Sunday, 30 September 2012

EES webinar AUTUMN 2012 "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Cultural Property and the Antiquities Trade in Egyptology" (Part one)

EES webinar AUTUMN 2012 The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Cultural Property and the antiquities trade in Egyptology (sic) Saturday 29 September 2012, 1 pm. 

This online event ( was broadcast live on the web, via USTREAM (beware irritating loud adverts at beginning and at intervals), in order to allow virtual participation and discussion online. The aim was to:
examine how academics, museums, and the legal antiquities trade interact, and can facilitate the study of objects which pass into private hands; the importance of provenance in preventing the sale of forged and looted antiquities, and the processes of diligence and compliance which reinforce this. The discussion will cover case studies of good and bad practice, successes and failures, and discuss ways in which more productive relationships might be fostered in future. The discussion will exclude issues of the ethics of trading antiquities and the looting of archaeological sites [...].
The session was chaired by the Society’s Director, Dr Chris Naunton. The panellists included:
Madeleine Perridge, Head of the Antiquities Department at Bonhams Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers (trade);
Marcel Marée, Assistant Keeper in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum (curators);
Heba Abd el-Gawad, PhD Student in Egyptology, University of Durham  (archaeologist - recipient of an EES Centenary Award in 2012);
Keith Amery (PhD student of cultural property and antiquity law, but also a collector). Mr Avery replaced at short notice Prof. David Gill who apparently had to cancel at the last moment.
The four panellists first gave presentations and then answered and discussed questions sent by viewers. The first section is mostly intact and can be found here: (starts properly at 03:30 mins). Please take the time to watch it and think over the issues raised. I give below (and in the next couple of posts) my comments on what I saw.

It seems to me that not all of the preliminary aims were fulfilled. The emphasis was on collaboration of the academic and museum communities with the legal trade rather the discussions of what to do about the dodgier side of trade. So right from the beginning the webinar immediately is on the footing that the only trade that "matters" is the "legal trade", and the fact that large parts of the commerce consists of artefacts of unknown provenance and conducted by people and for people who could not give a tinker's where the things come from is carefully avoided. the keynote seems to be that "at present there is a great deal of mistrust and negativity which [...] simply engender a more polarised position and even greater suspicion". So the whole tenor of the meeting seemed to be that one "can trust" the antiquities market and we should all work together as one big happy family tra-la-la-la-la. That would be fine if the whole market was indeed as depicted in this cosy meeting. But - in the interests of truth and getting a more realistic perspective - it has to be pointed out in the face of precisely this kind of fluffy-bunny-friends propaganda that it is not. It is precisely in exposing what areas of the market and the field of portable antiquities collecting  and in what ways they depart from the idealised picture that lies the only hope of actually doing something about it. Sweeping the issues under the carpet (calling realism "negativity" and asking awkward questions "trolling") is not going to lead to the will to effect or impose change. Let's call a spade a spade and not pretend it is a silver cake slice. 

To start the proceedings we had the presentation, representing the "trade", of the lady from Bonham's. The whole picture of the "trade" presented in this session was thus that of the big London auction houses, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of ancient dugup artefacts coming from Egypt (the focus of the meeting after all) are sold elsewhere and by other means. Basically Ms Perridge comes out with the same idealistic clichés about the trade that anyone who'd listened to them talking about what they do would expect to hear from an antiquity dealer. There were no surprises here.

It was Ms Perridge who talked first of the "great deal of mistrust and negativity" which surrounds the antiquities trade. And of course, the Bonhams lady goes on to give "an example of what can result..." if such negativity about bad practice is suspended.  Guess what it was? Yes (how could it be otherwise?),  The Portable Antiquities Scheme (00.08:44). She says the Scheme is "beneficial". She does not specify in what way - the viewer is presumed to know - and there is a vague mention of "saving the Staffordshire Hoard for the nation". As a trader she should have mentioned the Crosby Garrett Helmet, which would make the point that what "saved the Staffordshire hoard for the nation" was the Treasure Act NOT the Portable Antiquities Scheme (and of course the Treasure Act did not "save" the Crosby Garrett helmet for the nation, it slipped away into the shadows of the anonymous private collection).

This is precisely the kind of fluffy thinking engendered by the PAS which causes so much damage to even the academic debate about (the digging up of) so-called portable antiquities for commerce and collection. So of course the lady blunders on to say that the PAS makes us think it would be "beneficial" (to whom?) to introduce a PAS type system "in other countries" and "maybe antiquities as a whole".  So what is stopping other countries, like the USA for example, adopting a PAS type system to allow the recording of what artefact hunters are taking from the ground? Or Egypt? A voluntary recording scheme where the man who stumbles upon a tomb as he's digging holes in the desert, or the person tunnelling under his house can report what he's found and hang on to the artefacts to do with as he wants? How does Madeleine Perridge (looking beyond the narrow artefact-centred view) consider that would "preserve" the heritage? What benefits (except for the auction houses) would that bring and would they offset the losses? Ms Perridge mentions as one of the "benefits" that a system like the British would allow "more generic" archaeological material, not of interest to museums dug up by artefact hunters to enter the market - rather than remain in the archaeological record as a resource for the study of the past by future generations. Profit from it now is apparently her credo. It's a win-win situation she argues, museums win, they get goodies to buy (if they can find the money), if they cannot then private collectors win, and whatever happens, those who dug the stuff up go laughing to the bank. The only loser is the integrity of the archaeological record, badly enough compromised as it already is. But Ms Perridge does not mention that, because discussing the effects of the current form of the antiquities trade would introduce "negativity" into these young folks' discussion of a bright future for the antiquities trade.

