There is a popular American TV series, Mad Men, set in and around a New York Madison Avenue advertising agency of the 1960s. The central character is charismatic womanizer Don Draper, whose tragic flaw is his shady past. A certain Private Dick Whitman swapped dog tags with, and assumed the identity of his officer, Lt Don Draper, who died alongside him on active service in the Korean War. The reinvented ‘Draper’ builds a stellar career in the emergent advertising industry, accompanied by his picture postcard wife Betty and their two ideal children.
|Sir Charles Nicholson Bart - or was he?|
Well, if you follow the series, you know what I’m talking about and how it turns out – if you don’t, it’s worth a look, and I’m not going to spoil a fascinating story for you. What I’m really interested in here is the intriguing business of borrowed identity, and its connection to a topic dear to my heart – the treasures of antiquity: who they belong to and what should be done with them.
With a little time to kill in Sydney on my recent trip to see family downunder, I visited one of the town's lesser-known attractions, the Nicholson Museum, located on the campus of Sydney University. It's not a huge establishment by world standards, but is said to have the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. Sydney-siders and Australians generally are indeed fortunate in having access to such a collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman civilizations, and, most interesting to me, a special exhibition showcasing relics of the ancient Etruscans, of whom more later.
Sir Charles Nicholson Baronet was apparently quite a big noise in Sydney back in the mid-19th century. A small plaque near the entrance to the museum informs the visitor that he emerged from humble origins to subsequent fame and fortune – suggesting a fairy tale rags-to-riches, self-made man. A more detailed biography inside explains that Sir Charles had been orphaned as a child and raised by an aunt. The transition from rags to riches had, in fact, been facilitated somewhat by the death of a wealthy uncle who had bequeathed him a substantial fortune.
This fortuitous leg-up set the young man on his path to fame and public honours. He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843, later becoming Speaker of the House. He was one of the founding fathers and first Chancellors of Sydney University and, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was regarded as ‘one of the most cultivated men in the colony.’ Financial independence enabled Charles Nicholson to travel extensively through Europe, Egypt and the Near East where, it seems, he amassed ‘a large and valuable collection of Egyptian, Roman and Etruscan antiquities’. One source claims he bought them, which in itself raises interesting questions. This collection he later donated to the University of Sydney, leading to the establishment of the Museum which bears his name and preserves it for succeeding generations . . . only it wasn’t his name!
Sydney historian Michael Turner, his curiosity aroused, as was mine, by the glib contradictions of the Nicholson fairy tale, carried out a lengthy investigation and established that ‘Charles Nicholson’ had in fact been born Isaac Ascough in 1808, son of an unmarried maid from a village in Yorkshire. The identity of the father is not known, but clearly there was a mysterious benefactor whose generosity paid for the young Isaac to attend and graduate M.D. from Edinburgh University in 1833. The Ascough uncle, whose legacy provided the wealth for ‘Charles Nicholson’s’ new life, apparently made his pile as owner and captain of ships transporting convicts from the slums of industrial London to the penal colonies of Australia.
The entry in the ADB, on the other hand, reads: ‘Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), statesman, landowner, businessman, connoisseur, scholar and physician, was born on 23 November 1808 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England, the only son of Charles Nicholson, merchant, and of Barbara Ascough, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant’, and goes on in a similar vein. Mad Man Don Draper’s transformation pales into small-time insignificance alongside that.
Well, money, like love, is capable of covering a multitude of sins, and charity too, as many a latter-day billionaire will attest. Leaving aside those who acquire it from a lottery ticket, it’s a rare human being that can accumulate a major fortune in one lifetime – and an even rarer one who can do it without resorting to shady practices. Having made one’s fortune, however, the urge to establish oneself as a pillar of society is strong – and what better way than by donating large sums to a worthy cause or two?
It’s mostly speculation on my part, of course. There was nothing illegal about what Uncle Ascough did to accumulate his wealth – the British Government wanted to ship thousands of London’s convicted poor to Australia, and getting the shipping contract could be a lucrative business. Still, a sensitive young man might not be too proud of such an uncle and his line of work, even if he inherited the money on said uncle’s death. The same sensitive man might also feel twinges of conscience about having ‘collected’ thousands of priceless antiquities on his Grand Tour of the Ancient World. He might possibly calculate that, with one large donation to the University Museum, he could sanitise the money he had inherited, assuage his conscience, forestall questioning about his origins, and purchase respectability in a new land. I’m not saying that’s how it was, but isn’t it possible?
Certainly it’s not an uncommon practice among the fabulously wealthy. Take George Soros as an example. His Wikipedia entry describes him as ‘business magnate, investor and philanthropist.’ His philanthropy covers a range of causes, from encouraging democracy in Eastern Europe, through eliminating poverty in Africa, to financing political opposition to the re-election of George W Bush – all worthy objects, you’d have to agree. Mr Soros’s wealth, however, was mostly sourced from edgy financial wheeling and dealing, especially currency speculation on a monumental scale. The Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time blamed Soros for the Asian financial collapse of the late 1990s. More recently, he was convicted by French courts for insider trading related to dodgy activities in the late 1980s. One could argue that this Hungarian-American-Jewish ‘business magnate’ has been one of the prominent engineers of the global financial house of cards that collapsed with such disastrous results for the world economy in 2008.
Of course it’s nice, perhaps even praiseworthy that Soros ‘gave away over $8 billion to human rights, public health and education causes’ between 1979 and 2011. On the other hand, I imagine he still has a few billion left for his own creature comforts; and if that largesse purchased him a place in heaven and a reputation for philanthropy to go with his honorary doctorates from Yale, Oxford and several lesser universities, he may consider the money to have been well spent.
