Saturday, 10 January 2009

A Virtual clutter of Cuneiform, where's it from?

In the post above I discuss a few aspects of the code of ethics of the Vcoins web sales site for portable antiquities and question whether it is a code of ethics that actually takes into account the principle criticism of the archaeological resource protection lobby, that is that dealers and collectors are doing next to nothing to address the problem of looted objects on the global antiquities market.

In recent years the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq has been a very visible reminder of what is at stake, and the issue has become a very sensitive one in collecting circles. Dealers and their supporters have suggested that stories of the looting are “exaggerated” and that the looted items are allegedly not coming onto the western market, which should be (it is asserted by collectors and dealers) saturated by “department store” and other “legitimately obtained” artefacts of Iraqi origin.

This means that (even if a proportion of them have lost provenance) there must still be out there a substantial number of items whose legitimate origins and presence in former collections must be documentable. This is good news for reputable dealers who cannot these days run the risk of selling-on items of which they cannot document the legitimate origin. In that case, one might expect that those selling items that can be shown to be of legitimate origin would be keenly broadcasting that fact in order to set themselves aside from those who dare not reveal where the items really came from and when. (Unless of course there is a conspiracy of silence to shield the latter?)

So it was with some interest that I looked through the cuneiform tablets (the archetypical Iraqi archaeological artefact sought by artefact hunters and collectors alike), not on eBay, but ACCG president Bill Puetz’s :Strongly Ethical Alternative to eBay” Vcoins site.
Using the search engine, I found a number of COIN dealers on this one portal alone were offering these items.

Isadore Goldstein 'ZUZIM JUDAEA', Brooklyn, NY
UR III Sumerian Cuneiform tablet, 2112 - 2004 B.C.E., Approximate time of Abraham's birth
Ancient Babylonian Tablet. Period of Hammurapi, circa. 1750 B.C.E.
no provenances mentioned.

Wayne Hardenberg, Ancient Byways, Wethersfield, CT, USA
Sumerican (sic) Cuneiform Clay Tablet – O[ld] B[abylonian] Adminstartive (sic)
no provenance given.

Kevin Barry, Barry and Darling, Pt. Pleasant, NJ, USA
Mesopotamian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3rd - 2nd Millennium BC.
Mesopotamian Proto-Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3,000 BC.
no provenance cited.

Pegasi Numismatics, Ann Arbor, MI/Holicong, PA , U.S.A
Cuneiform Tablet. Old Babylonian, XX-XVI Century BC. Temple receipt for donated goods.
no provenence mentioned.

But there is a whole lot on one Australian dealer’s site: Walter Holt, Bondi Junction, NSW Australia.
Mr Holt has had a number (eleven at the moment, but his numbering goes up to 17) of other cuneiform tablets (some which to my eyes look to have been in a very similar state of preservation) on his Vcoins store . All of them without any kind of explanation of where they came from, when and how they left Iraq (do they have Macey's in Australia?), such as:
CT 01 Cuneiform Tablet; Old Akkadian c.2350-2150BC Administrative document.
CT 04 Cuneiform Tablet; Ur III Period c.2150-2000BC
CT 11 Cuneiform Tablet; Ur III Period c.2150-2000BC
CT 12 Cuneiform Tablet; Ur III Period c.2150-2000BC Administrative document.
CT16. Cuneiform Tablet; Ur III Period, 2150-2000BC Administrative document.
CT17. Cuneiform Tablet; Ur III Period c.2150-2000BC Administrative document. I am not a cuneiform reader, but to my eye, CT16 and CT 17 are very similar in form and content. My guess is they originally came from the same archaeological site and the archive. Odd then to find them still together then if they’re “Macey’s artefacts” which have been on the market any length of time… To be honest I find this group of objects very disturbing and hope sincerely that Mr Holt can contact this blog and tell us how these items got from a hole in an ancient site to his shop in Australia.

In none of these cases of items offered for sale on the “strongly ethical” site is there any mention of documentation of provenance or legal export that the potential buyer can expect to obtain with their purchase. We can only presume in that case that they are all being sold “as seen”.

