Sunday, 27 July 2008

Beware of the Bogeyman Banner

Speaking to collectors of unprovenanced ancient coins and antiquities, dealer Alfredo De La Fe owner of Imperial Coins & Artifacts, Inc. of New York asserts:

"The extremists which currently control the
archeological lobby would have ALL personal ownership of antiquities banned, be
they unidentifiable coins found in a farmers field or the next Roseta
(sic) stone".
Among collectors of portable antiquities, the notion of these overzealous and radical extremists out to ban the entire hobby of collecting of portable antiquities is a constant feature among their identity-forming mantras. It’s a threatening “Other” against which they are able to rally in unity, but it seems to me its an imagined community based on an imaginary enemy.

I have a proposition for these collectors, let’s make a black-list of these guys. In my time, I’ve read quite a lot of the literature on looting and preservation, legislation and regulation, metal detecting and other issues. I really cannot think of more than a handful of cases in English (I do not read Chinese, but then my bet is neither does Mr De La Fe) where I found the statement “all private collection of antiquities must be totally stopped”.

Such a measure would be quite unreasonable, since there are indeed many hundreds of thousands of artefacts in private hands that are there totally legitimately, from a Neolithic axe found by a granny while weeding her rose border in Ludlow to a shabti bought back from a trip to Luxor in 1892. Nobody in their right mind would want them all suddenly being deposited in our museums in an amnesty preceding a total ban.

So let the collectors actually compile a list (with references) of these alleged ban-collecting, anti-private property “extremists” and let us see how many of them there actually are in the English-speaking world. How many are unequivocally calling for a TOTAL BAN on the collecting of antiquities? I wager that its actually far less than the dealers and collectors suggest. I propose that if they cannot show that this is more than a handful of opinions, then they should stop spreading false information.

I will start the list for them:
1) Paul Barford: Although on artefact hunting and collecting forums I am incessantly accused by those who cannot be bothered to read plain English of proposing a total ban on collecting and private ownership of archaeological artefacts, this is not true. Its another one of those bogeyman stories collectors like to spread about those they see as their opponents. I doubt that anyone can document such a claim with reference to anything I have actually written or said.

2) That guy in Wales. Yes. There is an archaeologist in Wales who has gone on record as saying a few years ago that “all metal detecting should be banned”. I do not agree with him (and am on record as having said so). There are a number of mild critics of metal detecting in Britain, and one in recent months has also perhaps come close to saying something like this, but it’s a bit ambiguous what he meant. So, one, maybe two, opponents in the UK, but they do not seem to be likely to make much headway in the generally pro-"detecting" sentiments of today's British archaeology (more on this later no doubt). There is also a British television presenter (not an archaeologist) who has for some years been the prime bête noire of the UK "metal detecting" community because once or twice he has said in public something less-than-complimentary about their hobby. As far as I know, however, he has not gone as far as saying the hobby should be totally banned. Has he?

3) Professor Colin Renfrew---Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn. Famous for his opposition to the illicit trade, but actually, despite the bogeyman stories attributed to him, I find no evidence in his seminal text (2000, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. ISBN 0-7156-3034-2 ) that he believes that all collecting should be stopped. If that were the case, he’d hardly be likely to lend his support to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which he has done on a number of occasions, most recently here.

4) Michael Müller-Karpe. This scholar from Mainz argues forcefully for a general ban on any trade in looted artifacts from illegal excavations . It is true however that in a discussion document he has also proposed a "complete and irreversible end to any kind of trade in antiquities". This is because he holds that even the trade in legitimate and provenanced artefacts allows the development and maintenance of the market generally which, in the current situation in portable antiquity collecting, unavoidably leads to looting.

5) SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone). Apparently a worrying phenomenon for US dealers and collectors, a grassroots organization based in the US busily informing public opinion of some of the shady goings-on in and around the antiquity collecting world. As far as I know, nowhere has it proposed a total ban on the collection of portable antiquities (see Welsh's comments cited here), but merely combatting the illicit trade which is damaging the cultural patrimony. US dealers and their supporters spitefully attack this organization where they can, but it seems to me personally that their criticisms of what it stands for are generally based on hearsay and snippets of gossip rather than real knowledge or understanding what it stands for or says.

6) The Archaeological Institute of America. Apparently the biggest bogeyman for US collectors. So what do the AIA actually stand for? Well, nothing unusual for an archaeological organization of this nature. The Code of Ethics merely says that archaeologists should “refuse to participate in the trade in undocumented antiquities and refrain from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects”. The Code of Professional standards also refers only to the avoidance of “illegal antiquities”. That seems fair enough to me, the definition of what is regarded by the AIA as licit seems perfectly reasonable. No mention, however, is made of banning or refusing to be associated with the legitimate trade of objects not falling outside that definition. Perhaps then we should be asking why US dealers equate such a standpoint as being equivalent to banning the trade as a whole. If they can document the legitimate origin of the objects they have in stock, they surely would have no quarrel with the AIA.

I think this is symptomatic. The position of five of the six 'bogeymen' mentioned above is that collecting which is leading to undocumented losses from the archaeological record and cultural patrimony is damaging and should be combated. I do not see anything wrong with such a position. What is profoundly disturbing is that those ‘in the know’ (ie portable antiquity dealers and collectors) seem to think that this is an attack on the whole antiquities trade. Is it in fact the case that if we stop the part of the trade that is damaging the archaeological record and cultural patrimony of whole countries, there in fact would be nothing much else left? Is it in fact true as Müller-Karpe suggests that even a market supplied by legitimately-obtained artefacts would lead to more damage? Why on earth should that be among civilized people?

PS. 5th August: Since this was written, archaeologist Geoff Carver suggested on a Yahoo archaeology forum a total ban of trade in antiquities (because the legal trade encourages the illicit one). So that makes... about three real advocates of a ban at the moment. Collectors, where are these people that threaten your hobby so much? Come on. Let's make a full list. Comments invited.

1 comment:


As posted on the SAFE website:

SAFE encourages legal and ethical behavior among collectors, dealers, and museums to stop the trade in illicit antiquities. SAFE recognizes the ability of individuals and institutions to lawfully acquire and properly retain or transfer title of antiquities where authorized by law. However, antiquities are more than just aesthetic objects of beauty; they serve as historical evidence of the past. Because principles of supply and demand influence illegal antiquities trafficking, purchasers of antiquities should recognize that high demand can entice others to illegally excavate archaeological sites, smuggle illicit antiquities, and sell stolen objects. Such unlawful and unethical behavior permanently destroys information about the past.

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