Unbelievable part 15: The Collections

14 February 2020

An area of the Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable show lacking attention and scrutiny is the collections of coins, gold nougats, weaponry, vessels, jewellery and other artefacts displayed in cases throughout both exhibition sites. As set-dressing of excessive value that otherwise might have been given more focus if it were not for the spectacle and vast array of the sculptural works, these collections and their presentation were part of the authoritative (and western-centric) ‘museumification’ of artefacts the exhibition implicitly invited viewers to scrutinise. The presence of these displays as unnoticed set-dressing no doubt hinged on visitors tending not to look too closely due to time and the sheer amount of elaborate stuff to look at. I myself was guilty of that – and often am in museums as well. Regarding Treasures, they are part of the puzzle and merit focus.

Early on in my initial research on Treasures in 2017 and 2018, I came across Financial Times articles, not just about the fiscal side of Damien Hirst’s practices, but art and antiquity collecting more generally, and found stories that got me wondering about the actual origins of the vast collections of smaller objects in the show. As with some of my other trains of thought, what I’m about to suggest is closer to the realm of conspiracy theory with an air of ‘I Want To Believe’ rather than concrete fact, largely because I don’t yet know how to go about finding the answers to my questions. Until then, I invite you to indulge my hypotheses.

In the Financial Times online archive (for which a subscription is needed – I got a month-long trial for £1 and blitzed as many relevant searches as I could think of), I found an article from 2012 by Elizabeth Paton entitled ‘Ancient Greek coins fetch record $25m’. According to Paton, the sale of the 642 coins auctioned in New York ‘broke world records’. The Prospero Collection, as it is called, is said to have been ‘the most valuable and comprehensive grouping of coins from the classical world ever to go on the market’ (Paton). As the linked sources both state, the buyer of the collection remained anonymous and the story around the collection sounds like the work of legend as described on the justcollecting.com page about it:

According to numismatic circles the collection was started in the 1960s by the notable British architect Richard Seifert, most famous for designing a number of buildings in London including the Centrepoint tower, Tower 42 and the King’s Reach tower.
Before appearing for sale at Baldwin's Auction House in January 2012 the collection was believed to have been unseen for decades, and had not been added to in 20 years. It was stated to contain numerous coins “having pedigrees dating back to collections dispersed in the early 20th century”.’

In what could be a hint about the buyer, but could equally be a vague deflection, Paton quotes the managing director of AH Baldwin & Sons, the dealer based in London who managed the sale, as pointing out that coin collecting is well established in Europe and the US, and had recently experienced a more global reach with buyers in Russia, China and the Middle East. Ian Goldbart further states that coins ‘do not depreciate in value’ in the ways other commodities do, and their uniqueness is highly desirable. He adds a point about storing value in bullion which got me thinking about storing value in displays, for example, in museums and exhibitions, particularly far from the items’ areas of origin. I can’t help wondering about the ethics of discovery, recovery and claimed ownership that reverberate throughout the Treasures stories, works and show as a whole.

Perhaps it goes without saying by now that I’m keen to counter reviewers’ assumptions that the coins were fabricated and float the idea that in 2012 the anonymous buyer of the Prospero Collection on whose behalf Baldwin’s acted was Damien Hirst. The collection had not been seen for twenty years and there are no particular images online of the 642 items. Again, we come back to the notion of possibility – or kairós (the transliteration of the ancient Greek for possibility) – as distinct from definite fact or probability. It is entirely possible that a collection amassed in private over many decades that hadn’t been seen for two and was finally revealed at a highly exclusive auction could have been bought secretively with a view to keeping it quiet and hidden to make the coins part of the mise en scène of an elaborate exhibition in the making and would not be seen for another five years, and even when it was it was visible and integral to the show, but not necessarily an element that would be closely regarded with all those outlandish, coral-covered works and simulacrum replicas as the main attractions telling a plausible yet outlandish narrative.

[Deep breath]

Part of the difficulty of affirming either way whether part of the Prospero Collection performed as the ‘impressive collection of coinage from the wreck of the “Unbelievable”’ in Palazzo Grassi room 13 is the lack of (at least easily findable) photographic documentation of the glass case in situ. That said, there’s one photo here that’s really helpful as it shows the gold coins displayed individually on thin pikes, but it is not in close or sharp enough detail for my hindsight needs! Not that this matters much given the equal lack of images of most of the Prospero coins and lack of detail on the materials involved in all 642 items. I raise this because in room 16 of Palazzo Grassi there were two cases of what were labelled as ‘metal currency forms recovered from the wreckage, developed from blades and agricultural tools’ and ‘developed from weapons and implements’ (guide p. 55). No doubt I missed further telltale details in the more ethereal on-site texts for the works and collections. Such are the woes of researching contemporary art when you have limited resources, time constraints and no clue that what you’re seeing in the moment will become something you spend the next few years mulling over and working out. All I can be sure of is there isn’t much difference between the one shot I took (with a not-great camera) of a single coin and the one on the front of a publication about the Prospero Collection auction viewable here. To reiterate, they are not the same coin; I am just playing with possibilities.

