“The world cannot afford many more collectors with a passion for antiquities”

As the Getty Museum opens an exhibition of the Fleischman collection of antiquities, Ricardo Elia, professor of archaeology at Boston University, argues that showcasing private collections only encourages the looting of archaeological sites.


The opening this month of “A Passion for Antiquities”, the exhibition of the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection at the Getty Museum (13 October-15 January 1995), is an opportune time to renew the public discussion about the role of the private collector of ancient art and artifacts in modern society. Six months after the close of the controversial exhibition of the George Ortiz collection at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, basic questions remain unanswered: is the private collecting of antiquities a beneficial, benign or harmful pursuit? What responsibility does the private collector have for the looting of archaeological sites? Does the public benefit from exhibitions of private collections?

Any attempt to answer these questions must begin with the origin of the objects in private collections. The immediate source of antiquities for the collector is a gallery, auction house, or other collector; the actual source is usually a plundered archaeological site. Looting begins and ends with collectors. Collectors create the demand for antiquities and provide, however indirectly, the financing for looting. Dealers service the demand by operating a web of runners, smugglers and looters, who procure the antiquities. The link between collecting and looting is so strong that it is no exaggeration to say, as I have before, that collectors are the real looters.

A rule of thumb in the antiquities market is that objects without provenance are either hot or fake. By “hot”, I mean looted, stolen, smuggled or some combination of the three. Experts agree that most of the unprovenanced objects on the market are from illegal sources. Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says that “almost every antiquity that has arrived in America in the past ten to twenty years has broken the laws of the country from which it came”. Art journalist Geraldine Norman puts the percentage of illicit material on the market at about 80%. Brian Cook, the former Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum concludes that, given the facts of widespread looting and the constant flood of undocumented objects onto the market, “all unprovenanced antiquities are tainted with suspicion”.

Whence come the objects in the Fleischman collection? The answer is all too typical of private collections. Out of 295 catalogued entries (some representing more than one object), not one has an archaeological provenance and only three (1%) are described as coming from a specific location. More than 85% have surfaced with no provenance at all. Eight percent are identified as previously held in another collection, and four percent are “said to be from” a place (said by, one supposes, the looter).

Because the Fleischman collection is essentially of undocumented origin, few of the objects have been published until now. More than 80% of the 295 catalogue entries are unpublished in any form. Nine percent were previously published in a book, article or exhibition catalogue. Eight percent were “published” only in sales or auction catalogues, a circumstance that informs us reliably only of where the Fleischmans do their shopping.

The fact that 99% of the Fleischman collection is of unknown origin is completely ignored in the exhibition catalogue. Perhaps it is not a matter of concern to the Fleischmans and their curators. Perhaps they believe the old dealer’s lie that most antiquities on the market come from accidental discoveries (in which case the only crime committed was smuggling, not looting). George Ortiz, for example, recently said that 85% of antiquities come onto the market this way. This absurd claim is only made credible by ignoring the empirical evidence for systematic, worldwide looting and by explaining how “accidental discoveries” manage to keep pace with changing market fashions for certain classes of antiquities, such as South Italian pottery or West African terracottas.

Perhaps the Fleischmans rely on reputable dealers to ensure that the antiquities they buy do not come from plundered archaeological sites. But dealers are the middlemen between the looters and collectors, and all dealers buy and sell unprovenanced antiquities. “Reputable dealer” is an oxymoron: the term means not that the dealer refrains from selling looted and smuggled objects, only that the dealer does not knowingly sell fakes and gives assurances that the buyer will have good title.

Dealers operate under a jealously guarded code of silence that protects their sources; the typical excuse is that the dealer is protecting the privacy of an impoverished lord who is forced to liquidate his art collection. But the practice of non-disclosure effectively shelters the illicit network of criminals who traffic with the dealer.

The collecting of unprovenanced antiquities has disastrous and irremediable consequences for the cultural heritage of the world. Are there any benefits that might conceivably offset those consequences?

