The British Museum’s Blockbuster Wars

Charles Townley, one of Britain’s first great collectors of antiquities, was born in Lancashire in 1737. A distaff descendant of the aristocratic Howard family, he was educated mostly in France—a common path for a well-born Catholic Englishman. Elegant and intelligent, Townley was, according to an early biographical sketch, eagerly welcomed into Continental society, “from the dissipations of which it would be incorrect to say that he wholly escaped.” As a young adult, he returned to England and installed himself at the family estate, having come into a lavish inheritance. But before long he set off for Italy, in what would be the first of three visits. In a dozen years, he amassed more than two hundred ancient sculptures, along with other objects.

It was a good moment for a man of means to build such a collection. Many Italian nobles were seeing their fortunes dwindle, and could be persuaded to part with inherited objects for the right price. In Naples, Townley bought from the Principe di Laurenzano a Roman bust of a young woman with downcast eyes, identified as the nymph Clytie. (Later, Townley humorously referred to Clytie as his wife, though he was not the marrying kind.) Excavations were then under way at Hadrian’s Villa, the retreat that the Emperor had built outside Rome, and collectors raced to buy art works as soon as they were removed from the ground. An élite dealer named Thomas Jenkins, who kept a place on the Via del Corso for displaying ancient wares, sold Townley, among other objects, a statue of a naked, muscled discus thrower. From the seventeen-eighties onward, Townley showed off his collection in his London town house, near St. James’s Park. A painting by Johan Zoffany, first exhibited under the title “A Nobleman’s Collection,” depicts Townley and several friends in a library crammed with dozens of marbles, including a seven-foot Venus on a pedestal—her arm raised and her draperies lowered. In the background are wooden cabinets in which Townley presumably housed smaller treasures, including countless cameos and intaglios.

Townley’s museum was said to rank below only a handful of other private collections in Europe in breadth and quality. According to Max Bryant, the author of a 2017 monograph on Townley and his house, the collection also reflected “an eighteenth-century attitude to art that itself has become lost to modernity.” At the time, ancient sculptures were typically restored right after being excavated—often boldly. Scholars have concluded that Clytie’s bosom was enhanced to accentuate the bust’s erotic charge; Townley’s discobolus, unearthed in a state of decapitation, was fitted with a head from a different sculpture.

In 1791, Townley was made a trustee of the British Museum. The first national public museum, it was established by an act of Parliament, in 1753, and was initially formed around the collection of Hans Sloane, an Anglo-Irish physician and businessman. When Townley died, in 1805, the museum acquired his sculptures for the then considerable sum of twenty thousand pounds, and a gallery showcasing them opened three years later.

But Townley’s collection was soon decisively eclipsed. By 1810, aficionados of ancient sculpture had begun clamoring to see a different cache of ancient marbles, which was being housed in a shed in Mayfair. One young artist, Benjamin Robert Haydon, wrote, of seeing the works, “I felt as if a divine truth had blazed inwardly upon my mind, and I knew that they would at last rouse the art of Europe from its slumber in the darkness.” These sculptures came not from Italy but from Ottoman-occupied Athens, where they had been pried from, or otherwise collected around, the ruins of the Parthenon, at the instruction of Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin.

In 1799, Lord Elgin, a Scottish nobleman thirty-odd years Townley’s junior, arrived in Constantinople as Britain’s Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The project of removing the marbles from the Parthenon, the fifth-century temple on the Acropolis, and shipping them to Britain took more than a decade—about half of the original five-hundred-and-twenty-four-foot frieze was removed, as were a number of life-size statues from the pediments. Elgin originally intended to install all of it at Broomhall, his ancestral home, northwest of Edinburgh. But he ran into financial difficulties, and in 1816 the Parthenon marbles, plus dozens of other sculptures from the Acropolis, were acquired from Elgin by Parliament for the British Museum. The price, thirty-five thousand pounds, was set by comparison with the Townley collection, but the esteemed sculptor Joseph Nollekens declared, “I reckon them very much higher than the Townley marbles for beauty.”

