Week #3 Trade of Antiquities Answers
May 3, 2021
You all gave great answers to this week’s questions! You can read about your answers for each question below. To show the answer to each question, click on the plus sign icon next to it. To hide the answer, click on the minus sign icon.
What drove antiquities dealers is a tough question to answer today, especially given the main actors long passed away, and did not themselves often explicitly state what was at the heart of their actions! But participants sent in varied and thoughtful answers. The majority proposed that money and profit must have been strong motivations. Old letters record a few examples of this. In 1912, when Géjou received a complaint from a buyer that his offers weren’t exclusive (he would propose an object for sale to many people), Géjou would respond he could not be expected to do so because he was “a merchant”, and that his aim was to sell.
As noted by Catherine Oei in her answer, this trade also offered a means to earn a living and a chance to pay the bills when times were hard, a very real concern during wars. In a letter Géjou wrote to an American buyer in 1914, as WW1 was beginning, Géjou begs that money owed to him be sent to his wife, who will be left destitute if he does not return from the front. A few months later he would write to thank the buyer for that money, which enabled his family to survive.
Participants like Johanna Shieh and Rich Green also replied that Géjou could have been driven by a genuine interest in ancient art, and in learning about the ancient history of his country of birth. Grant Yang mentions that Géjou could have been attracted to the world of wealthy collectors and to gaining entry in the upper echelons of society. Both Catherine Oei and Kaarina Tulleau also suggest that collecting might simply have been enjoyable too. In Catherine Oei’s words it may “have been quite fun to go on this treasure hunt of sorts” on the antiquities markets of Baghdad, a feeling echoed by Kaarina Tulleau who guesses that “some may have also enjoyed finding artefacts in the markets of Baghdad”.
All these answers highlight an important aspect of what Géjou and others like him must have thought of their profession. Today we use the term antiquities dealers to describe Géjou's trade, which is close to what Géjou called himself throughout his career: “a purveyor of antiquities”. The terms put the trading aspect under the spotlight and rightly so, but these professionals and amateurs also belonged to a larger category: that of antiquarians, a profession that included people who documented ancient monuments and sites, and produced scientific information on cultural heritage. Though Géjou’s activities did not extend to this, he seemed to have been interested in the history of the artefacts he traded, beyond matters of monetary value. Letters he sent in 1931 to a scholar and friend illustrate he had learnt to copy signs in cuneiform (an ancient script used to write many languages in West Asia, and used in Iraq from the 4th millennium to BCE to the first century AD), and to make copies of ancient inscriptions on silk paper. It is somewhat charming that Géjou obviously took pride in featuring cuneiform-like symbols in his letterheads too, which he no doubt designed. Géjou also called his home ‘the Gudea villa’, a name inspired by Gudea the Sumerian ruler of Lagash at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, and whose statues were unearthed at the site of Tello, excavated from 1877 by the French archaeologist Ernest de Sarzec, whom Joseph Svoboda knew well.
As Kathleen Muenzen mentions in her answer, it is quite possible there could also be an element of “deliberate subversion” in Géjou’s actions as a trader. While Ottoman law did forbid the removal of artefacts outside of the Empire, this authority was not seen as legitimate by many Iraqis. During Joseph Svoboda’s lifetime, as his diary entries attest, many local leaders rose to revolt and push against Ottoman-imposed political, economic, and military control, and it is probable that Géjou shared this view of illegitimacy. Géjou did regularly warn his buyers in a matter of fact way that artefacts could be intercepted by the authorities, to advise shipment could be delayed or lost. So while he was well aware of what he was doing, it wouldn’t be surprising if he had felt some glee at breaking the rules set by a colonial power.
Many participants answered that the foreign excavators Joseph spoke about were from Turkey, the US, and Germany, and they were quite correct! In a diary entry dated from Tuesday 18 April 1899, we hear from Joseph that Bedri Bey was looking for artefacts for the Museum of Antiquities in Constantinople, a museum also building its own collections. He had arrived from Aleppo to meet with the first German-led excavation, conducted in Babylon (Hillah) in that year. In May, Mr. Greer, a member of the American mission excavating in Nippur (Nuffar), would board Joseph’s ship as a first class passenger to go to Basra on account of his health. Later in the year, Joseph would meet other Americans involved in the Nippur excavations, began in 1888.
The USA and Germany were in fact late players in the race to extract artefacts from Iraqi soil and send them abroad to enrich national museums. The foreign nations that began the large-scale (and often frenzied) excavations of ancient Iraqi sites were France and the United Kingdom, in the mid nineteenth century. The French Consul in Mosul, Paul Emile Botta, had begun to excavate the mound of Kuyunjik (Nineveh) in December 1842, moving three months later to the nearby village of Khorsabad. Botta felt he was not finding much of interest in Nineveh, and when a dyer from Khorsabad, intrigued by the excavations, told Botta he would find monuments in his village because people there had themselves discovered ancient inscriptions when digging the foundations of new homes, Botta quickly moved there. As a result of this advice, Botta uncovered many artefacts and monumental statues that were shipped to the Louvre in Paris, exhibited there in May 1847. They are still there today.
The UK quickly followed to enrich its national collections. The British explorer Henri Layard (not yet a Sir then) began to excavate the Kuyunjik mound too in October 1845, and also in Nimrud in November of that year. Layard uncovered many ancient statues and numerous artefacts in Nimrud, following the advice of local people. He would be successful in finding ancient palaces in Nineveh, as well as around 30,000 ancient texts written on clay tablets (many broken), still phenomenally important in modern scholarship, and part of what is now known as the famous ‘Library’ of king Ashurbanipal. These artefacts were sent to the British Museum also, and remain there today.
Finally, a few traps were set in this multiple-choice question, in the spirit of playfulness! Joseph did not meet anyone from Spain or Italy conducting excavations in 1899.
“I suppose one of the more straightforward motivations was the large amount of money involved in these deals. However, a more internal motivation may have been Géjou’s desire to disseminate, honor and preserve ancient Iraqi or Mesopotamian culture, given that Géjou himself was Iraqi-French. Perhaps trading antiquities was also an act of deliberate subversion against Ottoman rule, and against the forced Westernization of Iraqi culture under the regime. In an ironic turn of events, the symbolic devaluation of Iraqi culture at the time seemed to be countered by the financial appreciation of ancient Mesopotamian cultural artifacts in the West.”
– Kathleen Muenzen, in response to question one