Artifact Peregrination Score: Thinking Out Loud About Provenance, Collection History, etc.

T’other day, as is often the situation, my mind wandered as I was stuck in traffic during the daily commute. Specifically it wandered to the topic of antiquities auctions, controversies over “provenance”, controversies over whether art objects and papyri were legitimate or forged, and how all these matters were as much an issue now — if not a greater issue — as they were a couple of decades ago when I was taking my first trek down the internet superhighway. It occurred to me that the ‘war on antiquities collection’, like the ‘war on drugs’ was pretty much an abject failure. It also occurred to me that if I challenged the current thinking of many, many people I respect, I’ll probably be very unpopular. If nothing else, I hope what follows will provoke a reinvigorated discussion of artifact collecting and related concerns.

We begin with the well-known idea that artifacts are dug out of the ground, sometimes legally in the context of a genuine archaeological dig and sometimes illegally, in other contexts. Antiquities have market value and always have; so much so that there is an ancillary problem of fake artifacts that we often have to deal with as scholars. Another ancillary issue which has bothered me for ages is that artifacts with probably scholarly value vanish into private collections, where they cannot be studied by folks like me. Their value as a ‘commodity’ outweighs their value as an evidentiary piece of the cultural puzzle.

We have long been told — and scholarly societies are increasingly under pressure to follow this line of thinking — that when scholars do comment on possibly-looted or definitely-looted artifacts, we only encourage looting. This has long bothered me as a somewhat spurious piece of logic: when Johnny Tombarolo is stuffing things into a bag out of an Etruscan tomb, he isn’t thinking about how reading some scholarly paper got him into his questionable profession. He’s a criminal and he’s going to loot whether we comment on it or not.

Indeed, it struck me that all our scholarly concern about not commenting on potentially-looted artifacts has done nothing but drive collectors into anonymous land. These are wealthy people whose egos and reputations are a large part of their identity, and while they might not like that we cast doubt on their collecting habits, they’re still going to do it. They just don’t tell us they’re doing it.

With the foregoing in mind, I thought there must be some way to bridge this gap between scholars and collectors to lend confidence to the authenticity of objects and encourage practices which actually add value both from a scholarly point of view and a collector’s point of view. And so, as traffic came to a complete halt on the Burlington Skyway, I came up with what I call the ‘Artifact Peregrination Scale’.

The idea of the scale is to give an artifact a ‘confidence rating’, which scholars can make use of (and contribute to) and collectors can also use for investment purposes (which should have some appeal). It’s basically a 10-point scale, from which points are deducted for various things as follows:

So, starting by giving an artifact 10 points, we:

-1 if find spot is not a documented archaeological dig
-1 if origin is simply a country or not even that
-1 if the first step in the ownership chain is a dealer or auction house
-1 if the acquisition date is simply ‘in the 1980s’ or ‘prior to 1971’ etc. or no acquisition date at all
-1 for every anonymous owner or anonymous collection in the chain

… so essentially half of the score will relate to responsible artifact collection

Points can also be added, however, for scholarly involvement:

+2 if the artifact, perhaps within a year or two of discovery, is published by a scholar with a relevant degree in a peer-reviewed journal or other form of peer-reviewed publication
+1 for scientific reports done by reputable labs which lend confidence to dating (i.e. +1 for each type of test: C14, +1 for a mass spectrometry test, etc.). If such tests aren’t done or aren’t appropriate for an object, its score is given an asterisk.

So just to give an example of the score in action, consider the recently-withdrawn lot 92 from Christies. It’s official “provenance” notes were:

with Perpitch Gallery, Paris.
Acquired by the current owner from the above, prior to 1991.

Saleroom Notice
Please note that this lot is withdrawn.

Pre-Lot Text

So starting with 10 points,

-1 no dig
-1 no country
-1 first step is an auction house
-1 acquisition date is vague
-1 anonyomous owner

… and scientific testing is probably not appropriate for this item.

So lot 92 had a score of 5* before it was withdrawn. It might be worth deducting points as well for items that are withdrawn from an auction (which must have some scholarly basis). There are probably other tweaks that can be included in the scale, but hopefully a number like this could signal to collectors that an item could have more value if, e.g., they let a scholar do some studying of it, essentially taking ‘due diligence’ out of the hands of some backroom at a gallery and putting it into the hands of the collector or degreed scholars (depending on your spin). In theory, an artifact with a higher score would also bring a higher price, which would have an obvious attraction to a collector.

Constructive comments and criticism welcome and encouraged.

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