Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Bactrian Hoard

I can't recall off the top of my head who said/wrote it, but in response to the record-high prices at the Post-War/Contemporary auctions in New York, recently, someone suggested that $1 million is the new $100,000 (particularly in response to the $1million-increments by which a few prices rose).

That notion came back to me this morning while reading about the Bactrian Hoard controversy. Robin Pogrebin has the skinny in the

The National Geographic Society has struck a $1 million deal with the Afghan government to bring a rare cache of gold artifacts to the United States in a traveling exhibition. But some cultural experts who have followed the negotiations are questioning whether Afghanistan is being properly compensated.

Plans call for the ancient Afghan pieces — part of the storied 2,000-year-old Bactrian hoard — to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, although contracts have not yet been signed by those institutions.

The National Geographic Society and the Afghan government signed a protocol accord over the weekend in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, outlining an exhibition schedule that would begin in May 2008 at the National Gallery. The document calls for Afghanistan to receive $1 million as well as 40 percent of “total revenue,” which is defined as exhibition revenue, minus expenses.

Lynne Munson, the former deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped finance the cataloging of the Afghan treasures, said the arrangement would leave Afghanistan with “40 percent of absolutely nothing,” because expenses would be significant.

“This is a travesty,” she said in a telephone interview from Washington. “The Bactrian hoard is simply the most valuable possession of the poorest people on earth. To ask them to lend it and give so little in return is unconscionable.”
Now I'll admit that my initial thoughts while reading that ranged from, "I'll bet $1 million goes a long way in Kabul," to "Well, if they have a better offer, they should take it." But then I read on...

When an exhibition of 130 objects from Tutankhamen’s tomb began touring in 2004, the Egyptian government set out to clear $10 million in every city visited and to take more than 50 percent of the gross revenue.
Well, one might think, the Bactrian whatever it's called, doesn't have the same compelling narrative as a Boy King, so it's not as likely to be as big a blockbuster, and the organizers are taking a bigger risk, no?

Actually the story behind the Bactrian Hoard makes it very likely to be quite the dramatic crowd-pleaser, IMHO:

The collection includes more than 20,000 pieces of gold jewelry, funeral ornaments and personal items from the Silk Road culture of Bactria, an ancient nation that covered parts of what is now Afghanistan. The hoard was discovered in 1978 by a Russian-Greek archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi, at a grave site in Tillia-Tepe, in northern Afghanistan. The works blend Greek, Bactrian and nomadic traditions, reflecting Afghanistan’s historical position at the crossroads of ancient civilizations.

The treasures were only sporadically displayed over the next decade and then packed away. Then, in 1989, when Afghanistan’s last Communist president was facing a growing insurgency by the Islamic rebels known as the mujahedeen and the imminent withdrawal of Soviet troop support, he ordered that the treasures be hidden. He was ousted in 1992, and for years it was widely assumed that the gold had been looted or destroyed and would never resurface.

The treasures were unearthed from a bank vault beneath a former royal palace in Kabul in 2004. They were among the few examples of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage to survive decades of war. The collection had been kept hidden by curators and employees of the Kabul Museum at tremendous personal risk under the fractious mujahedeen and then the Taliban, who ruled from 1996 to 2001.

“It’s a compelling story, not just of the Silk Road but also the work of these modern-day heroes,” Mr. Garcia said. “We think people are going to love it.”
Indeed, it's a story with ancient history, glamour, exoticism, contemporary politics, fundamentalist radicalism, Communism, and bookish-types' heroism. Add a John Williams' score, and you've got the latest Indiana Jones epic. In fact, this 2003 article in the Telegraph details the heroics of the "lone security [who] saved [the] Bactrian treasure." If there aren't already movie scripts of this tale circulating in Hollywood I'll eat my Blackberry.

There's a good deal of back and forth in the Times article, but in the end I think I'm siding with those, like Thomas Hoving, who suggest that Afghanistan is getting a very bad deal here:
Thomas Hoving, who pioneered the museum blockbuster concept as director of the Metropolitan Museum from 1967 to 1977, said Afghanistan should have held out for more. “They don’t get enough money,” he said.

“The Egyptians are getting all admissions, 80 percent of the sales in the shop, and they should have patterned it after that,” Mr. Hoving said. “Or a flat fee of a million a venue. The entity that ought to get most of the bucks should be Afghanistan.”
I hope the National Geographic Society will reconsider the appropriateness of their offer.

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Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

I agree the Afghans should try to get as much as they can from lending their national treasures. However, the amount paid for a travelling exhibition like this one is essentially to compensate the home country/museum for the loss of tourism revenues while the artworks are away. In that context, a lower price that what Egypt got for Tut makes sense.

Hopefully, the exhibit will increase interest in Afghanistan so that non-military money flows into the country eventually. Too bad the giant Buddhas are gone...

6/06/2007 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

that's a nice bling bling

6/06/2007 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

The Afghans are getting $1 million, plus 40% of (potentially) nothing. If the National Geographic Society is putting up the million bucks, and exhibition revenue is expected to be zero, what are they getting?

6/06/2007 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Hi Edward. First-off, great blog and gallery. I was surprised to read of my dear friend, Lynne Munson, in your blog, via the NYTimes. I had yet to get to the arts section today. I'll hold back on comments because of my obvious alliance -- something the National Geographic Society overlooked (sorry, couldn't help getting one jab in). Your intro of $1MM is the new $100,000 is totally on point. Thanks for reposting the story -- hopefully all this attention will put some pressure on NG, NEH, and the museums to change their position.

6/06/2007 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger crionna said...

I guess it must be easy to spend $1M and more when you're not spending your own money.

6/07/2007 02:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right, crionna, similar to the poppy trade, everything is based on futures. In the end if all collapses it will just be written off. By that time though enough transaction would have taken place that the gain still outweighs the lose. The best way to keep the market hot is to continually make it hotter. Absurd, but...
In the end the art and its price is just another signage of transaction, a signifier, who would have thought?

6/07/2007 07:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The best way to keep the market hot is to continually make it hotter.

Could you clarify the insinutations there? That could be read as either 1) folks in the art biz intentionally conspire to make things more expensive (and although the auction houses did just that a while back, I no of no evidence that's happening now) or 2) folks should be doing something actively to cool it down.

Are either of those what you meant?

6/07/2007 08:21:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

The story behind these artifacts may be exciting but Egyptian artifacts will always draw a greater crowd. It's the ancient equivalent of Impressionist paintings. We've all been raised with mummies and curses and demonic gods. The Afghan work doesn't have those well worn associations.

If this round of exhibitions does turn out to be lucrative, then the next round should be priced higher.

6/07/2007 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

Lee Rosenbaum weighs in.

6/07/2007 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger crionna said...

Though you didn't pose it to me, I'll say that I for one meant to insinuate neither 1 or 2. Rather, the art market seems to me to look a lot like the housing market, well maybe, kinda like the housing market of a few years ago. By that I mean that lenders can lend $X for a painting with the knowledge that if the owner defaults, chances are very good that they can foreclose on the work and resell it at a profit that will both cover the outstanding principal as well as any costs incurred in the process (with a nice profit as well perhaps).

This is especially true if you happen to both lend the money and on the auction house that will resell the work.

Again, nothing insidious on the part of the art world, just an interesting parallel, and one that I think works even better than with real estate.

6/10/2007 01:45:00 AM  

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