Richard Hoover: The fate of antiques in New World Orders

This is a mourning portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1717-1768. He was a German historian, archeologist and writer on the art of the ancients. Courtesy photo

Ah, the uproars over fairness and social/economic inequality found on the Opinion Page of the Northern Virginia Daily! Trying my best to do what any conscientious guest antiques columnist would do, I’m impelled to ask how such uproars, should they ever produce a transformed America, might affect the collecting of precious objects from the past.

I must confess to taking secret, if not guilty pleasure in getting a big bargain — whenever, in fact, someone’s serious loss becomes my serious gain. Sadly, but it goes almost without saying, I have also experienced transactions which backfired a full 180 degrees — producing my serious loss and another’s serious gain! As things are today, and have been over centuries of Western civilization, such losses are normally chalked up to the loser’s bad luck, to his stupidity, or to his laziness in determining the correct market value of the treasure to be sold.

Now, here is a happy example of when an evocative antique was picked up for a song, at another’s loss — an 18th-century miniature, possibly on an ivory wafer. It is a mourning portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the famous German archeologist and writer on ancient Greek and Roman art. A curator of curial libraries and art collections, Winckelmann was slain in a Trieste hotel bedroom brawl in 1768. He was returning to Rome from Vienna, where Empress Maria Theresa had celebrated and richly be-medaled his accomplishments. The tiny red and white decoration seen on his left breast resembles the military Order of Maria Theresa, likely a variant intended for presentation to civilians. Also note Winckelmann’s toga, symbolic of his association with the ancients of Greece and Rome.

Now, suppose the unfortunate seller of this portrait, who should have cashed in but didn’t, is not seen to be suffering from bad luck, or to be guilty of stupidity or laziness. Rather, the pounding he took resulted because he had never had the advantages which Northern Virginia Daily columnists have ascribed to “white male privilege!” Suppose the unfortunate seller, encumbered by all the handicaps which social and economic inequality can impose, had no way to determine the value of his portrait? By progressive pundit logic, therefore, the buyer-seller confrontation was unfair from the get-go, failed miserably to meet columnist Robert Reich’s golden rule of right conduct: “meeting our obligations to one another.” In other words, the benighted seller was bamboozled into letting his Winckelmann go for peanuts, victimized by an advantaged buyer!

Recalling recent presidential importuning to “transform America,” the question just pops up: how far might “transformed” social/economic systems go in order to right a “wrong” such as that above, in order, even, to make it punishable? Dear reader, years of experience in the field compel me to advise: do not imagine that this example of antique-collecting “injustice” is insignificant enough to pass, undetected, beneath the radar of the “New World Order” championed by some columnists!

So, place yourself for three years at American Embassy Prague, at a time when communism (the Czechs called it “socialism”) was in full swing. I remember well how the problem of antiques and socio-economic disparity was solved. Simply put, antiques became politicized. Their study was discouraged. Hunting them on-the-loose for profit was risky, if not forbidden. Antiques were not only corrupting material reminders of the decadent pre-revolutionary past, they enabled the knowledgeable to cheat those workers who happened to have them. So, in order to de-emphasize the pre-revolutionary past and curtail such abuses, the government confiscated and warehoused all the antiques it could, siphoned them off to a score of state antique shops where they were sold to western diplomats and tourists for badly needed hard currency. As a Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry counterpart once told me: “Richard, rare and beautiful objects cannot be in the hands of our socialist citizens.” Equality and fairness achieved at last! Problem solved!

So, the outlook for antiques and antique collectors cannot be bright within a “New World Order,” within an era crafted to better “meet our obligations to one another” (this is a phrase I find catching fire; once again, credits to Robert Reich). What especially offends this guest columnist on antiques, however, is the associated tendency to degrade the past, to make obscure and forgotten all characters and events, save for those serving as precursors of the dawning new order! Witness, for example, the drive to deconstruct American historical figures, starting with Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. In any New World Order, these examples of attempted deconstruction would be “just for openers!”

Worse yet, if today’s fixers of the world ever attain their Cold War predecessors’ power and ability to obliterate the free-ranging study of history, not to mention the collecting of antiques, the world could again become their oyster. Given the opportunity, what would they not do to “transform” education, property rights, economic pursuit and profit, traditional family norms, the exercise of religious belief and a host of other long-guaranteed American freedoms! What violence they portend! What “emancipation of wealth,” to highlight a phrase employed by our vice president only last week!

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.