Before you read this post, you should know that I refer to myself as an “antiquities Communist,” meaning that I do not believe any private person has the right to own historical artifacts, capitalism be damned. Further, I believe that cases like the one below—aided by institutions such as Sotheby’s—are the lifeblood of the black market in antiquities; a market which, through the indirect application of imperialism, forces impoverished peoples to destroy their nation’s archaeological record so that those who have already benefited from their subjugation can continue to benefit through indirect means.
So that’s my bias. The issue that is being discussed here is not of museum ethics or international law; this issue is straight up ethical/philosophical.
The Guennol Lioness; photo courtesy of Sotheby’s
The Guennol Lioness is of Elamite origin and is thought to have been made between 3000 and 2800 BCE—the same period in which writing systems were being developed, the wheel was being invented, and cities were beginning to rise. Experts believe that the Lioness would have been used to ward off evil, and that it was probably owned by a person of high social standing. It also must be noted that many Ancient Near Eastern deities were portrayed as figures of both animal and human attributes, encapsulating the Mesopotamian belief in the attainment of power through the combining of the physical attributes of different species.
In 1931, New York art dealer Joseph Brummer came to possess the figure after reporting its discovery at a site near Baghdad. In 1948, the piece was purchased by Alastair Bradley Martin and Edith Park Martin. As a trustee and President of the Brooklyn Museum, Mr. Martin had the object—along with other artifacts from his family’s collection—displayed at the museum, and kept them there on a long term loan.
In 2007, the Martin family took the object—their family property—off of loan with the intent to sell it through the Sotheby’s auction house. At this point, it was one of the last antiquities of its age and type still in private hands. Here is a video of the Executive VP of the Sotheby’s auction house discussing the Lioness; they’ve disabled embedding, but I really encourage you to click through to it!
On December 5, 2007, the piece sold to an anonymous British bidder for nearly $57.2 million, setting a world record (which has since been broken) for an antiquity sold through an auction house.
Because the purchaser was anonymous, nobody is quite sure on the location of this artifact. Perhaps the individual has private conservators, perhaps they do not; there is no way of knowing. What we can know for sure, however, is that this item—which has so much to say about such a vital point in human history—is not available to the public, and it is probable that it will not again be available for public viewing for a very long time.
So, while we can certainly talk about the extent to which Western museums can function as imperialist institutions, I would make the argument that these auction houses are the real enforcers of this form of imperialism; not the museums. Museums might do some imperialistic, unethical, and downright illegal things (as you have seen in previous posts), but at least the artifacts they are being unethical about remain accessible to the public.
I apologize for breaking so strongly with my promise to uphold objectivity in these artifact posts, I just feel very strongly about the topic of antiquities as things which can be purchased and owned by private individuals, and the imperialistic institutions which feed off of this market. Further, I understand that the world runs on capitalism and that this is no exception, I can, however, criticize this particular aspect of it as much as I want.