Caligula, and a tale of good vs evil ...

I blogged about the statue of Caligula, initially found in January, but formally announced yesterday - the post is here.

It got me thinking about good versus bad. Not so much about Caligula himself - who was most definitely evil, and would have made the worst antics of News International execs and Russian oligarchs seem tame - but about how the statue and the story surrounding the excavations can be used to simply explain the advantages of good archaeology as opposed to bad looting.

The Lake Nemi statue was found by tombolari, looters, who were then caught by the authorities. At that point they had the body of a fabulous statue in two main pieces. The presumed intention of the robbers was for the statue to be driven over the border to Switzerland, where it would have been sold as either a cult statue or a statue of an unknown emperor.

In archaeology, context is key. Once the authorities had caught the thieves, real archaeologists were able to move in and fully excavate the site where the statue was found. I gave more details in my earlier post. The head was located, where it had rolled downhill into a water tank in antiquity. Yet even if the looters had found the head, it would probably not have helped them identify the figure - it's in very bad condition, and many of the Julio-Claudians look similar. Because of the location of the find, we can now speculate that the figure represented either Tiberius or Caligula, and because of further information available to us, scholars can draw the conclusion that it was probably Caligula. Without an excavation, the statue on its own could have been anyone. Because of the excavations, we know it's probably Caligula.

Just as women today seem to be emulating the glossy locks and lady-like dress of Kate Middleton, or the bleached blonde hair and enhanced boobs of Katie Price, so women in antiquity copied the style set by the leading ladies of the day, usually the emperor's wife or daughters. That's why it's often hard to identify who an out of context ancient head represented (statues, with iconographic clues, tend to be easier). The same applied to men. Many heads of men with 'leonine' locks get identified at Alexander the Great, just as many men with a bifurcate fringe get identified as a young Octavian. Generally they are neither, simply a man imitating the court style.

I've explained the importance of archaeological context rather than looting, but it might also be worth using examples from the art market to show that the situation is not always black and white. I have no objection to collecting, as long as the collection is formed with care, and items are legally acquired, not looted. The problem is that many collectors made their money because they are very clever men, and they feel that if they can understand biotech or whatever complex area they made their fortunes in, they can understand something as simple as art. (Ummm, oddly art historians and archaeologists are not entirely flattered to have their skills and years of hard work written off in this way). Leaving aside the arrogance of some collectors, and the psychology of what makes them collect, there are issues with dealers in the art market itself, particularly the antiquities market, where in the 80s and 90s demand far outstripped supply when it came to good material. There are more than a few rotten apples in the barrel that is the antiquities market, but there are also many beautiful ripe and juicy apples in it (yes, I know that analogy went a bit ...).

I've used an example of a head sold at Bonhams in the summer of 1994 before: it was listed as 'Roman portrait' with no provenance, and sold for very little. As soon as I saw it, alarm bells rang. It was clearly a copy of the Diadoch type, whose original is sometimes assigned to Scopas. The restorations were old, and the face had been restored in line with a similar head at Houghton which had been in Norfolk since the early 18th century. A bit more digging showed that the head had been in a collection formed in the late 18th century in Ireland, and so almost certainly known in Italy around the time the Houghton head left Rome. The skull, which had not been restored, had ancient marks which showed where small horns would have been 'pieced' and inserted by the sculptor. This in turn proves that the head, and so the type, represented Demetrius Poliorcetes, and is quite an important discovery. Leading scholars of Greek sculpture agreed, and suggested I publish it, but leading journals decline to allow the publication of art market pieces. An important piece of archaeological evidence now sits in a private collection, unshared - not because of the owner, who was happy for it to be published, but because of political pressure on academic publications to blackball the legal practise of collecting.

But that was 1994, you're thinking, we're in 2011, and we all know after the Medici scandal ...

Earlier this month I popped to the Masterpiece London art fair. I tend to dislike art parties, partly because of the people, but mostly because you can't actually see the art, so I went pottering around on the Friday morning. Tucked on a low shelf at the very back of Galerie Chenel's stand was a small purple head, which they didn't seem to think much of based on its position and the fact that they didn't bother to have photos taken of it. I asked if I could pull it out and look at it. Their label label identified it as a porphyry head of a man, 3rd of 4th century AD. No provenance was given.

I've already discussed the importance of porphyry (hereTetrarchs, such as the famous group now in Venice, and with Constantine's family. The stone meant that it had to be an emperor, but the head didn't look like any emperor of the period. In fact, it didn't even look particularly Roman. It had a large nose and vaguely leonine locks, which suggested a man either in the wake of Alexander the Great or one of the early Ptolemies (though not necessarily carved in their lifetimes). Who exactly the head represented will remain a scholarly argument, and I suspect that whoever buys it is likely to go for a 'brand' name such as Alexander the Great. Had we found the head in an archaeological context, we might have been able to make a more educated guess, as with the statue of Caligula, but because we have no idea where it came from, we cannot.