After what has (undeniably) been going on in Iraq since the imposition of sanctions, I find this on-line cluster of cuneiform bits for sale without any kind of provenance even hinted at in any of the sales blurbs profoundly disturbing. Maybe all of these dealers have a portfolio for each of these objects which the future buyer will get, including old Macey's sales receipts, export licences, former collection catalogue numbers, but if they have, why on earth do they not mention this fact on the "strongly ethical alternative to eBay"? Surely this is something which gives the object greater not less attrractiveness as a collectable? Surely this is a factor that would give VCoins more, not less kudos as an "ethical" site?

Personally I would have said - whatever their ultimate origin - that these items displayed in this way would be a factor very strongly undermining the “mutual trust between dealers and the public” and potentially bringing discredit not only to VCoins but also all other dealers associated with VCoins.

The bottom line is that it is quite clear from this sort of thing that both the Vcoins “Code of Dealer Ethics” and the “code of ethics” of the ACCG fall very far short of what is needed to clean up this untidy market. Perhaps, if they really are concerned about not encouraging the destruction of the archaeological resource by looting, it is time for those who created them to look at them again. The appointment of Bill Puetz as President of the ACCG seems a wonderful occasion in which this might be achievable. All that is needed is the will.


Paul Barford said...

Hmm, interestingly Mr Holt has taken down most of the sales of this group of cuneiform tablets from the VCoins site, so some of my links no longer work. Four are left though, hurry hurry, buy your "washing list in Babylonian cuneiform" while antipodean stocks last - or are there many many more over there?

Shell Andromache said...

I stumbled upon this site looking for information on an antiquities dealer that I have not dealt with, and noticed that you seem to accuse these dealers without even calling them to allow them to defend themselves. I do not defend most of these dealers as I have not dealt with all of them; however, I have dealt with both Pegasi and Ancient Byways including the purchase of Sumerian and akkadian tablets both before and after the Iraq incident. Wayne was always able to provide provenance in such cases. Also, anyone who knows anything about such topics should not be in the least bit shocked to realize that there are legitimately tens of thousands of such pieces in the United States thanks to the efforts of the University of Pennsylvania which lead one of the most successful archeological digs in history with the discovery of the city of Lagash in the late 1800's. It used to be that digs were funded by wealthy donors and part of their reward came in the legitimate gifting of insignificant relics such as a nail cuneiform tablets of Gudea's temple dedications (while cool they are quite common, circa 5000+ for Gudea alone) etc. Also professors often received them for their personal collection for their service in the fields and as these people sell or trade them they make it onto the market for collectors. Just because a dealer does not list online the name of the former owner and where he got it does not mean he does not have the information. Honestly I would be furious if they did list the names as it would allow anyone who went online to know who collects and who to rob. Again, I don't know if all of the others are legitimate but the few I have dealt with have all been on the level and I think it is in poor taste to accuse someone based on the mere fact that they have something you think "could" be illegally obtained. In the U.S. you are still innocent until proven guilty, or has that changed recently? I have said my two cents.

Paul Barford said...

"you seem to accuse these dealers without even calling them to allow them to defend themselves"

They are perfectly welcome to add a comment as you have done, I actually do suggest that Walter Holt might like to. I do not say these items are stolen, I see nothing in those listings which suggests - let alone demonstrates - that they are not. That is my point.

I chose this particular artefact type as one where one would expect collectors, and above-board dealers - to be especially careful about origins at the time of writing.

So buyers of pedigree racehorses, dogs, cats etc cannot see the breeding details as it will lead thieves to their stables/kennels? The details do not have to be released online, but if they existr should be in the sales offer - together with an indication of their nature, sworn affadavit, old invoices, export licences, museum deaccession documentation etc.

If everyone is unconditionally "innocent until proven guilty" on what grounds are arrests made in the USA? What actually does that term, much bandied about by collector, actually mean?

Paul Barford said...

I've answered this comment at more length here:

There is no internet trace of the activities of a "Shell Andromache" on any forums or anywhere. Presumably another sock-puppet, maybe the loyal widfe of one of the dealers mentioned? "I have dealt with both Pegasi and Ancient Byways ..."

and how conveninent is THAT that it is precisely the site at Lagash was one of those hit more heavily by the recent looting, to be able to claim that there are thousands of licit artefacts floating round the US market already must be a boon to the smugglers.

Note one of the two dealers mentioned currently has some (unprovenanced) cuneiform tablets on their stock-list.

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