Book Review: “Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present” (2016)

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 12.07.49 PMBy Nina Mesfin*

While museums today seem to be gradually withdrawing from the purchase and sale of artworks on the private art market, private collectors have been able to capitalize upon fewer competitors in the field. As collectors are finding more acquisition opportunities, it is more imperative than ever that collectors demonstrate prudence in their purchases. Erin L. Thompson’s Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present, published on May 24, 2016, analyzes private art collectors’ developing psyche and motivations through time in an attempt to combat the looting and trafficking of antiquities. While Thompson is not the first scholar to address these ongoing issues, her approach is fresh. Lorenzo de’ Medici, scion of an immensely powerful Italian family in the 15th century, Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89), Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel in the end of the 16th century and Thomas Herbert, the eighth Earl of Pembroke in the early 18th century, both British, and early 20th century American industrialist J. Paul Getty are just some of the art collectors, all of whom possessed important art collections in their respective times, that Thompson introduces to readers throughout the course of the book. Utilizing historical anecdotes and provocative caricatures, Thompson constructs a new framework through which her non-exclusive audience can analyze and begin to understand illicit art dealings, their ancient underpinnings, and their contemporary implications viewed through the lens of the art collector.

Thompson begins her book by providing working definitions of such basics as “collectors” and “antiquities,” ensuring that the book is accessible to a wide audience. She also states her objective clearly: to investigate “the motives of antiquities collectors” in order to “help stop the ongoing looting and destruction of archaeological sites that currently supplies the market for collectible antiquities.”Id.at 2. Clear in the author’s aim and equipped with relevant terms, the reader is well-prepared to delve into Thompson’s exploration of the private collector’s internal motives. In the first two chapters, The Powers and Perils of the Antique: The Birth of Collecting and Collecting Identities, Thompson discusses how the objects one chooses to collect come to represent one’s identity. Collectors, therefore, are simultaneously constructing vast collections and personas. Thompson uses case studies, such as King Attalus I, who inherited Pergamon in 241 BCE and acquired Greek antiquities in order to ensure the kingdom’s “place in history,” to illustrate these points. Her use of case studies is an asset to her critique of private collecting because the case studies provide concrete examples of the effects collectors can have on the ways future generations understand past cultures. In addition to making the issues raised in Possession more tangible, these case studies and historical anecdotes establish multiple narratives, making Possession an engaging read, even for those already well-versed in art and artifact history.

Thompson then launches into a discussion of two issues that continue to plague the art market and private collections: restoration and forgery. In Chapter Three, entitled “By Means of a Little Castration”: Restoration and Manipulation, Thompson seamlessly progresses from the evolution of art restoration (superficial to invasive) into her analysis of art forgeries. Thompson describes Henry Blundell (1724-1810), an English collector who castrated a statue of Hermaphrodite, to illustrate just how “blurred was the line between restoration and forgery.” Id.at 49. As Blundell was having his statue restored, he ordered art restorers to castrate the piece. Thompson posits that the physical castration of the piece, or its “moralistic manipulation,” transformed what would have been a restored art piece into a forgery. Id.at 45. “Forgeries reveal collectors’ desire and motivation even more clearly than restoration,” she claims, and “[a] restoration must begin from some actual and perhaps unwieldy fragment of the past. A forgery can exactly mirror what the collector wishes were true about the past and his connection it.” Id.at 67. Thompson makes the point that although this “era of manipulative restoration” might be over, it is still hard to assess whether artifacts today look as they did in antiquity, challenging both the premium placed on authenticity and the definition itself. Perhaps the only thing that is indisputably authentic about a piece is the unique relationship between the piece itself and its collector. 

Thompson’s analysis of restored pieces versus forgeries is meant to provide insight into the collector’s infatuation with artifacts. What was, and continues to be so appealing about collecting is that it affords the collector an opportunity to craft his or her own narrative. Collectors are so motivated by their desire to defy the realities of the present that they not only seek to restore the past, but to reforge it in their own light. By comparing restoration to forgery, Thompson highlights the collector’s ever-increasing obsession with cultural artifacts because these artifacts allow collectors to refashion history, granting them authority over the past. Thompson explains that emphasizing the collector’s relationship with his or her artifacts may be a help to cultural heritage because “the collector’s love of the past must be understood and harnessed if we are to be able to have a past to love at all.” Id.at 182. In other words, Possession functions under the premise that in order to eradicate an issue, one must appreciate its complexity. The objects which scholars and other authorities on antiquities seek to preserve today are embedded in this collection history. In order to fully appreciate and save these objects, we must appreciate that history as well.

