A collection robbed of its true history

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IS THE exhibition of the George Ortiz Collection at the Royal Academy a sort of scandal, or a very good thing? No one denies the high quality of the 280 exhibits, part of a huge collection of antiquities formed during the past 45 years by Ortiz, a South American whose fortune came from tin. The question is whether an accumulation of antiquities without provenance is something to be admired, in view of the rapid worldwide destruction of archaeological sites.

Sir John Boardman, professor of classical archaeology and art at Lincoln College, Oxford, who wrote the foreword to the catalogue, begins by saying that exhibitions of private collections are uncommon, but that the private collector continues to play an important role in the history of art. This seems a fair point to start from, and it suggests at once a comparison with the Woodner collection of drawings shown by the Royal Academy in 1987.

Ian Woodner collected his drawings over roughly the same period as George Ortiz, but a comparison of the two catalogues shows how different the world of antiquities is from that of fine art. Woodner exhibited 111 drawings, of which three were listed as provenance unknown, one as having come from the Swiss art market, but all the rest were firmly sourced, even if only to a dealer, while in the majority of cases the history of each drawing was given in immense and illuminating detail.

The Ortiz catalogue, by contrast, lists just over 40 objects as having come from named collections, out of 260 items from the ancient world. Of the first 100 entries in the exhibition, about 10 per cent have a usually skimpy provenance, 40 per cent are allegedlies (as in 'allegedly from the region of Troy') and the remaining 50 per cent give the provenance as 'no indication'. It is rare indeed for any specific archaeological details to be given, as in item 38 ('From tomb 416 at Abydos, excavated in 1907').

The vast majority of the collection, in other words, 'falls under suspicion of having been once looted - of coming from clandestine excavations', as Colin Renfrew, professor of archaeology at Cambridge, put it in the Guardian. The charge is not that Ortiz broke any law in the countries in which he made the purchases (Switzerland and Britain, apparently). It is rather, as Professor Renfrew put it, that 'these days the responsibilities of the collector and, indeed, of the exhibitor extend a little further'. In other words, one should do nothing to encourage the trade in objects which may have been looted.

Professor Boardman seems to anticipate this objection when he says in his foreword that 'in those parts of the world where ready accessibility of a rich and wondrous past contrasts strongly with an impoverished and insecure present, the temptation to prospect for saleable antiquities has appealed to finders and even more to dealers. The law seems powerless, but attacks on all forms of dealing and collecting of antiquities are unrealistic and can easily do more harm than good. In an imperfect world we may be grateful for some collectors who are scholarly in their choice . . .'

There seems an undercurrent of embarrassment here; indeed, many a professor would be embarrassed to receive the tribute Ortiz gives Boardman in his acknowledgements: 'Two years ago, encountering reservations in the United States about writing texts for my objects, I said, 'What if Professor Boardman writes a foreword?'.' In other words, Boardman was brought in to add respectability to the enterprise.

Renfrew, on the other hand, refused, as is recorded in the entry for object 42, a steatopygous idol from Thessaly. Ortiz says he 'consulted Colin Renfrew . . . unfortunately he declined to help on the grounds of what the Americans call 'political (sic) correct thinking'; in this he has been joined by Lauren E Talalay whom we consulted as a last resort'.

So we see that some scholars will not have anything to do with the enterprise. The 'political correct thinking' of Professor Renfrew goes like this. The kind of objects that appear in the Ortiz collection have been robbed of their context when removed from their sites, and all the knowledge of the past they might have given us has been lost. This tomb-robbing is being done, ultimately, for collectors. So, as one scholar puts it, 'the collectors are the real looters'.

It occurred to me, looking at the marbles in the exhibition, that part of the thrill of seeing these objects derives from their freshly dug-up appearance. In, say, the British Museum, the marbles that were excavated in Italy in previous centuries will have passed through the hands of restorers, who often gave the item a shave, or worse, to bring back a lost finish. In the Ortiz collection, the cleaning of a piece has been pursued only to the last layer of encrustation, so the surface of the stone never seems to have been touched. This means the chiselling looks fresh, where it is visible. Where the surface is partly obscured by encrustation, one can only guess at the beauties beneath. One is therefore always aware that these are 'new' antiquities, the cream of the no-questions- asked market.

The objects lack any archaeological context, but the scholarship of the catalogue is parasitic upon archaeology, since it is only by comparison with non-looted objects that loot can be identified and dated. Professor Boardman praises Ortiz for his scholarly expertise. Professor Renfrew thinks of every object acquired being an attack upon scholarship.

Scholarship aside, I might say that when Ortiz talks aesthetics, he talks gibberish. He is loud in the praise of his own discrimination: 'Objects came my way, and some of them unquestionably because they had to do so. It is as though, imbued with the spirit of their creator, they came to me because they knew I would love them, understand them, would give them back their identity and supply them with a context in keeping with their essence, relating to their likes.'

In other words, by the magic of his connoisseurship he restores them to a new aesthic context (which makes up for their loss of historical and cultural context), and he decides what that context and 'essence' will be. This represents an exorbitant view of one's own talents.

His role does not stop there. Ortiz has been praised for the skill with which he had designed and set out the exhibition, provided the lighting, written the catalogue. It is a Mr Toad performance, in which the collector plays all available roles. Supplying the art with meaning and context is just one of those things Mr Toad does well.

The Woodner catalogue seems to come from a very different world. It praises Woodner and discusses him within a tradition of American connoisseurship, but it does not indulge his vanity. It does not overlook Woodner's secrecy, because Woodner is not secretive in the Ortiz style.

If it is true that the British Museum would refuse, on principle, the kind of unprovenanced antiquities which form the bulk of the Ortiz show, then surely Professor Renfrew is right to question the standards set by the Royal Academy. I wonder if Sir Roger de Grey who, as President of the Royal Academy, wrote forewords to both the Woodner and the Ortiz catalogues, felt that standards which applied to one should not apply to the other.