• Responses
    • by Elizabeth Marlowe
    • May 12, 2017
    American Museums First? A Response to Gary Vikan

    In his essay “Why US Museums and the Antiquities Trade Should Work Together,” in the January 30, 2017, issue of Apollo, the much-admired former director of the Walters Art Museum, Gary Vikan, laments “the destruction of the system that created America’s great museums: from dealers to collectors to museums and for the benefit of the American public.” The destruction he’s talking about is the result of the recent shift in attitudes toward the collecting of antiquities and other items of cultural property. Efforts to protect source countries’ rights to their material heritage date back to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The convention enjoined states parties to prevent the illicit import and export of cultural property within their territories. In theory, after that point, the only items of cultural property that could be sold on the international market were those already (as of 1970) outside their countries of origin. In practice, however, the convention did little to curb the acquisitive zeal of foreign collectors. As long as there was no hard proof that a desirable item on the market had been looted or otherwise illegally exported, museums and private collectors showed no compunction about acquiring it.

    Archaeologists concerned about the loss of contextual data occasioned by looting joined forces with cultural property advocates and strenuously objected to this “innocent until proven guilty” standard. They claimed that perhaps as much as 85 percent of the antiquities surfacing on the market after 1970 were looted. They argued that it was the collectors’ willingness to buy objects with murky backgrounds that encouraged the looting in the first place. “Collectors are the real looters,” they cried. Museums, collectors, and their allies responded that cultural property claims are predicated on narrow, bogus, or even dangerous forms of nationalism; that the beauty of the objects can still be appreciated even if their context is lost; and anyway that, regardless of their origins, it is better to have the artworks on public view in museum cases than hidden in the ground or in someone else’s less accessible private collection far from the public gaze. With few exceptions, it was this perspective that carried the day for the first three decades following the UNESCO convention.

    Then everything changed. Over the course of the 1990s, a combination of disgruntled whistle-blowers, accidentally discovered documents and photographs, and deep investigations by police, journalists, and scholars yielded the first clear picture of the staggering scale of antiquities looting. Also exposed was the direct, knowing complicity of well-established dealers, auction houses, collectors, and museum officials. The fallout from these revelations was public and humiliating. Hundreds of artworks (and counting) from dozens of US collections were returned to Italy and Greece, including star attractions like the Metropolitan Museum’s Euphronios krater (at the time, the most expensive antiquity ever purchased, and still one of the most celebrated). A top curator at the Getty Museum was prosecuted in an Italian court. The American Association of Museum Directors responded to the crisis in 2008 with stringent new guidelines that put the onus on the collecting institutions to ensure that potential acquisitions hadn’t been illegally removed from their countries of origin. Antiquities and other items of cultural property without clear proof of a legal, pre-1970 export date are now assumed guilty until proven innocent, and very few museums in North America or Europe are willing to acquire them.

    Gary Vikan was the director of the Walters Art Museum during this tumultuous period, retiring in 2012 after twenty-seven years at the institution and eighteen at its helm. His view of the paradigm shift in museum antiquities collecting is, not surprisingly, ambiguous at best. It is not clear in his Apollo essay whether he is happy or sad that “antiquities are not coming out of war-ravaged Syria” (emphasis in the original; most experts in cultural property will disagree with his assertion). He contrasts this situation, in which “virtually nothing of any monetary or cultural significance is now on the US art market from that troubled region,” with the (good?) old days in the 1980s, when he was a young curator and “vast numbers of important pieces of Byzantine art . . . were pouring westward in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus.” He justifies his “eagerness” at the time “to buy works that we knew, on some level, were recently ripped from the fabric of the Christian Orthodox communities of northern Cyprus,” by comparing it to another activity everyone knew was wrong in the 1980s but did anyway, namely, smoking. He tells this story in fuller detail in his recent book, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, but with similarly ambiguous moral reflection.

