Letter: An age-old argument about antiquities

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Sir: James Fenton's article 'A collection robbed of its true history' (31 January) discusses the George Ortiz collection of antiquities currently on view at the Royal Academy. Mr Fenton runs through some of the arguments for and against antiquities being privately collected, and he quotes Professors Sir John Boardman and Lord Colin Renfrew, as well as George Ortiz himself. Roughly, Sir John and Mr Ortiz are for private collecting of antiquities, Lord Renfrew and Mr Fenton are against.

Mr Fenton laments that the Woodner collection of drawings shown at the Royal Academy in 1987 had provenances attached to 108 out of 111 drawings exhibited, whereas Ortiz has only 40 out of over 300 antiquities with a safe pedigree.

The conclusion he draws is that the majority of antiquities are plucked from the ground clandestinely and bought by unscrupulous collectors like Ortiz. These collectors thereby encourage the illicit trade of tomb-robbing in countries where antiquities are found, such as Greece, Italy, India and Turkey. In the Independent on 27 October 1990, Geraldine Norman hypothesised that 80 per cent of antiquities that come on the market have been illegally excavated and smuggled into the art markets of the West.

It is essential to keep a sense of proportion in these arguments. Drawings are all different and therefore likely to have a provenance; antiquities are often repetitive and even more often of crass workmanship.

Thus there are hundreds if not thousands of Romano-British brooches found in Britain each year by metal detectors, such brooches being frequently the same within their given typology; or Roman pottery, intact or sherds, which are found all round the Mediterranean; or glass perfume bottles from Syria which are all virtually identical.

A controlled export and sale of banal objects from source countries should be allowed. Let museums have the first chance, by all means, to buy/keep/display important pieces and let bona fide dealers sell the dross. Clandestine digging and smuggling could be stopped overnight if licences were needed for all antiquities, and unimportant pieces allowed to be sold on the open market.

Some academics and probably all archaeologists believe antiquities should only reside in museums with a controlled provenance for each item. So what would the British museum do with tens of thousands of roughly identical Romano-British brooches? They would only be able to put them in the basement (where the majority of museum collections in fact already reside) and they couldn't afford to buy them anyway, as their purchase funds are notoriously sparse.

George Ortiz has furthered knowledge and aesthetic appreciation of antiquities by generously lending his magnificent collection to the Royal Academy. He wrote the catalogue, he designed the exhibition, he paid for the special lighting, he has written the informative captions (better by far than most museums). And, in the fullness of time, he may echo other collectors and leave some of his pieces to a museum of his choosing. Where would the British Museum's collection be without Sir William Hamilton? The Ashmolean without James Bomford? The Fitzwilliam without Ricketts & Shannon? The Metropolitan without Cesnola? Generous, public-spirited collectors such as Ortiz should be thanked and not vilified.

Yours faithfully,


Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire

9 February

(Photograph omitted)