Language: English
Source: In common use

Description

"Museum quality" is a term often heard uttered by antique dealers and auctioneers to give a piece an air of importance and desirability. It is also used by collectors, to either increase the perceived importance of their pieces but often to also increase their perception of value.

In reality, there is no such thing as "museum quality" simply because there is no set standard as to what a museum holds or purchases. Many museum depots hold a vast array of low-end items, simply because they have once been donated, often as part of a larger collection. Sometimes a museum purchases the mundane just to be able to illustrate that; the mundane.

Also see my article on a Chinese sword with Qianlong reign mark, of which a near identical example is in the Royal Armories in Leeds. Both far postdating the Qianlong reign and resembling none of the qualities associated with that period. Could I say mine was "museum quality", just because it had a near-identical twin in a museum?

Sure, some of the top museums have top quality pieces but such pieces are not exclusively seen in museums. There were made outside the museum, often used outside the museum, traded and passed on outside of the museum, only to eventually end up in the museum. Also, the best private collections hold items just as good as some of the world's top institutions.

 

Some ratty old swords

"Museum quality", some ratty old swords with rusty blades.
Beijing Military Museum. Photographed 2005.

 

Fine loukong saber

Fine Qing imperial saber.
Sold by Mandarin Mansion in 2018.

 

In other words, "museum quality" is bullshit, meant to instill an air of importance over the piece described as such. On bullshit, it is important to notice that bullshit is not the same as lying. I quote Harry Frankfurt:

"This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false." 1

And further:

"When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false.

His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose." 2

 

After having established that "museum quality" is bullshit, we should not be too harsh on those uttering the word:

"Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant." 3

 

In the best case, the word "museum quality" is used for a piece that carries provenance of some importance, or is just a very good example of its type, in original condition, and with no recent repairs. But the connaisseur should be able to find better descriptive terms for each element that makes a piece good, rather than having to resort to using "museum quality".

 

Notes
1. Harry Frankfurt; On Bullshit. 2005.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

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