Friday, 5 February 2016

Flanders Battlefield Excavations; Methodological Questions from a Member of the Public

Member of the viewing |
public, Samantha Sutton
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Under one of the earlier posts on this blog ('Łubu-dubu ...) one of the people mentioned has exercised her right to reply and conducted some quite remarkable online correspondence referring to the comments made about "Nazi War Diggers"/"Battlefield Recovery" here and elsewhere. She says of herself: "I am a keen amateur, building up a knowledge through research and observation in an area in which I have an interest" and stresses that there is nothing at all atypical that "a woman can be interested in, or have knowledge of, this kind of thing". I am sure this highly articulate lady would be very welcome on any number of military history forums.

However she decided to address some specific questions to my blog. She does not seem very happy with the answers I gave, so I thought I'd place the original question and points made here, and maybe somebody else would like to give what she says some thought and maybe even answer her.
"Hi Paul Many thanks for quoting my tweets. I can assure you that I was initially concerned about the show following your comments, and those from other sources, but decided to form my own opinion by viewing the show. When I watched it, I could not see what the issues were that you and other archaeologists had with it. The production, as I saw it, recovered relics, gave the ones the museum wanted to the Latvian War Museum, and handed the remains of fallen soldiers to the correct authorities. I would value your opinion on how this show was different to the one I’ve linked below, (run by, and clearly stated as being an archaeological dig), as it seems to show all the same things that you and others have complained about, but I do not know if you, or other archaeologists, complained about this show as you have Battlefield Recovery?  Diggin Up The Trenches (second version here
11.13 For about 45 seconds. Handling live ammo.

12.24 Removing a relic without showing context.

25.01 Prying a relic up without loosening it first.

30.38 Handling a relic rifle. How do they know there isn't a live cartridge in the chamber? Is that a qualified EOD person? What qualifications has he got to enable him to handle it safely?

35.00 Handling live ammo that has been ‘adapted’ by the soldiers who intended to use it. This would make it unsafe to handle wouldn’t it? Where is the EOD operative?

47.20 Human remains on some kind of metal plate, no gloves, and all the bones piled up. They carry this towards bones spread out on a plastic sheet. How is this different to what Battlefield Recovery showed? If this doesn’t show disrespect, then why is it disrespectful in Battlefield Recovery?

53.36 A WW1 relic being screwed into the ground. Is this what all archaeologists do? This item is obviously rusty and fragile, so why treat a relic in this manner?

1:00:00 Using a digger with no Hi-Viz jackets or hard hats. Yet these are archaeologists are they not? Were complaints lodged regarding this?

1:22:54 A high explosive artillery shell. Where is the EOD guy? Who took it out of the ground, (as it has obviously been dug up)? A very dangerous thing to do, so I understand, removing an artillery shell from its resting place.

1:24:03 That is a live grenade he has in his hand. I am reliably informed that is an M15 Kugel grenade, of German manufacture. Keep an eye out as it is only 2 seconds of clip. Michael Ball, noted as a ‘Military Historian’. Is he EOD qualified? If not, why is he being allowed to pull at the fuse from this 100-year-old explosive device?

1:34:56 Two live stick grenades lying on a table with the general public all gathered round. Is this safe?

Lastly, at the end of the show, the relics are said to have been passed 'on to museums around the world'. Which museums? Where's the proof?

Your opinion on how the above differs from Battlefield Recovery would be most welcome, as I am at a loss at to why the above show differs".

The film, featuring Peter Barton, shows a rescue dig in Belgium (the excavated trenches were at Forward Cottage c. 50°52'53.80"N 2°54'31.05"E ) and the site is to be redeveloped and there are segments of the German and British lines being excavated concurrently. While there are clear differences between the excavations shown and the detectorists' hoik holes in the Latvian forest, Ms Sutton's sharp eyes have nevertheless spotted a number of issues with the 'Barton' film.  She compares the two and suggests that the 'Barton' film deserves the same scrutiny as archaeologists gave the film showing the amateur relic hunters. Fair point.  
Rather than the methodology and research aims of the two projects and the training and preparation of the participants - or the motivations for the dig (and filming) in the first place, Ms Sutton concentrates on the handling of explosives and human remains. She suggests that the 'Barton' film does not show the appropriate handling of explosives, just as battlefield diggers does not. She argues that the archaeologists treated human remains in a manner similar to battlefield diggers.

I merely noticed that the team of archaeologists in the show conducted the dig and handling of ordnance and human remains in a very similar way to Battlefield Recovery. I saw nothing wrong in the film, just as I saw nothing wrong in Battlefield Recovery, I saw the same.
Is there anyone who has better knowledge of what was involved in the Flanders dig and its filming who'd like to give Ms Sutton an answer? Any other archaeologists out there that would like to actually engage in some detailed questions from the public? Or maybe representatives of the archaeological authorities in Flanders under whose auspices the project took place? Comments here - below - on the 'Barton' film only please.

Dutch Art Theft Myth-making Still Hammering Away at Ukraine

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand cites and triumphantly announces:
As our investigation already proved: secret service and politicians Ukrain involved in stolen paintings scandal 
It must be said that in the Dutch "art investigation world", the notion of "proof" apparently has a totally different dimension than the rest of the world. The investigations of Mr Brand ('Stolen Paintings and Ukrainian Paramilitaries' PACHI Monday, 7 December 2015) used unverified gossip and ignored facts (the Russian email account) to come up with some wild and damaging accusations, but no proof of any of them.  (See 'Stolen Paintings: Dutch Silent Embarrassed Foot Shuffling' for later developments and links to previous posts on the topic.) Not surprisingly, the Russian language press is having a field day with these accusations, but in this case I would not consider that anything Mr Brand or  Mr Geerdink should feel proud of.  

Thursday, 4 February 2016

A Book to Look Out For

You can pre-order now: Erin Thompson, 'Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present' May 24, 2016. Though the title is not explicit, I assume it is private collectors of antiquities rather than butterflies or sea shells.
Erin Thompson, America's only professor of art crime, explores the dark history of looting, smuggling, and forgery that lies at the heart of many private art collections and many of the world's most renowned museums. Enlivened by fascinating personalities and scandalous events, Possession shows how collecting antiquities has been a way of creating identity, informed by a desire to annex the past while providing an illicit thrill along the way. Thompson's accounts of history's most infamous collectors—from the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who stole a life-sized nude Greek statue for his bedroom, to Queen Christina of Sweden, who habitually pilfered small antiquities from her fellow aristocrats, to Sir William Hamilton, who forced his mistress to enact poses from his collection of Greek vases—are as mesmerizing as they are revealing.
Well, antiquity collectors are naughty people, aren't they? (Emma's 'attitudes' here.) "Art crime commands headlines" says the blurb, so hopefully in among all the salacious fluff, there's be a proper discussion of the claim that "Syrian rebels are looting UNESCO archaeological sites to buy arms". (Bosra and Palmyra?).

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

"All the paperwork had been destroyed"

The Mail has a sensationalist piece giving the background to the Geneva freeport find linked with Robin Symes (Harry Mount, 'High society Tomb Raider: Part Bond villain. Part Indiana Jones. The extraordinary story of how a suave British art dealer squirrelled away 17,000 of the world's most valuable relics' Mail 3 February 2016).
Symes's gallery — in Ormond Yard, an exclusive square in St James's — was a magnet for collectors, including the oil billionaire, J. Paul Getty. [...] He clearly knew his stuff. His gallery was the holy grail for collectors — all beige suede, with bronze cabinets and wonderful lights, the first really American-looking gallery.' [...]  By the time liquidators came to sell off the remnants of Symes's collection, at Bonhams in Oxford, in 2009, he was a discredited man. The 250 lots in the sale, including old masters and a Picasso, had to be sold at rock bottom prices because, as Bonhams said, 'the liquidators make no warranty to title' — in other words, the antiquities might have been stolen. It was impossible to know where the treasures came from because all the paperwork had been destroyed — not quite what you expect of a reputable antiquities dealer.
well, actually that is just what you'd expect in the antiquities market. You will have to look high and low for a long time to find a dealer who is offering upfront a full set of paperwork for any of his or her stock. To judge from the lack of such paperwork, one may surmise that getting rid of it has been  frequent practice in order to allow the no-questions-asked market to fudge the difference between objects actually from old collections and those which "surfaced from underground" by less-than-licit means much more recently. Dealers disingenuously claim incidental "carelessness", but the end effects we see today really look like the cynical results of more deliberate and systematic action.

It was discovered before his trial that Symes had a huge stock of antiquities, reportedly he had squirrelled away 17,000 relics, thought to be worth £125 million. Many of these he managed to sell before his conviction. Who has them now, and where will they surface?

