Monday, 23 February 2015

Now that's what I call a mark-up!

Authentic lamp (Christie's)
Ancient lamps made from "bronze" (or to be more technically accurate, copper alloy) can fetch a good price on the antiquities market but real examples that allow the trade a reasonable profit margin can be hard to come by. However, one "leading" antiquities dealer in London - Artemission, owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD) - seems to have chanced on a remarkable supply. It must be a pretty large and pretty old supply because they have been selling a substantial quantity of their distinctive bronze lamps with a curiously uniform 'patina' for some years. Unfortunately for their customers, there is a slight hitch  ...

The Bulgarians have been making fake Roman bronze lamps for years. At first, they tried selling them as the real thing on eBay and other outlets - but most of them are blindingly obvious rubbish, buyers eventually got wise to them, and many are nowadays openly sold as "replicas" (though of course for much lower prices than real ones).

They are very recognisable. Here's one of them, sold for $24.99 in 2011 ...

An amazingly similar lamp turns up in Artemission's magic supply. All they have to do is plunk it on their posh website selling "Antiquities and Ancient Art", describe it as "Roman Bronze Oil Lamp ... c.1st Century A.D." and ask their customers for $1,800 ...

Not bad - but Artemission can do better than that. Here's another Bulgarian bronze lamp on eBay - sold openly as "modern" ...

And here's another one (though this one was mistakenly offered as genuine and crazily priced) ...

The eBay example failed to attract any bids at $99. But not to worry, Artemission come across a more refined version (the Bulgarian repertoire offers slight variations) in their legendary supply. Okay, it's still got big unarticulated eyes, tiny pointed ears, and that silly meaningless* lug on its forehead - so still pretty obvious it's rubbish - but it's got a nicer base. Add a little elbow grease and the fake patina is much prettier too. Just plunk it on the posh website, describe it as "Roman Oil Lamp ... c.1st Century A.D." and for this one, ask your customers for $2,500 ...

Hey, that's not bad at all. Assuming Artemission bought them at the going rate - or maybe a bit cheaper with trade discount - so far that's a profit margin of about 97% or over $4,100 profit on just two lamps alone.

Sadly, life is not always so good and sometimes the dealer has to be less ambitious. Well, let's be honest, this Bulgarian monstrosity (below) is even less convincing than the first two and even a punter with one glass eye and a patch over the good eye ain't going to be fooled by it. Even the Bulgarian sellers ask only around $25 for this sort of grade. But Artemission innocently grab one from the uglier part of their supply, plunk it on eBay instead of their website, describe it as "Byzantine Bronze Oil Lamp ... c.6th-8th Century A.D." and ask a mere $500 ...

I'm not vindictive but I do get tired of seeing this rubbish from them year after year. We have to be charitable and assume either that despite his "over 40 years" in the business, Karawani is astonishingly naive or that his eyesight is no longer what it used to be. Of course, there is a possibility that if his customers ever find out he sold them fakes at high prices and suspect he actually knew very well what he was doing, they may take a somewhat dimmer view.


* The lugs on real lamps are meant for hanging chains from; thus they tend to be flat and of course pierced. The central protrusion on the hair of the genuine lamp shown at top left is in fact a lidded filling-hole, so not a lug at all in this case.

Note: Apart from the first lamp shown at top left, ALL the lamps illustrating this post are demonstrably modern. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Constant Vigilance: Lamps found in Syria

The widespread looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, exacerbated by the deep civil unrest in that area since the spring of 2011, are well known. Looting is driven by market demand and it is therefore vital that anyone considering the acquisition of any ancient object that may have originated in Syria should be particularly vigilant.

Archaeological sites are trashed by looters searching for common saleable objects every bit as much as they are by looters searching for rare treasures. Supplementing the somewhat inadequate Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk issued by ICOM in September 2013, and in recognition of guidelines outlined by the EU (Council Regulation No 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013), I thought it might be useful to publish a small selection of the types of ancient lamps that are typically found in that region.

Open image in new tab to enlarge
It should be noted that while some of the lamps shown are peculiar to Syria, most of those shown were also produced or distributed in neighbouring countries in ancient times. Many thousands of these lamps were legally exported from the Levant over the years and the huge number of those that are still circulating need cause no concern.

Nevertheless, all the lamps illustrated represent types commonly found in Syria and, since in the absence of records it can be difficult to distinguish between artefacts which were legally exported years ago and those which have been smuggled out during the current upsurge in looting, an extra degree of caution is demanded. Due diligence should of course be practised in the acquisition of any ancient artefact whatever its region of origin at any time but it is good to be aware of those whose acquisition may pose a particular threat to archaeological sites in the present crisis.

