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.


Paul Barford said...

If you are Pongpat Chayapan, related to the royal family, having (reportedly) access to millions, is it not sad you cannot these days buy real, genuine looted art, but run the risk of the fakers? The Hermes sold to an idiot with more money than sense? Does not this tell us all that the antiquities market is riddled with fakes? David, you know how many fake *** lamps are passed off as real; fake ancient coins are a veritable plague. Even 'certain reputable London auction houses' offer stuff that fails to convince.

It is no longer just a case of caveat emptor, it is clear that anyone buying antiquities needs to be able to verify (v-e-r-i-f-y) its licit 'grounding'. ANYthing less is suspect.

David Knell said...

Despite Marlowe, I think 'grounding' might be a bit too optimistic; very few antiquities on the market have a verified findspot. Those that do tend to be off the market - in museums or other institutions.

But yes, a valid provenance ("collecting history" if you will) provides more than a mere legal or ethical guarantee that an artefact has not been involved in modern looting; the chances of it being fake are also slightly lessened. Though I say 'slightly' advisedly. We all know of artefacts with a provenance stretching back centuries that are nevertheless as fake as something made yesterday. And some of the old fakes are far more convincing than some of the modern ones.

This late 19th/early 20th-century one, for instance, is shockingly good to those not familiar with the type:
Lamp in the Fitzwilliam Museum

Apart from 'grounding', the best combination when acquiring antiquities is a mix of verified provenance for the sake of legality and ethics, and true expertise (knowledge, empirical experience and scientific analysis if required) for the sake of authenticity. I dare say you may regard not acquiring them at all would be safer still but that would be counter to human nature. :)

As for anyone who "cannot these days buy real, genuine looted art", my heart bleeds as much as yours. Those poor benighted souls cannot even destroy the ancient heritage properly.

Many thanks for thoughtfully asterisking that dreaded word preceding 'lamps'. I breathed a sigh of relief!



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