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Inventing History : forgery: a great British tradition (British History)
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Mick Harper
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Katie Razzell has made a TV programme, a Youtube and a ten-part radio series about the British Museum having its collection of Classical coin miniatures being rifled and sold by a curator... sorry, Head of Roman & Greek Antiquities as he became after they found out. The Razza and her talking heads constantly expressed amazement at how incompetent and defensive the BM was but assured us this is all in the past and new procedures are now in place, supervised by new people at the top.

I have to say that when I learned that the bloke who first informed the museum their miniatures were turning up on Ebay couldn't gain the attention of the kommandatura I was slightly mollified at my own experiences of careful ignoral from our museum masters. I emailed various BBC people involved in making the programmes offering them a couple of my own exclusives but did not qualify for a response of any kind from any of them.
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Wile E. Coyote


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Katie Razzell has made a TV programme, a Youtube and a ten-part radio series about the British Museum having its collection of Classical coin miniatures being rifled and sold by a curator... sorry, Head of Roman & Greek Antiquities as he became after they found out. The Razza and her talking heads constantly expressed amazement at how incompetent and defensive the BM was but assured us this is all in the past and new procedures are now in place, supervised by new people at the top.


I don't know how many items have been catalogued and put on-line since this happened, but the Commons committee (Oct 23) was told that the museum has one million uncatalogued items, 300,000 that are registered, but not digitised; and 1.1m that are digitised, but not photographed. The museum supposedly holds eight million objects. (They probabaly don't even know how many artefacts they have got as they put it at 8 million rather than an exact figure?). Cataloguing was anticpated to take an estimated five years and cost £10m, but the BM at that time (Oct 23) did not have the money.

It is quite possible that selling such uncatalogued artefacts has been much more widespread than thought, so possibly not just one member of staff.
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Mick Harper
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I have been typically intemperate. Ms Razzle herself has just replied and requested a pdf of the chapters of RevHist concerned with the British Museum, which I have sent. Maybe we are on the march.

It is quite possible that selling such uncatalogued artefacts has been much more widespread than thought, so possibly not just one member of staff.

If only the BM were allowed to sell stuff itself, and to its heart's content, we would never be in this state. It is totally preposterous that an eight million-strong cache lies hidden underground, unseen and virtually forgotten, while the museum lurches around both broke and costing the nation a fortune. And all in the name of Victorian values... huh, we know all about those.
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Mick Harper
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I had to laugh at this passage from episode nine (of ten) of Shadow World "Thief at the British Museum" on Radio 4.

Katie Razzell: As to why there were conditions that allowed gems to be stolen in the first place, for Tom Harrison one answer lies further back in history. It's all to do with how popular they once were.

Tom Harrison [new head of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the BM]: This was the type of material that had been enormously fashionable in the eighteenth century so people collected gems to what may seem now a crazy extent but then there began to be suspicions, particularly as you moved into the nineteenth century, that some of these were not in fact authentic but modern fakes so at that point they may have been put to one side as not worthy of the collection
.

We can acquit Katie of not seeing the obvious but not Tom. Since we can't find these gemstones with any great frequency now, it is a reasonable supposition that they weren't available in any great amounts in the eighteenth. So how could they be collected to a 'crazy extent'? They couldn't. They were being manufactured to order of course.

I would go further and say they were being manufactured under the auspices of the British Museum -- and signed off as authentic by them. Who else could do so? When the fad passed, unsold stock was put in storage. I might go even further and propose that the whole idea of Classical gemstones was dreamt up by the BM except this would be to give far too much credit for ingenuity to the museum. They have always been the dimmest of crooks.
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Mick Harper
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A total of around 2,000 items were either stolen or damaged. They comprised classical Greek and Roman gems (including cameos and intaglios), along with gold rings, earrings and other jewellery. The earliest pieces dated from the late Bronze Age, but most were from the Classical period (with a few modern fakes).

We should reflect that because of the radio and TV programmes about these thefts from the British Museum--and resulting in the departures of top brass, forsooth, though George Osborne made sure he survived--we have been given an opportunity to reach a wider audience. But first we have to get our ducks in a row. So what, precisely, are the artefacts we are dealing with. Here's one



You're right. Nobody knows. They go under the collective name of Classical gemstones but nobody knows what they are. Or even whether there is a 'they' at all. Let's just say the two thousand objects are 'ancient, small, quite valuable keepsakes' and leave it at that.

So how many of them will have survived two-to-three thousand years with any kind of provenance? None. That's absolutely certain. It could not happen. Things that have are rare enough but the idea that objects of such minor interest and with a relatively small intrinsic value could survive other than as 'archaeology' can be dismissed without further thought.

So let's move swiftly on to the eighteenth century...
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Mick Harper
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These two thousand 'Classical gemstones' in (or ex-) the British Museum are of course only part of what survived of the total amount of extant Classical gemstones. There are all those collected in the eighteenth century and which are not in the British Museum but have ended up in other institutions. Or even, there must be some, just kept in the hands of the original finder -- or more likely his employer. Let's just say 'many thousands'.

So... how many archaeological digs were there in the eighteenth century? None. There were a few antiquarians scratching around but basically we're dealing with things 'found'. By the usual crew of serendipitous finders, mainly ploughmen walking behind ploughs saying "Ooh-ahh, what 'ave we 'ere.' (Sorry, I can't do the accent.)

So what are the chances that these people found 'many thousands' in the eighteenth century (or earlier and kept)? I think the number we are looking for is zero. So...
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Mick Harper
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How to account then for

'material that had been enormously fashionable in the eighteenth century so people collected gems to what may seem now a crazy extent'

in the words of the person who is now, I suppose, the ruling authority on the subject, the head of Greek & Roman Antiquities at the British Museum?

What was also enormously fashionable in the eighteenth century was of course the Grand Tour. When wealthy Brits, brought up on a Classical education, set off to see for themselves where it all began. It was a damn sight easier than their forebears having to set off for the Holy Land. But like them they also needed to return with mementoes of their visit for showing off to all and sundry. (Including, to be fair, themselves--they were no slouches when it came to be being amateur antiquarians on their own account.)

Just as relics came in all sizes and to fit all pockets -- from a piece of Jesus's foreskin to St Catherine's sarcophagus -- so Classical survivals came in at the hefty end -- a full statue of Aphrodite -- down to... well, gemstones. And of course they were just as difficult to obtain on account of, frankly, there not being any available for love or money.

So they were lovingly crafted for money in workshops.
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