit: "it has pictures of birds on it, I don't know much about birds, but it looks to me like on this panel we have..."

Arthur said...

The worst thing is that they sold it after being shown the obvious mistake made by the forger...

Paul Barford said...

Oh really? That was not clear from the wording above. If that is the case, well wow! What were they playing at?

Arthur said...

If they would have called a bird-specialist after me warning them, the piece would not have been sold. Even an internet-search would have done the job... So why was it sold? Strange...

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