A Classical Archaeologist’s Life: The Story so Far by John Boardman [Review]

Book Review

“The Silence of Scholars”: A guest review by Erin L. Thompson

Cover of book A Classical Archaeologist's Life

A Classical Archaeologist’s Life: The Story
by John Boardman
2020, Archaeopress

In his 2020 memoir, John Boardman, who has had a long career at Oxford as one of the 20th century’s most prominent Greek archeologists, mentions that he once “rather grudgingly” bought an ancient cylinder seal at a party in Cyprus. (206) Later, he sold it at Christie’s in New York “for something like $60,000.” Boardman tells us this only to set up an anecdote about the behavior of the customs agent in New York, who inspected the seal and then “took pleasure in shaking a hand that had shaken that of the Queen,” (206)

Boardman encountered the Queen when he was knighted for his contributions to scholarship in 1989. He is known less for any particular work and more for his drive to completionism. He played a major part in projects that attempt to capture every known example of Greek painted vases (through his involvement both with the Beazley Archive and the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum), ancient gems (again with the Beazley Archive), and, most ambitiously, every variation of the visual representation of classical mythology (through the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae).

The training I received in ancient art in graduate school could not have happened without these resources. But my approach now, as a scholar of art crime and antiquities looting, could hardly be more different than Boardman’s. His attitude toward the problem of looting has not been a secret since his 2006 essay, “Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums” (reprinted here), which was a full-throated argument against the importance of context for understanding antiquities.

In this essay, Boardman insisted that experts like him could know most of what there is to know about an object without needing to rely on excavation information. He claimed most unprovenanced antiquities came to the market from accidental finds rather than deliberate looting. He did not worry about the damage looting does to non-marketable finds. He believed that collectors should have the right to buy what they wish and that source countries are often bad custodians for humanity’s shared heritage.

Boardman’s distain for cultural heritage laws is clear from what he leaves out of his anecdote about the Cypriot cylinder seal. He does not tell us the date of his purchase (fastidious about BCE dates in his scholarship, Boardman only irregularly gives us the CE dates in his memoir). Nor does he tell us if he received official permission to buy or export the seal. Elsewhere, Boardman describes being invited to Cyprus by a former pupil, Vassos Karageorghis, who became the Director of Cyprus’ Department of Antiquities. (220) Boardman might have exported the seal before Cyprus’ modern antiquities law prohibited it. He might have received permission from Karageorghis. Or, he might have broken the law. He simply does not care enough about the issue to clarify.

Boardman’s memoir is charming in parts (he vividly captures a 1930s childhood in a household so stiff-upper-lipped that the family’s goldfish regularly froze in its bowl in the front room in the winter) and frustrating repetitive in others (he writes that he worked on it in fits and starts, and it seems not to have received much editing). But it is most interesting as a record of what a scholar working with Boardman’s beliefs about cultural heritage can do to help unprovenanced antiquities enter the marketplace and sell for such spectacular prices that they encourage future looting.

Boardman’s 2006 essay argues that it is censorship to prevent people from publishing unprovenanced antiquities. He described the Beazley Archive, his life’s work, as a “database that did not discriminate against anything possibly stolen in its recording of antiquities for scholarship.” The memoir shows how extensively Boardman worked with private collectors to achieve his scholarly aims.

Boardman recruited an undergraduate to work for the Beazley Archive. She stayed on to manage it and also help him with his other research. (192) Finding enough donations to pay her salary was apparently a constant struggle. But collectors were often willing to pitch in.

For example, Boardman describes meeting the collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White in 1994, at a dinner at Lincoln College, Oxford. (67) They offered a donation to the Ashmolean Museum, to aid Boardman’s work there, including the Beazley Archive. (79; 81) Boardman writes about several visits to their “elegant house” in New York, which he describes as “full of antiquities, of high quality.” (81; 206) He probably saw some of the antiquities White surrendered to Italy in 2008, after they were discovered to have been looted.

George Ortiz, a collector who was eager to purchase looted antiquities from smugglers, also appears several times, “complaining, as usual.” (105; 177-78) Ortiz’ apparent peevishness didn’t stop Boardman from working with his collections. Boardman checked the English of Ortiz’ 1994 book, The George Ortiz Collection, and also contributed the foreword. (178) Boardman also discusses several exhibitions of Ortiz’ collections in London and St. Petersburg, although whether he was just an honored guest or more involved is unclear. (178)

Boardman seems to have had the most extensive relationship with Elie Borowski, notorious for his dealing in looted antiquities. Borowski sold some and retained others to form his own museum, Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum. Boardman records they first met in Basel around 1970, when Boardman wanted to see some scarabs that Borowski and Herbert Cahn were selling. (109) After being reintroduced in 1992, Boardman lectured at the Bible Lands Museum and stayed, sometimes for weeks, with the Borowskis in Jerusalem for what became annual visits. (109-10) Boardman describes these visits, featuring the Borowski’s sunny terrace and good cook, as well as museum-organized tours to various sites of interest, as “idyllic” and “the high points of my later years.”

