Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Cultural Property - wassat then, eh?

Part time coin dealer from California Dave Welsh seems to be confused about "what is actually the law" concerning cultural property. He is puzzled by my earlier comment that "... the archaeological remains of a territory are cultural property ..." though my bet is he is one of the few who are. [Nota bene, the coiney typically completely ignores the whole thrust of my post about Giedrojć's recent article, concentrating on picking apart just one phrase from it to deflect attention from the other points made].

Anyhow, Welsh argues that it cannot be the case that archaeological remains are cultural property since they "include anything and everything buried [let us add deposited and constructed] or discarded upon the surface of the earth by past humanity, certainly including its garbage, and perhaps even including remains such as ancient deposits of fecal material". He then goes on:
It seems to me that the concept of "cultural property" inherently implies some sort of actual and tangible identification of objects with the culture of a people. It would be surprising if that were asserted in the case of ancient miscellaneous garbage such as fish skeletons and unworked bivalve shells (not that such things are likely to attract collectors).
Well, here we observe the limiting effects of the narrowness of the coin dealers's worldview. "Cultural property" is for him limited not only to objects, but also only those that are collectable. That which is not collectable cannot be for him cultural property. Neither did I write of a "people" but quite specifically of a region.

Welsh suggests that treating archaeological remains as cultural property "...may be extending the concept of cultural property well beyond the intent of the conventions, implementing statutes and bilateral agreements that define and implement cultural property law". Really? Well, the the definition given in article 1 of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict:
Article 1[...] the term "cultural property" shall cover, irrespective of origin or ownership: (a) movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above [...]
In turn, the 1970 UNESCO Convention (which I assume he knows) says in article 1:
For the purposes of this Convention, the term `cultural property' means property [...] of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories: [...] (c) products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine) or of archaeological discoveries ; (d) elements of artistic or historical monuments or archaeological sites which have been dismembered;
Well, that really seems to settle the issue of whether the international "conventions, implementing statutes and bilateral agreements" include archaeological material, doesn't it?

Welsh confuses several things here. The function of the "conventions, implementing statutes and bilateral agreements" is quite clearly not to provide direct protection of the archaeological record of any specific country. Quite clearly they are intended to support (in specific situations) the efforts to protect it by other means. The 1970 Convention clearly states in plain English: "property which [...] is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science". The legislative grounds for such designation differs from country to country. A metal detectorist who takes a spade to an archaeological site to dig up an Anglo-Norman penny or cauldron fragment in Poland without a permit falls foul of the law, wherever the site is and who its owner is. In the USA he is OK if the site is not on Indian land or public land. In England he is OK if the site is not scheduled and the landowner says he can be there. Obviously it is impossible to draw up overall international laws about what is legal acquisition of antiquities and what is not which coul apply to antiquities from all countries on all continents.

What however the 1970 Convention says is that the movement of items between countries should be controlled, and the means of doing that is the export licence. A state authority is hardly likely to issue an export licence for antiquities it believes to have been illegally acquired within that country. Therefore items imported with valid export licences are valid commodities, those without are thereby not. Mr Welsh as a dealer is obliged, if not by law, by ethics and general morality to ensure that the objects he trades have not been acquired illegally - that means have been acquired in accordance with the law of the place of origin, and not in disregard of it. That includes laws on excavation, ownership, commerce and export. Does he do that? I've heard US dealers assert they are not obliged to do that by US law and so regard themselves as somehow excused from respecting those concerns.

Welsh says sorting out the what the law says is significant because:
it is presently unclear where the boundary is to be drawn between artifacts that have some sort of genuine and tangible identification with a past culture, and other objects which are considered to be part of the archaeological record. [...] Things such as ancient garbage can, in fact, have genuine archaeological significance, however it is not at all clear that they are actually cultural property protected under existing cultural property law.
Hmmphh. The Vindolanda tablets were thrown away as "garbage". Frankly, it is not up to the US dealer or the ACCG to "draw boundaries" to determine what is British, Polish or even US cultural property. This is determnined by the laws of those countries. The ethical foreign dealer and collector will respect those laws and like the ethical museum will not acquire objects obtained in disregard of those laws.

UPDATE: Another antiquity dealer Scott Semans questions the validity of the term "cultural property": " What is wrong with good old "artifacts"?" [Another object-based viewpoint: my car is an artefact, but even if it is old it sure as anything is not cultural property, but a piece of tattered cloth called "Old Glory" in the Smithsonian is not just a rag but US cultural property, the term has a meaning]. Semans adds:
those who favor the concept of individual ownership of artifacts - along with communal ownership as by museums and universities - best serve this goal by giving the politically invented term "cultural property" the scare-quotes it deserves, or the preface "so called," when compelled to use it at all.
Is it really a "politically" invented term? Is the problem here again the narrow views of people from a nation 235 years old which basically has very little which it can call cultural property of its own and thus have problems understanding the concept?

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