Example from An impressive collection of coinage from the wreck of the 'Unbelievable', Palazzo Grassi room 13, taken in June 2017

Regarding the other tenuous threads of what can loosely be called evidence in my proposal, the Tempest connection could well be a coincidence and it may be too on-the-nose to suggest that it indicates anything (but let's face it, the exhibition wasn't exactly behind the door about anything). References to Shakespeare pervade the whole of the vastness of culture across time and location, so names like Prospero are bound to crop up. But what if Hirst or staff who aid in his collecting were on the case? What if he’d put feelers out for anything like this coming up at auctions that was relevant to the Treasures idea? Or what if the name of collections inspired the fragments of narrative amounting to the exhibition? We know about Hirst’s art collecting – he now has a whole gallery in London dedicated to showing it off – but what if it goes beyond contemporary art into anonymously collecting coins, vessels, weapons and other items of antiquity? He most certainly has the financial means and storage space. While the Treasures exhibition was on, the dates labelling individual ‘new’ sculptures (as opposed to ‘old’ ones denoted by coral and sea-worm encrustation, and which I unfortunately don’t have notes of) reflected the ten-years-in-the-making strap-line of the show. Production was well underway in 2012 and everything about the Prospero Collection – its name, contents, the air of legitimacy it offered and its potential for ironic commentary about the ways museums display the antiquities of other regions – couldn’t be more perfect. It reinforces the fictionality and theatricality of the whole affair, but specifically the trickery and manipulation, which I really must get into with a post on how The Tempest refracted through the whole show. And, yes, in that trickery it's also worth considering that the coins and artefacts are as old as the rest of the works, whatever you take that age to be.

On the other displayed collections, apart from a few decent images viewable here, the only cases with coverage in widespread photos are exhibits D and E in room 6 of Punta della Dogana, and that is because they were behind The Collector with Friend, aka Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse adorned with primary-coloured coral. These cases contained helmets, swords with scabbards, daggers, spearheads and masks for good measure (when in Venice, after all). For most of these display cases containing arranged collections, the guidebook text reinforces the title ‘[…] from the wreck of the “Unbelievable”’, swapping out the ‘Treasures’ for the necessary descriptive words. The exceptions included the two sets of gold nuggets ‘discovered amongst the wreckage’ and ‘found in the wreck’, although there was no trace of the Apistos wreckage at any point of the contemporary setting in its narrative. As far as I can find, there are no photographs of any of these collections on the ocean bed, and if they were real valuable collections of antiquities, it would be surprising to learn that they had been submerged alongside the sculptures that had been underwater.

On that point about the submersion of works, when searching for images of the display cases, one result led me to a CNN article concerning cultural appropriation (I would argue that Hirst simply appropriates and tends not to hide from where). If you click through the slide-show of images at the top, the text under 7 of 11 states: ‘[s]culptures were submerged for a month before being exhibited’. There is no indication of a source for this information and I have not seen anything so definite said elsewhere, but, as I’ve suggested before, it is a possible and likely scenario. Whether on the littoral shelf off the coast of Kenya or in a special effects tank, the recovery images really do show pieces being harnessed and craned out of the water.

Thinking about the collections and acts of collecting bring us back to considering the collector. As I edged towards in part 8, although it underpinned all of the items in Treasures, the Hirst brand also falls away. While the works in their outlandishness are 'Hirstian', there is a lack of claim to authorship, even in the works indicated as ‘reproductions’, which are broadly labelled as museum or gallery copies that reimagine the ‘damaged’, coral-encrusted ‘originals’ as complete and clean. Hirst’s presence throughout is one of the collector or facilitator bringing the many different aspects together, which is towards the truth end of the spectrum, given how much production is outsourced to other makers. An important point is that for all its misdirects, the guide information is grounded in what actually is known about the histories and mythologies of the ancient cultures drawn upon for the works and their stories. Someone – writer Amie Corry and other employees at Science – has done their homework and used it to signpost everything the viewer could possibly need to know. For example, the text for the Calendar Stone points the viewer in the direction of the ‘cut-up’ narrative, and throughout, the guide flags up points of interest that are easily searchable on the internet, which for most of us these days is literally at our fingertips.

The collection as a whole was a simulacrum. The few artefacts that might just be real antiquities were still never part of the Apistos treasure, and visitors undergo a process of unbelieving that they ever were. As for the sculptures central to the underwater myth, they draw attention to past cultures and civilisations while signalling what viewers should look up to find out more. Ethics around work attributed to Hirst are never not questionable and the whole Treasures show was built on cultural blurring and mash-up. Rather than gathering and displaying actual original artefacts, Hirst has done what Hirst usually does and has been sued for in the past: saw it, liked it and remade it in his own (some may think, garish) way. Only this time, Hirst’s identity is that of a passive collector by providing funding for marine archaeologists (played by actors and divers) to do the collecting and jobbing sculptors to do the making.


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