These trips were not just about lounging on the terrace, though. Boardman was “involved in many of the museum projects, notably publications.” (110) He published their golden objects (2012’s Pure Gold) and “helped edit other volumes (eastern bronzes, etc.).” (110) (I am not sure to which publication this refers.) Boardman spent one long visit “busy working on Elie Borowski’s life (dictated for him on tape) for publication.” (110) Boardman is credited as the editor of the resulting book, Elie Borowski: Founder of the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem, published by the museum in 2017.

Jonathan Rosen also appears in the memoir, first introduced as having dinner with Boardman and Elie Borowski’s wife Batya. (77) Boardman describes Rosen as a gem-collector and donor to the Beazley Archive, leaving out that Rosen is known for his business associations with Robert Hecht, who was prosecuted for his dealing in looted antiquities, and for his own collections of cuneiform tablets looted from Iraq during the Gulf War. Boardman writes that he visited Rosen in Atlanta and invited him to a visit in England and that he was “helpful… in our latest Beazley Archive challenges.” (79)

(Other dealers or collectors with whom I am not so familiar are also mentioned: “Joe Alsop and his sister,” who ran a shop called the Antiquarium on New York’s Madison Avenue, are described as “good friends” who were “very generous to the Beazley Archive” (83); Max Bernheim, an antiquities specialist at Christie’s who asked Boardman for help on his catalogue of the Borowski gems and later introduced Boardman to the Sangiorgi gem collection (83; 109); Peter Joost of San Francisco, who bought an antique English stone fireplace “which [Boardman] researched for him via Sotheby’s” (84); Neil Kreitman, “an English millionaire living in Santa Barbara” with his art collections, who also donated to the Beazley Archive (176); and the antiquities dealer Charles Ede (198).)

It was not just collectors’ donations to the Beazley Archive and other projects that were important. Boardman relied on private collections to advance his own scholarship. The main surprise of the memoir for me was seeing just how much of Boardman’s research time was spent cataloging private collections, resulting in a number of books, including: Engraved Gems: The Ionides Collection (Thames and Hudson, 1968); Intaglios and Rings from a Private Collection (Thames and Hudson, 1975); The Ralph Harari Collection of Finger Rings (Thames and Hudson, 1977); A Collection of Classical and Eastern Intaglios, Rings and Cameos (Archaeopress, 2003); Gem Mounts and the Classical Tradition (Archaeopress, 2009); The Guy Ladrière Collection of Gems and Rings (I.B. Tauris, 2016); and Masterpieces in Miniature: Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present (I.B. Tauris, 2018). Boardman also wrote an entry on “Greek Art” in the 2011 catalog for the Mougins Museum, a private museum that houses antiquities collected by Christian Levett (in some cases, only temporarily, since he has been selling them off again).

Boardman does not mention being paid directly by the owners of these collections, except that the jewelers holding the Harari collection “offered me a choice of the stones as a reward for the publishing.” (220) (Boardman chose a four-sided rock crystal, which he eventually sold to the Berlin Museum.) But he writes that his royalties from these books “proved more than enough to keep things going,” even allowing him to buy his house. (212)

As with the private collectors whose donations to the Beazley Archive he solicited, some of those whose collections he catalogued have known ties to antiquities looting. Boardman’s 1975 book Intaglios and Rings from a Private Collection cataloged the collections of Vincent Pappalardo, a Sicilian lawyer retired to Switzerland. Boardman notes that he had to weed out “several forgeries,” but was pleased to find that the collection included gems “of the very best quality and largely unknown, i.e. not from older collections.” (222) He does not discuss why it would be worrisome to find so many unknown antiquities in the collection of someone associated with Sicily and its frequently-looted archeological sites. And indeed, Pappalardo was source of the looted Sicilian gold phiale famously seized from Michael Steinhardt. (Boardman published two further catalogues of the Pappalardo collection, on the invitation of Vincent Pappalardo’s son Giuseppe: A Collection of Classical and Eastern Intaglios, Rings and Cameos (Archaeopress, 2003) and Gem Mounts and the Classical Tradition (Archaeopress, 2009).)