While the clandestine nature of the trade in illicit antiquities prevents a realistic estimate of the precise amount being smuggled, it is clear that a vast number of Syrian artefacts are making their way through middlemen in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the UAE. Some will be sold on immediately to buyers in the West or elsewhere, while others will be stored until media attention has abated and eventually surface in international markets at a later date.

Note: The composite image of lamps above, formed entirely of my own material, is released into the public domain and free to use.

eBay Antiquities: treasures or trash?

An article about the online auction site eBay in the Daily Mail ("How eBay became an auction house for ancient TREASURES: Dealers turn to auction site to sell rare, authentic artefacts", 5 February 2015) posits "Buyers can purchase authentic coins, clothing and relics at the click of a button ..." and ironically illustrates it with some of the most outlandish fakes imaginable. You gotta love those "Roman" sculptures and the "Greek" pots with strategically-placed blobs of patina.

There is a blessing though. At least the fools indiscriminately buying this rubbish pose no threat to the archaeological record - as long of course as they don't inadvertently stumble across the real thing.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Hermes revisited

In my previous post about a fake head of Hermes prematurely announced by Turkish authorities, I mentioned that there were many other cases involving obvious fakes which should have been detected before going public. Paul Barford has drawn attention to a similar scenario in Thailand. Among thousands of "looted" artefacts seized from disgraced former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan, the Thai Fine Arts Department has identified sixteen that appear to be of Cambodian origin and has announced that five of them will be returned to Cambodia ("Pongpat 'treasures' fake, P'Penh says", Bangkok Post, 23 Jan 2015).

Sadly, Cambodia is unimpressed: "Cambodian experts who reviewed pictures of the artefacts, some of which Thailand dated back to the early 15th-century Kulen era, said the statues are obvious fakes ..." ("Statues are ‘treasures'", Phnom Penh Post, 23 Jan 2015). "'I don’t know why they think the statues might be real,' said Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum."

As with the Turkish case and many others too numerous to list here, a worryingly large number of seizures of "looted antiquities" seem to be more in the nature of posturing and feelgood exercises than genuine victories in the fight against looting. Ultimately, such negative publicity only serves to undermine the credibility of nations seeking to protect the heritage. The protection and conservation of the archaeological record deserves to be a serious undertaking, not merely a political game.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Hermes - who is being mugged?

While Turkish police have proudly announced the seizure of a "large number of historical artifacts, including the head of a 2,000-year-old Hermes statue" on 13 January ("Head of god Hermes seized in Anatolia", Hurriyet Daily News, 16 Jan 2015), Dorothy King has noted that the head is in fact an obvious fake ("Introducing the Master of the Miami Vice Hermes", 17 Jan 2015).

Since one of Hermes's attributes is a purse full of gold, I thought at first that the image on the Turkish website (top left) showed him being mugged. But apparently not. It seems those being made to look like a mug are the Turkish police - prematurely announcing a raid of an "historical artifact" without first checking their facts; "Cumhuriyet University academics" - who apparently fell for it too; and of course an alleged buyer - who is said to have paid $1 million for it three years ago and who then attempted to smuggle it abroad.

Certainly, anyone buying this unprovenanced rubbish thinking it is genuine deserves to be fooled (and worse): a) for having no common sense, b) for encouraging looting and c) for engaging in smuggling. But the authorities in cases like this (there have been several involving unsuspected fakes) also need to check their facts a bit better before going public and making themselves just look silly.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Putting the Parthenon Marbles into perspective

In an online discussion stimulated by the recent news that one of the Parthenon marbles has been loaned to Russia, one person posed the following question:

"Question: What happened to the 'missing pieces' of the figures?"

An excellent question. A large number of the marbles had already been damaged, defaced, pillaged, reused as building material or ground down to make cement by the time Lord Elgin saw what remained and I imagine many of the pieces he took may have suffered further or met a similar fate if they had been left behind.

In 1816 Elgin noted: "Every traveller coming added to the general defacement of the statuary in his reach: there are now in London pieces broken off within our day. And the Turks have been continually defacing the heads; and in some instances they have actually acknowledged to me that they have pounded down the statues to convert them into mortar." (St Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, OUP 1983, p.97)

That this was not a fabrication by Elgin is confirmed by earlier visitors. "In 1749 the traveller Dalton drew twelve figures in the west pediment of the Parthenon: by the time Lusieri arrived in 1800 there were only four. Five slabs of the frieze drawn by Stuart between 1750 and 1755 had completely disappeared. One slab of which a mould was taken by Fauvel as recently as 1790 was utterly destroyed. The metopes tell a similar story." (ibid.)

