Antiquities in the Market-Place: Placing a Price on Documentation

Article excerpt

To those of us who wish there was no commercial trade in antiquities, colleagues -- and those themselves active in the market -- say there always has been one and always will be. Since concern largely arises from destruction of context and loss of information, may there be a way forward that both permits the trade and preserves the context?

Much wringing of hands has been engendered by the stunning display of the George Ortiz Collection of antiquities at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, not with regard to the self-evident distinction of the objects exhibited, but the lack of information concerning their sources. Rarely does any piece in this important private collection boast a meaningful provenance, and the lover of antiquities is torn between the aesthetic pleasure to be derived from the objects and a growing unease inspired by the presence of so many cultural orphans. The traditional differentiation between 'scholarly' and 'amateur' collecting used to be made on the basis of the respective attitudes to documentation. Precise records as to where an object was found, accompanied by details of its former context to provide the basis for its interpretation, were the identifying characteristics of a modern scholarly collection, and high-quality documentation took precedence over the visual attractiveness of a particular object.

Cultural orphans, torn from their contexts, remain for ever dumb and virtually useless for scholarly purposes. Mere appreciation of visual attractiveness, and the aesthetic pleasures to be derived from high-profile objects, must not be confused with knowledge or depth of understanding of them, and here the influence of the Modern Movement in the Fine Arts with its cult of the art object bereft of intellectual content -- Roger Fry's 'form without content' -- has been pernicious. Nevertheless, this way of thinking has been an important component in the institutional schizophrenia demonstrated by many major museums in the United States of America when they acquire high-profile antiquities with no provenances as 'specimens of ancient art' and ignore their dubious status as archaeological specimens. …