Bo Emerson of the Atlanta Journal Constitution has a nice article in yesterday’s edition tracking the efforts of Jasper Gaunt, curator for Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, in his successful attempt to acquire this Hellenistic marble head of a goddess, dating from the 2nd or 1st century BC. The work sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York for $486,400.
It’s a very interesting article, and highlights the way the insular antiquities-buying community works. One thing struck me about the article. Though dealers may, with the best of intentions, strive to acquire objects with a detailed provenance, thereby insuring the objects were not illicitly exported or excavated, you pay a premium for them. That is, if an upstart cultural institution is trying to expand its collection, and has only limited funds, it may be difficult to pay a higher sum for works which are provenanced. It would seem to pose a difficult moral dilemma. Should a curator risk buying an unprovenanced object if it means they might add to the prestige of their institution? I think that’s a very real temptation. Of course, working against that temptation is the increasing scrutiny leveled at cultural institutions who are accused of holding illicitly excavated, looted, or illicitly exported objects.