Posts Tagged ‘pillaging’

The Illustrious Client

June 10, 2018

Meditations on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Sherlock Holmes spars with a nasty cad who is trying to cajole a lovely young heiress into marriage in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” One of the plot vehicles in this case is the fact that Baron Adelbert Gruner, the nasty cad, is also a famous collector of antique Chinese porcelain. He had even published an influential monograph on the topic.

To successfully execute the case, Dr. Watson has to overnight assume the role of a porcelain connoisseur in order to, well, you’ll have to read the story. Suffice it to say that the hapless Watson is found out in short order. Hi-jinx ensue.

Of course, such a fate would befall anyone given the task of becoming a porcelain “expert” in one night – even with the help of Wikipedia and Siri. The rarified environment of the high end antiques market is replete with extremely knowledgeable people for whom not just the history, but the provenance, market value, and current availability of highly desirable objects is of utmost concern. Without these collectors’ efforts there would be precious few museum collections for today’s poor struggling potters to visit in their own endless search for inspiration and edification.

But let’s return to Baron Gruner. “A complex mind, all great criminals have that. Cool as ice, silky voiced, and poisonous as a cobra. He has breeding in him – a real aristocrat of crime, with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it.” The wise old adage that ‘one should always except the present company’ is as relevant here as it is anywhere. And checks and balances have evolved over the years to keep transactions as clean as possible. Yet this spectacularly evocative description confronts us with a glimpse into a compromised and complicated issue.

Regardless of today’s honest brokers and good intentions, the trade in expensive and rare antiques from exotic places ever evokes an ignoble, shadowy tinge of past grave digging, historical site despoiling, smuggling, and outright pillaging. But don’t take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s word for this. Just ask any of your archeology friends.

Readings:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Garden City Books/New York. 1930.

The Plundered Past. Karl Ernest Meyer. MacMillan Publishing Company/New York. 1977.

All The Best Rubbish. Ivor Noel Hume. Harper/New York. 1974.