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Selling King Tut


London, July 5, 2019 

By Scott Reyburn / The New York Times  

Tutankhamen Head Sells for $6 Million, Despite Protests from Egypt.
Christie’s said the sale was legal. But Egypt’s government says the antiquity was looted and should be returned.

“It was smuggled. It belongs to Egypt,” said Magda Sakr, one of a dozen protesters gathered outside Christie’s auction house minutes before a stone head of the pharaoh Tutankhamen was set to be sold on Thursday night.

“I believe these things should be in a museum. They shouldn’t belong to one person,” added Ms. Sakr, holding a placard that read “Save Tutankhamen Head. Egyptian History is not for Sale.”

But despite protests from Ms. Sakr, and from Egyptian officials, the sale went ahead.

The brown quartzite sculpture of the god Amen, carved with the features of the pharaoh Tutankhamen during his brief reign, was the star lot of Christie’s annual “Exceptional” auction of trophy objects from across the centuries.

Dated by the auction house to about 1333 B.C. to 1323 B.C., and described as having a “particularly sensual” mouth, the head sold for £4.7 million pounds, or about $6 million, with fees. But competition was subdued. The lot attracted just two hesitant bids from anonymous telephone bidders.

Did the limited bidding reflect the controversy that swirled round this object before its sale?

Weeks before its auction, the 11-inch-high head had been the focal point of protests from the Egyptian authorities, who objected to the inclusion of about 30 ancient artifacts from their country in auctions this week at Christie’s.

Zahi Hawass, a former Egyptian minister of antiquities, told The Guardian newspaper last month that he believed the Tutankhamen head had been taken from the temple of Karnak in Upper Egypt and illegally exported in 1970. He added that if Christie’s did not have papers to prove that it left Egypt legally, then the sculpture should be returned.

The date of 1970 cited by Dr. Hawass is significant: That year Unesco instituted a landmark international convention to prohibit and prevent the illicit trade in cultural property. Objects without documented ownership histories, known as provenances, that extend beyond that watershed have become regarded as problematic for museums and those involved in the legal trade in antiquities.


Tourist trinkets on sale in Cairo

Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb is the most famous moment of Egyptian archaeological history, and made the pharaoh’s death mask an icon CreditMohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

“The sale of such precious Egyptian artifacts is a huge shame,” said Tarek Adel, Egypt’s ambassador to Britain, in a statement on Wednesday. He said that Christie’s proposed auctions reflected “a deep lack of respect to our efforts to stop this happening as well as a total disregard for relevant international legal provisions and conventions.” 

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Christie’s said it had “established all the required information covering recent ownership and gone beyond what is required to assure legal title.” The sculpture “is not, and has not been, the subject of a claim, nor has it been previously flagged as an object of concern, despite being well known and exhibited publicly,” the statement added.

The provenance published by Christie’s states that the stone head was acquired in 1973 or 1974 by Josef Messina, the director of Galerie Kokorian & Company, in Vienna, from the collection of Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, who is “understood” to have owned the piece by the 1960s, according to the catalog.

The sculpture was subsequently owned by two further private individuals, Christie’s said, before being acquired in 1985 by the German-based Resandro collection, which was the seller in London.

The object’s pre-1970 provenance was confirmed by Mr. Messina in the form of “a notarized affidavit which is part of our provenance documentation,” Catherine Manson, Christie’s global head of communications, said in an email.

But an article on the website Live Science, published in June, said that the son and niece of Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, who died in 2004, said the aristocrat had no interest in art and had never owned the sculpture.

Galerie Kokorian & Company and Mr. Messina did not reply to repeated requests for contact made by email, telephone and Facebook message.

For those who participate in the international trade in antiquities, basing this object’s pre-1970 provenance on the verbal recollection of a dealer, rather than any surviving document, does not weaken the legitimacy of Christie’s sale.

“I don’t think it’s problematic,” said Vincent Geerling, the chairman of the London-based International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art. “What is problematic is the attitude of the Egyptian government and the way they try to disrupt the sale of perfectly legal artifacts.”

“The Egyptians have benefited from the sale of antiquities for more than 150 years,” said Mr. Geerling, who pointed out that government-authorized stores sold antiquities in Egypt until 1983, when the country passed a law to protect its heritage.

