Advice To Antiquities Collectors

Why Archaeological Context is Key

I snapped a photo of this fabulous horse blinker in the archaeological museum in Athens (inv. 15070), and I'd like to briefly explain what makes it so interesting. 

It was found in the sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros in Eretria, where it's pair was also excavated, although in a different location within the sanctuary. The pair is published elsewhere, and people sometimes confuse the two.*

The blinkers were not made in Greece, but in 9th century Syria, and engraved in Aramaic: 'A gift of Hadad for our lord Hazael, the year that our lord crossed the river' (image source).

Although Hazael was a well attested king of Damascus, the blinkers were neither made for him nor dedicated by him in Eretria.

Their history is rather complicated. Firstly the inscription suggests that they were booty captured by Hazael in a military campaign. Secondly it is extremely unlikely that Hazael would have dedicated this booty, which the inscription shows he was proud to have captured, in a sanctuary of a god that was not his Hadad, in Greece. The assumption this is that his own capital and treasury was captured by someone else, that the blinkers were in turn sold off, eventually making their way into the hands of an Eretrian who chose do dedicate them to Apollo.

As I discussed in The Evidence for Roman Chain Mail ancient armour did move around, and this is a great example of why archaeological context is key. If one of these blinkers had appeared on the art market, the 'experts' at an auction house would have sold it as "property of King Hazael" and the very things that make it most interesting - that we can prove it changed hands repeatedly - would have been lost. A few 'free trade' 'pro-collecting' fanatics might claim this was evidence that artifacts moved around a great deal in the ancient world and further 'evidence' that one cannot 'prove' where items were 'supposedly looted' from (as they did with my post about Exekias find spots) ... but such items tend to be the exception rather than the norm, and it is this very aspect of their nature which makes them so interesting and their archaeological context key.

The art market would probably also have assumed that the blinkers were found with this trapezoidal frontlet which is engraved: "A gift of HDR for our lord Hazael, from the plain of Basan, a brow-band for our respectful lord"

This piece was found neither in Phoenicia nor in Eretria, but in the Heraion of Samos, and is now in Vathy museum (photo from article by Catherine Saint-Pierre on, Don et économie en grèce archaïque, here; see also JSTOR).

It may have been from the same set as the Eretria blinkers, or from another set which also fell into Hazael's hands as war booty, but again it was dispersed and made its way to another Greek sanctuary.

Another problem with Hazael is that he pops up in the Bible, which makes him a 'name' for collectors, but also makes some scholars suspicious of any artifacts with such names on them, whether found in a verifiable archaeological context of not. A good example of the suspicion is the Tel Dan Stele, found at the eponymous site in the early 1990s. The 'author' of the decree in the Aramaic is missing, but given where it was found, was probably Hazael.

Other items linked to Hazael by inscription have been excavated in the Levant, in archaeological contexts. And by that I mean the ivories excavated by the French at Arslan Tash and now in the Louvre, and in Aleppo Museum. These are some of the items in the Louvre:

Although sometimes described on the internet as a 'portrait' of Hazael and the ivories as coming from his bed, again they seem to have been manufactured elsewhere and like the Nimrud ivories now in Baghdad, have been subsequently looted in antiquity.

Some 71 ivories from Arslan Tash remained in Syria, and were until recently in Aleppo Museum. I am not sure what has happened to them, and thought it might be worth posting some photos of them in case they were again looted - what would be the third time known time in their history - and make their way onto the art market (photo source):

[Bridgeman don't seem to recognize that they lost in Bridgeman v Corel, and that they can't claim copyright of images, but since I can't be bothered to cope with more nonsense from them, I won't post 'their' images of items in Aleppo museum, but they can be seen here].

These two plaques from Arslan Tash are in the Louvre ...

... and that's where the problems start, because when a second 'stash' of ivories appeared on the art market after World War II, which became known as "the Borowski Collection" because many of them were owned by dealer Ellie Borowski ... even though they had no provenance, they became associated by museums as "probably from Arslan Tash" for example this piece in the Met. Obviously these are pre 1970, so no-one seriously worries about them, but I give this as an example of where a provenance is given by the art market to inflate a price by making an object seem more kosher and important than it is. There is no evidence that Borowski ivories have anything to do with either Arslan Tash or Hazael. 

But if ivories of this kind do appear on the art market now, buyers should be beware and check them both against those from Arslan Tash which should be in Aleppo Museum and those from Nimrud, some of which have the name Hazael on them, and most of which should be in Baghdad Museum (database here).

I hope that I have explained why archaeological context is key and why, apart from their obvious illegality, looted items rob us of much valuable information. I am not saying that all items on the art market are looted. Maybe a system could be worked out where we can return to a form of partage, with items from excavations being sold off, but as things stand very few countries allow this.

