The case of a rare Roman figurine: disrespect for a nationally important archaeological artwork?


The newly renamed Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (sic) announced on the 24th July, that the Arts Minister John Glen had placed a temporary export bar on a Roman bronze figurine, to provide an opportunity to keep it in the country.1

The figurine is small, but described as “exceptionally rare”; depicting a figure wearing the distinctive birrus Britannicus – a hooded woollen cloak specifically noted as being British in the Edict of Diocletian in 310AD. The press release notes that it is extremely unusual for portable art from this period to be so distinctively British in character, with the level of detail of the figurine and quality of its execution being “particularly fine”.

The decision to defer the export licence was made on the recommendation of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), which reached its conclusion on the importance of the object due to its outstanding significance for the study of Roman costume in provincial Britannia. The licence application will be deferred until 23rd September 2017 to allow a buyer to come forward – a deadline that might be extended until 23rd November if a serious contact with the intention to raise the funds makes contact with RCEWA.

It’s normal practice for rare artworks to be denied export licences to allow for interested parties, individuals or institutions to raise funds for their purchase to keep them in the country. The Minister himself is quoted as hoping that “…a buyer comes forward to keep this unique object in the UK so that current and future generations can continue to enjoy it.” However in most cases we are used to the sums involved being excessive. The most recent high-profile case involving an archaeological object was that of the controversial Sekhemka statue which was sold by Northampton Borough Council in 2014: the export bar in that case was to enable a potential purchaser to come up with an eye-watering £15.76m.2 Prior to that the outstanding Crosby Garrett Helmet fetched £2.3m3. This latest case is somewhat different however, as the object in question – a nationally important, distinctively British, archaeological artwork of importance to academic study and the education and enjoyment of future generations – is being offered for sale for only £550.

There’s almost certainly no doubt (one would hope) that this insignificant sum will be raised from somewhere within the allotted time period, and that this beautiful and rare object will remain in the country. Potentially though, this might eventually be from a private collector, meaning the object could disappear from public view. It’s a poor state of affairs – one that speaks volumes about our current dismal legislative and ethical national approach to important historic artefacts and the value we ascribe to nationally-important heritage – that such a small sum cannot be immediately secured from an existing Government source. This object, having been identified as being nationally significant yet available for a fee akin to what it might fetch on eBay, should simply be purchased from its vendor by the state and donated to a museum for the education and edification of its citizens in perpetuity.




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