Recently, I have started volunteering at the Worlds Museum Liverpool, working closely with Dr Ashley Cooke (the Curator of the Egyptian Antiquities) helping to catalogue and repackage some of the artefacts keptt here so that a searchable online catalogue may be produced. It is fascinating work and as an Egyptologist it is a great experience to see such a wide variety of objects close-up and to have some input into such a piece of work/research. Anyway, one topic that has come up in discussion with Dr Cooke is the amount of forgeries/fakes kept within museum collections. Another related topic is that of the Antiquities market as it is only through the completed sales of Auction houses that curators can get an idea of worth of an object for insurance purposes. I am fascinated by the side of Antiquities which we all like to put out of our mind, the bits we would like to forget about, so this is what I want to discuss briefly in this post; where did we get our collections from?
First, we must take ourselves back to the time when individuals would collect anything and everything from everywhere, and it was still legal to take things out of Egypt. Due to this, many … in fact scratch that, ALL museum collections were built up by private collectors; these collections were supplemented by sales and the sponsorship of archaeological digs.
People always collect objects, things which fascinate us we horde. Hence, looking at most museums the collections were built up by a single collector or numerous smaller collectors which have then been donated or bought by the museum organisation. For example: The Worlds Museum is founded on the Collection of gold and silversmith Joseph Mayer, other collector’s items which have made their way into this collection include items from the writer Sir H. Rider Haggard, Florence Nightingale and a number of other locals. Though we now see this sort of private collection as taboo, at the time this was not an issue, also, collecting was not nearly as destructive as Mummy parties in which a mummy was unwrapped in the parlour and then broken up as mementos for the guests.
Sales and the Antiquities Market
To add to collections museums have been known to acquire artefacts from other museums as well as private individuals, we would love to think that the antiquities market is dead; however, there is STILL a big market for all things ancient. This is legal; as if the objects left Egypt legally they may still be sold, much like the way fur is treated by the law. If we also add eBay to the list of Christies, Sotherby’s and other auction houses then it is not exactly taboo. There is also no doubt some black market work going on as well. All varieties of object are bought and sold for high amounts; the one thing you see only very rarely is mummies. By being on an open market there is potential for artefact destruction and misuse as well as a high possibility for fakes and forgeries to be present.
The buying, selling, collecting and trade of antiquities is still a live market , despite the increasing pressure against the practice and increasing taboo of the past practices. My abiding thought is that we need to think carefully about the objects we look at in our museums, as not only are they snapshots of an ancient civilisation but they have also gained their own history within modern times.