7.10.2011

Mougins Museum of Classical Art

In various meetings to do with the database of looted archaeological material, one hot topic that comes up several times a day has been the recently opened Museum of Classical Art in Mougins.

I find it difficult to comment as I have never seen the Museum, have only briefly met the owner Christian Levett and casually know the director Mark Merrony. Everyone I know that has seen the Museum has been enthusiastic about the project, and had nothing but praise for it.

Several points can be made about the newest Ancient Art Museum.

It's an interesting idea bringing antiquities 'back' to the area, since the coast from Marseilles to Nice was as Roman as could be long before Julius Caesar's conquest of the rest of Gaul. We tend to associate Roman remains with Arles, Orange and the area further north, but Nice has an impressive archaeological park and Antibes was once Greek Antipolis. Antibes was a port famous for a variety of garum, which remains a local speciality. Many items of the items in the collection seem to come from neighbouring Italy, but as the Romans saw that part of France as so integral to their culture they simply called it 'the province' - Provence - Mougins would have been part of mainstream Rome in the ancient period.

By placing the collection on display, Levett cannot be accused of hiding dodgy antiquities out of sight like a pimp hiding his whores for the benefit of his friends (which seems to be the main argument of those opposed to collecting). My understanding is that the Museum has a strict policy of 20 to 25 years' provenance for lesser items and 40+ years' provenance for more important antiquities. I suspect that some of these provenances will in due course turn out to have been figments of the dealers' imagination, because some dealers can be imaginative with collecting histories, but other items have secure provenances going back to the 18th century. And since Levett and Merrony are not psychic, they cannot be blamed if a dealer has faked a provenance - everyone in the art market that has mentioned their names has stressed how hard they are working to buy pieces with secure histories that were not recently looted.

I am sure there will be problems ahead, with David Gill and others scholars unearthing information that proves certain items have problematic histories - statistically, when one collects so much, there is bound to be one rotten apple in the barrel. I wouldn't want to vouch for a man I don't know, given the difficulties involved with collecting and forming a museum, but Levett struck me as enthusiastic enough to become more knowledgeable, and an honest collector trying to do the right thing. The Mougins Museum of Classical Art is a genuine attempt to create a kosher collection of antiquities with good collecting histories and to share those antiquities with the public. For that reason I feel we should fully support I.






Update - I've had some very mixed emails about this post. So my quick answers are:

  • Collecting is legal, and as long as collectors obey the law I have no problem with them whether they keep their antiquities in a museum or at home. Collecting harms less people than drugs, so I don't see the validity of the comparison. And if people are going to draw fatuous analogies to arms dealers, then let's not forget that Saddam Hussein cracked down on looting - but also committed genocide. Pol Pot, the Taliban and Mao both destroyed the cultural heritage of their countries and committed genocide, but that's not an argument for allowing the destruction of those countries' cultural heritage to continue.
  • I very occasionally look at pieces for collectors, or suggest pieces to collectors, but I am always clear that I will not take any payment from the dealer (other than the odd cup of coffee, etc). I feel that we can argue about cut-off dates for antiquities, and the generally accepted one is 1970, but ... My personal feelings are that it should vary according to the piece. The 'newest' antiquity I have been involved with had a written record of its collecting history only going back to the 30s to 50s (based on biographical data of the cataloguer), but from my knowledge the family I believe it was acquired earlier. Almost every other piece had histories going back to the 18th and 19th centuries, and one as far back as the late Medieval period. I know Polish Catholics whose collections were seized by the Communists after the War, and Jews who were forced to sell theirs or have them seized before the War, and so the 1970 date, which is in any case not universally enforceable, is not a fixed one to me. I could also add that some non-forced sales of antiquities at auctions in London fetched very little money, not because of the Nazis, but because there was an economic depression, so I can sometimes be skeptical about claims by heirs of Jewish collectors who sold their collections for very little in the 1930s - they might not have made more money on the open market in London or New York than in Berlin and Vienna. My view is that collectors selling often do not want to be named, as they are embarrassed by being in financial straights; sometimes dealers fake provenances, sometimes it is trying to save face. One also cannot apply our own views, or US laws, to items legally excavated and acquired in Indonesia, and in full accordance with current Indonesian law. Antiquities collecting can be a mine-field, and it is one into which too many stumble and bumble, but it is also a field which benefits from the application of situational ethics. Everybody makes mistakes, and it's how you deal with them that matters.
  • I don't take ads or write paid content, and do not blog most unsolicited books I'm sent, so I'm not sure why a few idiots would assume I was "bribed" ... I like to make a brief disclaimer if I know or have met someone, or if I someone sends me a copy of a book for free. Many of us made fun of the rules the US government tried to set down to regulate bloggers, but I've come to realize that in a world where an increasing number of blogs are written by professional journalists - I am not a journalist, I am an archaeologist - it actually doesn't do any harm to be clear about one's personal interests and potential conflicts. I know a number of collectors (in some cases its "friends you can choose, family you're stuck with") but would not pretend to be close to either Levett or Merrony, nor have any plans to become so. They are both perfectly charming people, but I do not need to become best buddies with everyone. I have not taken money from them, nor do I plan to etc etc
  • Nor do I have plans to visit Mougins or the Museum of Classical Art. If I can fit into a bikini, I'm more likely to go to St Tropez, and if I want to visit a museum, then the BM is within walking distance. That does not mean that people should not pop in if they are in the area, simply that I do not plan to be.

Update 2 ... I just realised that some of the emails I've received from different 'people' have the same language and were probably written by the same man (that's not sexism, just an educated assumption that just as it is not socially acceptable today to use the term "Jewess" it's unlikely a woman would have made personal comments of the nature made ...)

    14 comments:

    1. interesting. very very interesting. you are saying very English polite you do not like them.

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    2. I think this website gives a good balanced view on the new Mougins Museum. Mougins top pieces all have long and public provenance, The Cobham Hall Hadrian, The Crowe Hall Urn, The Barberini Tyche, The Beth Shean Bust....the Odysseus, Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius all come from stately home collections, both sarcophagi have 100 year provenance, his Rubens paintings have 18th century provenance...the list goes on. Every item in the collection has seemingly been bought at either auction or from the major dealers. Even the remaining Geddes sale vases must have had reasonable provenance as all the other vases were pulled from that sale. It's all on public display, apparently at huge cost to the owner both in set-iup costs and running costs. Its tough to pick a hole in what they're doing from where i'm sitting unless one is if the fanarical view that every antiquity of any size or importance should be sent back to Southern Europe, which incidentally, is exavtly where the museum is situated

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    3. Exactly - they've done pretty much everything right, and are going out of their way to collect ethicaly etc

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    5. The Mougins Museum's statue of Demeter that's pictured on this website and which I assume was downloaded from Guardian article, also comes from an old European royal family collection. Another good provenance it seems

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    6. Yes, yes, they're the bee's knees etc. Why don't you drop me an email and write a guest post about the museum?

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