To Serve and to Source: a Trading Consul at the Service of the British Museum

On 15 December 1864, a sub-committee on antiquities at the British Museum (BM) approved a text containing instructions for the consuls in Her Britannic Majesty’s service. Instigated by the BM’s Trustees and drafted by Charles Newton, former consul and Keeper of the museum’s Greek and Roman antiquities (1861-1885), the directive was circulated via the Foreign Office to the consular service. It asked consuls and vice-consuls to identify, source and collect ancient specimens that may be of interest to the BM. A transcription of this important directive has only recently been published in full in the excellent study by Lucia Patrizio Gunning (2009) on the “British Consular Service in the Aegean and the Collection of Antiquities for the British Museum”.[1] I give here the text of this directive, as it appears in this book, because it merits further attention and discussion:[2]

The points to which it would be desirable to direct the attentions of Consuls within their districts are as follows:

1. All remains of ancient cities, buildings or cemeteries, which there is reason to believe not to have been fully explored.

2. All discoveries of ancient architectural remains, sculptures, inscriptions, coins, pottery, and other antiquities, which may fall under the observation of Consuls in their own district. In reference to such enquiries it might be observed that even where remains are no longer to be found on the site of an ancient city or building, evidence of its former existence may be obtained by a careful examination of the castles, churches, mosques or other buildings in its neighbourhood, the walls of which frequently contain ancient marbles reworked as building materials.

Interesting sculptures, inscriptions and architectural remains may thus be detected in the walls of modern villages.

In examining the site of an ancient city it is of great importance to ascertain, if possible, the position of its cemeteries. These will generally be discovered by a careful examination of the ground outside the city gates.

Even where no remains of tombs are visible above the soil, the position of the cemetery may often be indicated by the fragments of Greek pottery which strew the surface of the ground.

This pottery is distinguished by its lustrous black varnish and by the figures and ornaments drawn on it.

It is always worth while to note the localities where fragments of this vase are found in abundance, and to collect specimens of it for transmission to the British Museum.[3]

Piraeus 1837
The custom house at the Piraeus in 1837. Piraeus was used throughout the second half of the 19th century for the shipment of antiquities abroad, most often through foreign ships and the diplomatic missions and without customs’ control. Watercolor drawing by Captain Ludwig Köllnberger. Source: National Historical Museum in Athens.

Centuries of collecting, prompted by different motives, had led to the progressive institutionalization of antiquities trafficking. This directive simply made official what was for a long time an “unofficial duty” of the diplomatic corps abroad – namely to identify, source and traffic antiquities back home. With the 1864 directive, the duties of consuls and vice-consuls now officially included the identification, report and description of ancient sites, new discoveries and objects available in the market for purchase.

Among the consuls who appear to have taken this directive to heart was Charles Merlin (1821-1896) who served in the Piraeus and Athens for almost 50 years (1839-1887).[4] During my stay at the Center I have been able to study and transcribe his correspondence with the BM – some 200 letters sent in the period between 1864 and 1892 dealing with the sale of around 450 objects to the BM.[5] Although his correspondence with the museum might have started a few years earlier, “1864” does not appear to be an accidental year for Merlin to begin his long communication with Charles Newton and the London institution.[6] Merlin was collecting antiquities (especially gems and coins) as early as the 1850s. But it was only from 1864 onwards that his interest in Greek antiquities developed more systematically.[7]

Merlin, who was of French origin, often exclaimed in his letters that the main reason for his interest in collecting and trafficking antiquities on behalf of the BM was “pure patriotism”. There is no reason to doubt that the 1864 instructions and perhaps a sense of duty did indeed direct Merlin’s attention to the Athenian antiquities market. Yet one cannot fail to detect, as early as 1864, that one of Merlin’s main aims was to make “small profits and quick returns” out of these transactions as he would often sell the objects at a higher price than the purchase price. According to his letters to Newton, he would then re-invest the difference in the Athenian antiquities market in order to purchase more objects for the BM.

Making gains from the difference in the original purchase price and the final sale price was a practice that Merlin had learned as a trading agent and consul in Greece between the 1830s and 1860s, at a time when he was acting largely as unpaid diplomatic personnel. The British government relied on this system, not least because for many years it seemed to work and it kept the cost of running the consular service as low as possible. It was common practice among members of the consular service to make a living through their license to trade (at least until the 1860s).[8] Over time, Merlin became increasingly interested in the prices of ancient objects, even auctioning a number of them in sales in London with one of them generating, in 1871, £1421 – more than four times his annual salary (£350) as a consul at the Piraeus.

