Tuesday 18 November 2014

Outrage in Missouri

Humour - a vanishing resource?
Archaeologist Dr Donna Yates recently expressed her worry that her scholarly research on the origins of two Mesoamerican artefacts sold by the St Louis AIA may have enhanced the price fetched at Bonham's auction on 12 November. Scholars tend to avoid discussing unprovenanced antiquities on the principle that enhancing the commercial value of such artefacts may encourage looting. These items were not in fact in that category (they were well provenanced) but I still understand Dr Yates's position.

I posted this somehat light-hearted comment on Paul Barford's coverage of the event:
"Well, if it's any consolation to Donna Yates, the other lot she mentioned (Lot 149: Zapotec Figural Urn) sold for only $3,750, well within the original $3,000–5,000 estimate. I suspect that the doubling of the price for Lot 156 (Maya Effigy Vase) was motivated more by the fact that it is 'prettier' (the art market being shallow as always) rather than a consideration of the increased depth of its academic credentials. I think Dr Yates need not lose any sleep."
I thought nothing more of it but on revisiting Paul's post a few days later, I was surprised to find that my brief comment had provoked an outraged response from Wayne Sayles, Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a deceptively-named lobby group for American coin dealers). He was apparently horrified by my gentle dig at the art market and couched his diatribe in what was presumably intended to be biting sarcasm ...
"Annointed scholar David Knell expressed an erudite opinion [...] How enlightening!  The art market ought perhaps to consider the views of archaeologists when it comes to valuation of works.  If the views of archaeologists and similar highly educated "experts" are to be taken seriously, every artifact more than 100 years old, menial as it might be, is of inestimable value and is essentially "priceless"."
Well, in a figurative sense, every artefact that adds to our knowledge of the human past is "priceless" - but that wasn't the point of my comment.

It's a pity that someone living in a state that produced one of the greatest humourists of all time appears to have no grasp of the concept himself. My comment about the art market was slightly tongue-in-cheek but the humour clearly flew stratospherically over the head of this present-day resident of Missouri.

His disgruntled response, however, betrays that there might be a strong element of truth underlying my comment. Certainly, Sayles himself seems to be scandalised by the notion that anything more intellectually taxing than gushing over how pretty an object is should have any effect whatsoever on its worth.

What value could an artefact possibly have other than how well it complements Aunt Mary's drapes in the living room or how nicely it fills a gap in an upmarket equivalent of a sticker album? And it's all legal, innit?

God forbid that some fool might actually see value in knowing the individual history of an historical object. Such a radical and unseemly exercising of brain cells could end up challenging the time-honoured mindset that artefacts are mere baubles that should be pigeonholed and graded by comparing them to pictures in a book. And, even more apocalyptically, it could thus threaten the very mindset on which much of the antiquities trade (notably that in ancient coins) is largely dependent.

Perhaps most dealers of Sayles's acquaintance share his indignant dismissal of the value of knowledge. But someone once said that "whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect". In the meantime, I do wish this affronted advocate of dealers' 'rights' would try to lighten up a bit. My quip was hardly in the same league as those by Mark Twain - and literary perception may have dulled a little in the internet age - but it would be a sad indictment of the ACCG that any remark today must be accompanied by at least a dozen smilies before their dour members could even guess that it might have been intended as dry humour.



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