Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The strange case of the Syracusan dekadrachm ― part five

Yard Sale
photo: Ildar Sagdejev (Specious)
To the right is a photograph of a very typical yard sale. If you are out, one weekend, hunting for lost treasures then you might not give this sort of sale a second look ― obviously, this is an ordinary household goods sale, perhaps the result of some spring cleaning. You might take a quick look at the framed prints, but they are most likely to be modern reproductions. Such thoughts go through the minds of thousands of people every weekend (weather permitting).

Yet, stories of discoveries of legendary status abound. My favorite of all is about the Chinese Yuan Dynasty underglaze red and blue vase bought at a house where it had been used as an umbrella stand. Worth half a million dollars (plus auction fees) at the time, its current value would be many times that figure: Underglaze blue and white porcelain is thought to have originated in the Yuan dynasty and is scarce enough, but underglaze red and blue is something else ― rare and extremely difficult to produce on account of the different temperatures needed for each colour: most early underglaze red and blue shows the red burnt almost completely brown, and not the vivid red you see on this Imperial vase. I, myself, bought a Kangxi Langyao vase (not that example, but similar quality and a rarer variety) that had been discovered in a local garage sale and bought, probably, for only a few dollars (I'll make a blogpost of it one day).

During a recession in the mid-eighties, my wife and I made a living by buying things at yard sales (and from dealers) and then selling them at a flea-market every Sunday. We would start hunting down things at the sales each Friday with (usually) about $50 to $200 to spend. The Sunday proceeds would always cover our living expenses with a bit left over for the next week's purchases. We would rent six tables and sold just about everything imaginable from cutlery and dishes for the student renting his first apartment to a Danish Chalcolithic flint dagger bought by the owner of an oil company (he spent $200 with us every weekend as part of his Sunday routine). We kept our prices low and was thus able to keep the stock fresh and that made for good sales. Most people tried to get far too much and sat there glumly, with the same tired-out stock, week after week. Presumably, it was a retirement hobby for them.

We would always be on the look out for attractive bowls in which to display coins and military cap badges etc. but people would often ask "How much for the bowl?" and we would have to tell them it was just for showing other things and not for sale. This happened so frequently that, early one Sunday morning, I was already fed up with hearing that question three times that I took a blue glass bowl that was being used to display some "cigarette silks" and I replaced it with an ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom alabaster bowl. Now, anyone in the know, seeing an ancient Egyptian bowl being used to show off "cigarette silks" might expect to get an amazing bargain (nowhere near as good as the umbrella stand, though). It would have been a mean trick if anyone had noticed it, but for the rest of the day no asked for the price of that bowl.

People see (and hear) what they expect. Once, when I was working at jewelry store, a bored fellow employee who had noticed the almost unconscious way that customers would say "I'm just looking" when approached, started saying to each customer, "Good morning, Can you help me?" and got the "I'm just looking" answer each time. He said "help me", they all heard "help you". More than once, I have seen an unusual-looking piece of jewelry fail to sell for a long time. Usually, it goes on sale (with the original price mentioned on the sign or label) and it still fails to sell. A few clever retailers, though, have discovered that when something is not selling, if you raise the price, it then sells quickly. When something is on sale, people can think that there is something wrong with it, or that others might think it ugly, even if it looks just fine to that person. If someone sees something go up in price, then it must be considered very desirable, right?

The observation of something unusual can have an even stranger effect. Once, some sort of strange sight appeared in the sky somewhere in Spain. It was seen by hundreds of people ― some reported seeing an image of the Virgin Mary, others told of seeing a UFO. I suppose, hearing this, there might be a few people who think that aliens aboard a flying saucer implanted the vision of the Virgin Mary on the crowd, but probably everybody saw something that was outside of their sense of reality (it might even have been just a rare form of lightning) and replaced the image, in their mind, with something that made sense to them. Police understand that many "eyewitness" reports are considerably flawed, even for commonplace questions like "What colour was the car?".

People are frequently susceptible to an "ad hominem" phenomenon whereby the title or position of a person is assumed to be a reliable indication of their knowledge. It is as if by merely becoming a cataloguer in a museum or at an auction house, the entire knowledge of what is displayed there becomes imprinted by some sort of osmosis. Thousands of people must have read the auction listing of my dekadrachm of Syracuse, and most of them would have been experienced collectors. After reading the description as a nineteenth century forgery, most of them would have moved on, a few might have thought, "That's the best forgery of one of those I have ever seen".

Archaeologists can be influenced by their expectations as easily as anyone else, it is just that their expectations are usually more detailed than were the observers of the strange phenomenon in Spain. I frequently read (even from other archaeologists) that archaeologists always find what they are looking for. This did not mean that they have intuitive powers, rather, that their learned theories were overriding the evidence of their eyes. Most of these unobservant archaeologists are probably extraverts even though many people might think that they are introverts because they are looking inward (at the theories) rather than outward (at the material evidence). I will explain this anomaly tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment