Archive for February 6th, 2015

St. Louis Society board resigns over artifact sales

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Last fall, the St. Louis Society (SLS) of the American Institute for Archaeology (AIA) caused a stir when it put the Treasure of Harageh up for auction at Bonhams, London. The collection of Twelfth Dynasty jewelry and vessels were unearthed by a British School of Archaeology team excavating in Middle Egypt during the 1913-14 season under the direction of William Matthew Flinders Petrie. As the St. Louis Society had contributed to the funding of the dig, in return they received an exceptional group of artifacts from the reign of Pharoah Senusret II (1897-1878 B.C.). The Society had tried to place the objects from Tomb 124 at Harageh in the Saint Louis Art Museum and in the Washington University museum, but were not successful, so most of the time the artifacts were kept in a safety deposit box. The steep costs and suboptimal conservation conditions of the storage and the desire to fund a community archaeology program ultimately spurred the St. Louis Society to sell the Treasure.

Most of it was saved at the last minute, taken out of the auction the day before thanks to a private sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Tenth-Eleventh Dynasty travertine head rest was bought at the Bonhams auction by an anonymous buyer for $44,000. Undeterred by the outcry, the SLS then offered two Mesoamerican artifacts — a Maya effigy vase (550-950 A.D.) from the Quirigua, Guatemala, and a Zapotec seated figural urn (550-950 A.D.) from Monte Alb├ín, Mexico — they received as recompense for funding the fieldwork of American archaeologist and groundbreaking Maya scholar Sylvanus Morley in the 1910s. The effigy vase sold to a university museum for $21,250, the figural urn to an unknown private buyer for $3,750.

The AIA is opposed to the sales of antiquities, believing they should be curated for the public good, conserved by experts and made available for study, but its charter with the St. Louis Society only explicitly prohibits the sale of ancient artifacts of dubious, undocumented origin. The origin of these objects was clear and unblemished. Still, the AIA released a statement expressing its concern over the pending sale and promising an urgent investigation into the situation. The SLS board held there was nothing wrong with the sales, ethically or legally. Obviously the AIA disagreed on the ethics of auctioning off archaeological material, and pointed out that the board had acted unilaterally without consulting the SLS membership which was at the very least divided on the question.

On January 10th, the Council of the AIA held its annual meeting in New Orleans. They discussed the SLS sales and decided on a strong course of action: if the SLS board didn’t resign in its entirety by February 1st, the AIA would revoke the St. Louis Society’s charter. You can read SLS President Michael Fuller’s statement at the meeting here. I’m not prone to agree with cultural heritage organizations selling ancient artifacts to the highest bidder, but I think he made some excellent points, particularly about how the AIA needs an actual policy on the sale of documented artifacts and how the national society could have helped them place the artifacts in museums and prevented this mess from happening in the first place instead of reacting after the fact.

Three days after the AIA passed its resolution, the St. Louis Society held an extraordinary meeting attended by two thirds of the membership. After a vigorous debate, a narrow majority of the members voted to retain the board. On January 25th, the SLS board met again and decided to comply with the AIA resolution. All nine of the board members resigned effective Monday, January 26th. An interim board is in place until new elections are held at the next annual meeting. The AIA is satisfied and the St. Louis Society will remain a chapter in good standing.

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