Mr. Geerling said that the Unesco Convention applied only to objects that had already been “specifically designated” as objects of great importance, which he said would be unlikely in the case of the Christie’s head. He added that “there is no legal basis” for museums’ reluctance to acquire antiquities with provenances that did not stretch beyond 1970.

Objects associated with Tutankhamen, a short-lived 18th Dynasty pharaoh who died in his late teens, have a particular mystique and allure. 

Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of his untouched tomb in the Valley of the Kings, filled with spectacularly precious objects, is the most famous moment of Egyptian archaeological history. An exhibition at the British Museum in 1972 of treasures from the tomb, including Tutankhamen’s gold death mask, attracted 1.7 million visitors.

Tatiana Flessas, an associate professor of law at the London School of Economics, who specializes in cultural property, said that Christie’s sale of the Tutankhamen head was a significant moment.

“It showed that a claim like Egypt’s continues to be open to dispute,” Ms. Flessas said. “Not every antiquity is cultural property.”

Though the trade in antiquities is a “complex, opaque and quite slippery business,” Egypt’s call for the return of the sculpture was a “nationalistic claim, an anticolonial claim, with a moral rather than legal justification,” she added.

“But if the provenance is flawed and the sculpture was looted, it should go back,” she said.

Image Credits:
New York Times, Peter Nicholls/Reuters

A Celebration of The Merry Month of May



By Laura Heyrman

As the month comes to an end, we celebrate May in art and poetry.

The Merry Month of May by Thomas Dekker

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolick, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!
O, and then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen.

Now the nightingale, the pretty nightingale,
The sweetest singer in all the forest choir,
Entreats thee, sweet Peggy, to hear thy true love’s tale:
Lo, yonder she sitteth, her breast against a brier.

But O, I spy the cuckoo, the cuckoo, the cuckoo;
See where she sitteth; come away, my joy:
Come away, I prithee, I do not like the cuckoo
Should sing where my Peggy and I kiss and toy.

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolick, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;
And then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my Summer’s Queen.

from Ernest Rhys, Thomas Dekker, London: Vizetelly, 1887.

About the painting:

One of twelve miniatures illustrating traditional monthly activities, the “May” page from “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (The Duke of Berry’s Very Fine Book of Hours), was painted by one of the Limbourg Brothers, leading painters in Northern Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The manuscript was commissioned by John of Berry, third son of King John II of France, and a lavish patron of the arts. Sadly, the manuscript was left unfinished in 1416 upon the death of the patron and the artists, as can be seen from the empty calendar grid at the top of the May page. Scholars have attributed the May Page to Jean Limbourg, the brother most associated with courtly scenes.

In the “Très Riches Heures” the calendar illustrations alternate between activities of the nobility and the peasantry. The settings of the calendar scenes are frequently identifiable as buildings belonging to the patron; the May page shows the Hôtel de Nesle, the Duke of Berry’s Paris residence. In celebration of spring, young men and women in ornate garments ride through a woodland. Many of the figures wear green clothing which was a traditional aspect of the “May jaunt.” Bedecked with ivy, the young nobles elegantly chat and flirt while a pair of dogs in the foreground express their springtime attraction more explicitly.

About the poem:

The poem “The Merry Month of May” is from the late 16th century and was written by Thomas Dekker, an Elizabethan playwright and pamphleteer as part of his play “The Shoemaker’s Holiday.” The play debuted in 1599 and was also performed on New Years Day 1600 as part of Queen Elizabeth I’s annual Christmas entertainments. The play is set much earlier though, during the reign of Henry IV. This would make its story roughly contemporary with the Limbourg Brothers’ May page. “The Shoemaker’s Holiday” is a romantic comedy set among London’s artisans, including three subplots dealing with inter-class romance and city politics. Dekker was known for works depicting everyday life.

“The Merry Month of May” is one of two songs or catches that are associated with the play. Though its exact position in the play is uncertain, an 1887 edition of the play places it in Act Three in association with a morris dance performed to entertain the Lord Mayor of London. The master shoemaker Simon Eyre counters his wife’s insistence that he be serious in the Lord Mayor’s company by saying that he will be serious at the Guildhall and we’ll all be old soon enough. The light-hearted love song and dance suit Eyre’s philosophy but the lyrics also hint at the tangled love affairs going on throughout the play.