Summary so far: Hazael's horse armour is interesting as objects, but much more interesting when one knows the full history of the items because of the contexts the items were found in.

My context for being a hypocrite

I came up yesterday with the idea of trying to open up the conversation between collectors and archaeologists by asking some collectors to talk about how and why they collect. There was a marked reluctance to open themselves up to criticism by all and sundry, and I can't blame them. I also discovered that had heard  I was being a complete bitch and refusing to help that nice Chris Levett. Obviously I would like to immediately apologise and put that right.  

I realised that although I 'preached' that scholars should try to help collectors collect ethically in this post, and although I generally do try to do so, I may have been unfair in my treatment of Christian Levett. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with him dealing, if he chooses to do so, and frankly I feel it is probably better if he deals items he has displayed in his museum and allowed people to vet. I would rather dealing was done that way than through items stashed away in a Swiss free port. I looked at his museum web site yesterday - here - for the first time in well over a year, and I am only sorry that they have changed it to show fewer items, as the last time I looked at it was with some colleagues in the Greek archaeological service who were utterly fascinated by some of his Greek helmets.

A couple of Chris' employees emailed me yet again recently, and one of them I was quite curt back to. I felt that I had been quite clear to him in the past about not being willing to write eulogising blog posts about him and his collection nor to write for his Minerva Magazine, nor did I understand why he would want me to write for Minerva after the various things he said about me. Chris and I had dinner twice two years ago; the first dinner he suggested because I had approached him on behalf of a cultural property institute that was being set up, the second dinner was a date. Two dinners long in the past, not really much more

Part of the reason we did not stay cordial was his insults, part because of my mother. She sent me a card and ticket to his museum, letting me know she was budying up with him - photo - and I was not thrilled to say the least. I want nothing to do with the woman, and he clearly feels that I, and the consultant psychiatrist she harassed and everyone else who's been told to ring 999 if she bothers us by the police  are clearly just wimps. I tend to over-react when it comes to my mother, so that part was possibly mea culpa. The reason I have flipped over subsequent contact from his staff, is because I find it extremely creepy that my mother continues to be invited to his museum parties, but the truth is that who he chooses to socialise with is not my business.

That was the context I put approaches by his staff into.

I have realised that his staff were probably trying to reach out to me, and by rebuffing them I was probably being a complete and utter hypocrite considering I otherwise preach working with collectors. Obviously Levett is welcome to be friends with whoever he likes, and it was wrong of me to reject overtures just because he has become friendly with my mother, and when I chose not to go one another date with him his private life ceased to be any of my business. As far as I'm concerned it was years ago, all water under the bridge, and I would like to apologise to his staff, and obviously it was wrong of me not to refuse to help them, so I will try to do my very best to remedy that.

I wouldn't write for Minerva - this is not to be read in any way as a reflection on the magazine, which I am more than happy to praise as one of several magazines attempting to make archaeology accessible to the public, but solely due to my policy of expecting businesses to pay me a fair rate for my time, ie a rate higher than the token rate which is the norm from say the AIA's Archaeology magazine or museums (I actually decline payment from them, but that is my choice).

I will however change my policy, and try to blog regularly about the Mougins Museum of Classical Art as Levett and his director repeatedly told me to do.

So here comes the advice

I can't give Levett any advice on being an antiquities dealer. But I've come up with more helpful suggestions on the collecting side as I don't want to be hypocritical and I apologise for being unhelpful. If his staff could send a catalogue to the usual address, I can go through his collection piece by piece because, and obviously I would love nothing more.

I was told yesterday that Levett is buying up a lot of the armour on the market, and his web site describes his as "The largest private collection of ancient armour and helmets in the world"

I wish some of the pieces had better provenances, such as find spots and pre 1970 histories - but appearing in catalogues published in the 90s and 00s is better than many other collectors. I genuinely feel that Levett is trying to be a model collector, and I really have not heard any credible claims of wrong-doing in terms of his collection. As far as I am aware he has bought everything in his collection legally.

The problem with armour is that it did move around, and was dedicated in sanctuaries by both its owners and those who won victories over them. Most examples come from tombs, but the most interesting ones come from battlefields and sanctuaries. I couldn't find a single find spot in the info on his web site, so this should be added as it is more important than recent pulications.

If Levett genuinely wants his collection to be a museum, and not a show-case for his toys, then he needs to seriously up the ante. He has done very well building his hedge fund, so I can understand why he thinks that he can 'do' antiquities collecting and dealing better using those same skills - but at the moment he is not.

So I'm going to practise what I preached and suggest ways in which he could improve the collection.

Provenance is key - see above.

That he seems to accept in the Acquisition Policy on his web site - here. Fair enough. The Acquisition Policy reads like pseudo-legal gobbledygook written by a sixth-former, so my suggestion would either be write a simple list of points or hire a real lawyer to write it.