A “Highly Dysfunctional World Where Record Keeping is not a Priority"

In a Manhattan court a trial is ongoing concerning the the Knoedler Gallery’s sale of forgeries (Laura Gilbert, 'Who is really to blame in the Knoedler fakes case?, The Art Newspaper 27 January 2016). Collectors Domenico and Eleanore De Sole bought a painting supposedly by Rothko for $8.3m that turned out to be a fake, and now accuse Knoedler Gallery and its former director Ann Freedman of trickery and lying (for the origin of the work, see here).
The lawyers for Knoedler, Freedman, and the gallery’s owner 8-31 Holdings argued that their clients did nothing wrong. At stake is whether the defendants have to pay the De Soles $25m for knowingly selling them a forgery in 2004. That painting was one of 40 purported Abstract Expressionist works brought to Knoedler by the Long Island art dealer Glafira Rosales, who in 2013 admitted to federal authorities that they were all painted in Queens by a single artist. Knoedler tried to “trick their customers into thinking the paintings were real” and Freedman was “lying” about the works, said the plaintiffs’ attorney Emily Reisbaum.
The De Soles insisted that Freedman put in writing what she told them about the work. The document they received asserted that the work was by Rothko (acquired directly from the artist’s studio) and ownership had passed to "someone living in Switzerland", and that the painting had been authenticated by eleven experts. Reisbaum said in court that everything Freedman had put in that letter is false.
Proving that Freedman knew that the story behind the work was not true will be the plaintiffs’ biggest hurdle. Reisbaum laid out the red flags that she said prove Freedman knew, or should have known, the work was fake. First, the source of the paintings was unknown and “Knoedler never found any proof of where the artworks came from”. Second, Reisbaum said, Rosales sent an “endless stream of unknown artworks” to Knoedler over a 14-year period; no one had ever seen them before, they were undocumented, and they kept coming. [...] The last leg of provenance was also missing: there were no shipping records of works coming from Switzerland to the US.
The lawyers for the defendants are defiant, arguing that they plaintiffs cannot prove their fraud case by the necessary “clear and convincing evidence” (The 'They-can't-touch-you-for-it' defence). Luke Nikas, representing Freedman, explained to the court that Knoedler and Freedman believed in the picture because Rosales was a “brilliant con”, the works seemed to be authentic and the dealers did not note the missing evidence verifying the stated collection history because:
they lived in a “highly dysfunctional world”, where record keeping wasn’t a priority. 
It is at this point that a case about purported 1950s paintings becomes of relevance to the antiquities trade. To what extent is the excuse "this market is a highly dysfunctional one where record keeping was (and is) not a priority" going to shield the dealer for responsibility for the items they handle? In New Yrk shops cannot sell meat or apples of unknown provenance, TVs without the paperwork showing they are of legal provenance. Why should this not apply to other commodities just because dealers see a way of making profits from items they have obtained from source3s which cannot supply that documentation? Rosales presented the Gallery with an oral story (in fact stories if you read the article), but the dealer took them on 'trust' and did no due diligence to verify that - which would have revealed the total lack of supportive documentation. In that case, a responsible dealer should say to the supplier,
"while the price IS tempting, no thanks, I'm a responsible dealer and I cannot take responsibility for such items when I cannot see the paperwork".
The case therefore hinges on proving this was a case of "I'll ask no questions so you'll not tell me lies" or not. I think responsible collectors and dealers should be watching the verdict of this case, as it may well throw a shadow over the “highly dysfunctional world, where record keeping isn’t a priority" which is the no-questions-asked portable antiquities market.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Heritage Management, English Style

From the Continent, it seems that in terms of caring for its cultural heritage, the country is going to the dogs. . Part of a growing nationwide trend as archaeology seen as irrelevant? But not to worry, the county's metal detectorists are still finding new stuff for people to study and admire.

CIfA Statement onChannel Five's Battlefield Diggers

This is the end of the text of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists' statement on 'Battlefield Recovery'

Eh?The CIfA should be opposed to artefact hunting and collecting (especially if done commercially as a 'profession'), wherever it happens in the world, especially right under their (chartered) noses. Especially as most of it is done (under their noses) exactly in the same way as we see in the televised film. Where are their concerns about that expressed?

No reply from Channel Five to this complaint appears to be on record.
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