But I digress. Getting back to the Nicholson Museum in Sydney – its collection includes treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt and Cyprus. For locals to see such wonders would otherwise require a time-consuming and expensive journey to some Northern Hemisphere institution – so its existence is lucky for Australians. Nevertheless, when you see that monumental sculpted head of Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II, or the stone capital from a column of the Temple of Bubastis, you can’t help marveling at the achievement of Sir Nicolson-Ascough in getting his collection out of the various countries he visited, and back around the world to Sydney, NSW. For sure, they are not the kind of thing you can stash in a suitcase, conceal in your underwear or secrete in a bodily orifice. We’re talking here about some serious manpower, a bullock cart or two, and maybe even a train of camels, not to mention a couple of industrial-size containers. My guess is he didn’t have to worry about a 23 kg limit for his check-in baggage on the trip back downunder – but still, it’s hard to see the whole enterprise being accomplished without some connivance by local officials who may or may not have been paid off to provide assistance, or at least turn a blind eye.
Undoubtedly regulations regarding the ownership of unearthed antiquities were less stringent in those days, as were those controlling border crossings. At least two books have been published on a phenomenon sometimes known as the Rape of Egypt, which reached its peak around the beginning of the 19th century. The passion that overtook genteel Europe has been less offensively referred to as Egyptomania, which, however you look at it, involved the mass theft, removal and/or destruction of vast quantities of mummies, statuary and other relics from tombs and pyramids. Apparently there was a fashion in regency drawingrooms for soirées where three or four thousand-year-old corpses were unwrapped for the titillation of the idle rich. Not all were so flagrantly destroyed, however, and one of the sights that impressed me on my visit to the British Museum was a room containing more mummies than I saw in the corresponding institution in Cairo.
To be fair, there is a long tradition of victorious empires uplifting and relocating monuments from conquered territories. The hippodrome in Constantinople contained at least three such trophies, two of which can still be seen in present-day Istanbul: the Serpent Column, originally located in Delphi, Greece; and a huge portion of Egyptian obelisk purloined from the Temple of Karnak, where it had been erected by the Pharaoh Tutmoses around 1400 BCE. The third piece was a group of four bronze horses formerly standing over the entrance to the stadium, which can now be seen adorning the facade of St Marks Basilica in Venice, whither they were transported by knights of the Fourth Crusade after the sack and pillaging of their sister Christian city in 1204. It is said that booty from conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE financed the building of the Colosseum in Rome by the Emperors Vespasian and Titus – and who remembers that these days?
Two brothers of Italian extraction, Luigi and Alessandro di Palma Ceonola, served sequentially as American consul to Cyprus in the 1860s and 70s. As a sideline to their consular duties, the brothers carried out archeological excavations, which, after the US ended its diplomatic presence on the island, became a full-time occupation. Their digs resulted in a collection of thousands of valuable artifacts, much of which ended up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while some was sold to collectors in the United Kingdom. Authorities in Cyprus today still, I understand, consider the actions of the brothers as tantamount to looting. More recently, another Australian gentleman with the imposing name of Professor James Rivers Barrington Stewart, carried out extensive excavations of burial sites on the island. It was, I gather, only after Cyprus gained independence from Great Britain in 1960 that controls were placed on the removal of ancient artifacts.
I spent a significant portion of my high school days attending classes in the Latin language - for which I am, in fact, quite grateful. In an odd way, its peculiarities of noun declensions, verb conjugations and idiosyncratic syntax prepared me for my later, more practical study of Turkish. Hand in hand with the language, we Grammar boys were also expected to acquire a knowledge of Roman life, history and customs. Not a lot stuck, I have to confess, but I do recall that the Roman calendar was dated from a zero year corresponding to our 753 BCE. Following after the lupine siblings Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of the great city, was a succession of six kings, the last three of which were allegedly Etruscan.
Well, from those days to these, the Etruscans never crossed my path again - until my visit to the Nicholson Museum. That establishment, as I mentioned, houses a collection of relics of those very Etruscans, and I found myself empathising across the millennia with that lost civilization. Very little, it seems, is known of the people whose language and culture were well nigh obliterated by the Romans who conquered them. What we do know mostly derives from tombs and funerary inscriptions, and suggests that Etruscan civilization arose around the 8th century BCE. The people are thought to have originated from Asia Minor, and spoke a language unrelated to any we know.
Professor Graziano Baccolino of the University of Bologna makes the surprising claim that the Etruscans deserve to be recognized as ‘the true founders of European civilisation’, and suggests that the Romans deliberately denied their debt to these people from the East, falsifying their own history to facilitate the cover up. The English novelist DH Lawrence, in a collection of travel essays entitled ‘Etruscan Places’, waxes lyrical on these ancient folk: ‘The things [the Etruscans] did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction. And death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither an ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life. Everything was in terms of life, of living.’
He is less generous to their conquerors who, he says, ‘did wipe out the Etruscan existence as a nation and a people. However, this seems to be the inevitable result of expansion with a big E, which is the sole raison d'étre of people like the Romans.’
So it’s not a new phenomenon. Isaac Ascough aka Sir Charles Nicholson is part of a long tradition wherein sons of empire have, for millennia, appropriated the trappings of overthrown civilisations. Just as inevitable, perhaps, is the emerging trend, in today’s world, for descendants of the losing sides to seek redress and perhaps the return of looted treasures. It is not a conflict amenable to easy solution.