Collecting and the Power of Touch

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Erin Thompson

In April 2016, visitors to Trafalgar Square could touch a second-century Roman triumphal arch – even though they were 4,000 miles away from where the arch was built, in the ancient city of Palmyra, now in Syria, and even though the arch itself was destroyed in October 2015 by Islamic State forces.

Three dimensional printout of Palmyra Arch on display in London. Institute of Digital Archeology.

Three dimensional printout of Palmyra Arch on display in London. Institute of Digital Archeology.


Digital reconstruction of Palmyra Arch.

The arch was recreated by the Institute of Digital Archeology, using digital reconstruction and 3D printing technology, in just one of the many projects exploring new technological ways to fight the destruction of cultural heritage. The same technologies might also change the way we collect ancient art – and reduce the looting of archeological sites to feed the art market. It is a way to harness the power of touch.

Before and after images of looting at Apamea, Syria.


When researching my new book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors, I looked at letters, memoirs, diaries, catalogues, and other publications and archival records in order to understand the self-perceptions and motivations of antiquities collectors. Fortunately, collectors have left plenty of information to help explain their very complex motivations.

For example, J. Paul Getty, who made billions in oil, spent large portions of his fortune on art, including antiquities. He wrote and spoke extensively about his reasons for collecting – which included a belief that he was a reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian. Getty called himself “an apparently incurable art-collecting addict,” and noted he had vowed to stop collecting several times, only to suffer “massive relapses.” Getty was intensely involved in his collection and every decision surrounding it. He did not use agents to make purchases, and even bid at auctions knowing that he would be recognized and thus probably pay higher prices. He scrutinized all of the plans for the Getty Villa but was too busy with his London-based business to visit California after the museum’s construction. He also spent long hours researching both potential purchases and objects he had acquired. And, strangely for a hard-boiled oil tycoon, he wrote and published several short stories about antiquities in his collection.

J. Paul Getty.

J. Paul Getty.

Lansdowne Herakles, Getty Museum.

Lansdowne Herakles, Getty Museum.

Getty is far from the only collector to have recorded thoughts about what he was doing when he purchased an antiquity. From Romans writing letters about their worries that they may have been fooled by forgeries of Greek art, medieval churchman chronicling cautious admiration of the suspect beauties of a statue of Venus, Enlightenment noblemen posing for portraits with their prized collections, to contemporary collectors dictating heartfelt introductions to exhibitions of their collections, there are many instances where collectors have spoken for themselves.

Listening to these collectors is crucial. It is only when we understand these beliefs that can we rechannel them in ways that will provide collectors with what they crave without putting at risk the world’s heritage.

One thing that collectors from the Attalids onwards have prized is the privilege of touching antiquities.

Hand holding ancient coin.

Hand holding ancient coin.

Modern collectors often point to touch as a key feature distinguishing between owning an antiquity and seeing one in a museum. The collector J.L. Theodor wrote that, “while pottering about for many years in various museums and enjoying looking at Greek sculpture and pottery,” he missed “the forbidden pleasure of touching, holding, turning and scrutinizing any of the pieces displayed behind glass” – and thus he began to collect.

Collector and psychologist Michael S. Shutty concluded that to a collector viewing an antiquity in a museum is never sufficient. The collector wants “to directly control contact with the past,” and so collecting “is all about the power to touch it at will.” The twentieth-century collector Leo Mildenberg, who specialized in ancient figurines, commanded visitors to his collection, “Here, take it in your hands. Look at it! It speaks to you!”

Collectors believe touch puts them into contact with past creators and owners of the objects, or with the abstract idea of antiquity. In an imaginative sense this idea – that contact leads to inspiration – can be true. My career as a classicist began when as a child I reached up and stroked the cheek of an ancient Roman statue of a boy. I was shocked that something so full of life could feel so cold.

This is a confession – it happened at a museum where touch is forbidden. But the power of touch rises to an obsession with modern collectors because only in the modern world we have severely limited who has the privilege of touching antiquities. The rules against touch were instituted only relatively recently. In 1710, a visitor to Oxford’s museums commented that “the people impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion and… even the women are allowed up here for sixpence; they run here and there, grabbing at everything and taking no rebuff.”

Private buyers not satisfied with merely seeing antiquities behind glass have always been a large part of the antiquities market. But after a series of high-profile repatriation demands and criminal cases backed with proof of looting, many major museums have changed their acquisition policies to require information about objects’ provenance. With museums refusing to buy it is now private collectors who are driving the market. This market unfortunately often includes looted objects – not only high-priced antiquities sold at prestigious auction houses but also small, relatively low-priced antiquities, such as coins or pottery, whose online sales have exploded in recent years.

