Heritage under the hammer: the Crosby Garrett Helmet (re)visited

Later this morning, the Crosby Garrett helmet, about which I have written here, will be put to auction at Christie’s South Kensington, London, where the estimate stands at £200,000-£300,000.

On Monday, I made my way up the Old Brompton Road to see this much-publicised item at first hand. What I encountered was not entirely what I had expected — or, rather, the experience of viewing the Crosby Garrett helmet seemed to fling two different worlds into jarring, distressing collision.

The context framed the problem. Although no stranger to Christie’s, virtually all my previous visits to South Ken have been consecrated to the pursuit of examining, and sometimes even acquiring (very much at the modest end of the spectrum — no £300,000 parade armour for me!) either furniture or pictures.

Here, well-established conventions apply regarding provenance, condition and authentication.

Experience helps, too. So for instance, I’d feel quite confident postulating some sort of price for a smallish Graham Sutherland drawing, in decent condition — in an amateurish way I know enough about the artist’s work to know how his drawings ought to look, and could certainly ask friends about this if I needed further advice — or even rejecting it entirely if it somehow didn’t seem quite right. The same applies, up to a point, with the simpler sort of eighteenth century English furniture. It’s usually possible to understand how most of these things come to be on the market  — in some cases, indeed, one can be pretty sure precisely where they came from — and usually possible, too, to gauge exactly what sort of cleaning, repair or restoration has taken place.

But it’s also crucially important to understand precisely these points, not least because they have absolutely everything to do with the price that the picture or item fetches at auction. A late seventeenth century chest of drawers with early twentieth century feet may be tolerable, indeed admirable — but the relative novelty of those feet will be reflected in the hammer price. The same is true of new hardware, replacements to the inside of the drawers, chipped veneer made good with tactful repairs. And by a similar token, a John Minton watercolour in which the brighter blues have been lost to an acidic backing paper, while conceivably still marvellously attractive — the strength of that sweeping line isn’t affected, the image still makes a strong emotional impact — well, who could confuse this with a Minton watercolour that somehow retains its more fugitive colours intact?

The human condition being the thing it is, of course, ambiguities, obfuscations and outright deceits occur. The optimistically-inclined may, indeed, discover in time that the ability to detect these defects more accurately than the next punter in fact constitutes one of the more recondite pleasures of buying at auction. The owner of a beautiful-but-bleached-out Minton will learn to postulate lost blues in the most apparently faultless of Minton watercolours, just as the really experienced antique furniture dealer will spot in an instant uncomfortable marriages between previously completely disparate bits of joinery in items that look unproblematically happy to the rest of us.

Ultimately, however, there are also matters of trust and reputation at stake. Rightly or wrongly, most buyers would probably hope that a well-known Bond Street gallery would prove a better guarantor of quality than a vendor at some more or less obscure marché au puces. And similarly, whatever treasures there are to be found on eBay, most buyers would assume that something purchased from one of our great historic auction houses has been properly vetted, authenticated and thus can be assumed to be the Real Thing. Again, these assumptions, apparently tacit, are in fact articulated with marvellous clarity in the language of price.

All of which may seem something of an epic digression from the Crosby Garrett helmet. Yet these auction-house background assumptions surely played their part in engendering the strange sensation I experienced, standing in front of the Crosby Garrett helmet itself, just after 9 am on a rainy Monday morning, in the dimness of that eerily unpeopled gallery.

All around me was the rest of the relevant antiquities sale — Apulian kraters, Roman lamps, beaded necklaces to suit all tastes, a votive foot (no, really!), the ravishingly handsome wreckage of a sculpture of an athlete, a Sassanian iron sword with a gold hilt and scabbard marked ‘do not handle’, funerary stelae and fish-plates, with much else besides. The overall effect was something halfway between the unmodernised exhibits at some slightly under-loved local history collection and what would happen if the British Museum decided to bolster its financial fortunes with an impromptu attic sale.

How, I wondered to myself, was I meant to regard these items? Here amongst these gathered fragments of ancient cultural endeavour, should I gauge my responses to their aesthetic impact, or their historical importance, or their sheer charisma as very old objects? Were they meant to be useful, or beautiful, or what? Should I read them as trophy pieces — signifiers of value, pure and simple — or as eloquent messengers from the past, albeit ones strangely silenced by the lack of archaeological context available for any of them?

