The Value of Artifacts

What does the term "priceless" mean?

In the art world, "priceless" communicates an item has value beyond any price an appraiser could calculate. Experts say murals contained within the buildings of Vatican City, such as ones in the Sistene Chapel painted by Botticelli and Michelangelo, are priceless. Priceless is primarily a term used with irreplacable works of art created by masters. It is also a term used to describe historical artifacts that tell the story of humanity to future generations. Most historical artifacts preserved in musuems or within protected landmarks around the world fall into the priceless category. BUT, priceless can also be personal. Individuals use the term to refer to treasured heirlooms, perhaps with little perceived monetary value but are emotioanlly valuable to them.

This brings us to the million dollar question that surfaced in a big news story this week. What happens when a priceless work of art or historical artifact we as the collective, as members of humanity, value priceless is also priceless to an individual? Does the individual have first dibs on the item(s) and the right to remove it from the public without consequence? Do the interests of the individual with emotional ties to the item(s) supercede the interests of the collective today and in the future?

Kerstens Antiques Appraisal ArtifactsAn Israeli art student from Jerusalem named Rotem Bides thinks so, as do her academic advisors. Bides studies art at Beit Berl College and is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. As a graduate student tasked with creating a final art project, she decided to focus on the Holocaust. She traveled six separate times to Auschwitz Museum in Poland where her grandfather was a prisoner, to collect relevant items. Rather than photograph or find items similar to ones she saw at Auschwitz, she decided to "remove" them from the musuem. She even "removed" a sign warning visitors against stealing. These items she then used in her final art project.

When asked why she did it, here's what she said: "I am a third generation to the Holocaust, but I’m not saying I’m allowed to do it because my grandfather was in Auschwitz. I’m simply asking the questions. I’m concerned that after all the survivors are gone, the Holocaust will turn into a myth, something that cannot be perceived.”

How do we appraise historical artifacts with immeasurable intrinsic and extrinsic value? Intrinsically, artifacts illuminate and enrich our inner lives. They reveal to us the capacity of humanity to create and destroy. Extrinsically, artifacts have a broader impact on society and future generations. Countries of origin, like Poland, consider historical artifacts national treasures and prosecute all who steal them. Should Rotem Bides be held accountable for "removing" historical Holocaust artifacts from Auschwitz? Would her senior project do more to remind humanity of the horrors of the Holocaust than a public musuem established on the actual location of the atrocity? 

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