Are Collectors the Real Looters?

By Isler-Kerenyi, Cornelia | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Are Collectors the Real Looters?


Isler-Kerenyi, Cornelia, Antiquity


More on the vexed question of collectors, looting, and on the right relationship between museums, researchers and the antiquities market

'Collectors are the real looters': under this title, Colin Renfrew replied to one of the harsher reviewers of his book on the Cycladic idols of the Goulandris Collection (1993: see also Broodbank 1992). The discussion has since been enriched, historically and methodologically, by David Gill & Christopher Chippindale in an extended study (1993), which makes it possible for lovers of Cycladic culture, and archaeologists who do not specialize in it, to comprehend the at times devastating interaction between illegal excavations in the Aegean, the art market, collectors and museums -- mechanisms which have not only spoiled, utterly and for ever, our knowledge of an entire culture, but which have exercised a tendentious influence on the formulation of research.

As we all know, and as Gill & Chippindale (1993: 603, 640, 653) remind us, the theme could be extended to areas of central importance in Classical Archaeology, such as iconography, or the study of Attic and South Italian pottery. Here too the question arises whether, under the influence of collecting and the market, specialized lines of research like painter-attribution may not be winning favour at the expense of others that are founded on the evaluation of find-contexts; and whether they may not be thereby alienating this discipline, which has its own culturally aware public, from field archaeology and narrowing it down to an academic game.

But the occasion for these lines is that Renfrew's title, used without a question-mark, provokes objections. Certainly the collectors cannot be entirely acquitted of responsibility for the evil of looting, any more than can the art market, the museums or, come to that, the Classical Archaeologists. These interactions are now vividly exposed in the travelling exhibition 'Provenance: unknown. Looting destroys the archaeological heritage' (see the illustrated catalogue, Graepler et al. 1993). Quite apart from this, the countries of origin of the illegally excavated objects are not entirely guiltless, by mid-direction or default, of making this sorry state of affairs possible.

One could weigh up these various responsibilities precisely against each other in order to construct a 'hierarchy of guilt' -- an uncongenial and, above all, an unhelpful activity. But at the end, the collectors would be less badly placed than other links in the sorry chain. The problem is notoriously rooted in 200 years of archaeological history and, at bottom, in that idealized picture of antiquity which, from Winckelmann to the present day, has provided such great (and often positive) stimulus to the history of ideas and to Classical Archaeology.

Yet this does not mean that things should simply be allowed to continue as they are. There is a need felt on all sides for the situation to be clarified, so that scholarship, museums, collectors with a genuine interest in art and culture, and an antiques trade with a real sense of responsibility, can collaborate and advance under better conditions.

From his own considerations, Renfrew (1993: 17) reaches the following conclusion: 'The ultimate aim, of course, would be to bring about some reduction in the commercial demand for looted antiquities' -- a conclusion that will find support even among those with only an inexpert knowledge of the workings of the market economy. The next question is therefore: how would an antiques market look, that dealt only in the holdings of existing collections? Actual examples exist. Comparable markets, which are based on material that is in principle restricted and are thus not growth-oriented, can be found for instance in antique carpets (Stahr 1993), and in Chinese pottery, including porcelain (Prof. H. Brinker (Zurich) pers. comm.). In both cases, markets can be accounted healthy and the risk of fakes is no great threat to the expert, who can now fall back on scientific dating methods. …

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