The catalogue descriptions didn’t help very much. Antiquities, or at least these antiquities, seemed plagued with a vagueness when it comes to fairly basic issues of provenance. ‘From a collection established before 1970’ … ‘acquired in Paris, 1960’ …. ‘English private collection, 1998’ — phrases like this, apparently, are meant to reassure regarding legal ownership. What, though, is available for those of us know would quite like to know even in general terms where an item was found, how it fits in with other items found on the same site — in essence, what the object was, or might have been — surely a basic requisite for understanding what it might mean for a buyer?

At the same time, at least to someone more accustomed to visiting Christie’s in search of pictures or furniture, issues of condition and restoration proved similarly puzzling. Some of those ancient beads had clearly been re-strung on modern thread and fitted with modern clasps — but since no proof is offered that the beads were found in any particular order, or indeed that they even originate from the same discovery, in what sense is the resulting necklace an ‘antiquity’, as opposed to a 21st century creation incorporating found elements? Few if any of the many earthenware items showed as much as a chip or a crack — had quite a lot of silent mending, filling and re-painting taken place? Alas, without specifically ordering the condition report on each item — garlanded around as these things are with let-out clauses about how the absence of a reference to defects should not be taken to imply the absence of defects, etc, and anyway, doubtless the sort of endeavour that would gain one few firm friends amongst the auction house staff — it is simply impossible to learn the answer.

And so we return to the Crosby Garrett helmet. Raised up on a plinth near the centre of the exhibition space, that empty-eyed face staring out towards the main door with an expression that somehow combines invitation with completely hieratic self-absorption, it’s an almost weirdly mesmerizing thing. The scale is small, the detail relatively fine. It has none of the coarseness that blights of the worst sort of later Renaissance faux-classical sculpture, none of the glib heroism of bad Victorian faux-classical confections. Across the untroubled surface of the helmet glimmers here and there a magical sort of silvery sheen, while the little gryphon that tops that strange peaked cap rears up at a jaunty angle, its tiny wings upcurled in radiant vitality. The Crosby Garrett helmet is, in a word, marvellous to behold. It’s absolutely charismatic — so much so that even in a room where there are plenty of other beautiful things on show, I found it hard to take my eyes off it.

And yet, and yet — I wasn’t standing in a museum, an art gallery or the treasure-garnished rooms of some famous country house. I was standing in Christie’s South Kensington, where only a few rooms away the auction house staff were setting up for yet another Interiors sale. So it was that all those hard-acquired auction house-type impulses started to make themselves known amidst what would otherwise have remained, I think, a vaguely numinous mist of admiration.

One point in particular started to trouble me with increasing urgency. The Crosby Garrett helmet, like so much else in that antiquities sale, looks as fresh and flawless as if it had been made yesterday. Unfortunately, in the case of the Crosby Garret helmet, this may well be because it was, in fact, made yesterday — or at any rate, a few months ago. For all its present perfection, and despite the air of mystery surrounding aspects of its discovery and origins, we know at least that it put together by the staff of Christie’s from 33 large fragments and 34 small fragments of metal — fragments recovered from pastureland in Cumbria by an unemployed metal detectorist. (There is information on the find from the Portable Antiquities Scheme here, as well as Paul Barford’s eye-opening critique — ongoing — of the treatment of the helmet here.)

In suggesting that the Crosby Garrett helmet was made yesterday, I should perhaps emphasise that I am not trying to say that it’s a fake, exactly. After all, two British Museum experts have authenticated it, and who am I to disagree with them? But what I am saying is this — that when it comes to whatever the ‘restorers’ at Christie’s did in piecing together 67 scraps of old metal, some of them tiny indeed, in a completely non-transparent, perhaps even non-documented and presumably wholly non-reversible manner — well then, the resulting object unarguably owes its appearance, its overall shape and its surface patina, even whatever aesthetic merit it possesses more or less entirely to their efforts.

How could it not be the case that the angle at which pieces were joined, the infill between them, the evening-out of surface irregularities, presumably the un-bending and hence reshaping of extant scraps of metal, the more or less well-informed decisions about what goes where and the lucky guesses that are made to compensate for all those out-and-out absences (the helmet is, after all, apparently only 90 per cent complete) — all these larger and smaller decisions — makes the existing object look the way it does? Given how much difference even tiny changes — the turn of a lip, the tilt of a brow — produce when it comes to depicting the human face, is the charisma of this work not in fact entirely attributable to the creative efforts and aesthetic judgement of the ‘restorers’? And if today we find this strange, sad, empty face almost painfully compelling, could this not be due in part to the fact that it’s actually in some sense a contemporary work of art, hence conforming to our own contemporary sensibilities?