The harm caused by looting is incalculable. Although looters are careful to preserve aesthetically pleasing antiquities, they often destroy fragile, non-saleable, yet information-rich materials such as animal or plant remains, wood, cloth, and architectural structures. Everything from shovels to bulldozers and dynamite are used to open graves, settlements, and other archeological sites.

One collector who thought that his reasons for collecting outweighed concerns about looting was Elie Borowski. During World War II, he was interned in Geneva, where he was allowed to work part-time at a museum. There he saw an ancient Near Eastern cylinder seal that sparked his interest in collecting antiquities. He wrote about this moment that the seal’s “inscription, ‘le-Shallum,’ had a strange fascination for me, even though I suspected that my interpretation that it referred to Shallum ben Yavesh, king of Israel in 741 B.C.E., was doubtful. I was… working in the museum in a state of emotional isolation and deep depression, for I had already known for a year of the fate of my family in Warsaw.”

Borowski’s family had met the same fate as so many other Polish Jews: extermination by the Nazis. Isolated and depressed, Borowski seized upon an antiquity that inspired thoughts of a very different condition, a time when the Jews possessed a powerful and feared state. Even though he knew that the seal he held, and ultimately purchased, probably did not actually refer to a king of Israel, it caused him to plan a collection: “I visualized, perhaps dreaming, that the acquisition of this [seal] might form the beginning of a spiritual apothecary, filled with healing, cultural medicines which would prove to be efficacious against the horrors of those times [World War II]. How wonderful it would be if I succeeded in forming a collection of works of art, the aim of which would be to strengthen the historical truths of the Bible, and thereby challenge individuals to rise above their ephemeral materialism in order to return to the eternal, spiritual values and beauty of the Bible and humanism. Thus began my collection of the art of the ancient world and the Bible.”

Borowski was one of the many people who, after the horrors of Nazism, thought that society needed to be reconstituted on a new foundation to ensure that similar regimes could never again arise. For Borowski, what was needed was the revival of an old foundation that had weakened, namely, Biblical morality combined with Greek humanism. Accordingly, Borowski “solemnly pledged” that he would “dedicate my life to creating a world centre for education about biblical cultures and art history.” He founded first the Lands of the Bible Archeology Foundation in Canada and then the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem in 1992, to which he donated more than 1,700 objects from his collection along with nearly all of the $12 million dollar construction cost.

Bible Lands Museum (Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0,).

Bible Lands Museum (Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0,).

Borowski’s vision his collection’s purpose was so strong that it easily overcame any scruples he might have had about antiquities laws. Borowski’s wife and partner in his museum-founding vision responded to questions about the questionable origin of many of their collected antiquities by saying: “You’re right. It’s stolen. But we didn’t steal it. We didn’t encourage it to be stolen. On the contrary, we have collected it from all over the world and brought it back to Jerusalem. Elie’s not a stealer of artifacts. He has saved and preserved so much of our history and heritage by collecting these artifacts.”

It is crucial to persuade current and potential collectors to stop buying antiquities in ways that encourage looting. But how? Decades of finger-wagging archeologists scolding collectors have had little effect. Clearly, “just say no” is not enough – especially for collectors like Borowski who think that their collections are serving important purposes.

So how can we provide the experiences collectors prize in a way that does not damage the past? One simple avenue to explore is rethinking our attitude towards touch. Rules against touching in museums are reasonable, given the damage that even careful touching by seemingly clean hands can cause. But some types of museums have recognized the power of touch to enhance visitor experiences and spark long-lasting interest.

At a natural history museum, we can feel a lizard under the guidance of a docent and then run our fingertips along a reproduction of a dinosaur bone displayed below a fossilized skeleton.

Touching Martian rock at the Smithsonian. (Tim Evanson, CC,).

Touching Martian rock at the Smithsonian. (Tim Evanson, CC,).

Why not similar experiences in an art museum? 3D printing and other digital reproduction techniques can produce low-cost replicas of antiquities that can be handled – even purchased – by the public. Then the awe and wonder of connection with the past could become an opportunity to educate the visitor about archeological context and what it reveals – and convince potential collectors that their love is not the only context that an antiquity needs. 

Erin Thompson is Assistant Professor of Art Crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


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