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The remaining chapters in the first half of Possession continue to focus mainly on the historical underpinnings of art collections. However, starting with Chapter Seven: The History of Looting and Smuggling—and What They Destroy, Thompson begins weaving in contemporary scandals and juxtaposing them against the historical accounts of infamous collectors she discussed in earlier chapters. Here, she reaches the crux of her argument: that informing modern collectors that their relationship with the contemporary illicit art market, similar to those of past collectors, perpetuates artifact looting and trafficking and thus cultural heritage devastation. Private collectors, even those pure in intention, are complicit in the destruction of the past they so desperately seek to preserve. Using the tools with which they were provided in the first half of Possession, readers can begin engaging in dialogue pertaining to antiquities trafficking and looting, more specifically how to most effectively preserve history through antiquities. Thompson uses the past to educate readers on the power private collectors wield over our understanding of history, urging her audience to recognize that society today stands at a critical juncture in the realm of cultural heritage given the new wave of destruction occurring all over the world, especially in the Middle East. By presenting issues pertaining to cultural heritage vis-a-vis art collecting, Thompson pushes readers to reassess how norms established in the private art market can negatively manifest in preservation efforts.

Chapter Eight: Collectors’ Failed Justifications for Looting and Smuggling introduces readers to some of the difficulties archeologists and other scholars have found in trying to persuade private collectors to stop collecting. Thompson laments society’s failure to acknowledge that collecting practices are deeply embedded in a social network. In order to communicate the ill-effects of collecting to the collector himself–in the hopes of shaping his or her behavior–one must understand that for the collector, “[l]ove for the members of the network is put into conflict with love for the past.” Id.at 139. Thompson’s proposed strategy refrains from alienating the collector because it recognizes that most collectors have “professed desires to be useful to scholars”. Id.at 173. Thompson acknowledges the collectors’ power and proposes treating them as allies as opposed to ostracizing them from the antiquities world. Despite the eccentricities of the figures Thompson describes, it is clear that like archaeologists and scholars, collectors also value the past. In Chapter 9: Collecting to Save the Past, Thompson suggests ways to mediate the differences between scholars and other authorities seeking to preserve antiquities. Perhaps one of the more provocative suggestions is rethinking attitudes toward touch. Id.at 179. In other words, Thompson points to the fact that many private collectors relish the intimate relationship that touch fosters between them and their objects, suggesting that individual collectors may be more inclined to stop collecting if public institutions allowed patrons to physically handle objects.

Possession is a well-crafted piece of writing in which the author, who earned her art history Ph.D. from Columbia University and her J.D. from Columbia Law School, takes her readers on a historical journey through the evolution of private art and artifact collecting. Although the balance between her own analysis and the carefully selected accounts of “history’s most infamous collectors” may seem to favor the latter, each anecdote is highly entertaining and provides the reader with a strong foundation for her later analyses. Thompson’s writing is elegant and provides the reader with a breadth of history and a valuable survey of the private art market. More importantly, Thompson demonstrates how the atrocities being committed against antiquities and cultural heritage sites today are rooted in history because “[w]e have not yet outgrown our beliefs in the power of antiquities, and the efficacy of destroying them to control these powers,” citing the demolition of the Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan. Id.at 22. Thompson immerses her readers in the world of antiquities, one that knows no temporal boundaries, and by the end of Possession, readers cannot help but to develop a stake in contemporary art market debates.

Sources:

Erin L. Thompson, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present (2016).

About the Author: Nina Mesfin is a Summer 2016 legal intern at Center for Art Law. She is a rising junior at Yale University majoring in Ethnicity, Race and Migration and concentrating in Art, Literature and Narratives of Race and Ethnicity. Nina is also a scholar in the Yale Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights.

Disclaimer: Reading this book or its review is no substitute for getting your legal questions answered by a trained attorney.

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