Tuesday, 6 January 2009

"Flawed analysis" of a Stanford "Saddamite"?

The Stanford Archaeology Center seems to be planning to run a series of pieces on research into different sectors of the antiquities market. As may have been expected, the naysayers in the antiquity collecting world are not best pleased to see Neil Brodie’s account of what he found when he looked into "The Market in Iraqi Antiquities 1980-2008." Washington lawyer and portable antiquities collector Peter Tompa raisesa number of “issues that become readily apparent even after a rather cursory reading” and Californian artefact seller Dave Welsh accuses the scholar of having conducted a “flawed analysis” (though adducing no information of his own – simply relying on the Washington lawyer’s opinions). Let’s have a look at them referring to Tompa's original seven points.

I am not quite sure what Peter Tompa is accusing Neil Brodie of (point 2) when he writes:

Brodie appears to be one of those willing to overlook Saddam Hussein's crimes just because he spent lavishly on archaeology.
What is that supposed to mean? The paper is not a history of Iraq 1980-2008, or the reasons for G.W. Bush Junior’s deadly military jaunt over there. I fail to see where in Brodie’s paper Tompa expects to see his obliging denunciation of the Iraqi president deposed by US aggression. Tompa seems to have a chip on his shoulder about archaeologists who worked in Iraq, and this seems to have rubbed off in his assessment of Neil Brodie - unfairly I think.

Point 3 (“tales of looting of Iraqi sites post 2003 have been greatly exaggerated”) is a moot point. Tompa in his blog and elsewhere places more credence on these reports than many other observers. In any case Tompa misunderstands here, as elsewhere, the purpose of Brodie’s analysis.

Tompa reckons (point 1) that “large numbers of cuneiform tablets were sold in department stores around the United States during the early years of the last century”. To explain this, the reader should know that US department stores like Macey’s used to have collectors’ departments. I wonder if the Hecht stores also did? Anyhow, Tompa reckons that “Presumably, many of these tablets have lost their provenance by now”. This makes two assumptions, the first is that the lumps of clay bought in the early twentieth century and scattered in homes all over the USA actually survived (and were not thrown out unrecognized by heirs of the original purchaser), secondly that the collectors who bought them did not take care to preserve that information. This is important as the ACCG [of which Tompa is or was the president] stands firm on the position that the collectors of ancient antiquities are responsible people who curate information about the antiquities of which they are stewards. The department store antiquities argument seems to me a red herring in the context of Brodie's analysis.

Tompa questions whether sales figures of Christies’ and Sotheby’s represent an increase in the number of antiquities coming onto the market at the turn of the 1990s because “shouldn't we see that spike in the same year?” (point 4). It seems that the lawyer is here (as in the last point) a victim of his own “rather cursory reading”. If he had read Brodie’s “efforts” (sic) more carefully, he might appreciate that his own interpretation is at fault. In his point five Tompa suggests that the figures and tables showing a “limited number of lots available for sale” and their “generally modest value” belie an “oft heard claim” that he cannot be bothered to reference. I suggest that Tompa spends a little more time reading the captions to those figures and tables and putting them in the context of the whole market in antiquities in the whole period covered by Brodie’s paper. Modest? I hardly think so in the circumstances.

Point seven explains away a problem for the antiquities market - which is said (by those who participate in it) to be largely in “legitimate objects” and the cowboys selling illicit material are a “minority which gets the trade a bad name”. Brodie shows (p. 2) that after the adoption of UNSCR 1483 the number of Iraqi items on the market in general dropped sharply. Brodie suggests that this is because “a large part of the unprovenanced material on the market really had been illegally exported”. Not so, says Tompa, the answer is simple: “In the climate of the times […] many dealers were scared to sell any Iraqi antiquity provenanced or not”. Let’s get this straight, a US dealer has provenanced artefacts with clear documented pedigrees going back to the 1950s… and they resist the temptation to sell them to knowledge-hungry collectors in Bush’s America, out of fear? As Mr Tompa says: " I am not sure this follows logically”.

Point seven about the “the increased popularity of the Internet as a sales tool” really is pointless, one cannot have increased sales of (authentic) Iraqi antiquities if there are not actually more such antiquities on the market – no matter how they are sold.

Peter Tompa restricts his attention to the first part of Brodie’s text, misses out totally the points made about Barakat Gallery cuneiform tablets and the Larsa Nebuchadnezzar bricks (Larsa being one of the sites which was “not looted” according to information in the art world given much credence by Tompa). I suggest that antiquity collectors should give Brodie’s text more than a “rather cursory reading” and reflect more deeply on its implications than lawyer and antiquity collector Peter Tompa seems willing to do. Rather than a "flawed analysis" I think we have here the products of a flawed reading.

Photo: cuneiform tablet (Richard Benson)

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