Leaving aside right now all the serious ethical questions regarding the way in which the Crosby Garrett helmet has been treated from the moment it was found right up until the moment the hammer comes down at Christie’s — questions discussed rather artlessly in my earlier post, examined with far more rigour in Paul Barford’s various posts, but ignored entirely, as far as I can see, by the mainstream media — what is the eventual buyer of the Crosby Garrett actually getting for his or her money? And what is are all those very well-intentioned people who want to keep this item in Cumbria — as, in fact, despite it all, I do myself — actually trying to ‘save’?

The antiquities market is, of course, not the same thing as the art market or the furniture market. It would be silly to expect absolute congruences. When it comes to buying antiquities, I cheerfully admit to wading out far beyond my depth. All the same, as I nodded my farewell to the Crosby Garrett helmet, left Christie’s and set out back up the Old Brompton Road, I couldn’t help reflecting that just as I wouldn’t want to pay much for an undocumented Graham Sutherland painting which had been found hacked into 67 pieces but then invisibly ‘restored’, or indeed to splash out on a William & Mary inlaid walnut cabinet that had been smashed into 67 pieces but then somehow pieced back together in a way that no one was willing to describe clearly to me, I’d think twice before accepting the present-day formulation of the Crosby Garrett helmet, for all its melancholy glamour, as genuine ancient artifact of ‘exceptional’ importance. As they used to say long ago, caveat emptor.


Filed under archaeology, art, history

15 responses to “Heritage under the hammer: the Crosby Garrett Helmet (re)visited

  1. A postscript — the Crosby Garrett helmet just sold for £2,281,250 — ten times the low end of the estimate. How on earth is Tullie House supposed to match that?

    Here’s the BBC’s report.

  2. Simon

    I gather that it was the Phrygian cap which was damaged & in many pieces whilst the mesmerising face was happily almost intact. It also strikes me that some strongly lingering prejudice against Roman art has prevented most commentators from observing the obvious, that this it is a major work of art, and of much greater national and international art historical significance than the recently much vaunted Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire horde. Your comments about the embarrassingly limited provenance of so many objects in antiquities auctions are very apposite.

  3. Antoine Clarke

    Tullie House: call itself a car manufacturer and demand a bailout.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Simon.

    For what it’s worth, although I find it very hard to compare the merits of objects as different — in style, technique, probable purpose etc — as the Crosby Garrett helmet versus those that make up the Staffordshire hoard, I do agree that there’s a general lack of appreciation in the UK both for the fact the some of the Roman artifacts found in Britain constitute major works of art — and also a lack of appreciation that these have anything to do with ‘us’, rather than e.g. present-day Italians.

    More to the point, though, would you mind telling me on what information you base your idea that the visor of the helmet was found intact? I’m genuinely not trying to pick an argument here — I’m really just interesting in finding out the truth — but since e.g. the images on the Portable Antiquities’ Scheme website here appear to show the helmet after considerable cleaning, reshaping and presumably some reconstruction (far fewer than a dozen of those 67 pieces are shown) I’m struggling to understand where the evidence of an intact find can be found. Further, Dr Ralph Jackson, the senior curator from the British Museum who was allowed to examine the helmet part way through restoration, described the ‘head piece’ as ‘broken and distorted’ when found — although as he did not see it in its original condition, let alone during the process of excavation, who knows?

    One thing’s for sure, anyway — I’d much rather that we were discussing the qualities of this helmet on the basis of a proper, scholarly excavation record and conservation data than the hints, guesses and vague impressions on which most observers, myself very much included, seem to be subsisting at the moment.

  5. The flaw in your otherwise seamless plan, Antoine, is that there isn’t actually an election scheduled any time soon … 🙂

  6. Simon

    I said ‘I gather’ as I heard this from an archaeologist chum who’s not given to flights of fancy. One can only hope & trust that the conservators recorded the whole restoration process as one should expect of responsible professionals. Apart from revealing the law as an ass, it is difficult not to feel that the entire affair also reflects rather poorly on Christie’s, which is a particular shame in an age when the role of auctioneers is so frequently and often naively questioned, whereas they are often the last surviving bastions of connoisseurship in a world where museums and art history departments have been largely hijacked by art-hating sociologists and ‘theorists’ masquerading as curators and historians.