Both the private collector and the museums obviously benefit when the collector agrees to a public exhibition. The Fleischmans will be publicly acclaimed as “great collectors” and their belongings will be exhibited in two prestigious museums and published with full scholarly apparatus. The commercial value of their collection will certainly increase from this attention, an advantage if they later sell the collection or donate it and take a tax deduction.

The benefits to the Getty Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art (to which the Fleischman exhibition moves from 15 February to 9 April 1995) are likewise obvious. Their curators are happy to install the Fleischmans in the pantheon of “great collectors” in return for an opportunity to display specimens of previously unknown ancient art. No doubt they hope that the Fleischmans will eventually donate some of their collection to their museums. Accepting donations of undocumented antiquities is one way that museums can circumvent their own acquisition policies, which might otherwise prevent them from purchasing material of suspicious origin.

But what are the public benefits? Private collections are, first and foremost, individual endeavours. As the museum directors note in the foreword to the catalogue, private collectors only have to worry about three considerations: “Do I like it? Can I afford it? Can I live with it?” This individuality often produces collections that are highly eclectic and of no more interest to scholars or the public than the random assortment of wares visible on an outing to a commercial art gallery. Some collections are built around serious themes, such as Barbara Fleischman’s love of ancient theatre, but others are based on interests that are downright silly, like Dr Leo Mildenberg’s predilection for ancient animal figures. Moreover, most collectors are not scholars, and many lack the connoisseur’s eye, so private collections often contain fakes as well as a good deal of dross.

How does a museum organise private collections for public display? Because nothing can be said about where the objects come from, curators usually fall back on the act of collecting itself as an organising principle. The Getty has chosen this obsequious formula in its presentation of the Fleischman collection. “What inspires the private collector?”, a Getty brochure asks, “What is it like to live surrounded by works of art?” The exhibit, we are told, has been arranged to mirror the way the Fleischmans display their “intimate” collection in their New York apartment. This way visitors may “experience some of the pleasures and sense of discovery that collectors enjoy ...”

I feel a “sense of discovery” when I uncover an ancient artifact in its archaeological context, not when I see a trinket on display in a Madison Avenue gallery. I do not wonder what it is like to live surrounded by works of art; I wonder how collectors can live with themselves when so much of their collection must have come from looted sites.

Given the way the market is currently constituted, I wonder if it is even possible to be a moral collector of antiquities, one who acknowledges the causal relationship between collecting and looting and collects in such a way as not to further the despoilation of the world’s cultural heritage. One way to collect antiquities responsibly might be to collect only objects that have been published prior to 1970, the date of the UNESCO cultural property convention (after 1970, no one can plausibly claim to be ignorant of the looting problem). Would collectors like the Fleischmans be willing to give up the thrill of “discovering” newly surfaced antiquities and be content with shopping only from a pre-owned inventory? Only eleven objects out of more than 300 in the Fleischman collection were published before 1970.

A change in attitude about collectors, and by collectors, is probably our only hope for solving the looting problem because it focusses on those responsible for creating the demand that leads to looting. Looters do not loot for recreation; they do it for money, and no laws on earth seem able to deter them (in China, where they execute looters, there is still a thriving illicit trade). Dealers are likewise hopeless; they will fight to defend the status quo. But if collecting were publicly regarded as something akin to the poaching of endangered animals, private collectors might stop buying unprovenanced objects. Then the demand for antiquities would dry up and the looting of ancient sites would effectively cease.

Private collectors like the Fleischmans and George Ortiz are themselves relics of an earlier age, when wealthy individuals collected ancient pots and statues like so many stuffed lions’ heads. Let us hope that theirs is the last generation to believe in the individual’s right to consume the past at the expense of our shared history: the world cannot afford many more collectors with a “passion for antiquities”.

The writer is Professor of Archaeology, Boston University

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 41 October 1994