That the diplomatic pouch was used for trafficking antiquities is neither new nor revelatory.[9] What is surprising and highly informative, however, are the reasons and motives that prompted members of the diplomatic corps to get involved in such actions. Apart from the 1864 directive, I would put forward two extra reasons to explain Merlin’s urge for trafficking antiquities: one falls within the commodification of the past and the antiquities market as a means of making profit (no matter how small) – after all, the money paid by the BM to Merlin did not come from the BM’s own funds, but from a state-subsidized annual grant allocated to new acquisitions. The other reason is even more interesting: Merlin was only one of many consuls and vice-consuls stationed in the Aegean at the time. Yet he was one of the most productive with regard to the sourcing of antiquities. What made him differ from his other colleagues, especially those serving in the kingdom of Greece?

Merlin was a trading consul, a financier and banker (for the Ionian Bank) and property investor. His interest in antiquities remained almost exclusively business oriented. In this respect he cannot be classified among the academic consuls-antiquarians, such as Charles Newton, George Dennis, and Alfred Biliotti (all of whom, unlike Merlin, were directly involved in excavations sponsored and supported by the BM’s Trustees).[10] With no real interest, from a scientific point of view, in the antiquities he collected, Merlin’s desire to serve and to make a profit out of this business seems to have soon blended with his anxiety to be part of the higher echelons of Athenian society.

The purchase and trafficking of antiquities along with his long lasting association with the BM (seen in this case from the eyes of an expat who spent 50 years of his life abroad) appears to me to have allowed Merlin to participate in this “gentleman’s activity” with the intensity and passion that he did. Merlin is undoubtedly one of the “foreigners” in the antiquities trafficking story in 19th-century Greece – namely antiquarians, agents, or diplomats, who either went to or resided in Greece with the purpose of combining work with leisure (commercial and academic pursuits with the acquisition of antiquities). Yet he is one of those who saw the past as a commodity and a means of maintaining a high social standing by participating in the local power play arena, while at the same time fulfilling his duty on Her Majesty’s Government. It is from this perspective of 19th-century Athenian society that his dealings with the BM should be assessed.

[1] Patrizio Gunning focuses her study on the period between 1815 and 1864 – a period that coincides with the British administration of the Ionian Islands and the period that witnessed the transformation of the consular services in the East Mediterranean following the dissolution of the Levant Company, i.e. the enterprise responsible for British trade in the region until 1825.

[2] Patrizio Gunning 2009, 187-188, n. 132 (BMA, SC1, vol. 1-3, March 1828-April 1876; sub-committee on antiquities, 5 June 1863, and 15 December 1864, fol. 1356).

[3] 11 June 1863, BMA, Offices Reports, vol. 70, report no. 4859, from the Keeper of the Greek and Roman antiquities in the BM.

[4] This ‘service’ had already developed, as early as 1860, into a proper antiquities agency with the involvement of the Admiralty and British Customs.

[5] I am grateful to Lesley Fitton, Keeper of the department of Greek and Roman antiquities at the BM, and Andrew Shapland, Curator for the Aegean Bronze Age collections, for their unfailing support and permission to study the letters sent to the museum from Greece in the period 1864-1899, and for facilitating my research in the BM.

[6] Merlin does not mention at all the directive in his correspondence. There is little doubt, however, that this was probably the original trigger behind his early antiquarian actions.

[7] A first biographical account of Merlin and a brief assessment of his correspondence and transactions with the BM is forthcoming as part of the Center’s 2012 Fall Symposium (the full text of this publication will become available here in early December).

[8] The salary situation is discussed in detail by Patrizio Gunning 2009, 33-44 and 54-57.

[9] For more recent episodes in the trafficking of antiquities using the “diplomatic pouch” see:

[10] On the operations of these academic consuls see Challis, D. 2008. From the Harpy Tomb to the Wonders of Ephesus. British Archaeologists in the Ottoman Empire, 1840-1880, London; on Biliotti in particular and his diplomatic rigour see: Barchard, D. 2006. “The Fearless and Self-Reliant Servant: The Life and Career of Sir Alfred Biliotti (1833-1895)”, Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici 48, 5-53; on the Ionian Bank see: Cottrell, P.L. 2007. The Ionian Bank. An Imperial Institution, 1839-1864, volume 1, Athens.