    In his Apollo essay, Vikan acknowledges that “imped[ing] the trade in looted antiquities” is a “laudable” goal, because it will “preserve the integrity of archaeological sites and . . . maintain the authority of state ownership over national cultural assets.” But that is not his goal here. It is, rather, to figure out how to “unfreeze the pipeline” through which antiquities formerly circulated on the American market. Prior to the tightening of acquisition guidelines in 2008, most private collections eventually ended up in American public museums. The danger to be avoided now, in Vikan’s perspective, is the artworks’ departure from the United States: “Unless we find a solution, these collections [in the hands of private, American collectors] are likely to be sold and dispersed, in many cases to foreign buyers. The American public, of course, will be the loser.” It is hard not to notice the resonances between this perspective and the “America First” rhetoric of the current US political regime. Vikan appears blissfully un-self-aware—blind or indifferent to the global political and economic inequalities that underpin his worldview. Little can be done about that in this essay. Worth analyzing, on the other hand, are the particular mechanisms he proposes to “unfreeze the pipeline.” Despite his civic-minded claims, the main beneficiary of his “solution” would be not so much the general, museum-going “American public” as the private antiquities collectors, and the unscrupulous ones in particular.

    *                                  *                                  *

    Vikan proposes to “unfreeze the pipeline” by means of a “comprehensive internet database with images of all orphan works along with all information known about their history.” “Ophans,” in his definition, are works whose legal exportation from their country of origin prior to 1970 cannot be documented. The database will be “aggressively marketed to the [objects’] countries of likely origin,” allowing them to search it for their stolen cultural property and “make whatever legitimate claims they might have for restitution.” He also seems to be proposing a statute of limitations for such claims: “But inevitably, as time goes by and when no claims are made on the vast majority of posted works, there will be a marked thawing of that channel connecting collectors to museums to the public—a de facto ‘repose’ of title borne of transparency. The orphans will, in effect, be granted an amnesty.” The absence of claims, he implies, would be sufficient proof that the objects weren’t stolen, at least as far as title goes; and thus US museums—or, it should be added, any other collector, public or private, American or foreign—would be free to acquire them. Vikan uses noncommercial euphemisms to describe what would happen next: “Some pieces will be traded to other dealers and collectors, but most, I’m convinced, will eventually find their way into museums” (my emphasis). But it is clear that the primary function of this database would be to restore marketability to currently unsellable orphan antiquities.

    Let’s imagine, for a moment, that such a database is possible. Let’s assume that it really is “comprehensive” and “transparent” and includes “all orphan works,” not just the ones owners are currently looking to sell. Let’s pretend that owners will willingly divulge “all information known” about their objects’ modern histories, including potentially embarrassing or incriminating details. Vikan is excited about this database’s power to “unfreeze” the antiquities market. But let me briefly indulge a different fantasy. Consider the potential of this Platonic ideal of a database to recover some of the losses to history and knowledge caused by the illicit trafficking in antiquities. Armed with this tool, historians would worry a little less about forgeries distorting our understanding of ancient culture, since we could just look up which artworks had surfaced in the hands of dealers known to have trafficked in fakes, and stay away from all of them. We could use the database to match portrait heads with the statue bodies from which they were separated by vendors looking to make two sales instead of one. We could study the database closely and discern patterns, such as all the works of a particular type or featuring a distinctive characteristic that surfaced on the market around the same time or in the same region. From this we might be able to reconstruct dispersed assemblages—a hoard of Hellenistic gold jewelry, or a group of bronze, second-century imperial portraits—and link them to specific, looted sites. Such assemblages, tied to a particular ancient context such as a temple or a tomb, can teach us far more about the ancient world, its social practices and material culture, than a single, uncontextualized object. Vikan’s database could help reconnect the thousands of free-floating works in private collections to their ancient settings.

    But all this is idle daydreaming. For one thing, even though Vikan claims that his database would encompass “all orphan works,” it is clear that he means only the ones in private, American hands, not those already in museums or abroad. The research value of so limited a sample is, of course, badly compromised. A panopticon with a partially obstructed view is not a panopticon.

    A bigger problem with Vikan’s database is that there is no enforcement mechanism, no neutral body for oversight, and thus no way to ensure that the information provided by collectors is accurate or complete. Why would it be? Why would owners, motivated by a desire to sell their collections and/or to obtain legal “amnesty” for their stolen contents, volunteer compromising or unflattering details in a public record? Most collectors believe they are buying from reputable dealers. But if the database really were to divulge everything everyone knows about each object’s ownership history, it is likely that it would expose disreputable links in the chains: “who purchased it from the trunk of a car on Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi in Naples”; “who smuggled it out of Egypt in a shipment of vegetables”; “who purchased it from an unnamed contact of Jiri Frel’s” or “from a guy on a beach somewhere in Europe in 1978.” Even if such details didn’t trigger repatriation claims, their unsavoriness would, at the very least, reduce the market value of the objects. Good luck getting anyone involved in the trade to disclose them voluntarily.

