BMCR 2003.09.16

Greek Vases in New Contexts. The Collecting and Trading of Greek Vases — An Aspect of the Modern Reception of Antiquity

, Greek vases in new contexts : the collecting and trading of Greek vases : an aspect of the modern reception of antiquity. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2002. 407 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm. ISBN 8772888865 $52.95.

The new contexts of Greek vases examined in this monograph are the museums in which they are prominently displayed and the art market through which many thousands have passed since World War II. Collecting figured pottery goes back to the Renaissance, but in the second half of the twentieth century, changes in the way ceramics are approached have influenced their acquisition and display. The book originated as Vinnie Norskov’s masters thesis on the Greek vase market from 1953 to 1993, and is a publication of a Ph.D. dissertation that expanded the focus to consider the nexus of collectors, dealers, curators, and archaeologists that shapes current perceptions and practices. (The reviewer was a member of the author’s Ph.D. examination committee.) A number of recent studies have tackled vase collecting, from antiquarian cabinets late in the seventeenth century and the emergence of public museums, to recent analyses that link the art market with site looting. This book represents an ambitious and valuable compendium of these perspectives and will be of great relevance to students of the history of collecting, aesthetics of display, and the economics of taste.

Though the topic of Greek Vases in New Contexts is the post-war period, the first two chapters deal with the history of Greek black- and red-figure pottery since Roman sales of “necrocorinthia” described by Strabo (VIII, 6, 23). This fascinating account pulls together historical data that is scattered among studies by Jenkins, Vickers, and Favaretto ( inter alia) as well as the main antiquarian writings. Here we are reminded that fragments of repaired red-figure vases found in Tiberius’s cave at Sperlonga may indicate that heirlooms were used as interior decor. By the Renaissance, the decorative function was appreciated by Lorenzo de’Medici, who acquired several specimens directly from Greece, probably via Venetian intermediaries. This signals an awareness that painted pottery was Greek (or in the Greek tradition of South Italy), a fact that was later obscured by the “cultural nationalists” who claimed decorated earthenwares as an Etruscan heritage. It is also at this time that comparisons began to be made between drawings on vases and lost works of ancient painters like Apelles, thus shifting vases from the realm of curiosity to that of fine art. In the landmark publication of the vases belonging to Sir William Hamilton and in Winckelmann’s writings, this idea was rekindled. Vase-painting was likened to the paintings of the modern Old Master Raphael, an overt effort to promote and valorize vases in an ambience where they were already desirable and costly commodities. Norskov guides the reader through the Greek vs. Etruscan debates, discussing most of the major collectors and publications of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To the thorough footnotes can be added an excellent recent publication of letters in the A. F. Gori archive that deal with vases: Maria Emilia Masci, Documenti per la storia del collezionismo di vasi antichi nel XVIII secolo. Naples: Liguori Editore, 2003; see also her exhaustive study “La collezione di vasi antichi figurati riunita da Giuseppe Valletta: identificazione parziale dei pezzi raccolti e ricostruzione della dispersione,” in Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa 1999, II, pp. 555-93.

Norskov’s review of the “idea and appearance of vase collections” brings out a central issue of display and how early installation schemes shaped the reception of vases. Her survey continues through the nineteenth-century spoliation of Etruscan cemeteries and the growth of the Bonaparte, Castellani, and Campana collections. The latter is now dealt with comprehensively by Susanna Sarti, Giovanni Pietro Campana 1808-1880: the Man and his Collection. Oxford: Archeopress, 2001. With the onset of professional archaeological excavations (especially in Greece) and the development of modern public museums, interest shifted toward earlier Greek art. Museums displayed objects more contextually, emphasizing chronology and typology. An outline of twentieth-century approaches to iconography and attribution concludes this chapter. This is a large topic that has been treated in much greater detail elsewhere, and some readers will find this section overly schematic. It serves, however, to lay solid groundwork for the next chapters on the market and museum case-studies.

Chapter 3 deals with “Vases for Sale: Trade & Restrictions.” It retraces the chronology of the preceding section to consider the mechanisms of buying and selling and the rise of professional art dealers and markets. Information on sixteenth and seventeenth-century practices is scanty, but this is not for lack of trade. Because relatively few priced inventories and archival records have been studied, there is a tendency to begin vase history with Hamilton’s arrival in Naples in 1764. It is important to consider the role of gift exchange in early scientific discourse, in which vases represent social and aesthetic as well as economic capital. We know more about pricing and trade from the era of Hamilton and Bonaparte during the heyday of the Grand Tour, and the above-cited study by Masci documents prices earlier in the eighteenth century, when cemeteries at Nola, Capua, and Calvi were opened. One of the values of Norskov’s book is that it points to areas that need more in-depth research: the function of antiquities within the economy of the art markets and the multiple values that have been ascribed to them. This chapter also discusses the establishment of national antiquities laws, the internationalization of efforts to protect cultural property, and the emergence of professional ethics. Issues of private collecting, dealers, and the illicit traffic in antiquities are taken up again in chapter 5.