Image:
Limbourg Brothers, May calendar page from “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (The Duke of Berry’s Very Fine Book of Hours), ca. 1412-1416. Ms. 65, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

Franz Kline

By Matt Carey-Williams, London   


A Franz Kline brushstroke is like a racehorse at full speed. His fluid, dynamic marks positively gallop across his canvas, simultaneously epitomising the energy and vitality of his abstract gesture, whilst still affording a scaffolding of structure and meaning. Kline arrived at his mature meditations of black on white in the late 1940’s. He was inspired by the de Koonings who suggested he break through something of a creative lull by experimenting with a Bell-Optican projector.

Amplified details of objects were projected on to his studio wall and Kline painted over them in these daring, brutal strokes of black. He never looked back and only a handful of his paintings would ever again embrace colour. By focusing on such an arrant display of startling tonal contrast, Kline was empowered as a painter to properly explore motion in a very condensed, even visceral manner. And that ‘motion’, of course, was noted both physically and psychologically; both aesthetically and conceptually. Meryon from 1960-61 is a very late painting by the artist and is now in the Tate Modern.

Muscular, chunky, calligraphic verticals soar upwards, suggesting an architectural thrust. Meryon represents something of a homophonic pun; Kline here refers to the French printmaker Charles Meryon, who famously made etchings of medieval Paris and its newly sprawling architecture (I cannot help but see Notre Dame in this painting). He also alludes to the Pennsylvanian town of Merion — home to the extraordinary Impressionist and modern art collection of Albert C. Barnes — which was a fast-growing urban centre and provided a swanky, chi-chi contrast to his own humble town of birth, Wilkes-Barre, which was but a couple of hours away.

Meryon is thus an anthem for enterprising construction — both present and past — yet still its signification slides in and out of several pockets of meaning. Content becomes process; process becomes object; object becomes concept. Concept is the content, no matter how concrete and materialistic the painting feels.

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Above: Franz Kline (American, 1910-1962): Meryon, 1960-61. Oil on canvas, 235.9 x 195.6 cm. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Dürer’s selfie


Albrecht Dürer (Germany, 1471-1525): Self-portrait, 1500

By Matt Carey-Williams, London

OK, let’s put our cards on the table here in Amsterdam. Yes, Rembrandt knew how to paint a selfie. Yes, van Gogh knocked up some of art history’s most poignant, self-effacing images of selfhood.

But, for me, the greatest self-portrait of all time is this bad boy, executed in 1500 by Albrecht Dürer at the age of 28. It is one of the treasures of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. So why so good? Well, that’s partly explained by the huge balls on this guy. So huge, in fact, that he presents himself not just as Albrecht the man; not just as Dürer the artist but as some higher being altogether. As, dare I say it, Christ himself. Now, portraits of Jesus in Salvator Mundi guise were usually highly symmetrical, sombre affairs. All frontal pyramids of luscious locks and steely gazes with giant glass balls. Such as here, where a porty, chestnutty tonality prevails and which offers no mortal demarcation of time or space. Are we on Earth? Heaven? Dürer, like Christ, stares directly at us, even raising his hands (which, if you look closely, make the shape of the letters A and D) as if he’s blessing us.

Whilst this is a selfie, you do still feel a little distanced from the artist, as if he’s acting out a role or wearing some kind of mask. The inscription above his monogrammed signature (AD as in Albrecht Dürer, but also as in anno domini, adds yet another layer of meta here, announcing to the viewer that this is a painting made by him of him with ‘everlasting colours’. His indelible palette, used to fashion his likeness, also, in turn, speaks of Christ’s divine immortality. And thus, maybe, of his. So Albs has a bit of a Jesus complex. Not the first time an artist would have that; nor the last. But this absolutely exquisite self-portrait remains one of art history’s most enigmatic images. Dürer liked to write often about his craft and practice, but of this painting he offered no analysis. That would have been far too earthly for something as out of this world as this fucking killer masterpiece.

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SHOULD MUSEUMS DECLINE, OR WELCOME, PHILANTHROPIC ATONEMENT?

 

By Aldis Browne, La Jolla

The primary directorial and curatorial responsibility of any museum is art. Period. What, then, should be the responsibility of their governing boards – to address issues of the moment, or to consider what will best support the future interests of the institution?  