    *                                  *                                  *

    Let’s return to Vikan’s own words about why the database would succeed in “unfreez[ing] the pipeline.” How can he be so confident that “no claims” will be made on the “vast majority of posted works,” if as much as 85 percent of the unprovenanced material that surfaces on the market may have been looted? Vikan is confident for the same reason all those museums were confident, for the first thirty years after the UNESCO convention, that they would get away with buying stolen art: because looting is nearly impossible to prove after the fact. It must be remembered that only the country from which an object was removed (in violation of that country’s national ownership laws) can file a restitution claim. Thus, it must be demonstrable not just that an object was looted, but that it was looted from within a particular nation’s borders. Most looted antiquities come from holes dug in the ground at night by tombaroli (grave robbers), who dispatch them to middlemen, and who have every incentive to keep mum about the exact findspot. Unless the looters inadvertently leave behind a broken-off piece of the object (or, in one unusual case, its entire bottom half), there is rarely any evidence left to tie the object back to the hole it came out of. Scholars can make educated guesses about a work’s regional origins based on style, facture, material, and so on, but those regions rarely coincide with any one modern nation’s territory. A high-quality marble portrait of a first-century Roman empress could have come from almost any of the more than forty modern countries that now occupy the expanse of the Roman Empire. Barring the discovery of external, documentary evidence of the portrait’s looting from a particular country (such as a photo of it in the archive of a particular trafficker), a viable restitution claim for such a work is indeed a near impossibility, as Vikan suggests.

    Vikan presents his proposal as a fair, innovative, broad-minded solution to a relatively new problem. In fact, what he offers is a system weighted even more heavily in favor of the collectors and the collecting institutions than the pre-2008 status quo. His basic maneuver is to take the onus off the purchasing institution to prove that an object wasn’t stolen and to put it back on the aggrieved source country to prove that it was. It would be, in other words, a return to “innocent until proven guilty.” He goes even further with that vaguely defined “amnesty” or “de facto ‘repose’ of title” that would kick in “inevitably, as time goes by.” This seems to suggest that source countries would have a limited window of time within which to claim an item listed in the database. If new evidence proving illicit trafficking surfaced later, beyond the statute of limitations, no claim could be made. So no more returns like that of the Euphronios krater, which occurred decades after the Metropolitan Museum acquired it, thanks to a chance discovery by the Italians of new evidence of looting.

    Indeed, I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the amnesty component effectively transforms Vikan’s orphan database into a laundering operation. Input the post-1970 portrait head you bought from a guy who bought it from a guy in Switzerland, and wait eighteen months or three years (or however long Vikan intends). Out it comes, squeaky clean and ready for market. And not just ready but improved, its value bolstered by a spiffy new certificate testifying to the absence of prior claims and nullifying any future ones. Of course, we know that the absence of claims proves nothing about whether an artwork was actually stolen. A seal of good housekeeping from Vikan’s database can provide no reassurance to informed would-be buyers who don’t want to own stolen property or encourage the destruction of the historical record caused by looting. But it certainly would provide reassurance to uninformed or unscrupulous owners who care chiefly about the security of their investment. In this regard, a certificate from this database would resemble those art dealer–issued “certificates of authenticity”: zero epistemological significance, but often great financial value.

    In addition to the legal and financial laundering, the orphan database might perform a sort of moral laundering as well, allowing the objectionable act of selling possibly looted cultural property to masquerade as civic virtue. Entering that data can be spun as an act of scholarship, a contribution to knowledge and the greater good. The material rewards at the end are so much icing on the cake. But the actual harm the database could cause is, in fact, tremendous. Currently, fears of possible claims, social opprobrium, and perhaps even a genuine desire not to encourage plundering are at least giving many collectors and institutions pause. Eventually, a depressed market will reduce the incidence of looting. Enter Vikan’s database, however, and those qualms evaporate. Indeed, the protections offered by the proposed amnesty would make antiquities one of the safest niches in the art market, likely to attract all sorts of newcomers to the field. By the laws of supply and demand, this would doubtless result in a resurgence of looting. For this reason, Vikan’s proposal is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    In addition to his amnesty-granting database, Vikan offers a second solution to the problem of the frozen antiquities pipeline. Museums should cast off the stigma and red tape surrounding deaccessioning, and sell off the “storage dwellers,” those “second- and third-tier antiquities” that clutter museum basements and drain resources but that will “never be exhibited.” In other words, museums need both to empty their basements of excess antiquities and to buy new ones!

