Cycladic Figurine

White marble folded-arm figurine, Greece, ca. 2600–2200 BC. KM 1983.4.1

Sculptures like this one, which were made in the Cycladic islands of Greece during the Early Bronze Age (ca. late 4th–3rd millennium BC), are among the most distinctive and instantly recognizable of archaeological objects. Like the Kelsey’s example, many are less than 4 inches tall, and nude females with arms folded across the belly are the most common type.

What this figurine was originally intended for remains a mystery since it lacks any archaeological provenance. Examples have been excavated in domestic settlements, though most of those with known contexts have come from graves—thus, perhaps, serving the needs of the deceased beyond the grave.

Modern collectors have been drawn to these objects because of their brilliant whiteness and their simple elegance. As a result, these sculptures have been illicitly excavated, looted, and forged on a massive scale, especially in the decades after World War II.

Before its transfer to the Kelsey in 1983, this figurine came to the U-M Museum of Art in 1978 as one of 33 objects bequeathed by Maxine W. Kundstadter. Comprised almost entirely of twentieth-century works, this bequest nevertheless included half a dozen ancient bronzes from Luristan (a category infamous for its forgeries) as well as a 1930 polished bronze by Jean Arp, one of the artists most influenced by “primitive” art, including the Cycladic figurines that were becoming better known at about that time. Thus, the inclusion of this figurine, five millennia old, in a collection of twentieth-century artworks is neither unexpected nor atypical.

Most Cycladic figurines lack a known findspot or a well-documented history of ownership. The corpus as a whole is also corrupted by modern fakes, making its reliable archaeological study perhaps no longer possible. The question then arises as to whether archaeologists should study these sorts of unprovenanced finds at all since doing so may actually help to validate an illicit trade in looted material; this is a significant, and still largely unresolved, ethical dilemma that faces archaeologists worldwide but one that Early Cycladic sculptures raise in an unusually stark form.

--Based on John F. Cherry, “An Unprovenanced Cycladic Folded-Arm Figurine in the Kelsey Museum,” Bulletin of the University of Michigan Museums of Art and Archaeology 15 (2003-4) 100-3.