Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Mythology of the Antiquities Market: Reading Ricardo Elia

Ricardo Elia, professor of archaeology at Boston University, recently published a characteristically combative paper in the journal Cultural Heritage Issues: The Legacy of Conquest, Colonization and Commerce. His article, entitled 'Mythology of the Antiquities Market', rehearses a now familiar argument from the archaeology camp that all antiquities collectors are rogues and there is no such thing as a "reputable dealer" in such material.

"I would like to suggest," he writes, "that the collector community operates on the basis of a particular mythology that explains, justifies, and validates the collecting of antiquities. The essential elements of this mythology have been in place for the better part of half a century and constitute a bulwark against outside criticism and an increasingly inconvenient corpus of facts."

He proceeds to cite the denial on the part of antiquities collectors of the true provenance of ancient objects (what he calls "the myth of the 'old collection'") and their prejudice towards a stuffy community of archaeologists.

The Mythology of the Museum
He is, however, overlooking an important factor in what encourages collectors to do what they do. The precedent for their collecting was set long ago by the real collectors — the museums. We can't turn the clock back, but there is no denying that the history of collecting prior to the modern era of UNESCO Conventions and export restrictions is one of institutionalised looting, the fruits of which ended up in western encyclopaedic museums. This is why, in the eyes of many developing nations, it is not only the activities of the Fleischmans, Ortizs and Levy-Whites of this world that are to blame for the impoverishment of many nations' cultural heritage through looting and smuggling, but our encyclopedic museums as well.

This may not seem to be saying much; after all, doesn't Peter Watson point an accusatory finger at the Met, the Getty and a host of other museums in his exhaustive Medici Conspiracy? Well, up to a point, but it's the epistemological foundations of the great encyclopedic museums that are the real issue, not just the post-1970 Apulian pots and Euphronios kraters.

As Dr Kavita Singh, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, pointed out in a 2008 article in The Art Newspaper, outside the west, Western museums are seen "as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art."

She goes on to say, "They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums 'build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding' would only provoke anger or derision."

In his article, Professor Elia goes on to develop an anthropological, socio-functional mythography that draws on Durkheimian/Malinowskian methodologies to outline a series of myths upon which collectors draw to justify their collecting activities. These include The Myth of the Old Collection; The Myth of the Chance Find; The Myth of the Reputable Dealer, and so on.

He forgets an even more structurally supportive myth, however; namely The Myth of the Encyclopaedic Museum. The Museum's claim to legitimate right of possession, to ethical custodianship of objects and to coherent communicator of meanings and narratives about human origins comprises the fragile superstructure upon which modern antiquities collectors construct and justify their own raisons d'être. It was the museum tradition that taught them to do what they do.

As long as encyclopedic or universal museums remain intransigent in the face of claims for the return of cultural objects — many of which were looted at the expense of the archaeological record — the looting and collecting of antiquities will continue (as will the arrogant denial of the implications). Museums are, by definition, and certainly in practice, the institutional face of 'culture without context'.

The encyclopaedic museum may be all we have, but in its present form it is both disreputable and unsustainable. Can it be made over? What can the great encyclopedic museums do to transform themselves from symbols of overweening power and acquisitiveness into forces for good in a rapidly changing world?

They could start by setting a better example to collectors of antiquities. Not by giving things back — although a genuinely well-meaning, selective approach to that would help — but rather by rethinking their prejudiced and anachronistic condemnation of a notional 'nationalism' as the main motivation of source nations seeking dominion over their own heritage. Until that happens, the History of the World in 100 Objects will remain what many already see it as: wretched propaganda.

Not all of Elia's arguments seem particularly well-thought out. If 'chance finds' do occur, as he seems willing to concede, how can they be described as a myth? The quotes he cites don't refer to specific numbers of chance finds, but to the 'occasional' nature of the chance find. That surely needs to be set alongside wholesale looting as another source of unprovenanced material. It is therefore not a myth.

What emerges most clearly from Elia's piece is the trill of self-regard that is a familiar note in the archaeologist vs collector debate. If the archaeologists haven't bent their backs into the subterranean pit, shone their torches into the Stygian gloom of the tomb and sensitively brushed the grime of ages from the krater, everything is untouchable and of negligible value to humankind. That's clearly not good enough. Until one of them comes up with an alternative solution to the problem of 'orphaned' objects, the mighty encyclopaedic museums will continue to win adoption rights over the Heimatlösen.

Moreover, for every university professor who pours scorn on the utterances of reputable dealers like James Ede (a 'reputable dealer' is an oxymoron in Professor Elia's gloss) there is a Cerveteri archaeologist who is only to happy to count Mr Ede among his colleagues and friends. Who is right?

To paraphrase Professor Elia, I would like to suggest that it is first and foremost the museum community that operates on the basis of a particular mythology that explains, justifies, and validates the collecting of antiquities. The essential elements of this mythology have been in place for the better part of two centuries and constitute a bulwark against outside criticism and an increasingly inconvenient corpus of facts.