    Here’s an alternative. Rather than spending millions in pursuit of beautiful, “first-tierantiquities that look good all by themselves in spotlit vitrines, but about which we have no contextual information, and which arguably cannot by themselves teach us anything new about the ancient world, and which may have been illegally removed from their (unknown) countries of origin or which may be forgeries—rather than that, museums could redirect some portion of their acquisitions budgets toward the stewardship of the objects they already own. Even “second- and third-tier” artworks have stories to tell, and often they are stories that can reach different audiences from those reached by the standard art-museum narratives about beauty and style. Collecting histories, materials, conservation, forgery—these are all fascinating topics that have attracted increasing attention in recent years, both in the academy and in some of the more progressive museum installations, such as the “Exploring the Past” galleries on the bottom floor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the “Looking at Art” displays at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Who knows what revelations might come from dusting off Vikan’s “storage dwellers” and reexamining them through some of these new museological lenses? What is certain is that the American public—as well as the international community, both of scholars and of cultural property advocates—would be the winner.


    Elizabeth Marlowe is associate professor of ancient and medieval art at Colgate University and the author of Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship, and the History of Roman Art (2013).

     


    • Responses
    • by Ken Ames
    • January 8, 2015
    Book Jackets

    I’ve been struggling lately trying to write a review of an art museum publication that is not very good. One of the problems is that the jacket seems to promise something that the book doesn’t deliver. Or maybe it’s just that the contents don’t live up to the jacket. Whatever the case, the two don’t work together. This is probably not so much an instance of bait-and-switch as evidence of insufficient managerial oversight at that museum. But that is not the point here. What I want to say is that contemplation of this particular book jacket—tolerable enough on its own terms—prompted me to look with fresh eyes at book jackets more generally. And so I discovered what many others already know: the design of book jackets, the matching of covers to contents, is an art form worthy of far more recognition than it typically receives. There is wonderful work to be savored out there.

    Yes, I know that I come late to this particular feast. I recognize that people have long gone to school to learn the art and mystery of this craft and that it rests on a substantial body of both sophisticated theory and on lived experience and experiment. I realize that collectors have long been attentive to the materiality of books and thus to jackets and covers. My interest is not that of a practitioner or of a collector, however, but merely of an appreciative spectator. I find it intriguing to observe designers’ varying responses to the problems and possibilities posed by different classes of subject matter and authorial intent. Once one becomes attentive to book jackets, the prevailing high level of accomplishment becomes apparent. And impressive as well, considering that most design takes place within a social context. Only insiders know how many players with egos and opinions had to be placated before a given cover design could be approved. We outsiders, on the other hand, can just sit back and admire the outcome.

    Most book jackets involve some balance or words and images or, if not images, graphic devices of some sort. Not surprisingly, the covers of art books, by which I mean books about the visual arts, tend to privilege image over text but they do so in different ways, depending on the emphasis of the volume. Consider a couple of the strategies used for jackets on books that take the format of the catalog, whether of an exhibition or a collection. One of the most common exploits the synecdoche effect, where a part of an object may stand for the whole and/or one object for many. The jacket for Jared Goss, French Art Deco (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014; cover design by Susan Marsh) offers a recent example of this formula. The book is a catalog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s French Art Deco holdings, which number many objects in varied media. The entire jacket—front, spine, and back—is given over to a continuous image of a single object, in this case a detail of an extraordinary—and enormous—églomisé glass panel by Jean Dupas and Charles Champigneulle, originally part of the furnishings of the ocean liner Normandie. The image is dominant—and absolutely arresting; text is suitably minimal.

