ElAnt v2n2 - MUSEUMS AND ETHICS - Publishing Unprovenanced Artifacts: Further Observations

Volume 2, Number 2
August 1994


NOTE: Dr Gill's response follows on from the issues raised by Dr. 
McClellan, 'Publishing Unprovenanced Artifacts' and the response 
by Dr Hamma of the J. Paul Getty Museum in EA 2, 1 - June
1994.  The editors welcome further replies, which should be 
directed to them at:

David W J Gill,
Department of Classics and Ancient History.
University of Wales Swansea,
Singleton Park,
Swansea SA2 8PP,
Wales, UK.
e-mail: D.W.J.GILL@swansea.ac.uk

The electronic publication of the grave stele of Athanias, and the Attic Panathenaic Prize Amphora have drawn academic attention to two newly surfaced objects (K. Hamma, 'J. Paul Getty Museum: recent acquisitions', EA 1.7 (Feb. 1994)). Neither entry includes information about provenance whether it be former owner or find- spot, or indeed details about previous publication; absence of information suggests that both objects 'surfaced' in 1993 (to judge by the inventory numbers). It is no means certain, as Murray McClellan ('Publishing unprovenanced artifacts: comment', EA 2.1 (June 1994)) has pointed out, that either artifact was 'removed from their country or countries of origin illegally or illicitly'.

However one basic point is clear. Archaeological sites around the Mediterranean and elsewhere are suffering major damage due to systematic and illicit excavations in order to supply the needs of the antiquities market. This activity in turn feeds the appetites of the museums and the private collectors who are willing to buy. A case study on marble Cycladic figures (D.W.J. Gill and C. Chippindale, 'Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures', AJA 97 (1993) 625) has suggested that 'some 85% of the funerary record of the Early Bronze Age Cyclades may have been lost through this unscientific search for figurines'; to put it another way the present corpus may represent some 12,000 looted graves. A study such as 'Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Boiotian grave stelai' or '... for Panathenaic amphorae' might give slightly different indications of the level of destruction by looters, but the conclusions would be the same: valuable archaeological information is being lost through the on-going looting of cemeteries and other sites. As the problem exists, it would be wise for any museum to accept Brian Cook's advice ('The archaeologist and the art market: policies and practice', Antiquity 65 (1991) 534), 'objects considered for acquisition should ... come with some evidence that they have not recently come into the market through the hands of criminals abroad'. The provenances of the two Getty pieces under discussion are not clear; Kenneth Hamma (EA 2.1 (June 1994)) should not be so quick to dismiss McClellan's objections. In fact the way that Hamma chooses to disclose neither provenance nor source can only increase the suspicion that McClellan was right to raise the question in the first place.

There are several points which need to raised in connection with Hamma's reply:

1. As the curator of a university museum which holds archaeological material I would wish to endorse the educational value of public collections. At the same time I am well aware that lack of archaeological context raises questions about authenticity, date, and setting which may never be satisfactorily answered by connoisseurship. The problem of context appears in the collections policy of the J. Paul Getty Museum when it come to Classical antiquities: the policy talks of 'artistic merit', but are we talking of 'merit' in terms of an ancient or modern aesthetic? Without context, it can only mean in terms of modern, and archaeologists are (or should be) only too well aware of how the humble objects of antiquity can be privileged today: see M. Vickers and D. Gill, Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery (Oxford, 1994). The Panathenaic amphora is a good example of this point: the ceramic container is likely to have been quite cheap compared to the oil inside. When even a red-figured amphora attributed to 'the Berlin painter' is known to have cost 7 obols in antiquity, the work of 'the Painter of the Wedding Processions' is unlikely to have been considered in antiquity as an example of 'artistic merit'.

2. Vendors of substance. Hamma seems unaware that the man in the glitzy antiquities showroom is unlikely to be the same man who digs into Etruscan tombs or Cycladic graves. However he may know a man who can excavate the tombs (I understand the term is 'night-time archaeologist' according to one North American dealer) and who can arrange for the objects to be smuggled out of the country alongside melons, cucumbers or carpets. Recent legal tussles in the London antiquities market shows that even 'respectable' bodies can handle material which some consider to have been looted: see K. Butcher and D. Gill, 'Mischievous pastime or historical science?', Antiquity 64 (1990) 946-50.

3. Notification of foreign governments. The antiquities service is unlikely to be able to recognise objects which have lain unseen in a tomb for two thousand years or more; the exercise of distributing photographs may appease the conscience of the J. Paul Getty Museum but it does not address the real issue of looting.

4. Announcement, exhibition and publication. Unless objects were known before they were excavated illicitly, publication will not show that they have been looted. Again this is a meaningless exercise and does not address the problem of looting.

5. Warranties. Good title is a meaningless expression when it comes to antiquities, especially those which have passed through Switzerland. The best warranty is acquire something that has been recovered from an archaeological excavation. I recall the words of Stanley Casson, written in 1927 about the 'Fitzwilliam Goddess': 'Unless an archaeologist was present when the statuette was discovered, this statement [sc. about the provenance] is worthless as evidence - it is simply "what the solider said"'; see K. Butcher and D.W.J. Gill, 'The Director, the Dealer, the Goddess and her Champions: the Acquisition of the Fitzwilliam Goddess', AJA 97 (1993) 393. This lack of provenance (or the fabrication of one) has been one of the reasons why the Getty kouros has not been widely accepted as genuine; indeed it is likely to remain dogged by suspicion. It is clear that objects which 'surface' on the antiquities market can be provided with unreliable provenances which even change from collector to collector!

A discussion of unprovenanced material which is surfacing on the market will be discussed in detail elsewhere (C. Chippindale and D. Gill, 'The material and intellectual consequences of contemporary collecting', in preparation) although I will raise some of the preliminary results here. The study considers three private collections - two North American and one European - which have been exhibited in public institutions - one North American, two British - in recent years. Some of the key points which may be relevant here are:

a. The myth of chance finds. It has been claimed by one European collector (on BBC TV, The Late Show) that some 85% of antiquities which surface on the market today come from 'chance finds'. This 85% is uncomfortably similar to the level of systematic looting we have estimated for the Cyclades. Catalogue entries often betray contexts giving indications of, for example, tomb groups. In our sample of three collections something like 85% of antiquities have 'surfaced' after the AIA resolution of December 1973 on the export of cultural property. Only 17% of our sample (of more than 500 objects) was provided with known provenances; these were not archaeologically secure provenances, as some were little more than 'From Italy', 'From Asia Minor'. 47% of the sample had no provenance whatsoever.

b. The convenient fiction of old collections. Although it is often claimed that antiquities have 'surfaced' from their sojourn in a Swiss villa, our sample suggested that only 22% of antiquities came from previous named collections.

There is clearly something suspicious going on when 85% of antiquities surface after 1973, 78% have no previous proprietor, and 47% have not even the vaguest of provenance.

I am sure the archaeological community generally welcomes the Getty's involvement in 'protecting sites, marshalling cultural resources and securing control of indigenous collections', but the continuing acquisition of objects which might appear to have been excavated illicitly and to have been removed from their countries illegally can only lead to suspicion. Hamma's reply does not dispel the genuine concerns of the archaeologist.

David Gill
e-mail: D.W.J.Gill@swansea.ac.uk

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 2 - August 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606