From Cyprus to London and back again: Focus on the Desmond Morris collection of Cypriot antiquities

Orphan artefacts and reconstructed provenances

Desmond Morris was a famous British zoologist, writer and surrealist painter. He was also a great collector of Cypriot antiquities: his collection (over 1 000 artefacts) was constituted between 1967 and 1976, mainly on the London art market, and lavishly published as a commented catalogue in 1985 (The Art of Ancient Cyprus, Oxford – Phaidon Press). His collection was subsequently dispersed at a Christies’ auction, which took place at London, South Kensington, on 06/11/2001.

The stylistic and typological characteristics of most of the artefacts, that appeared as “orphan objects” on the London art market, indicate that they were looted from archaeological sites located in the occupied part of the island that escape since 1964 control from the legal authorities of the Republic of Cyprus. For example, relying on comparisons with artefacts stemming from documented excavations, one can demonstrate that the Red Polished model illustrated was probably found in a tomb of the Bronze Age Vounous necropolis.

Some of the artefacts of the collection were purchased at the Christie’s auction by the Anastasios G. Leventis Foundation and subsequently donated to the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus on 23/1/2002. A catalogue of repatriated objects was published in 2014 on the occasion of the publication of the proceedings of an international workshop that took place in Nicosia in 2011 Protecting the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus: Joining efforts in preventing the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage. In this catalogue, the Red Polished model has acquired a twofold provenance: one, secure, which pertains to its recent collecting history; one, presumed, which pertains to its archaeological provenance. But this reconstructed provenance does not fulfil the criteria of archaeological context (placement in the tomb, association with other artefacts…); from a scientific point of view it is still orphan. Moreover, beyond ethical concerns, orphan artefacts with a reconstructed provenance raise scientific issues: to elaborate further on our Red Polished model, is it scientifically sound to use an object with presumed reconstructed provenance in a study on the Vounous necropolis together with other artefacts of secure provenance? For futher information, please click on the following links.




[Illustration: Red Polished model. Former Desmond Morris collection, now Cyprus Museum. After D. Pilides, Protecting the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus. Joining efforts in preventing the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage, Nicosia – Department of Antiquities, 2014]