In case you're thinking "it's a pity such an important piece newly on the art market ..." - don't. We may not know where it was found, but it took me all of two minutes to find a collecting history for the head using my identification of the subject rather than the dealer's. Older entries with descriptions may or may not be the head in question, but Richard Delbrueck included a photo of it in his 1932 Antike Porphyrwerke (figure 3 and catalogue 7) so it can be securely identified as having been in a private collection by that date. See the photo below.

I don't want to claim that it's all daisies and unicorns with collectors and the antiquities market. Another item I've discussed is a statue of a Caryatid sold at Christie's New York in June 2004.

I wish my slides of the figure were not in storage as details of the unique crinkly drapery would be far more useful to this discussion that the photo from Christie's web site above. The history for the piece was given as:
European Private Collection, 1980s.
with Fortuna Fine Arts, New York, 2002.
Pre-Lot Text
J. Richardson, Picasso: The Classical Period, New York, 2003, no. 10.
Picasso: The Classical Period, C & M Arts, New York, 2003.
Okay, so far, so ... Dorothy's already explained how the Diadoch and the porphyry head turned out to be kosher, so as in all good fairy tales this one is also going to have a happy ending. Wrong. This is a prime example of people being too foolish to realise they don't know what they're doing wrong.

The statue was listed as Hadrianic and "46 in. (16.8 cm.) high" (they meant 1.68 m). It is, as the catalogue entry says, based on the set of carved columns of the Erechtheion which are often called Caryatids. I argued against the Erechteion figures being the set of Caryatids described by Vitruvius (see here), and whilst that point is just an academic argument, it does mean that my research is the most recent work on Caryatids so I know the sets of copies of the figures rather well ... I know the figures in the very old articles cited by Christie's and I know the more recent sets of Caryatids uncovered by a friend at the villa of Herodes Atticus at Loukou, as well as other sets still only being discussed in specialist literature.

I think that the figure is Augustan, carved in Regio 1, but again that's an academic argument. My repeated emphasis on "sets" is not accidental, for just as there were six columns carved as women on the Erechtheion, so both the Hellenistic and Roman copies of them came in sets, usually of six. Some figures have been found on their own in the distant past, so there are solo Caryatid heads in collections such as the Vatican, but the figures excavated in recent years are not found alone but in sets ... this means that if another figure matching the Christie's statue is found, with the same details such as crinkly edges to the drapery, it will be possible to be almost certain where this one came from.

I had been asked to look at it by a collector, and explained these issues with the piece. I do not know which collector ended up buying it, but I know that collectors can be particularly free and easy with threats of litigation, so I am going to be very careful and issue a disclaimer making it clear that I am not accusing anyone of doing anything wrong - simply of being very ignorant. And maybe stupid in their arrogance.

Although the collector passed on my advice, I emailed the Italian Cultural Attache, the guys at the Acropolis, anyone I could think of who had found a set of Caryatids or was working on them, to try to work out where this piece could have come from. One person bothered to reply. The collector that owns the Caryatid could make a good legal argument that I did the proper due diligence to make sure that the piece was not looted. I was disappointed that my colleagues were not interested in trying to prevent looting, their oft stated aim, by doing something practical.

I don't know the consignor, and I have no idea who bought the piece. Therefore I would not wish to speculate on whether or not they had enough basic knowledge to be aware of two further points which make me believe that the Caryatid was likely illegally excavated in recent times, although I have no proof of this. a) there was dried grass and dirt in some of the drill holes, and b) the statue has a whole series of relatively recent chips in the drapery, in roughly parallel lines, of the type normally left when a rope is wrapped around a sculpture to drag it, a technique archaeologists tend not to use ...

I suspect I was not the only person with doubts, since this statue, which would otherwise have been an important work and a key piece in any collection, sold for $71,700 including buyer's premium of some 20% as opposed to a pre-sale estimate of $80,000 - $120,000. It was a bargain. I have to be honest that at that price it would have been a great buy for a collector seeking publicity for his collection, and in that case I would have been for his buying it. He could have bought the piece, issued a press release explaining the problems with the piece and explained that he was safe-guarding it until the rest of the set was identified and it could have been return to its rightful home. Considering how much some collectors spend on PR, 70+ thousand spent that way would have bought a lot more publicity and created goodwill. But then again, collectors tend not to think in terms of goodwill.

I've been invited to give a lecture on collecting vs looting, which will pretty much cover the same ground as the discussion in these blog posts, but figure I'd share the information and the way I'm thinking of presenting the evidence to show that collecting is more about shades of grey than some people would like to make out, and that situational ethics need to be applied.


  1. Two terrific posts, this and yesterday's on the 'Caligula' Nemi statue. I hope both are widely read.

  2. Why thank you! (I'm a sucker for a compliment ...)


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