Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" Pt. 2: Sybolic Loot?

A brief press release has come to my attention that strikes very close to home for me. In fact, it concerns the one and only "ancient relic" that currently serves as the official "symbol" of University House, where I currently live on the ANU campus (see photo above, courtesy of Bob Miller, The ANU). In fact, it features on all official University House brochures, letterheads, memos etc. Specifically, we now learn that the "2,500 yr old ancient Greek cup" now held by University House (of the Attic tradition) will be on display in the new "Spirit of Enquiry" exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, an exhibit designed to "explore the last 200 years of Australian science, education and ideas." All in all, a fine concept for an exhibit, I agree. However, this does not negate the fact that, in the case of objects like this cup, a looted antiquity is still being put on display.

I was interested to learn that Professor Dale Trendall, the first "Master" of University House (a prestigious position then and now) collected the cup while traveling in Europe in the 1950s. Does its acquisition and export before the UNESCO laws were put into place make it any more 'legit,' or any less looted (especially in a time when modern, context conscious archaeology barely existed anywhere)? Even if the cup is now most valued for its symbolic links to ANU and University House, and not so much because it's an especially rare example of Attic pottery (but I'm not a Classicist, so don't quote me on that), does this excuse either the University or the National Museum from acknowledging its likely illicit origins (again, despite the lack of appropriate legislation at the time)? I don't think so.

Prof. Trendall is credited with creating the largest catalog of Apulian and Attic ceramics to date, with painstaking stylistic and morphological analyses conducted to attempt to distinguish the various styles in use from the 5th-4th c. BCE, as well as the 'signature' characteristics of individual painters. However, the work that underpinned this effort also put Trendall in contact with numerous local and international dealers, including some future big names, such as Geddes, and spawned a rush of looting in Southern Italy and Sicily, especially during the 1980s (see e.g. Gill, 2010). Although Trendall could not arguably have anticipated this, and even if this particular Attic cup did not recently 'surface,' the fact remains that the use of this particular piece of "other people's treasure" to bolster the image of "refinement" that both University House and the ANU wish to convey to the world, does not go unnoticed. Even though repatriation is impossible (and has never been requested), would not an image of the Parthenon (for example) suffice? Unfortunately, in my opinion the Classics Museum (and dept.) here has at best a mixed track-record of acknowledging provenance where known, collection method, and/or the pre-1970s origins of what's on display. Let's hope the National Museum is more upfront. I will report on the matter when I've seen the display in person.

In this instance, then, we can draw parallels between the use of artifacts from Classical antiquity in "demand" nations in both hemispheres; as signifiers of a person's or institution's aesthetic and cultural sophistication via the display of "pieces" made by the same people who 'founded' "Western Civilization." A spurious argument wherever it's used. This post will lead into future discussion of how "other people's treasure" is used as a marketing ploy in private antiquities sales down here, whether "Classical" or not, but (as per my interest) retaining a Southeast Asia focus.

Related to that, I'm glad to further report on a good example of an antiquities dealer in Britain doing the right thing by way of a looted Afghan statue! Good job! Thanks to The History Blog for covering it first. On the other hand, this article demonstrates that, in the complex world of knock-offs, duplicates, and genuine rare antiquities that is the Chinese antiquities trade, even local dealers can fool local buyers! How much does the desire for "other people's treasure" extend to collecting the antiquities of one's own national or ethnic past in this part of the world? Let the investigation continue!

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