Let's be under no illusion. Elgin did not deface an intact or stable monument; by the time he arrived, the Parthenon was already disappearing at an alarming rate. Evidence indicates that neither the Turks nor most of the local Greeks were particularly bothered at the time (it was not until much later that the Greeks adopted the Parthenon as a national monument). It was a frantic race between the British and the French to grab what was left and save it from further damage; if the British had not taken the sculptures, the French would have. The British won. But there is much to suggest that the rivalry was more in the nature of who got the best trophy than who was more conscientious in matters of conservation.

The legality of Elgin's actions was contentious. He had a firman (letter of permission) issued in 1801 by the Turkish authorities but it was somewhat ambiguous and a letter he wrote to Spencer Perceval, the then Prime Minister, in 1811 suggests that Elgin was aware that he may have been going beyond its remit: "I had no advantage from the Turkish government beyond the Firman given equally to other English travellers. My successors in the Embassy could not obtain permission for the removal of what I had not myself taken away. And on Mr Adair's being officially instructed to apply in my favour, he understood, 'The Porte denied that the persons who had sold those marbles to me had any right to dispose of them'." (Hitchens, The Elgin Marbles: Should they be returned to Greece?, Verso 1997, p.38)

The reaction when the sculptures arrived in London was mixed. Byron famously condemned their removal from Athens as "Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed by British hands"; Keats praised them as "Grecian grandeur".

I do not condone what Elgin did - his 'rescue' was undoubtedly not entirely altruistic, the legality of it was tenuous, and his methods caused horrendous damage to the remaining structure - but it is perhaps unfair to judge him by the standards of today. We can only speculate on what would have happened to the sculptures if the French had got them instead or if they had remained. But if they had remained, as Mary Beard has noted: "Whatever Elgin's motives, there is no doubt at all that he saved his sculpture from worse damage." (Beard 2011)

Meanwhile, the debate continues as to whether the sculptures should stay in London or now be returned to Athens ...

Monday, 1 December 2014

Why do museums hoard?

A resentment of museums* apparently stockpiling thousands of "surplus" artefacts rather than selling them and allowing private collectors to buy them is a recurring theme in the world of collectors of antiquities. It seems a valid concern at first glance but much of it is rooted in what I term OCM (object-centric myopia), thinking of artefacts merely as art objects rather than as part of a far wider picture, as research tools in understanding our past.

The following question asked recently on a forum is fairly typical and I'll try to answer it very briefly:
"I think any piece is better off in private hands if fairly insignificant, what would they do in museum warehouses, gather dust?"
In most cases the artefacts not on display do just gather dust but they are normally available on request and, in theory at least, they are preserved (much like evidence from a crime scene) in case further research in the future may shed fresh light. Methodology and technology are constantly improving and, for instance, a present-day re-examination of pottery sherds kept from an excavation in, say, the 1930s may result in entirely different conclusions from the original ones. What may seem "minor" or "insignificant" now might well prove to be extremely valuable to future generations.

Nor is the fact that many of the artefacts are apparently "identical" a reason to dispose of "surplus" examples. The notion of a "duplicate" is just 'baseball card mentality', entrenched in thinking of artefacts as mere art objects to fill gaps in collections. There is no such thing as a "duplicate" in the conduct of archaeological inquiry. In the world of academic research, the very fact that many of the artefacts are seemingly alike can be invaluable in studies such as cultural development investigation or quantitative analysis.

For a very basic example, let's take a "minor" and "insignificant" artefact found in huge quantities. A study of Firmalampen (a type of Roman lamp) a few years ago (Schneider 1993) shattered some earlier theories, set new standards in classifying the type, and enabled far more accurate appraisal of those found in excavations (and thus the site itself). The study was based on an examination of hundreds of superficially similar lamps (both complete and bare fragments) kept in the storage of museums throughout parts of Western Europe. Verified knowledge of their findspot played a vital role and, since chemical analysis was involved, mere photographs were not sufficient. Of course, such a study would not have been possible if the lamps had been dispersed to the market decades ago.

Police forces store evidence, paleontologists store fossils, mineralogists store meteorites, archaeologists store sherds, and so on. It would be rather simplistic to assume they all do so out of a childish resentment of non-professionals or an addiction for compulsive hoarding. Who knows what fresh insights into our past those dozens of identical pots currently gathering dust may reveal in a few years time? But one thing is certain: future generations will not thank us for squandering them away just to please a few people today.

There may be room for museums deaccessioning in some cases but we do need to understand some of the reasons why they may be reluctant to do so. And in the meantime, it's worth bearing in mind that there are literally millions of artefacts already on the market or in private collections.

*For the purpose of this post, the term "museum" refers to any public institution which includes the storage and preservation of archaeological material as part of its objective, and is thus distinct from those which function purely as a form of art gallery.



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