'Due Diligence' and Context: The Janssen Americas Collection

By James, N. | Antiquity, September 2006 | Go to article overview
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'Due Diligence' and Context: The Janssen Americas Collection


James, N., Antiquity


Spectacular works from the ancient Americas were exhibited at the Museum of Art & History in Geneva from October 2005 to April 2006. 83 of them were attributed to the Central Andes, about 100 to Colombia, 42 to Central America, 104 to Mesoamerica, and 11 to other regions. All but five were presented as pre-columbian or 'we-Contact'. The collection is distinctive. It includes a lot of gold, especially from Colombia and Central America. It includes marvellous Andean textiles, but comparatively little Peruvian pottery. There are striking sculptures from Central America but comparatively few from Mesoamerica. Billed as Traces des Ameriques: hommage aux cultures precolombiennes (translated into English by the gallery as Masters of the Americas: in praise of the Pre-Columbian artists), it made for a superb show.

The collection was assembled by Dora Janssen and her late husband, Paul, a Belgian pharmaceuticals magnate. It has been valued at 15,000,000 [euro] to 25,000,000 [euro]. In return for a waiver of 7,700,000 [euro] in death duties, Mrs Janssen proposed to give it to the Museum of Ethnography in Antwerp; but, despite protracted wrangles, the matter remains in doubt, at the time of writing, owing to contradictions between the respective authorities and interests of Belgium's federal government and the regional administration of Flanders. Now the city of Leuven has expressed interest in acquiring the collection but, otherwise, Mrs Janssen warned, it could be sold abroad; apparently, the Emir of Qatar and a collector in Britain are interested, among others. The story so far has been covered by Duplat (2006a, b, c) and Van der Speeten (2006). It is not the only case in Belgium at present about putting a private 'art' collection on public display (Duplat 2006d). As for the Janssens, the Cinquantenaire Museum, in Brussels, now plans to exhibit it from 15 September to April 2007, adding some of the Belgian Royal Museums' own fine collection. Geneva, then, seems to have been used to promote the public value of the Janssen collection; but how much is it worth to archaeologists?

Only one item was directly attributed to a particular site; and that was in the catalogue, not the gallery. The luxurious catalogue is, moreover, inadequate: neither references nor bibliography are complete, and the one specific citation of original context is merely circumstantial (Martens & Ghysels 2005: 358-9). On enquiry, the exhibition's curator explained, apparently in all sincerity, that information on most of the exhibits can be found in Sotheby's and Christie's sales catalogues. Even if these sources can be respected for ethical integrity and academic rigour, finding the pertinent entries would be a very lengthy task, as, in effect, the curator subsequently conceded. In view of the market for such pieces (ICOM 2004a), the first worry would be as to whether they are fakes.

The authenticity of Mrs Janssen's collection has been vouched for implicitly by the eminent contributors to her catalogue, presumably on the basis of connoisseurship; but many of the exhibits were attributed, surely correctly, to regions, such as western Mexico or the coasts of Peru, notorious for looting. Especially ironic was the jade vase compared here to others of the same type properly recovered and recorded at Tikal (Martens & Ghysels 2005: 111). Considering both the antiquities trade in general, and the lack of provenance provided for the exhibition, there is ground for suspecting that at least some of the Janssens' buys were originally obtained illicitly. This problem in the Americas has been described repeatedly (e.g., Hansen 1997, Alva 2001, Gilgan 2001, Graham 2002). Surely the gallery in Geneva is aware of the International Council of Museums' strictures about 'provenance and due diligence' and 'unauthorised or unscientific fieldwork' (ICOM 2004b: 2.3-4). 'Museums should avoid displaying or otherwise using material of questionable origin or lacking provenance.

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