The legacies of enlightened exhibitions and collections will survive for centuries – donors and patrons soon become meaningless. Controversies over the actions of cultural patrons are nothing new. Originally, the New York Public Library was The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. According to A Short History of American Capitalism (2002) by Meyer Weinberg, “By the 1770s, alcoholism was growing among the Indians. Some historians, swept away by the romance of the fur trade, viewed the operation of the liquor-fed traffic with equanimity: Sensible fur men traded reasonable amounts of liquor for furs; foolish fur men depended heavily upon alcohol as a trade item.

When Kenneth W. Porter set out to write his standard biography of John Jacob Astor, a fur trader par excellence, missing from any records were all traces of large-scale purchases of whiskey by Astor’s American Fur Company. Silence told all. Brooke Astor’s support of the New York Public Library carried John Jacob Astor’s legacy into the 21st century. 

But Lenox and Tilden – who were they? James Lenox was a philanthropic bibliophile. Far better known than the man, Lenox is one of the stone lions that guard the Library (the other is Astor). The sculpted lion that bears his name is better remembered today than the fact that Lenox donated 85,000 volumes, especially bibles and atlases, to help create the Library’s collection.

Remember the Tilden scandal? Of course you don’t. Nobody does. Samuel Jones Tilden, a former New York governor, ran for President. He lost. Why? The ‘Cipher Dispatches’ scandal. According to Wikipedia,  “The NY Tribune claimed to have unearthed and decoded secret telegrams sent by Tilden’s agents at the height of the 1876 electoral dispute, apparently offering bribes to vote-counters in the contested states: $50,000 for Florida, $80,000 for South Carolina, and $5,000 for the single vote from Oregon.”  He was later vindicated. Nobody boycotted the library in protest.

In fact, museum protests frequently backfire. In 1987 New York artist Andres Serrano photographed a plastic crucifix in a glass of his own urine that he entitled Piss Christ. In 1989, a controversy over the homoerotic works of Robert Mapplethorpe forced Washington’s Corcoran Gallery to cancel a planned exhibit of his photographs. This resulted in the resignation of the museum’s director, Christina Orr-Cahall. Under the leadership of Senator Jesse Helms, the art of Serrano and Mapplethorpe was denounced by numerous congressional leaders. NEA funding for exhibitions including either artist was eliminated. Government support for the NEA, itself, was reduced. And the market for photographs by both artists was catapulted.

The career path of Corcoran Director Christina Orr-Cahall accelerated. She was appointed as CEO and director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. In 2009 she became the director and CEO of the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The Seattle museum at the base of the Space Needle was designed by Frank Gehry and endowed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Now known as the Museum of Pop Culture, it was renamed following her retirement.

Conversely, donations to the Corcoran dwindled until 2014 when the museum was forced to close. Like many museums, it was unable to deaccession art to support maintenance. Thus, Washington’s oldest independent museum was dissolved under a court order and its $2 billion collection was incorporated into the National Gallery of Art.

The Sackler family owns Purdue Pharma, the developer of OxyContin, a drug that has alleviated the pain of millions. It has also been widely abused, resulting in addiction and death. On March 6th, writing for Bloomberg, Katya Kazakina and Benjamin Stupples reported: ‘Artists Protest Sackler Family Through Museums That Bear Their Name.’

“Artist Nan Goldin, who has written about her “narrow” escape from OxyContin addiction and founded a group called PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to address the crisis, has been one of the family’s most outspoken critics. “We are artists, activists and people dealing with addiction who employ direct action as a platform for our demands,” according to the group’s mission statement. “We target the Sackler family, who manufactured and pushed OxyContin, through the museums and universities that carry their name.

“The Sacklers have no plans to discontinue their philanthropy. For more than half a century, several generations of Sacklers have supported respected institutions that play crucial roles in health, research, education, the arts and the humanities,” a spokesman for family members said in a statement. “It has been a privilege to support the vital work of these organizations and we remain dedicated to doing so.”

Last December, protestors called for Warren Kanders to step down from the Whitney. True, his tear gas had been used against migrants at the border. It is also used to control criminals, flush out terrorists and quell rioting.

Which will history perpetuate, Purdue Pharma or the Sackler families’ donations to the Met and the Smithsonian; Kanders’ company, Safariland, or the Whitney?

Spiraling costs, closing galleries and increasing challenges are today’s reality for artists even as museum patronage is challenged. If El Chapo were to endow a museum to support contemporary Mexican art, would this benefit the arts, or should it be boycotted? Think carefully before you respond.

Photograph: Yana Paskova, The Guardian