In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, collectors of ancient art look towards Imperial Russia and its Black Sea littoral as a place of rich and beautiful finds of all periods and styles, ranging from Scythian to the prized Greco-Roman to Islamic and medieval. The abundant finds of the region were steadily filling the Russian royal museum collections and, by World War I, a handful of Western museums had managed to acquire ancient art and artefacts from Southern Russia through various dealers. The most substantial collections of such art were acquired by four museums – in New York, Philadelphia, Cologne and Berlin – all at different times and through various channels. Recently, however, archaeologist Alexander Leskov was able to demonstrate a single source for all four assemblages – the French collector Merle de Massoneau.
Who was this Frenchman who began his career as an employee of the Czar to later found the Banque d’Orient in Paris? How did he manage to amass such an abundant collection and remove it from imperial Russia, making it the largest collection of Southern Russian antiquities outside that country?
This paper will present the assemblages of the Massoneau collection while exploring the elusive person of the collector himself and the situation that allowed him to quietly procure and remove this wealth of objects. It will also examine the acquisition and sales agendas of both Massoneau and the museums in question to reveal the collector’s shrewd business sense and knowledge of the art market of the time. In the final discussion, the original find complexes of these objects – many of which have only be identified through modern archaeological research in the region – will be presented in order to illustrate not only the conspicuously high concentration of ancient sites in the north-eastern and eastern Black Sea region, but also the lively official and illicit activity that made the region a focus of collectors from around the world.
Dr Sujatha Chandrasekaran is an archaeologist specializing in sites of the Caucasus and the Near East. Her 2012 dissertation (University of Oxford) examined the phenomenon of Greek-style armour in the Western Caucasus. She was subsequently a research assistant and lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and at the International Hellenic University in Thessaloniki, Greece. She is currently research assistant and excavator with the Russian State Museum of Oriental Art, where she has been studying the sites of Southern Russia and Abkhazia for over 20 years. She is also a freelance associate with the Educational Department of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, where she works with the archaeological collections of the Museum Island. Sujatha also collaborates with excavation teams working in Cyprus, Turkey, Jordan, Sudan and Greece, and regularly shares her research findings in numerous publications in Russian, English and German.
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