‘When all about you are losing theirs’: The Provenance & Sale of Early Irish Archaeological Artefacts

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Tandragee man, Armagh Cathedral (COI) – Image: Eelco / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A week too late unfortunately, but I recently became aware of yet another soul destroying sale of important Irish archaeological artefacts – right here in Dublin.  On Novemeber 8th last, in their ‘History and Literature’ auction, Whyte’s Auctioneers included  two ‘Iron Age stone heads’ for sale, amongst other Irish archaeological items. The stone sculptures could be early medieval in date, particularly the one associated with Lorrha, Co. Tipperary, although the other one bears strong similarities to several other insular stone figures, now housed in Armagh cathedral, including the famous Tanderagee Stone Figure. Whether Late Prehistoric, or Early Christian, such artefacts provide extremely rare evidence of monumentalized ritual sculpture from a very early period of Irish history/prehistory (although, without proper context, they can tell us precious little else about our ancestors).

The provenance of one of them is given as In the ownership of a family at Lorrha, Co. Tipperary for c. 100 years. A hundred years ago: 1912. If they know this, they should have a good idea where it was “found”.

The provenance of the other is given as From a 300 year old house, Claregalway, Co. Galway. 

These artefacts are scattered all over the country, in churches, in ruined abbeys, castles, houses, walls, side of the road etc. What is to stop people chiselling away at what surrounds them and then carry them off? Decency and a sense of heritage usually does. But, if people see there is money to be made on these artefacts, they may not last much longer in situ in the countryside.

‘Selling cultural heritage’, Pultes Scotorum Blog

Quite.

It seems to me that the whole episode raises several important issues. The depressing fact that some Irish citizens seek to sell their own local heritage (which would, in any other circumstances, automatically belong to everyone in the community, let alone the nation) to the highest bidder; the slightly less surprising fact that Irish auctioneers are only to happy to oblige and profit from same; the more worrying fact that such blatant archaeological artefacts are being openly traded by Irish auctioneers with barely articulated, let alone dependable, ‘provenance’; and the facilitation of  research provided as an aid to their sale by members of a professional archaeological body.

The next time you read a news report of yet another illegal attempted sale/theft of, or damage to, Irish archaeological features and sites, spare a thought for the likes of the above. As long as Irish archaeological objects are thought of and promoted as ‘commodities’ by some, they will continue to be targeted as such by others.

Irish Heritage. Come on down, the price is right. Unless, of course, one of the them doesn’t make the reserve. In which case, hold out for a better one.

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6 thoughts on “‘When all about you are losing theirs’: The Provenance & Sale of Early Irish Archaeological Artefacts

  1. You make a very good point about the fact that the artefacts ‘automatically belong to everyone in the community, let alone the nation.’ I read somewhere else that ‘ownership of archaeological objects automatically vests in the Irish State.’ I don’t understand how the auctioneers can thumb their noses at that. But now I feel naive.

    Who’s buying the artefacts? Do museums or national collections ever get a look in?

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  2. We have very progressive legislation, yes, for archaeology that is found nowadays. Unfortunately, it does not cover older items that have been circulating as antiquities for a long time, i.e. before the foundation of state, or within generations of families. Such artefacts usually come with long attested/documented provenance – but as far as I can make out, these particular items carry little or none. The willingness to trade them regardless is very disappointing.

    No idea who buys them. There may have once been a time when the national museum quietly tried to secure them, but that time is gone now, particularly given the financial straits. In a heartbreaking way, I think its the right thing to do. A large element that fuels such trade is an assumption by collectors/dealers that museums will shell out for important items, either now or later, and that the ‘price’ always goes up. Even if they had the money and desire to acquire it, Id rather they didn’t. Dealing with such people only promotes more of the same. In an ideal world, I’d like to see legislation that prohibits the sale of all Irish antiquities within the state (and movement outside of same), especially those in ‘private’ hands. Let them keep them if they want – but if it wasn’t possible to make a profit, these things would eventually be bequeathed to the state. A tax write-off, along the lines of a charity gift as an encouragement, would probably help. Everybody wins.

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  3. Just because someone in a family once ripped something out of a wall, or the ground before modern archaeology existed – or before it was illegal to do so – should not entitle you to sell your own local heritage for a profit to the highest bidder. But maybe that’s just me being naive 😉

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  4. Unfortunately, this problem of selling antiquities with a dubious provenance has always been endemic. But, with most auction houses now hosting internet auctions the problem has blown through the roof.
    Also, there seems to be very little border control, and these items seem to be able to leave the countries where they are being sold with relative ease.
    The problem we have here in Ireland is relatively small compared to the mass-robbery of Egyptian, Iraqi, and now most probably Syrian objects on the market. There is also a proclivity of Russian and Chinese items on the market at the moment, due to the new found wealth in those countries. But again, the provenance (and actually for that matter, the genuineness) of the items is very vague.

    It would be nice if some form of prohibition on the sale of these artefacts was enforced as you propose. I think that if people see a chance to make a quick buck on this that very rapidly we could lose a lot of these items.

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    • Very well said and recieved, Pultes (Love the name btw!)

      Indeed worrying, even more so in the current situation of financial and staffing cuts to those heritage bodies tasked with protection and prevention. When we don’t notice some artefacts gone missing for days/weeks, what hope for anything else under the radar.

      Hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of removing the link in your reply, purely because I do not wish to help promote such businesses more than I have to. Point well taken, though.

      My thanks and appreciation to your good self for originally blogging and bringing attention to these items. I certainly wouldn’t have known otherwise. We are indebted, sir.

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  5. Pingback: Irish Metal Detectorists Want to ‘Rescue’ Ireland’s Buried Heritage. By Digging It Up Themselves. | vox hiberionacum

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