Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Egypt's Lost Resource

In the world of ancient art collectors and galleries have to always be on guard for objects stolen from previous owners or illegally dug out of the ground as the two photo's above demonstrate the beauty of an object and the perverse transformation it underwent at the hands of a smuggler out of Egypt.

The Egyptian's who found the piece received reportedly $6000 for the head that in New York became a million dollar piece. A million dollars that the Egyptian government could have used! The question becomes is the prohibition on the export of antiquities really acting as a safeguard to the protection of archaeological material or is it in fact intellectual colonialism?

Often the finger is pointed at the collector and the market when in reality current international and nationalistic laws not only creates the problem of stolen art and lost provenances but also fuels the illegal export of these ancient countries national patrimony for next to nothing?

Many of the countries where ancient civilizations existed are developing countries with issues of poverty vs heritage as respect for ones heritage is made easier on a full stomach so the base problem is one of need not being provide and certainly motives of greed must be it`s kin. The Yin and the Yang of the peoples problem in the judgement call and the erasure of an objects provenance for convenience and profit.

Egypt may be better served by the example of the British Treasure act(1) which rewards the finder and provided the object is not wanted for the national collections at fair market value the finder can sell their discovery.

Most of the artifacts I will discuss in this article are in the tens or hundreds of thousand of dollars with many into the million dollar or even multi-million dollar range for authentic works of ancient art. When it comes to the sale of antiquities I will deal delve into the top of the market and to begin with the owner for the Royal Athena Galleries(2) Jerome Eisenberg, his website has many beautiful antiquities of artistic merit for sale from many different ancient civilizations.
The issue of antiquities for sale is a hot topic to many especially when talking about objects of artistic value. Mr. Eisenberg knows as well as any art collector that you have to deal with objects which come on the market with scepticism be aware that a provenance is easily manufactured but that fifty or hundred years ago ancestors of many of us went on trips to Egypt and Greece and brought home ancient souvenirs which are perfectly legal now to sell.

These antiquities often are forgotten as ancient and packed away for another generation to find, a shabti in the attic that the finder is often unable to believe or see that it is ancient. A number of these pieces have turned up on the Antiques Roadshow(3) over the years.

Having said that the pieces sold by Royal Athena are top of the market and thus objects which would have been very expensive fifty or one hundred years ago and less likely forgotten. In 2007 Mr. Eisenberg through his generosity returned to Italy eight pieces when he found they had been looted.(4)

Three of the bronzes had actually been stolen from Italian museums and found by Italian authorities when Mr. Eisenberg displayed them on his site. This is a fact of the life of an art collection whether that be in a museum or private, be it ancient or modern.

 The guidelines to protect archaeological material must include the distribution of excavated and documented material in order to democratize the study of ancient civilizations and by doing so bring capital to the quality of life to the living society.

The black market in antiquities is a thriving business partly because of strict laws which prohibit the export of them and ironically the countries in question could all use further revenue sources not to mention the thrill of people to have the opportunity to buy history with a provenance and promote an interest in those civilizations with those objects and by doing so enhance and personalize the subject of Egyptology.

How can you maintain archaeological sites by stopping the export of antiquities which naturally makes the archaeological sites themselves more valuable and also more vulnerable to midnight excavations. More than likely we have our answer, the greater reward the greater risk though collectors would much rather have a piece with a solid provenance than without it may just be red tape that many will ignore and get away with.

With the economy in both Egypt and worse yet Greece faltering cut backs are going to have to be made and those archaeological sites guards will feel the pinch and it will become harder and harder to protect all the sites to stop looters and smugglers. Egypt is loosing it's national patrimony and receiving little to nothing for it.

Absolutely the greatest archaeological tragedy is when an important artifact appears on the market or in a private collection instead of in an excavation. Much of the time we see the mistaken purchases by museums in the 1980's or 1990's but just as often a person obtains an object in less than desirable ways and are caught during export or not. 

The preservation of ancient art by private collectors is a safeguard against episodes where public collections are lost or damaged through disaster or theft. The list of these tragic museums includes Baghdad, Kabul, liverpool, Berlin, Beijing, Cairo this list can go on and on. 

There are contributions that can be made by proper conservetorship of those private collections especially in an age of computers that will benefit of a larger encompassing study observed not only by institutions with thousands of objects but include those lone objects of ancient civilizations around the world into the greater study.

The private collector has the ability to publish their collection to the entire world if they have a computer and a website. So were at the meat of the issue which ignores this fact for a forgotten drawer at some intellectual institution.

There is a very important collection of middle kingdom bronzes belonging to George Ortiz in Switzerland including a bust believed to be the 12th dynasty Egyptian king Amenemhet III of unrivaled quality and a bronze kneeling king which is said to be the oldest known example of a king in that offering position. The collection also contains a large headless queen and two impressive viziers.

The find is unrecorded but likely came from the Fayum but whether such bronzes belonged to that king's mortuary temple is probably lost. Before Mr. Ortiz those bronzes belonged too one of America's elite persons Mr. Maurice Tempelsman, a wealthy New York diamond merchant perhaps most famous for his long term friendship with the late Jacklyn Kennedy Onassis.

