Wednesday, 20 June 2012

What is a "nationalist" law?

Collector and dealer dimwits love to dismiss the cultural property laws of other countries as merely "nationalist". There's a whole ideology built up in collecting and commercial circles around this object-centred concept, popularised by John Merryman, and it is mostly voiced by people involved in the US (but we've seen it too in the UK) market. This flatly declares that the Oriental Gentlemen are (primitive and emotional) "nationalists" while the "West" (US and its allies) is guided by rational, altruistic and Cosmopolitan  "Cultural property Internationalism" (even if it is no-questions-asked).

We've seen some of this "collectable-internationalism" in operation right on America's doorstep. Some bloke dug up some Mongolian fossils out in the desert - apparently without going through the right channels. He packed them up and took them out of the country - apparently without going through the right channels. They eventually ended up being sold to an American dealer, and entered the US (reportedly in a mislabelled transport - if so not even here were the correct procedures observed). They were tarted up and some of them assembled into a "full skeleton" (with some "spare parts" - don't let the Creationists get to hear of that) which was infamously flogged off by Heritage Auctions a few days ago. This was despite the intervention of the Mongolian authorities (in fact the President himself was directly involved). Now, but only at Mongolia's request, the US Government is bending over backwards to get the skeleton (but not the other bits? ) back to Mongolia.

Now what do the auctioneers and collectors gathered in that room on the day of the sale think about that? As far as we know, not a single collector left the room in protest once the auction house had removed the lawyer who said on behalf of his Mongolian clients that the sale was illicit.  My bet is that they were all wholly dismissive and contemptuous of those "nationalist, retentionist laws" of the (to them no doubt) "Slanty-Eyed Yellows" over in Mongolia who cannot stop white guys with dollars going out into their desert and digging up valuable collectables and carting them off.

Here's a group of slanty-eyed Mongolians (with their president, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, in the centre), they look pretty presentable to me. I'd say these people should have the expectation of being considered by those in the US antiquities world as having no fewer fundamental human rights than they themselves claim.

Imagine you are one of them. And the savage wind-sculpted beauty of the Gobi Desert is part of your homeland. Part of the land you love and celebrate. Mongolia has a flag and a national tradition just as strong as any flag-worshipping proudly-patriotic American (note the author of that website). Imagine you learnt that a mob of foreigners descended on your land and ravaged some of its oldest and most precious cultural assets. Just ripped it out and spirited it away. For sale. Imagine you learnt that these ripped out bits of the history of YOUR land were changing hands far far across the sea for thousands of dollars, not a penny of which was coming back to your land, your people; what was taken away from you and your homeland was merely enriching those who stole them. Imagine that you were aware that this is by no means the first time this has happened (so the old argument that "there were millions of dinosaurs, plenty to go around" does not apply, the accessible ones are a finite resource and one that is being gobbled up by outside commercial interests).

Then think, what would you have your government do?  A government which has no laws preventing this sort of thing happening is not so much "not-nationaliust" but irresponsible. It is the responsibility of the government of a state (and comes with the job) to protect and preserve the resources of that state for the benefit of its citizens, and it does not matter if those reserves are the virgin forests, clean air and water, a cuddly [or less cuddly] endangered species, the reserves of western currency, (real) Old Master paintings, or historic buildings and rare and unusual dinosaur fossils. Preventing their erosion, destruction and squandering to the detriment of citizens by passing appropriate laws and setting up appropriate bodies is obviously the responsibility of a government. Some do it better than others. The US and UK can hardly claim they belong among those who have exemplary success in any of that. Setting up the appropriate bodies to fulfil the tasks of protecting and properly managing all the assets of the country for the benefits of its citizens is not "nationalism" as the wrong-headed would claim, but doing the job of a government. Surely something we should aim to aid rather than hinder (even under the ACCG-claim that "the Oriental Gentlemen are not doing it well enough, so we'll pinch their stuff and look after what they've lost to us").

Instead of just dismissing somebody else's laws as more primitive than your own, and labelling them contemptuously as "nationalist" (or whatever is the Cunoesque buzzword in collecting circles at a given moment), perhaps collectors might like to try and put themselves in the position of the Other. After all, we are told that their prime reason for collecting at all is to "understand other cultures". Do they? Can they?

Photo: Tsakhia Elbegdorj , President of Mongolia (Centre) meets with a delegation of Mongolian students.

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