Ricardo Elia, 'Mythology of the Antiquities Market' in Cultural Heritage Issues: The Legcy of Conquest, Colonization and Commerce, Ed. A.R.Nafziger & Ann M. Nicgorski, Martinus Nijhoff Publications 2008, pp239-255.

(Dr Kavita Singh, 'Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?' in The Art Newspaper, Issue 192, June 2008: Link here)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Recovered Caravaggio copy: The Taking and Rolling of Christ

If the image (left) of the recovered copy of the Caravaggio work The Taking of Christ circulated by the German Bundeskriminalamt (BKA, German Federal Criminal Police Office) is an image of the actual painting, it would seem that Sergio Benedetti, the world's leading Caravaggio conservator and restorer, may be on a plane to Odessa before too long.

The image seems to show a network of cracks and creases as if the painting had been scrunched into a ball. We know from the original police reports following the theft in 2008 that the thieves cut the canvas from its frame before making off with it. It seems they may have rolled it up for easy transport, causing significant damage to the paint surface.

Any future volume on art theft might do well to invite papers from conservators about the sort of damage that pictures suffer as a result of thefts like this. The failure to treat the picture with even a modicum of respect also tells us something about the criminals concerned.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Organised Crime? Odessa Caravaggio copy recovered in Germany

Back in 2008, a copy of 17th century Italian painter Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ of 1602 was stolen from the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine (see my earlier blog entries on this in 2008 here and here). Back then, I hinted that this might be another case of organised crime rearing its ugly head. I've subsequently learned that this is unlikely to the be the case.

A little afternoon archaeology in the archives of The Burlington Magazine in 2008 offered enough evidence to show that the Odessa picture was not in fact the autograph work by the artist but rather a copy, albeit a very good one, possibly contemporaneous with the original, and perhaps even by Caravaggio himself. The autograph work is in the National Gallery of Art in Dublin.

Now it seems the stolen Odessa picture has finally turned up in Berlin, reportedly in the possession of three Ukrainians and a German. Some news wires (Reuters here, for example) continue to refer to the painting as the original work by Caravaggio, based on the opinion of "Soviet art experts in the 1950s" (They were referring to research by X. Malitskaja and Victor Lasareff).

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, no mention of the rather more authoritative Burlington article which showed that in 1993, new documentary evidence and thorough archival and technical research by the expert restorer Sergio Benedetti, one of the world's leading Caravaggio scholars, firmly established the Dublin picture as the original autograph work. Something like a dozen copies of the Dublin original exist.

The investigation into the theft is at an early stage (the recovery took place on Friday, June 25th), but already a familiar narrative is taking shape in news reports. According to Ukraine's Interior Ministry, it was carried out by "a gang, which focused on high-value thefts," including more than 20 in Ukraine. It will be interesting to see whether this prompts the usual extrapolation (of which I too have been guilty in the past) which attributes such thefts to organised crime. Stealing a Caravaggio from a museum clearly requires a certain amount of organisation, but whether that makes it an example of 'organised crime' is a moot point.

For an indication of how complex and nebulous is our current understanding of the concept of organised crime, see Klaus von Lampe, 'Definitions of Organized Crime', here (

What did the thieves intend to do with the picture? They've had it for two years and clearly haven't moved it on. Perhaps they're using it to gain a better understanding of chiaroscuro, the art historical term denoting the dramatic use of tonal contrasts, of which Caravaggio was the greatest exponent. What other concept so aptly evokes the shadow world of art crime?

I've just spent another enjoyable fortnight teaching a course in art crime studies organised by ARCA — the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art in Umbria, Italy. The two dozen bright, motivated students who had enrolled on this year's course spent a good deal of time beyond the lecture hall meditating on the possible motives behind such high-profile heists as the Odessa theft. A broad consensus was rapidly emerging that ascribing such thefts to 'organised crime' is perhaps too pat and all too often based on assumption rather than scholarly research.

Will this Berlin recovery throw up the sort of hard evidence art crime investigators and criminologists require in order to better understand why thieves target such high-profile pictures? After all, unlike more common or garden works of art, documented masterpieces by Caravaggio or the Caravaggisti are too well known to convert into ready cash, which is what most criminals crave most.

The Berlin recovery may remind us of one thing — that there are few if any reliable general patterns one can apply to art crime. Each case needs to be viewed on its own 'merits' and its circumstances carefully parsed and analyzed.

One thing that is often overlooked is that art historical scholarship benefits when a painting of this importance is recovered. Comparison is everything in art history and we need the Odessa picture if only to remind us that the authentic work is the one in Dublin.

But then how many art thieves subscribe to the Burlington Magazine?

Sergio Benedetti, 'Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, a Masterpiece Rediscovered', Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1088 (Nov 1993), pp. 731-741.

Francesca Cappelletti and Sergio Benedetti, 'The Documentary Evidence of the Early History of Caravaggio's Taking of Christ', Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1088 (Nov 1993), pp. 742-746.

Sergio Benedetti, 'Caravaggio's Taking of Christ', Burlington Magazine, Vol 137, No. 1102, (Jan. 1995), pp. 37-38.

See also, Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting (left), an account of how the Dublin picture was discovered in a Jesuit monastery in Ireland and subsequently restored by Sergio Benedetti.