Last month, two major sales of antiquities took place at Sotheby’s, New York. The sales were remarkable not only in the prices fetched at auction, but also in the fact that both went to private collectors.
As reported in Time Magazine (12/12/07), a Mesopotamian miniature sculpture of the goddess Inanna as a lioness, the so-called Guennol Lioness, was sold to an anonymous English bidder on 12/5/07 for a staggering $57.2 million. According to one observer, “The transaction set a world record for any antiquity and sculpture sold by an auction house”). The sculpture, which dates to c. 3000-2800 BC, is considered to be an exceedingly rare representation of the goddess, known also as Ishtar, and at 3 ¼ inches high, is a marvel of miniature carving.
Sotheby’s also auctioned a rare copy of the Magna Carta to businessman David Rubinstein, for $21.3 million (BBC News, 12/19/07). The copy, one of only 17 extant, came from a private collection.
What neither of these news reports addresses, however, is the question of the ethics involved in auctioning pieces universally acknowledged as rarities to private owners. In fact, the Time article’s main thrust was towards prospective collectors of antiquities, or the “über-rich”, as the article dubs them. Antiquities, according to the article and to John Ambrose, an antiquities dealer and founder and director of Fragments of Time, Inc., are a good investment opportunity. The concluding line of the Time article should give us pause; “. . . no matter how ornate a stock certificate might be, an Egyptian amulet is always going to look better in your living room display case.”
Is this the message the public should be hearing with regard to antiquities – their price tag, and their potential investment value?
Although Mr. Ambrose did not mention the issue of provenance in his Time interview, in a 12/15/07 online article, he discusses provenance of antiquities – as one of the three essential “value components” a collector should look for when purchasing antiquities, the other two components being quality, and condition (See The Time Magazine Article: Thoughts That Didn’t Make it into the Article on Collecting Antiquities ). Provenance, according to Mr. Ambrose, may be assured to a potential collector by a statement in a catalogue published by a reputable dealer.
What is so troubling about these articles, let alone the sales of the items themselves, is that the issue of private ownership vs. public access is never addressed. How does the public gain access to the common cultural heritage of mankind, when it is privately owned? What obligation does a private owner have to providing public access to such valuable works? To give credit to the Magna Carta’s new owner, Mr. Rubinstein, he says that he considers himself just the “temporary custodian” of the document, and plans to keep it on public display at the National Archives, where it has been since 1988. Public access to this precious document appears safe, for now. But what will become of the Guennol Lioness? Will it, too, be put on display by its new owner, or will it disappear from public view?
This is exactly the problem addressed in Marina Papa Sokal’s excellent essay, “Antiquities Collecting and the Looting of Archaeological Sites (published in the Proceedings of the Second Annual Ename International Colloquium “Who Owns the Past? Heritage Rights and Responsibilities in a Multicultural World”, Ghent, Belgium, March 22-25, 2006). One of Sokal’s essential arguments is that “Private collecting, by definition, does not serve the interest of the general public” (Sokal, p. 3). Public access to private collections under the best of circumstances would be problematic; might require changes in legal codes addressing private property rights; and, in fact, would mostly be unworkable. In other words, private art and antiquities collections are just that – private. Museums, on the other hand, are specifically designed to educate the public, to permit scholarly study, and to guarantee a reliable degree of safety and preservation to artifacts. Knowledge is kept in the public domain in a museum; it is restricted in a private collection.
Contrary to the opinions expressed in the Time article, antiquities should not be lumped in with artworks as an investment option; antiquities are intrinsically valuable for the knowledge they may transmit about long-vanished cultures, for information about technology, for historical details, and so forth. In fact, Sokal draws a sharp line between art collections and antiquities collections. Antiquities, she notes, are a finite resource: “Of course, all art by non-living artists is a non-renewable resource; but for no other kind of artwork is context so important as for antiquities. The historic (as opposed to merely aesthetic) value of any ancient artifact resides principally in its relation to its original context” (Sokal, p. 4). Sokal observes, “. . . many objects in private collections have no provenance, thus vastly reducing their scholarly value . . .” (Sokal, pp. 5-6). Further, “fashions” in collecting have been proven to stimulate selective looting of archaeological sites in order to supply the private antiquities market; “. . . as long as there exists a private market in archaeological artifacts, there will be an incentive for looting and plunder” (Sokal, p. 6).
And as long as rare antiquities can command the kind of well-publicized prices that the Sotheby auctions have demonstrated, there will continue to be a keen interest in “trading up” private collections. The archaeological community, together with SAFE, should give serious consideration to addressing as a unified body the ethical ramifications of these transactions. (CREDIT: Jacob Silberberg / Reuters)