Mr. Templesman was the seller to the Getty museum of a marble group of griffins for millions of dollars in 1985, (one of that museums star pieces).

 A photo of the griffins later turned up showing the marble sculpture in the trunk of a car wrapped in newsprint proving the object was stolen and the Getty was forced to hand over the sculpture along with dozens of other pieces to Italy(5).

I noticed on George Ortiz's site,(6) that the date of purchase of the Fayum bronzes from Mr. Tempelsman was the following year after the Getty bought the griffins, in 1986 and if I am reading it right the bronzes were in Mr. Templesman`s collection since 1971 though oddly enough remained unpublished for the first dozen years in his collection with the first publications of them in 1983(7).

The bronzes are unlikely to be anything but what they are artistically as only the viziers are inscribed, unless of course if archaeologist find another similar cache or better yet the missing elements to the sculptures, such as the queens head or the missing left lapit from the believed Amenemhet bust.

The bronzes are only a few of the objects in George Ortiz`s important collection of over two hundred and ninety pieces online. Within the Ortiz collection we find a Bactrian silver and gold ceremonial axe of great beauty and allegedly from north Afghanistan, that word "allegedly" describes the find spot for almost half of the objects in the collection.

Among Mr. Ortiz's holdings are also pieces with very fine provenances including his rare middle kingdom blue glazed hippo found by John Garstang in tomb 416 at Abydos and into the William Macgregor collection from there. A bronze Corinthian helmet has no find spot but a prestigious modern history being in the collection of Lord Londesborough before Mr. Ortiz and in fact many of the objects in the collection have modern recorded histories before Mr. Ortiz.

Within the collection we find again that nearly half of the objects have no find spot combined with the pieces that are ``alleged to have come from" we find a total of  around two hundred and fifty of the works of art in this collection are without provenance. Only around forty artifact in George Ortiz's collection have provenances including the lovely mirror stand of a lady from Magna Graecia and formerly in the collection of Count Afan di Rivera Capialbi.

You cannot dash the issue of provenances lost and how convenient that may be with the laws of the antiquities markets being what they are and the obvious beauty and importance of such art. So why a 1971 date for the bronzes in Mr. Templesman's collection and the publication of such an important collection in 1983?

 I would think that bragging rites would not hold back publication for a dozen years? Perhaps the most we can hope for know is that some day photos of the bronzes in situ will turn up but until then they remain as enviable acquisitions by George Ortiz that any museum would love to have.

Clearly George Ortiz is not the sculptures original owner in modern history and is not responsible for the lost provenance merely he is a collector of the first rate and presents his collection as a free valuable published resource online and in museums.

Unlike Jerome Eisenberg of the Royal Athena Galleries who gave back the objects which he saw were stolen, the St. Louis Art Museum(8) has fought tooth and nail to keep the 19th dynasty mask referred to as Ka Nefer Nefer(9), even though the evidence is clearly there that the mask has been stolen(10).

Collectors of antiquities cannot be painted with a broad brush just because of the irresponsibility of some including St. Louis' possession of this mask one of the most flagrant examples of theft in the world of ancient art and a disgrace to that collection.

On the St. Louis Art museums site we find the Egyptian collection represented by 27 pieces including the Ka Nefer Nefer mask which comes with the acknowledgement that Zakaria Goneim found the mask in his 1951-52 excavation season at Saqqara. The issue is one of "if" the piece was given to Mr. Goneim to sell or whether it was placed into a magazine at Saqqara and stolen from there.

It was not in the practice of Egypt's antiquities authority to give antiquities to archaeologist working on their behalf. As Mr. Goneim drowned in the Nile many decades ago he cannot answer nor defend himself from the distasteful implications St. Louis' case stands on.

Myself I am much more in the belief that the mask was stolen from it's magazine in the 1950's as Mr. Goneim is a man praised for his intelligence and integrity and doubtful he would have damaged his reputation and his discovery.

In this article I have tried to layout a market of the more high end artifacts including a seller of antiquities as well as a buyer and a public museum all currently involved in the world market of ancient art and in doing so set only an example of what protection of ancient art involves and just because an institution or individual can provide a home does not mean it can be a good home public or private.

The prohibition on the export of antiquities is designed to protect national patrimonies when in fact it is hurting it by encouraging the illegal export of antiquities and there by causing intellectual damage to the ancient history and depriving people and fragile economies of revenue and taxation of a valuable resource worth untold millions and denied to the budget of antiquities authorities and the collecting public.

Header Photo: Archaeology Magazine
(1). British treasure act
(2). Royal Athena Galleries
(3). Antiques Roadshow
(4). Bloomberg.com
(5). New York Times
(6). George Ortiz Collection
(7). Royal Bronze Statuary from Ancient Egypt pg.12, ref.23
(8). St. Louis Art Museum
(9). Ka Nefer Nefer
(10). Riverfront Times
Photo of Griffins: Smithsonian.com
Photo of Ka Nefer Nefer: Riverfront Times

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