Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Collectors (and dealers) are the new museums ― part 1

A Collector's Cabinet
Hieronymus Francken II, 1578 - 1623
public domain
You often hear some archaeologists claiming that things can disappear into private collections. This probably originates in the media image of the wealthy collector from the forties and the fifties. He is usually sitting in a wing-back armchair in his secret vault sipping a brandy while admiring some stolen work of art. Did such a person ever actually exist? probably not. A more realistic statement from the archaeologists would be that things can disappear into museum collections. Any major museum can only display a minuscule percentage of its holdings. The museums were very much siding with those archaeologists when I first went online in 1995, but now the same archaeologists are now also picking on the museums for not following their ideas about due diligence (needless to say, none of these archaeologists have any personal experience of conducting due intelligence themselves). Very few collectors or dealers are being sympathetic to those museums. There is a saying in Hollywood, something like: be kind to those you meet on your way up, because you will probably meet them again on your way down.

I'm going to have a little fun with this series.


  1. Hi John, different museum organizations have taken different approaches. ICOM is very pro-repatriation due its links with UNESCO. The AAM is also pro-repatriation, probably because most of its museums will never be effected. The AAMD has gone back and forth on the issues. Most recently, they've determined their outreach to AIA has not helped them much so they've taken a more aggressive stance against MOUs and the like. However, so much appears to depend on who is running the organization and for that reason all this is subject to change.

    1. Yes, Peter, I imagine that some museum directors lean more toward the influence of their trustees and museum associations, while others listen more to their own staff. The survival of most museums depends almost totally on the public and the local infrastructure. Repatriation has almost no effect on matters of running a museum, other than being a nuisance (even for the museum that would supposedly benefit). More pressing for museum survival are matters of deaccession; greater autonomy to follow appropriate business strategies; storage problems and cataloging backlogs.

      I don't think that evolution is favoring these large, overarching organizations. They are dinosaurs. They were fine when there was plenty of money and nothing was very expensive anyway. Nowadays, it's all about making the right economic decisions. Some museums probably feel safer by being independent.

      UNESCO's stated goals upon their foundation included eugenics and a single world government. Coming so soon after WW2, these ideas were, at the very least, in poor taste. It is the biggest dinosaur of all. There is too much wrong at its core. It's a silk purse/sow's ear sort of thing.