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The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has become a driving force in the ongoing effort to protect coin collectors and museums in which coins are stored from being forced to give up these items to foreign governments under the premise the coins are the cultural patrimony of the claimant nation. — Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News April 26, 2010

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The Medici Conspiracy Reviewed

David G. Giles reviews the Peter Watson book "The Medici Conspiracy". This is an unsolicited review extracted from the "Archaeonews" mail list. Mr. Giles is a bookseller specializing in books about ancient art and particulary ancient glass.

By David G. Giles |
November 29, 2006

“The Medici Conspiracy”

As a devotee of ancient art and also a retail supplier of books on ancient art to academics, museums, collectors and dealers, I was naturally curious to read Peter Watson’s latest offering; The Medici Conspiracy.

Having read the work, I am left with the impression that the picture he paints is one where the only people to have any legitimate interest in ancient art objects are closeted archaeologists. One gets an image of a miserly person jealously guarding earth encrusted orphans of pottery and not considering that anybody else has any real claim to them. In reality my experience of archaeologists has been of much more liberal minded people who actually appreciate the enthusiasm, support and interest shown by the amateur or knowledgeable collector.

Without the private collector and benefactor, the great museums of the World would be sadly lacking material. The base collections of museums such as the B.M, The Met., The Louvre, Copenhagen, Koln and Berlin, were donated by great collectors particularly in the 19th century. The fact that these were often aristocrats, Dukes, Lords or Ambassadors, who were in powerful positions and able to gain access to the material, or employ their own “diggers”, is no different in essence to everything that has happened since. Is it acceptable to consider the Cesnola or Niessen collections as legitimate and yet not to accord the same validity to a 20th century collector. Is it a case of the “looted” material of the 18th/19th centuries being more respectable than the 20th or 21st?

To my mind the majority of ancient artefacts, existing in museums and collections today, fall into the acquired (sponsored) category and always have done. Think for example of the collections of Cesnola, Niessen, Slade, Greau, Charvet, Elgin, Carlsberg and J.P. Morgan.

If the great museums of the World had to return all the Greek, Etruscan or Roman material bequeathed to them, over the last three centuries, then alas they would be almost empty and who should they return them to?

The current citizens of Italy are far removed from the Greeks, Etruscans or Romans, as to be almost another race. The same is true of Greece and Egypt and other ancient centers of society. A large portion of the population of Australia or America might lay equal claim to such ancestry. We are in any case all citizens of this planet and ultimately related to each other. These artefacts, made thousands of years ago, belong to nobody in particular. They are for the benefit of all mankind to behold. If a generous benefactor/collector has made these objects accessible to a wider World and public then to my mind this is at least as useful as an academic keeping them in a dusty corner of his research establishment mainly for the viewing of himself and his colleagues.

The author mentions in rather a derisory way the exhibition of the George Ortiz collection, held at the Royal Academy in London in 1994 entitled In Pursuit of the Absolute. For me and for a lot of other people this was one of the finest and most magnificent displays of ancient art ever put together. It was presented so beautifully and with such obvious loving care by Mr Ortiz, who personally oversaw the lighting and display of each object to present it at its best. It was a breathtaking experience to behold such amazing and beautiful objects. I am sure the public derived as much pleasure and education from this exhibition as any museum could offer them. We should remember that ultimately the State and the archaeologists are servants of society and that they have a duty to make the objects of antiquity accessible to the public. Any means that stimulates the public interest in antiquities is for the good. A healthy collectors market in these objects helps to build a wider interest in ancient art and support for the maintenance of it. Most archaeologists are sympathetic to this concept and do not take the jaundiced view which seems to permeate Watson’s writings.

The public are quite capable of judging the beauty and workmanship of an object simply by being able to view it. Lots of examples of such objects are found in context. So that if we have duplicate examples, without strict provenance, it will still be possible to date them and know from which region they came and which people made them. The public viewer of such an object is happy enough to know for example that it is Greek or Roman or Egyptian and to know its approximate age. The rest he or she will judge with their eye.

So let us not turn this World into an Orwellian Big Brother environment but rather let us recognize that collectors have always made a valuable contribution towards making these wonderful objects accessible to the wider public.

Of course the alleged industrial-scale digging operations of Medici and/or his associates is wrong. However, this couldn't have happened if there had been better or proper security in the areas of excavation. I have been to many countries with major archaeological sites, where people can roam freely without a guard or security camera in sight. I remember being in a complete room of frescoes, at an official tourist antiquities site, that had no protection of them whatsoever. No guards, no glass protection and no cameras. Let the nations that complain about their heritage being stolen do more to protect these sites and not just complain after the event.

Mr Watson in his book paints a very crude picture and one that the Berlin Painter would certainly not be pleased to be associated with. It’s not even a good reproduction.


David G. Giles

Tags:
book review
egypt
greek
roman
george ortiz
peter watson
david g. giles

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