The arrival in Britain of what became known as the Elgin Marbles encouraged an appreciation of the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the ancient Greeks over their later Roman copyists. The display of the marbles—eventually, in a custom-built gallery considerably larger than the one featuring Townley’s collection—also helped establish the practice of leaving fragmentary statues unrestored. Although the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles was controversial from the start (Lord Byron decried their removal from the Acropolis as vandalism), the sculptures’ significance was immediately acknowledged. They were so prized, in fact, that soon after Greece became an independent state, in 1830, it demanded the statues back—a request that British diplomats have consistently rejected.

Over time, the reputation of Townley’s marbles steadily declined. The gallery dedicated to his collection was demolished in 1841, during an expansion of the museum, and many sculptures that he’d acquired migrated to storerooms. Already hidden away were the cameos, intaglios, and other small items from his collection, which had been acquired from his heir in 1814. Many of these objects had not been thoroughly documented, and this meant that when some of them started disappearing nobody even noticed that they were gone.

In the past year or so, the British Museum has been wrestling—often in public, and often to its considerable embarrassment—with what might be characterized as the twin legacies of Townley and Elgin. In late 2022, reports emerged that the chair of the museum’s trustees, George Osborne, was in negotiations with the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and that a deal might be struck to allow the Parthenon Sculptures, as they are now commonly called, to be sent, in some fashion, to Greece. Many Britons have long favored resolving the diplomatic stalemate; others branded the notion outrageous. Soon after Osborne became chair, a headline in the Daily Express warned, “don’t let british museum or elgin marbles be caught by woke ideology.” Not long afterward, the museum was jolted by scandal when it was revealed that hundreds of objects—including cameos and intaglios once owned by Townley—had been stolen, and some of them sold off, over a period of many years, apparently by a member of the museum’s own curatorial staff. The Daily Mail contributed a typically lurid summation: “hunt for priceless gems stolen in netflix-style heist.”

The sensational headlines were somewhat misleading: in the context of ancient archeology, the term “gem” typically refers not to diamonds or rubies but to engraved semiprecious stones or objects cast from glass. Enlightenment-era connoisseurs such as Townley sometimes bought the less valuable of these objects by the handful. (Cameos are carved in raised relief, intaglios in negative relief.) Their ancient owners prized them as miniature works of art. According to Martin Henig, a senior academic visitor at the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology, Roman emperors appear to have given cameos, which were conveniently portable, as tributes or gifts to secure political alliances. Even quite ordinary people might aspire to own a glass gem, set in a signet ring, depicting a god or a mythological figure of personal significance. A glass gem discovered at a Roman fortress near the city of Oxford features a horse and a cornet, suggesting that its owner was a horn-playing member of the cavalry. Henig told me, “The best of the cameos, and the best of the intaglios, were probably much more highly valued than sculptures,” which were often mass-produced in workshops. The designs of such artists as Dioskourides, a gem engraver who worked for Emperor Augustus, were extremely coveted. Today, the most prized gems can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. For scholars, the importance of the gems lies not just in their beauty but also in the light their iconography sheds on ancient concerns and preoccupations.

The uproar over the Townley thefts and the controversy over the Elgin discussions mean that the British Museum has been in the headlines to an unusual extent for a cultural institution, even one that was last year’s most visited tourist attraction in London. But it was inevitable that the British Museum would become the focus of scrutiny. The museum, a repository of more than eight million artifacts from around the world, most of them acquired during Britain’s reign as an imperial overlord, holds not just classical sculptures but also Anglo-Saxon weapons, Chinese ceramics, Assyrian wall panels, and the Rosetta Stone. Along with similar institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, the British Museum has increasingly faced ethical questions about how it amassed its collection. In addition to being petitioned by the Greeks, the British Museum is being challenged for its holding of bronzes looted in the late nineteenth century by British forces from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria. Restitution claims have also been made regarding sacred objects from Ethiopia.