The core of Norskov’s research focuses on eight case-studies of museums, which include the British Museum, National Museum in Copenhagen, Metropolitan Museum, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig, Ashmolean Museum, Antikensammlung Kiel, and the Duke University Classical collection. Her intention is to represent different types of historical museums: those with roots in old aristocratic collections and new industrial wealth, as well as university and national encyclopedic collections. For each, the history of vase acquisitions pre- and post-war, approaches to exhibition, and acquisition policies are summarized. This section is well illustrated by historical photographs, ground plans, key vases, and charts tracking the kinds of vases that entered these museums from the 1940s to mid 1990s. Museums in “source countries” are deliberately excluded since the growth of collections here is considered to be more closely connected to excavations than to art markets. Museums in Italy, however, (or for that matter Greece, Turkey, and Egypt) are far from mere repositories and need to be examined just as closely for their role in defining national and scholarly discourses. The choice of cases is idiosyncratic, combining logical examples with some that appear less typical (Duke). Harvard, for example, as the first department of fine arts in the U.S., is central to the development of classical pedagogy, while Michigan and Pennsylvania followed very different courses as a result of their sponsorship of fieldwork. The J. Paul Getty Museum would have offered a telling case, in the sense that it is a young museum, built by recently acquired industrial wealth, and enlarged from private collections formed during the 1970s-80s, with much help from the trade and all the attendant problems that brings. Museums, in any case, are microcosms and their displays represent a distillation of many different cultural and intellectual currents. Weighted toward Northern Europe and the U.S., the cases investigated here might have been better balanced by type and nationality … one misses discussion of French institutions which have played such a central role. The chapter nevertheless offer a valid overview of collecting trends. On the early development of German vase collections, see now several articles in Martin Bentz, Vasenforschung und Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum — Standortbestimmung und Perspektiven. Beihefte zum CVA Deutschland, 1. München: C.H. Beck, 2002. Norskov presents the data in a straightforward didactic account, and the resulting profiles lend themselves to further critical assessments of the cultural conditions and mentalities that defined museums as sites of representation, authority, and memory. This will give more nuance to the conclusion that the tastes and scholarly interests of curators have largely shaped the character of the vases they assembled and arranged.

The two chapters that follow discuss the antiquities auction market of the last several decades, marshalling many facts and anecdotes about the main dealers, collectors, and sales. Because so much information is not publicly available, the author faces the challenge of navigating between nostalgic accounts of grand days of elite collecting and critical exposés of the sordid side of the trade. It is revealing that dealers not only react to the desires of patrons but they actively invent markets and encourage changes in taste by selective promotion. Numerous graphs quantify vase sales in terms of numbers, fabrics, and provenance. Not unexpectedly, a large percentage of vases lack a “provenance,” but readers should beware that the term is used here in its art historical sense. Consequently, the total number of vases lacking archaeological findspots (provenience) represents nearly the entirety. The author acknowledges the inevitable relationship between “investment collecting,” sales of undocumented antiquities, and the illicit market, but frequently the tone is coy and understated, especially in light of the fact that some individuals, auction houses, and galleries spotlighted here have been protagonists in the plunder. Harder-hitting accounts can be found in publications by Ricardo Elia (cited below) and in the spate of press articles that appear with disturbing regularity.

Several useful appendices conclude this book. Interviews with curators at the case museums (Dyfri Williams and Lucilla Burn; Bodil Bundgaard Rasmussen; Dietrich von Bothmer, Jette Christiansen, Margot Schmidt, Michael Vickers, Joachim Raeder, and Keith Stanley) illuminate circumstances that shaped collections. Approaches to acquisition and exhibition vary less than one might imagine and the comments remind us that decisions often reflect institutional practicalities as much as personal philosophy. Most interviewees are terse on the provenance and looting issues, and several appear either remarkably naïve or dismissive of the ethical issues. A second appendix charts over 18,000 vases on the market between 1954 and 1998, breaking them down according to 36 stylistic categories. Dramatic sales increases in some categories reflect shifts in taste or availability, but the overall picture suggests that business was strongest from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, when art markets in general witnessed a boom and looting was consequently rampant. This accords with Rick Elia’s study of Apulian vases at auction, where a majority appeared fresh for the first time during this period (Ricardo Elia, “Analysis of the Looting, Selling and Collecting of Apulian Red-Figure Vases: a Quantitative Approach,” in N. Brodie, J. Doole, and C. Renfrew eds, Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2001. A glance at Appendix C, listing the 172 most expensive vases sold between 1969 and 2000, makes it obvious why this is so. Sales seem to show a downturn in the late 1990s, a reflection perhaps of evolving ethics and the anxious atmosphere of restitution claims, investigations, and prosecutions.

A good bibliography is supplemented by a separate listing of auction and gallery catalogues used to formulate sales statistics. Greater editorial attention would have caught typographical errors and smoothed the translation into academic English; in a book of this range a complete index of subjects and themes (rather than just a register of proper names) is necessary. But these minor flaws are compensated by the attractive design and extensive color illustrations.

In sum, Greek Vases in New Contexts provides an impressive amount of information on a class of antiquities that can signify classical collecting as a whole. Vinnie Norskov has tackled a potentially unwieldy topic and has synthesized her original statistical analyses with the growing body of literature on the culture of collecting. Whatever flaws that the sheer breadth of the undertaking entailed also count as strengths, in that the work promises to spur new research on the role of classical antiquities in art markets and in public museum displays, a field that more than ever demands a fresh look.