    This jacket image actually engages a double synecdoche. First, the image on the jacket depicts a part of a larger object, seen in its entirety inside the book. So far so good.  Second, however, this one glass panel is used here to stand for the whole of the Metropolitan’s collection of French Art Deco, or at least that fraction included in this book. Strictly speaking, however, it cannot do so, since every object is specific and can only represent itself or an exact replica of itself. The Metropolitan’s volume includes well over twenty-five different classes of objects, the most numerous of which are vases, pieces of furniture, and textiles, in that order. A glass panel twenty feet high can in no sense represent any of those if we interpret “represent” narrowly. One could argue that the image on the jacket of French Art Deco actually depicts the most spectacular object in the collection and is decidedly not representative. And yet the portion of the object depicted is highly effective, in part because of its design and color and in part for its ambiguity. To anyone not familiar with the glass panel, the image is mysterious (what, exactly, is this thing?) and at the same time stylistically quintessentially French Art Deco. So, representative it is not but successful in attracting attention and piquing curiosity it most surely is.

    Electing a single spokes-object for a book’s jacket is a reasonable approach but sensible people may well disagree about which object that should be. The question is not wholly—or merely—academic. Part of the function of the jacket is to attract the attention of potential buyers and to serve, along with the text and imagery within, as part of a composite artifactual ambassador for the author or authors, sponsoring institution, or publisher. Book jackets are no simple things.

    Another example of the synecdoche strategy appears on the jacket for Ellenor Alcorn, English Silver in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Vol. I (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1993; design Cynthia Rockwell Randall). Instead of a detail of an object, here we see the entire object—two objects, actually—an intricately engraved sixteenth-century parcel-gilt ewer and basin, photographed against a black background. The image stretches from the front cover to spine to back. Five very short lines of text, elegantly understated, appear in the upper right corner. While here too the objects selected are arguably the most spectacular in the collection, showing them in their entirety rather than as details eliminates cognitive ambiguity. No need for uncertainty about what we are looking at. Where the French Art Deco cover trades on ambiguity, this one succeeds by eliminating ambiguity. Both jackets exploit the wonder that powerful objects can evoke but they do so in different says.

    Randall also was responsible for the design (and, presumably, the jacket) for Volume II of the MFA English silver collection, published in 2000. In this case, she opted to use two views of the same object, a wonderful chinoiseriesugar box dated 1747/48. A greatly enlarged detail of the sugar box’s elaborate and fanciful decoration entirely fills the front over. There is no text whatsoever (the title is on the spine). The back cover carries an image of the same sugar box at about its true size, setting up an intriguing and effective visual dynamic between the enlarged portion and the whole.

    A reversal of this arrangement appears on the jacket of Wolfram Koeppe, Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012; designers Miko McGinty and Rita Jules). Here the front cover carries the image of the upper two-thirds of one of the Roentgens’ lavishly complicated cabinets, while the rear offers a close-up of a sumptuous miniature interior, revealing just how imaginative and finely wrought these extraordinary objects are. Here too words are sparingly employed; the images carry most of the weight of communication.

    The synecdoche, of course, can work well for any study dealing with multiple objects and is not limited to catalogs. One particularly striking example adorns the jacket for Wayne Craven, Gilded Mansions (Norton, 2009; jacket by Robert L. Wiser). Wiser opted to use images of three different Gilded Age mansions to convey the contents of the book. The back carries a full-color view of the library at Biltmore. The spine (a mere three 3 cm wide), offers a slender vertical slice of the dining room at Kingscote in Newport, a sly trick on Wiser’s part, I think, to test reader visual acuity and architectural knowledge. The front cover comes closest to realizing the book’s title, offering a detail of the upper corner of the dining room at Newport’s Marble House, about as gilded a mansion ever built on this side of the Atlantic. The books’ title and the author’s name are identified in subdued white lettering that is part of the jacket yet somehow, and appropriately, apart from the image itself.

    There are probably thousands of capable uses of the synecdoche device on book jackets that might be mentioned here but I wanted to single out one additional cover in particular, in part because I was so taken by it the first time I encountered it. I am talking about the jacket for Mark Wilson Jones, Origins of Classical Architecture (Yale University Press, 2014; Gillian Malpass designer). The three surfaces of the jacket are treated differently. The spine bears white lettering on a black ground identifying author, title, and publisher. That is all. On the back, an image of a red-figure krater from the Museo Archeologico in Agrigento emerges from its own black ground, signaling that Jones’s inquiry reaches beyond conventional boundaries of architectural history. (What might a krater tell us about a temple?)