Boardman’s memoir ends with a list of forthcoming publications, one of which is described as “red figure pottery in the Cahn collection.” (254) This is presumably Herbert A. Cahn of Basel, whom he mentions several other times (as introducing him to Borowski: 109 and as associated with the LIMC: 184). Cahn worked closely with Robert Hecht, a dealer known to have trafficked extensively in looted antiquities. Cahn also owned at least some antiquities associated with Giacomo Medici’s smuggling ring.

The linkage between Boardman’s catalogues of collections and the increase in value that this cataloging gives is very clear from the multiple times that these publications were immediately followed by sales. Boardman notes that the gems from the Pappalardo collection he published in 1975 were then “quickly snapped up by the Getty Museum in Malibu – I had not suspected the owner’s intentions!” (222) The Getty bought more than 200 gems from the Pappalardo collection, none with provenance information before their time there.

Even if Boardman really did not suspect that the collection of the aging Pappalardo, born in 1895, might be up for sale soon, this rather thin excuse did not apply to his next publication, since he worked on the Harari collection at the premises of the Bond Street jewelers, S.J. Phillips, who were holding them pending their sale. (220) Boardman had seen the collection before, when Harari brought it to his house “to show them over lunch,” but it was after Harari’s 1969 death that the jewelers asked him to write the catalog preparatory to its sale. (Boardman notes that this shop “was the scene of many first encounters with gems and collections,” hinting that he might have worked with even more private collections than the many he describes in the memoir (220).)

Another of Boardman’s catalogs associated with a sale was Masterpieces in Miniature: Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present (I.B. Tauris, 2018). Boardman writes that the owner, Sergio Sangiorgio, asked him to publish a selection “in honour of his father, the collector” – Giorgio Sangiorgi. (225) The memoir also mentions that when Sergio died, some of the gems were sold at a 2019 Christie’s auction, where, Boardman marvels, the Getty paid $2.1 million for just one of them and “also managed to successfully bid for most of our other favorites.” (225)

Boardman does not make it clear that Sergio (whom he calls “Sergei”) died in 2015, years before the publication of the catalog. It seems likely that the auction was being planned as Boardman was finalizing his publication. He thus should not have been so surprised that the Getty bid for his favorites when he, in effect, produced an elaborate coffee-table sized shopping list for them. Christie’s mentioned Boardman’s book prominently in their marketing materials for the 2019 and follow-up 2020 auctions of Sangiorgi gems, as did the Getty in its press release about its acquisitions. While some of these gems had long provenances, like a spectacular amethyst carved with a portrait of Demosthenes, others have no provenance before they were owned by Giorgio Sangiorgi.

Boardman several times describes his approach to scholarship as “making lists.” (e.g., 82) Working with private collectors and the art market was crucial for Boardman’s desire to record every example he could of particular categories of antiquities. He describes using auction house catalogues for images to add to the Beazley Archive and visiting Sotheby’s to photograph all the Greek vases before its sales. (198)

Boardman was someone with as comprehensive knowledge as is possible to have about what antiquities existed in museums and private collections. It is hard to understand how he could see never-before-seen artifacts turning up on the market year after year without concluding that they came straight from the ground rather than from, as was alleged, unknown existing collections. And yet, seen from another point of view, this cognitive dissonance is easy to understand. The memoir makes clear that Boardman needed to keep good relationships with wealthy private collectors. It is thus not surprisingly that he ended up, as his 2006 essay shows, developing a theory about cultural heritage where private collectors were as important to its preservation as they were to his own way of life.

As I was finishing up this review, Kenneth Lapatin, a curator at the Getty Museum, made an announcement: one of the masterpieces of their collection of ancient gems, an amethyst with a portrait of Mark Antony, signed by the famed carver Gnaios, is actually a 19th century forgery. Lapatin determined this not by relying on his own judgement, as Boardman did, but by checking archival sources to find that the gem was once owned by Prince Poniatowski, known for hiring forgers to make his collections even more splendid.

Lapatin notes that the Getty Gnaios “came to be widely known” when Boardman “published and praised this gem very highly” in his first catalog of a private collection: Engraved Gems: The Ionides Collection (Thames and Hudson, 1968). Lapatin has now published an article about the gem, discussing how its history shows “scholars eager to construct compelling narratives around superb works of art” and “over-optimistic reliance on expert authority.”

It is indeed time to reconsider our belief that Boardman, or any other scholar, can be immune from forgeries when working without the benefit of provenance or excavation information. And after reading Boardman’s memoir, which shows his life so entwined with a marketplace he could not afford to recognize as harmful, I will also think hard about how I use any of his publications and scholarly projects.