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.