The Townley thefts were facilitated by the fact that curators had never fully recorded many of the objects in internal catalogues or databases. Indeed, it was reported that individual records for some 2.4 million items at the British Museum were lacking, calling into question its long-standing, and sometimes arrogantly expressed, claim to be an unimpeachable custodian for vulnerable artifacts. For some observers, it was an irresistible irony that actual thefts had occurred at an institution long accused of cultural theft. When a British TV channel asked viewers to contribute ideas for end-of-year jokes, the museum was the butt of the winning entry: “Did you hear about the Christmas cake on display in the British Museum? It was Stollen.”

The British Museum has never been merely a trove of exquisite art works. It was also intended, through the depths of its holdings, to be an archive of the world—a library of things. It was established by eighteenth-century polymaths as an expression of the Enlightenment conviction that universal truths might be arrived at through intellectual inquiry and scientific reason. The museum’s wildly disparate collections could never be compiled today, which is both the institution’s strength and its point of weakness. Why should the sarcophagi of Egyptian kings or the fragments of ancient Greek architecture be housed in London, and claimed in some sense as British? Townley, Elgin, and the other men whose acquisitions filled the institution’s galleries would not have thought of such questions; today they are, rightly, unavoidable. At a certain point in a museum’s history, it becomes more than just a repository of the cultural and artistic past, telling a story about the history of a nation, or a people, or the world. It also becomes a museum of itself—of its formation, its collecting history, its priorities, and its failings.

The British Museum’s painful self-examination might never have occurred had it not been for the persistence of Ittai Gradel, a Danish dealer and collector of antiquities. Gradel does not hunt for discoveries in the excavated ruins of palaces and temples, as his eighteenth-century predecessors did. Instead, he has often sifted through that twenty-first-century site of buried treasure—eBay. He has worked at universities in Denmark and in the U.K., and has a special interest in ancient cameos and intaglios. But he was not suited to academic life, seeing himself more in the lineage of gentleman collectors who combined scholarship and connoisseurship with the thrill of discovery.

A few years ago, Gradel paid two thousand euros to a German auction house for what was described online as a group of nineteenth- and twentieth-century cameos. He later confirmed what he had suspected immediately on examining a photograph of one of the pieces: it was an ancient Roman cameo of Germanicus Caesar which Johann Winckelmann—the German scholar who is considered the father of Western art history—had described as one of the finest examples he’d ever seen. The cameo’s whereabouts had been unknown for more than two hundred years. Gradel told me recently, “What I am looking out for is the mistakes, and the stupidity, of other dealers and auction houses. That is where the bargains are.”

More than a dozen years ago, Gradel was offered a reserve of glass and stone gems from another dealer. The objects purportedly came from an estate sale conducted in the North of England in the early twentieth century. Between 2010 and 2013, Gradel bought almost three hundred of them. He sold a few and kept the rest. The gems were of such quality and quantity that he assumed they were part of an old aristocratic collection gathered on a Grand Tour; he had a hunch that they might have once belonged to the Howard family, whose estate, in North Yorkshire, is now known for its prominent appearance in the 1981 adaptation of “Brideshead Revisited.” The family had sold some precious-stone gems to the British Museum in the Victorian era, and Gradel theorized that these less valuable glass gems may have been sold off around the same time. Looking for information about a possible Howard connection, he sent inquiries to curators in the British Museum’s Department of Greece and Rome, but received no response. Meanwhile, Gradel told me, “more and more of these gems kept turning up—the vender would say these were the last, and then he would open another drawer, and there were some more gems. I concluded, frankly, that he was elderly and a bit dotty.” After 2011, the supply began to dwindle, and Gradel was informed that the seller, whose name was Paul Higgins, had died.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top