Monday, 11 August 2008

The Ethical collector

The hobby of collecting portable antiquities is attracting more and more negative attention in the world's media, as well it might, certain elements within the antiquity trade and those who financially support them by buying matrial no-questions-asked are causing immense erosion of the archaeological record. Those who have the most to lose, including dealers who do not wish their source of supply questioned too deeply, fight vehemently to maintain the status quo. They try by all means to make this a struggle about "ownership rights" rather than conservation. Any attempt to criticise the current situation usually results in the questioner being labelled an "extremist", or "radical" who can only be out (really) "to ban collecting". Hence the aggressive posturing of the collecting lobby that characterises this debate in archaeology to an extent seen in no other.

Are all collectors however oblivious to such criticism as the battle-hardened combatants of what is being increasing portrayed by the diehard nay-sayers as a “war” over personal rights? Are there no collectors who are able to see that there is some, maybe a lot, of justification for the concerns that are expressed by conservationists and others about the current status quo in the portable antiquities trade and the milieu of collecting?

Presumably those ethical and responsible collectors who do their utmost to acquire only legitimately-sourced material and exclude any of unknown or dubious origin from their collections, must feel disgruntled that they are being tarred with the same brush as their less scrupulous fellows all over the world who – nobody can doubt, and whether they admit it or not - are the consumers of increasing quantities of looted and smuggled portable antiquities.

A while ago it became fashionable in collecting circles to persuade the world that the Good Collector has a beneficial influence, an effort still going on in collecting advocacy circles today. There is not a collector of portable antiquities in the world who cannot trot out half a dozen 'reasons' why portable antiquity collecting is a good thing for history, culture, international well-being, clothing the poor, feeding the hungry, bringing relief to the downtrodden. The definition of the type of good collector being referred to by R.J. McIntosh; T. Togola and S.K. McIntosh 1995 seems to have been forgotten. Troubled by the loss of context in the case of many of the items coming onto the market these authors insisted among other things that

the Good Collector casts a jaded eye upon those dealers who insist that their reputation take the place of details of provenance.
This is because dealers are habitually secretive about where the objects they sell actually came from and how they got into their hands. they have, it is true, their codes of practice (sometimes even called codes of ethics), but many of them avoid using wording which actually would restrain the dealer from very much at all. See David Gill's discussion of that of the Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild for an example of the type of problem. The reputation of a dealer in any case in the antiquity buying world is usually built on a dealer's reputation not to sell fakes, rather than ability to obtain legally provenanced artefacts and provide watertight documentation of that fact.

It is therefore the dealers who are most concerned for there to be no move towards an establishment of more a definition of what would constitute ethical collecting (where obviously the provenance and proveninience of the traded items is of paramount concern). As we have seen time and time again, it is often the dealers who set the agenda, define what the collector can and cannot buy, what they can and cannot expect and what they can and cannot believe about their relationship with the archaeological record. To a large extent it is the pressure of the dealers' lobbies which is responsible for the impasse in which we find ourselves today over collecting and its erosive effects on the archaeological record. McIntosh, Togola and McIntosh 1995 therefore add:

the Good Collector will actively demonstrate a willingness to join with like-minded collectors to self police the art market. As a necessary part of this action, they will wrest the dialogue about the ethics of collecting and about relations of source and market nations from the trafficking syndicates and their apologists, where that dialogue about essential ethics is presently lodged

That was thirteen years ago. Where are those Good Collectors now? Why is the non-dialogue still in the hands of the dealers and their supporters? It is interesting to note that ethically-conscious hobbyists have not (38 years after the UNESCO convention) yet created their own code of honour, a code of ethics which sets their part of the collecting milieu apart from the hoi polloi who unquestioningly buy material of unknown origin. Why not?

In May 2008 there was some discussion of these issues on portable artefact collecting forums, and as part of this I put forward as material for discussion some suggestions what an archaeologist might consider such a code would need. The discussion went on for a few weeks, but nothing was formalised. (It is of course symptomatic who on these lists were for and who opposed to the idea of portable antiquity collectors creating such a code of ethics for themselves.) It seems worth setting down here for further reference what I thought at the time such a code should address.

1) Obviously for the archaeologist the important one would be that the responsible collector thinks at all times of the effects of their activity on the finite and fragile archaeological resource. If in any doubt about this, they'd not buy the offered item, no matter how nice it would look in a glass case.

2) From this follows that the responsible collector would not buy objects which have clearly or potentially come from recent/current illegal digging,or illegal export. The responsible collector would not regard the 'good collector' ('offering it a safe home') argument as a sufficient reason to support illegal activity, or to enter such items in their collection. If the dealer cannot provide independently verifiable proof that the object was legitimately obtained, it does not belong in a responsible collector's collection.

