Tuesday 3 June 2014

Old cardboard label makes all the difference

I have always stressed the importance of keeping records of artefacts - not only as a means of establishing whether a piece was recently looted or not but for its own sake. Despite claims by some dealers and collectors of ancient artefacts that preserving scraps of paper or other evidence of an item's collecting history is unimportant - "who cares about its recent history?" - a scruffy little cardboard label tucked inside an old pot made a huge difference to its significance. The Guardian reports that Guy Funnell and his partner found the broken and glued together pot when clearing out a garage stacked with his father's possessions in Cornwall. His grandfather had been a taxi driver and family tradition held that the pot had been given to him in lieu of a fare.

The little black and red pot turned out to be from pre-Dynastic Egypt and around 5,500 years old. That is quite impressive in itself but the type is not that uncommon on the antiquities market. What made this one exceptional was that "scruffy little cardboard label" tucked inside it, the knowledge of how it came into the taxi driver's possession, and the faintly pencilled number '1754'. An investigation by the Petrie Museum in London confirmed that the pot was discovered by the famed Egyptologist, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, in 1894-5. The pot not only illuminates an aspect of Ancient Egypt (we now know precisely what grave it came from and what other artefacts were associated with it); it also sheds light on the work practices of a 19th-century archaeologist.

Alice Stevenson, curator at the Petrie Museum, observes: "There were obviously many such cards, but I have never seen or heard of one before – there must be more out there, which would help us trace the distribution of this material through museums and private collections."

(Hat tip to Kyri)


kyri said...

hi david,sometimes the cards/lables can be faked to remember john andrews his fake paperwork was on another level.

David Knell said...

Thanks for the comment, Kyri. I think any evidence of an item's collecting history is worth keeping - even if it later turns out to have been forged.

Faked provenances are nothing new; they have been a factor in the world of Old Masters and other fine art for centuries, long before antiquities became major commodities. The art world has long been very aware of the dangers and trained critical analysis of any alleged provenance for a work is not only an integral part of fine art expertise, it has become a specialised branch. Skills in detecting fake labels or associated paperwork have reached an extremely high standard.

The efforts of John Andrews at creating fake paperwork may look convincing at first glance but they were decidedly clumsy and amateur by comparison to those created for some art forgeries and would not have stood up to expert scrutiny for very long. Likewise, the fabrications of Tokeley-Parry were detected when closely examined with other evidence.



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