  7. Simon, I agree entirely about auction houses as bastions of connoisseurship, not least when it comes to the less trendy corners of art — some of the men and women involved not only know a huge amount about the works they handle, but care hugely about them, too.

    So, well, yes, part of the surprise for me in this whole story has been the growing realisation that at least some individuals at Christie’s haven’t behaved very well. It would be nice to think that l’affaire Crosby Garrett might focus enough light on some murky practices regarding metal detecting, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Christie’s and possibly the Treasure Act of 1996 to make everyone clean up their act. Alas, though, the mainstream media don’t seem interested in moving beyond that well-worn ‘save it for the nation’ script, which is why I keep banging on about it — and why it’s wonderful when anyone else takes an interest.

    As for your friend, finally, thanks for explaining this further. I don’t doubt that you are accurately recounting what he told you, or that he’s accurately recounting what he’s been told — but when one compares this whole ‘gathering’ business to proper, transparent, accessible documentation of the excavation history, conservation methods and presentation strategy available for other archaeological finds of real importance — well, I still think this could have been handled much better.

  8. Simon

    I’m new to blogging (sp?) & unsure of etiquette, erring perhaps on the side of brevity. I agree that the Crosby Garrett Helmet & the Staffordshire horde are not really commensurate, but the brou-ha-ha surrounding the former was I though based on over-stated claims concerning art historical significance, the beauty of Mercian jewelry & the interest of the inscriptions notwithstanding. If anything however it strikes me that press coverage of the helmet has greatly under-stated its significance. It is after all one of the most strikingly beautiful Roman objects ever found in Britain.

    On the question of conservation, I agree entirely with you concerning the broad ‘Bologna Principles’ concerning reversability etc. However these surely apply very differently to metal objects in the earth for many centuries compared to, say, foxing on a Keith Vaughan drawing? I think however there’s a real danger here of allowing general reservations and questions about conservation practice (e.g. the ghastly track record of the National Gallery in London etc) to trump the immediate pressing question concerning the unique importance and significance of the helmet. Surely one wouldn’t want to see the treasures of Troy for example on display in their former crumpled state (like the Staffordshire horde) rather than restored to something like their original appearance? Journalists are generally ill-equipped to evaluate art historical & archaeological discoveries, and in the present case the national importance of the helmet has I think alas been vastly under-played.

  9. sarah

    It was a pleasure to read this – interesting perspective and very eloquently worded. One thing I would mention is that in all the criticism of the PAS and the antiquities trade, an exceptional find has come to light here. It is hard to deny that the finder was (perhaps only) financially motivated to send the piece for recording. That sits uncomfortably with many people, including myself. However, I hope we don’t lose the baby with the bathwater – the PAS together with pragmatic British treasure laws have brought many great objects to light, including finds that were part-excavated such as the Staffordshire hoard and the Hoxne hoard. I believe we have a system we can be proud of in the PAS. Any system can be improved and it would have been nice if this chap had called in archaeologists earlier and been more transparent. In that respect I read an interesting piece by Tony Robinson of Time Team (linked to from Paul Barford’s blog), in which he states all metal detectorists should be licensed and follow a code of best practice. I find it hard to argue with that. In terms of a lack of contextual information in the antiquities market – this true of most pieces in the British Museum, where far less is known about their origin than the Crosby-Garrett helmet. It is a consequence of aesthetic appreciation of this material culture at the expense of a deep interest in its archaeological context. I think many people are guilty of that!

  10. To be fair, Simon, I did point out that ‘[t]he antiquities market is, of course, not the same thing as the art market or the furniture market’ — so I do see that sorting out a bit of foxing in a Vaughan drawing isn’t quite the same thing as solving the issues raised by a Roman helmet that has been buried for nearly two thousand years. I hoped, in fact, that I’d been pretty clear about those differences. Well, I did the best I could, anyway — and if I didn’t manage it in the actual post, I don’t think I’m going to manage it here either.