    The front carries the most powerful image, a view of the entablature of the so-called temple of Concord (also) at Agrigento, once crisp and possibly polychrome forms now worn to a uniform soft ochre. The Doric order is one of the most familiar idioms of western architecture but this image re-enchants the form, making it both completely comprehensible at one level yet equally incomprehensible on another. Seeing, even seeing very clearly, does not necessarily mean understanding. Appropriately, Jones ends his far-ranging study of origins with ten pages of questions both answered and unanswered. But I digress.

    A second common strategy used in designing jackets for art books plays with the idea of the sampler. This can take a couple of different forms. One involves what we might call the group portrait. An excellent example appears on the front of the jacket for Charles L. Venable, Silver in America 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor (Dallas Museum of Art/Abrams, 1994; Ed Marquand and Tomarra LeRoy designers). Save for a small rectangle of text, the entire surface is given over to a single image of what looks to be a random and disorderly assortment of twenty or so pieces of silver flatware of various styles, forms, and periods. The splendor is obvious, so also profusion and diversity. Points well made.

    Clustering images of several individual objects is a different way of creating the sampler. An effective example adorns Annette Carruthers, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland (Yale University Press, 2013; Emily Lees designer). Here front and back are laid out identically. Each bears seven object portraits arranged in a lateral 2-3-2 format, which puts one image in the middle of the composition while allowing for lively visual interplay among all seven objects. This approach works well when objects are in diverse media as they are here (architecture, stained glass, textiles, jewelry, etc.) and no one object or medium can represent all. On the other hand, it may not be easy to locate seven objects that will play nicely with each other on the same page. Each solution generates its own problems.

    I have noticed that all of the jackets discussed here have been dependent on excellent photography. So, by all rights, I should have credited photographers. But photographers are dependent on printers to make the most of their images. And so we should acknowledge printers. Printing looks best, of course, on well-chosen, quality stock, thus paper and its manufacturers deserve recognition. And so it goes. The traditional tangible art book is a very complicated artifact, a product of the work of many and inviting engagement and pleasures both intellectual and sensory. To my mind, the currently trendy e-book can’t hold a candle to it.

    Considering their artifactual complexity, it might be worth rethinking the way we review art books. Rarely these days does anyone reviewing a movie comment only on the acting.  Cinematography matters. So too the script, the score, the sound effects, the sets, the costumes, the casting, and all the rest. Movies and books are very different artifacts but like movies, books are also group creations. Key participants are usually listed in the small print fore or aft of the main text. The average review typically focuses on the contribution of the author and less often on the totality of the book as object (or work of art). Many of the books in our field (and all of those mentioned above) can be understood as forms of material culture that comment on or assess material culture. In other words, the entire package is the message. Recognizing that, we might want to be more attentive to the whole. Closer examination of the jacket would be a good place to begin.

     


    Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

     


    • Responses
    • by Paul Williamson
    • March 4, 2011
    Anthony Cutler’s “Carving, Recarving, and Forgery”

    I am pleased to be able to support wholeheartedly Anthony Cutler’s insistence on the fundamental importance of a close inspection of the physical properties of all medieval ivory carvings before proceeding with any wider study. Like Professor Cutler, I have been invited to opine on many pseudo-Byzantine ivories in the last thirty years; indeed, I know that we are often shown the same pieces, the Stuttgart Ascension relief (his fig. 21) being one of these. Spurious pieces continue to appear with relentless regularity, and in 2007 I saw on the London art market another modern version of the Christ Pantokrator plaque, illustrated as his fig. 19, albeit more fragmentary and missing its lateral borders. Many of these carvings are clearly of nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century date, but there is reason to believe that several are of considerably more recent manufacture.

     

    As Professor Cutler makes clear, the mistakes of the forger are not always simply technical, such as the misunderstood cutting of hinge-recesses (fig. 15). Old-fashioned connoisseurship–”a good eye”–and style criticism will always play a key part in identifying copies and fakes, and it is perhaps surprising how often the forger is betrayed by iconographic solecisms or botched inscriptions. The great value of Cutler’s publications–on genuine as well as fraudulent Byzantine ivories–has been to open our eyes to how the objects were made, to look anew at the backs and sides, to interrogate the carving techniques and condition of the pieces and to ask what this tells us about the craftsman and the ‘biography’ of the work of art.  He has introduced new pieces into the literature, encouraged all of us to look as closely as he does, and has cast valuable light on ivories normally left unobserved, lurking in the shadows of conventional art history.

     

    Dr. Paul Williamson
    Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass
    Victoria and Albert Museum
    London



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