- Ancient Metalwork from the Black Sea to China in the Borowski Collection by Ulf Jäger, Sascha Kansteiner
This publication is the catalogue of a collection of what used to be called “Kleinkunst” (minor art objects), mostly from the central Eurasian steppes and adjacent areas. Almost all the objects discussed under its 245 entries (some comprising more than one item, the total amounting to some 335 objects) are made of metal; the inclusion of fourteen objects (under three entries) that are made of bone—in one case possibly of ivory—is justified by their similarity to metalwork. The catalogue is part of a series of publications of the extensive art collections that the late Elie Borowski (1913–2003) left to the Bible Lands Museum, a private museum he founded in Jerusalem. Here the items under discussion may now be seen, even though—contrary to the museum’s overarching collecting focus—the vast majority of them do not come from places mentioned in the Bible.
As the distinguished art historian Sir John Boardman writes in his foreword, “It was in the later 1960s and early 1970s that Elie Borowski assembled the major part of the objects published here . . . while he was living in Basel, Switzerland” (p. 11). With this statement, Boardman evidently intends to imply that this collection is not affected by the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, of which Switzerland only became a signatory in 2003, and which Israel has yet to join. Boardman continues by asserting that “[t]here are few comparable collections for size and quality, either still in private hands or in public museums, outside China, and many of the items published here are of unique types” (p. 11). Be that as it may, the lack of secure archaeological provenience greatly reduces the interest and scholarly value of this collection, which is remarkable mostly for its aesthetic appeal.
Aside from Boardman’s short foreword and an even shorter preface by Elie Borowski’s widow, Batya, the text of the book consists only of catalogue entries; no essays are included that would attempt to study the materials in a comprehensive fashion or to provide a coherent treatment of their cultural context and significance. Unlike some other comparable recent publications (e.g., So and Bunker 1995; Bunker et al. 1997; Bunker 2002; Wagner and Butz 2007; Béguin 2012), this book cannot be said to be a vehicle for significant new scholarship. Instead, the catalogue entries limit themselves to short descriptions of the objects depicted and listings of allegedly similar objects published elsewhere. For the most part, the publications cited are other catalogues of collections of unprovenienced pieces; archaeological reports are referenced only in exceptional instances, even when relevant provenienced material is known. [End Page 451]
The catalogue is divided into two portions of unequal length: “Eastern and Central Asia” by Jäger (entries nos. 1–195) and “Western Asia” by Kansteiner (entries nos. 196–245). Since the objects are unprovenienced, stylistic affinity to properly excavated materials is the only criterion for determining their geographical origin, but this is often difficult, especially in the case of unique pieces. Not surprisingly in a number of cases, the assignments seem arbitrary, even dubious. For instance, no. 206, a gold plaque in the form of a resting stag that Kansteiner believes to date to the “7th–5th century b.c.” and to come from “Ukraine/Kazakhstan,” is virtually identical in both motif and style to no. 104, a bronze plaque claimed by Jäger to come from “Mongolia/Siberia” and to date from the “4th–2nd century b.c.” This case is symptomatic of a pervasive lack of rigor in the authors’ attempts to place and date their material. While many uncertainties admittedly beset the study of central Eurasian art in general, more thorough research, taking into account the archaeological material now...