    In any event, just to clarify — no one is suggesting, I think, that those 67 fragments of metal should have been left forever in their crumpled, muddy, visually illegible state. My preference, personally, would have been for something rather closer to what took place in the case of the Sutton Hoo helmet. In that case, the excavation itself was extensively documented, the actual finds recorded in their recently dug up state, conservation also documented clearly. When reconstruction took place, it was done in a very transparent way — so transparent, indeed, that even the most casual observer can see that the ancient fragments have been attached to a modern helmet, and can thus compare the finds with the more speculative features of the reconstruction in a very immediate, intuitive, clear-eyed fashion. And yet the Sutton Hoo helmet is still a remarkably striking object, ‘iconic’ and imaginatively stimulating to a very high degree. This seems to me, anyway, a much happier example of scholarship working hand-in-hand with other priorities — not least, the need to make some sort of stab at envisioning the past, no matter how incompetently we may do it — than the glossy confection, or uncannily well-preserved masterpiece, or whatever it may be, that was sold at Christie’s yesterday.

    I return to my earlier point — it may have been well-preserved, it may not, the reconstruction may have been modest or akin to scratch-building — the problem is that at present, we simply have no way of knowing.

  11. In recent years archaeologists have gone out of their way to be polite to metal detectorists, perhaps too polite? I would add that I think it’s not so much a case of ‘aesthetic appreciation’ at ‘the expense’ of interest in ‘archaeological context’. but rather a question of the type of aesthetic appreciation which is sadly often ignorant of archaeological issues altogether. Surely we need to argue equally forcefully on behalf of both aesthetic appreciation and archaeological awareness?

    On a different tack, I note that Sotheby’s are selling the contents of Ashdown House on 27 October (Sale L10312). This was built by the 1st Earl of Craven for Elizabeth of Bohemia, the ‘Winter Queen’, with whom many of the contents of the sale are closely associated. Were these relics of Oliver Cromwell there would doubtless already be a vociferous campaign to save them as a collection. Alas in the present climate I fear their Stuart associations only serve to make their dispersal more likely.

  12. Sorry fugitive ink, I didn’t mean to seem in any way sharp in my response to your extremely thoughtful and timely comments. I’d only add that all these things surely need to be taken up in a case-by-case way, since the factors bearing on the conservation (& display) of the Sutton Hoo helmet differ from those affecting the Crosby Garrett helmet, of which so much more seemingly survived. An underlying concern of mine in all of this is that the study of conservation these days tends to neglect aesthetic and art historical awareness in favour of hi-tech science which, however important, may only serve to provide yet more potentially dangerous weapons in the hands of well-meaning but basically philistine ‘conservators’. . .

  13. What are the reliable facts behind the discovery? Was there one finder or two?

  14. Sarah, Simon and David — each of you raise, from different perspectives, extremely interesting points about the Crosby Garrett helmet, the circumstances surrounding its discovery and all that has happened to it since.

    Absolutely central to all this seems to the lack of transparency at almost every step along the way. The ‘accepted’ (by the mainstream media, anyway, and hence by most ordinary punters) account of the discovery of the helmet seems open to challenge, and in any event raises questions about the sort of agreements that exist between landowners and metal detectorists, the incentives which encourage or discourage detectorists from reporting finds, the effectiveness of the PAS, the ethical conventions operating within the commercial antiquities market — and, well, probably plenty more questions, too — doubtless we’ll all come up with our own favourite selection.

    Nor are the questions all easy, black-and-white ones. Not least, Simon, you are surely right in implying that the imperatives of archaeology, and in particular the purely ‘scientific’ aspects of conservation, aren’t the only ones worthy of respect. All I’d say is that one might at least hope that ‘science’ and ‘art’ could try to show good manners, cooperate where they can and exhibit a degree of mutual respect where cooperation proves more difficult.

    All of which is an over-long way of saying that I want to reflect further on all these matters, and perhaps write about them again soon, considering as I do so the points that have been raised here and elsewhere. Is there anyone at all who is completely happy with the way this story played out — the metal detectorist(s), successful bidder and the accounts department at Christie’s possibly excepted? If the sad story of the Crosby Garrett helmet sharpens up our collective thinking when it comes to things that come out of the ground here in the UK — how we ought to regard them, who owns them, what ought to happen to them — then at least the largish grey cloud hanging over Britain’s heritage sector at the moment may prove to have at least a hint of a silver lining.

    (Simon, your Ashdown House point is worth a post in its own right — stay tuned.)

  15. NB I’d also recommend, to anyone who is interested in trying to understand exactly how this helmet was found and what happened to it, the link provided by David Gill above, which leads to a particularly useful post over at the Looting Matters site. In it, he’s done a great job of collating whatever gappy, unsatisfactory information is currently available about the history of this item — although clearly we haven’t heard the full story yet.