August 2, 2013

Report from ARCA in Amelia: Dorit Straus teaches "Insurance Claims and the Art Market"; Erik Nemeth finishes course on cultural security; and students visit Pompeii and Oplontis with Acting Academic Director Crispin Corrado

Dorit Straus
by Summer Kelley-Bell, ARCA Intern

This week brought us the amazing Dorit Straus, who taught "Insurance Claims and the Art Market".  Until her recent retirement, Ms. Straus worked as the Worldwide Fine Art Specialty Manager for Chubb Personal Insurance. Prior to that, she studied archaeology at Hebrew University and worked in a variety of different museums. The combination of these two careers meant that Ms. Straus was able to offer us a truly unique classroom experience. Her class was shorter than most, a mere two and a half days to the usual five, but by the end the students were clamoring for more time. Through her, we learned about the complexities involved in insuring different types of collections and the steps that are taken in the event of a loss. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that her class was the sleeper hit of the summer. Who would have guessed that art insurance could be so fascinating? In this case, I think we owe a lot to our professor. Ms. Straus was able to distill the important concepts of the art insurance world in understandable and interesting ways. Towards the end of her section, she had the class split into groups to create our own insurance situation. This process helped to solidify the ideas we had been presented with in class and was an excellent means of studying for Straus’ final test. 

Ms. Straus’ class was offset by the end of Dr. Erik Nemeth’s section on cultural security. For the end this class, we looked at the idea of legalizing the trade in antiquities as a possible way of stopping destruction of sites. This sparked intense debate among the students and led to some rather entertaining class discussions. Dr. Nemeth’s class finished up with an epic exam where students were asked to find a way to encourage different groups of people to care about art crime. We were told to come up with a project and try to find funding for it in sectors that do not usually work within the art world. It worked well as a way to sum up everything Dr. Nemeth had been teaching us about interdisciplinary collaboration and how it can be used to help protect art.

"Ducks" of Oplontis
We finished out the week with a trip to Pompeii and Oplontis, led by the always amazing Dr. Crispin Corrado. Dr. Corrado, an archaeologist based out of Rome, gave us a guided tour unlike any other.  We learned about Pompeii: from its humble beginnings, to its fiery end. A few of the students even took a side trip to the House of the Fawn and the Villa of Mysteries. The villa especially was a big hit as it is so beautifully preserved. After a brief break for lunch, we head over to the villa at Oplontis, where I had a minor fit over some very small paintings of ducks. The villa is filled with fantastic frescoes—the reds and golds remain so vibrant that it almost hurts your eyes to look at them. For me though, the most amazing paintings were the hallway frescoes. These simple paintings, which were made to look like marble, have an unassuming boarder of small animals: deer, panthers, and ducks.  The ducks, while of no real importance and placed so high on the wall as to be almost invisible, illustrated for me the love that went into decorating this house.  It was a home, one to which people surely wanted to return.   

For years scholars believed that this sea facing villa was uninhabited at the time of the eruption as there were no human remains found in the Villa "A" portion of the structure.  Even so, walking through its many rooms gave me a very real sense of their presence.  This viewpoint changed dramatically when researchers discovered 54 skeletons in one of the large ground-floor rooms in the Villa "B" portion of the site, an area that opens onto the southern portico.  Here, men, women and children, some rich, others apparently not, had gathered to wait, perhaps hoping rescue from the unfolding tragedy would come from the sea.

The fact that we can still learn new things from a site such as Oplontis over the course of many years  underscores why we need to not only protect sites such as this from decay, but to continue studying them.  We can learn many things about our past from Oplontis and its marvelous ducks and if we teach people about the importance of preservation instead of just herding tourists through by the thousands, we might be able to protect our cultural heritage long enough to uncover even more important discoveries about our past.   

I have learned to love the villa at Oplontis and I will never look at ducks, or those who painted them, the same again.


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