Archaeologists at Auctions?

If I had $15.000, would I bid for an antique such as this Roman marble torso of a god or hero, to be auctioned off on 9 December in New York? It’s a question that I sometimes ask myself when I receive emails from Christie’s announcing antiquities auctions. The provenance of this particular torso can be traced back to 1926, a time when most museums in Europe and North America were stocking up on Greek and Roman sculpture.

Are collecting and archaeology two completely opposing attitudes to the past than needs to be separated? Today most would argue that they should, and that a ‘respectable’ archaeologist cannot collect antiquities. Very politically correct, but it is wellknown that this has not always been the situation. In John Boardman’s books, there are often pictures with captions that inform us that a particular pot is from the author’s personal collection. The legendary Beazley, who wrote the authoritative volumes on Greek vase painters, had a large collection of pottery (now in the Ashmolean), and the list goes on. In the 19th century, collectors were considered to be benefactors to society, today they are portrayed as crooks. This is not a defence of their actions, but just shows how much attitudes have changed. What I think this separation or supposed dichotomy denies is the fact that the very origins of archaeology lie in antiquarinism. The antiquities market has to a certain degree developed to meet the needs of the archaeological community, and this is still true today. Before realizing this, I think that the community is speaking with two tongues. This is also well demonstrated by the thousands of pots and other objects that are rotting away (unpublished, unexhibited) in depots all over the Mediterranean. By its very nature, archaeology is about things.

There can be no doubt that there is today a vast market for Greek and Roman antiquities, many of which have been looted, thus rendering their archaeological context completely useless. Museum policies continue to be at odds with advances in archaeological ethics (lots of examples on Elginism, e.g. the recent Getty case). Many pots in Christie’s auctions from South Italy, such as these Apulian wares with an earliest provenance of 1989, are very likely to have been looted from graves. Where else could they come from?

Perhaps, it is time to completely rethink the layout and design of excavation monographs – that in the past sometimes have appeared in formats not totally unlike auction catalogues (Beazley’s monumental volumes are in fact very similar to stamp catalogues) – and the way things are exhibited in museums? Maybe it’s time to once again re-evaluate the fetichisms of archaeology, and try to open up new ways of seeing these magnificent objects from the past. Of course looting is wrong and we should do everything possible to stop it, but the important answer we need to ask is how can archaeology profit from this immense public interest in the past that collecting is the materialization of. People will always want mementos, whether it is a fragment of the Berlin Wall or a piece of an Apulian pot. Collecting is essentially very human. Elitist behaviour on behalf of the archaeological community will change nothing, and amounts to little more than the epitomy of self denial. How many archaeologists have their own personal collections? Is alienation from the antiquities market really the answer?

So, to answer my original hypothetical question: No, I would probably not bid for such an item, even if its provenance (but not provenience) can be traced back to a time, when attitudes to antiquities were quite different. But that decision has more to do with the fact that I would have no idea what to do with a Roman marble torso in my living room than a highbrow ethical consideration. That said, it troubles me deeply to see so many items on sale whose earliest provenance is after 1970 and the signing of the UNESCO Convention.

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