There are some interesting points which are suggested in this document, for example the clarification that the MACM (they seem to have dropped 'MOCA') is an entirely separate legal entity from "the Collector" and that he lends his collection to the Museum, and that the museum does not deal but is a very worthwhile educational institution. 

Obviously this is brilliant news:

Whilst it is good to hear it confirmed that Levett is funding a database of looted stuff, this comes as no great surprise to me as he was extremely enthusiastic about the concept of LootBusters.com, offering to fund it and grasping immediately that whoever controlled the information could control potentially the art market. I've been honest that I'm having problems keeping up with the amount of thefts being reported on a part time basis (and can't work full time on it), and currently it is the only freely accessible place to find images of looted archaeological items. Therefore I think it's brilliant that there is going to be a new Levett-backed database. If even just me working on my own managed to get more art returned last year than the entire Art Loss Register, then obviously anything Levett does is going to be far superior. Obviously he'll build far better contacts with governments than I have, and as he'll be able to fund an organisation much better, I'm sure it will be brilliantly a stupendous success.
I assume that this is just phrased in the wrong way:

What this 'reads' as is that "we can buy art if it is at risk of destruction or deterioration even if it's been looted" and surely this is not correct? The contents of Aleppo Museum are "at risk" of both these, but no reputable museum, dealer or collector would touch them with a barge pole. I assume that this is not intended, and just the result of inexperience. Again, I would highly recommend a lawyer re-write this,  for example William Pearlstein is a lawyer many collectors and dealers trust, but there are others.

Provenance is important, and even when one cannot prove an item is looted, the mere fact of being able to cast severe doubt on the 'claimed' provenance is enough to 'burn' an antiquity on the art market and make it unsaleable. The so-called Sevso Hoard is the textbook example of this. More recently in 2009 Bonhams announced the discovery of a vase better than the Portland Vase; which was never auctioned and is now possibly unsaleable as the provenance seems to have been falsified - see here.

Let's take this so-called 'Cleopatra' that used to be on the MOCA web site. Firstly, it was photographed from the wrong angle, so again I would recommend using Matthew Hollow, who knows how to photograph art. Secondly, it does not look like any even tentatively accepted portrait of Cleopatra I know of, but if Levett want to claim she's the Queen of Sheba it his your right to. He obviously have a unique eye for spotting attributions scholars would not think of and this is a wonderful talent. But the provenance does not hold up. Talk to Christie's lawyers. I know that if I pointed these issues out to them they'd see my point, so I suggest your  lawyers do the same. And ask for your money back if they can't confirm this strange 'history' they give for the 'Cleopatra'.

Collect or deal - choose.  It is all very well coming up for 'Disposal' rules for the 'MACM' but if this is separate from the collection on loan to it, these are irrelevant.

Focus and good advice are key to a good collection

Levett likes to boast of being a "compulsive" collector, and whilst enthusiasm is a wonderful thing, more focus and becoming expert in a more narrow field tends to make for stronger collections. I note from the web site that he's now decided to concentrate on armour and helmets, and this is wonderful. Armour and helmets tend normally to be bought by interior designers, I think it is wonderful that someone is finally putting together a serious collection of them.

Getting good advice from scholars is key. Some are brilliant, other little better than competent compilers of information they cannot process. Obviously he was extremely badly advised in terms of sculpture (my field, so I known who's crap in it), so I hope he has found some brilliant people to advise him in the field of armour and helmets. It's also a field where scholars are happier to work with dealers, and where there are some amazing people whose hobby is re-enacting battles - because they replicate and 'use' ancient armour and weapons, they often have fascinating insights into them, so it's good to be a geek and talk to them.

Hopefully that's enough helpful advice.


* Pair = F. Bron & A. Lemaire, 'Les inscriptions arameennes de Hazael,' RAssyr 183, 1989, pp. 35-44; A. Charbonnet, 'Le dieu aux lions d'Eretrie,' AION ArchStAnt 8, 1986, pp. 117-173

This one = Ν. Κourou, ''Εύβοια και Ανατολική Μεσόγειος στις αρχές της πρώτης χιλιετίας (ή το προοίμιο της εμφάνισης του ελληνικού αλφαβήτου)'', Αρχείο Ευβοϊκών Μελετών 29 (1990-1991) 240, 248-251. Ν. Stampolides, Sea routes.: Interconnections in the Mediterranean 16th-6th c. B.C.: Proceedings of the International Symposium held at Rethymnon, Crete, September 29th-October 2nd 2002 (Athens 2003)no. *522 [Μ. Bredaki-Ν. Stampolides], no. 860 και 861 [V. Giannouli, Α. Psalti respectively].

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