3) The responsible collector would recognize their role as a custodian and do their utmost to ensure the well-being of the items in their care.

4) The responsible collector would not split up assemblages of objects belonging together (grave group for example) by buying or selling just one or a few items from a larger associated group. Neither would they dismember and sell separately parts of one complete object.

5) The responsible collector will keep (and add to) in a permanent and ordered form the documentation of individual items, former owners, export papers, conservation reports etc. and pass them on to the next owner. [Obviously it would be ideal to suggest that the responsible collectorwould only dispose of finds to another responsible collector so they know that the carefully curated chain of documentation will be preserved].

6) Each object (or coherent associated group of objects) will be kept separate from others and be identified and catalogued in such a way that itcan be linked with the associated documentation.

7) If the object needs conservation, the responsible collector will have all but the simplest operations carried out by qualified persons and get a full report from them. If they cannot afford this they would avoid buying objects in poor state that need this kind of conservation. The responsible collector would keep photographic records of objects prior to repair and restoration, and be honest and open by describing in writing in their records the amount of repair and restoration undertaken.

8) The responsible collector will liase with the archaeological community where possible about the objects they own. They will endeavour to find out more about the objects they possess (curate) and what they mean. Significant objects (within reason) not be withheld from study. [The codes of ethics ofUS and some European archaeologists hinder this, but only if the objectsare "illicit"]. The responsible collector will endeavour to research their finds and their context and not just pile up some interesting curios.

9) Human remains. For reasons beyond the interest of archaeology and protection of world cultural heritage, collecting these items is clearly un-ethical. The trade in human body parts is subject to different laws indifferent parts of the world and obviously the collector has to respect this.

10) A related point, the responsible collector would respect and display sensitivity towards the nature of certain types of object and religious sanctions of some types belonging to societies still in existence.

11) Fakes, a responsible collector finds out one of the objects they bought is fake. What does he do? Destroy it? Sell it clearly described as a fake? Certainly once this has been ascertained, the object should not be allowed to function as potential historical evidence (The Lie BecameGreat/Muscarella type problems)

12) Disposing of unwanted items. Perhaps things nobody would buy even on eBay. Overcleaned Roman coins for example. Flint knapping waste they acquired once but no longer want in their growing collection. What would a responsible collector do with it? (including preventing it getting into a situation where it contaminates the archaeological record).

R.J. McIntosh; T. Togola and S.K. McIntosh 1995 ‘The Good Collector and the premise of Mutual respect Among Nations’, African Arts 28, 60-69.


Rlcirulli1 said...

Hi Paul. Not sure if you remember, but I'm a member of the group trying to nail down this responsible collector guidelines. Although it is still a work in progress, there are several of us still working on it. Of the 12 points in your article, 9 are included. They are: 2,3,4,5,7,10,11,12. Point 8 is also there, but the words archaeological community were replaced with academic community. Although I agree with you on point #1, it's not included. That doesn't mean some of us won't still live by it though. I still think that the guidelines are important, especially since there are new collectors joining the ranks every day, and there are other things that need to be kept in mind besides "is it authentic". There's a lot that I wish I had known when I started collecting.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks for that comment, I have been watching from the sidelines the efforts of this group of responsible collectors to agree such a text with interest.

While I am by no means insisting on it, I think the first principle is important, defining why a code of ethics (not merely 'guidelines') is needed and what it is that these collectors are declaring themselves as feeling responsible towards. The main gripe the outside world has with portable antiquity collecting is the depletion of the archaeological record caused by irresponsible purchase by some collectors of objects coming from inappropriate exploitation of the world's finite and fragile archaeological resources. The first point puts the adherents of the Code firmly on the side of conservation, states what they are concerned about helping conserve which aligns their interests with those who are critics of less responsible forms of collecting.

Six is a matter of curation, when so much is made of the alleged abilities of private collectors to do a "better" job than museums (see the "Welsh Pompeii" post here) I would have thought that an assurance like this was needed. It would not be responsible to have the collected artefacts displayed on a tabletop (see the "detectorist video" post here) or in a glass case, no matter how tastefully, at the moment of the collector's death, if it means that there is no way of associating the individual items with the documentation of where it came from except what the collector carries in their mind. This must be I feel the single most important factor in the loss of provenance information for privately collected and curated objects, and this is where museums (in general) with their cataloguing systems are currently superior as a place of deposit of such material. The responsible collector surely should be trying to at least match those standards.
Anyway, good luck with your further deliberations.

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