But she insists we ignore such issues: 
[00:11:04] "However I would argue that some of the current approaches by certain factions  [glances towards where David Gill would have been sitting if he'd been able to attend?] in the academic world are not perhaps conducive [sarcastic tone, raising smirks from three panellists] to productive discussion and in fact [joy in voice now] have the reverse effect". 
She suggests "we" (who?) should be giving more support to help countries stop looting instead of trying to effect the "repatriation" of material already on the market. I guess that is her "positive approach". This of course ignores totally the point is that "repatriation" is not the issue, but investigating the crime that led to the artefacts concerned surfacing on the market. That - if done properly and with resolve - will lead to curtailing the smuggling which should have its effect on the looting.

Again, the emphasis in the dealer's contribution to the debate is on "source countries" providing the trade with a catalogue of missing items so they can quickly do a "negative validation" ("not on the list, it's OK then") rather than the trade refusing to deal with artefacts to which the vendor can offer a positive validation. Of course clandestinely excavated and smuggled objects will never be on any nation's "lost artefacts" list. They usually only "surface" (from "underground") when they are already in the market countries. [I wonder how many times this has to be pointed out before representatives of the trade take the idea on board?]. Again the antiquities trade is passing the buck for what itself has to take the responsibility for, instead they are expecting "the Other" to do all the work to make the life of the dealer in portable antiquities easy, rather than expending any real effort to do anything to tighten up their side of the operation. But pointing that out I am sure the panel would say is "being negative".  

Ms Perridge also mentions the "1970 cutoff date" issue and so-called "orphan items".  She then mentions the CPRI "orphan objects" study...  This dealer argues that those of them included in auction catalogues are thereby "in the public record" and academics have "had plenty of time" to "assess their status" (implying that, if "they" have not done something about that up to now, why should they complain when the items come on the market again? - I really wish Professor Gill had been there to answer that). After a bit more of the same sort of stuff she ends up by urging closer collaboration between academics and museums with collectors and dealers [her bit ends 00:25:50]. One thing that came out of what she was saying was how reliant the London auction houses are on having access to knowledgeable experts from the academic world to help in attribution and authentication of objects in the trade.

Marcel Marée then spoke [00:26:11]. Basically he repeated much the same sentiments, down to plugging the BM's Portable Antiquities Scheme as a way forward for Egyptian antiquities on the market. The man from the BM's rather strange delivery distracts attention a little from what he is saying. First of all, why does Marcel Marée think some dealers are NOT "openly publicising" what they have in their stocks, and the buyer can only see it [00:28:47] when they personally visit the premises and certain items they might be interested in are brought out from under the counter? Is it because they cannot be bothered to advertise, or they are really unaware of what the object they've bought from somebody else is - or are there other reasons? The session's intent to skip over such issues leaves this question unasked, and thus unanswered, which is a shame as it is not insignificant in the context of what he then goes on to postulate. Again it is a shame that Professor Gill was not there to pull him up on that.

The Man from the BM suggests that dealers should be registered, and a proviso of their licence should be that they work with an official scheme to document all that passes through their hands. He suggests in effect that there should be a PAS-type organization set up (by whom, and would it be funded by the public?) for items in dealer's stocks, and that an FLO will be contacted by a dealer with something to show ["just as people who find metal objects in the ground are supposed to report things..." - is he too confusing his own Museum's PAS with the Treasure Act?]. Or this "appointed" FLO will come and visit the collector in his shop and examine what's under the counter and in the back room and "advise" the dealer on what he's got.  Can you imagine that?  I would guess that M. Marée does not spend much time on the forums where a somewhat different class of dealer than the sweet idealistic ("let's all be friends") lady from Bonhams hang out. 

He too points out that the BM is closely involved in the validation and description of items from the London auction houses and justifies this by saying that when an object comes on the open market, it is the only time a museum can "document it" (the object-centred approach again of course). This actually raises the question, where that information goes. If the BM archives have by now a vast body of information about what they (in work time at public expense) have recorded about objects passing through the UK antiquities trade, why is this not on open access? The objects themselves are sold internationally, the new owner may not even know that in a grey folder on the top shelf in a cupboard behind the door of room 401 there is a full report of an object they bought from a bloke who bought it from a bloke who got it in Sotheby's (and then lost all the paperwork). Why not get the BM make that information (compiled in work time at public expense) available online to help individuals (public and academics) research the histories of these objects in the way the panel is discussing? [M. Marée finishes at 00:32:25]

The chairman suggests that in all this, "as long as the information is out there, that's the most important thing". Well, is it? It may well be in the case of a Grand Tour item or something brought back by a tourist in the 1930s, it certainly is not in the case of freshly smuggled items appearing on the market with no provenance masquerading as/assumed to be the latter. This seems to be the question being dodged here totally.

In the discussion following his presentation, Marée actually suggests that items surfacing without any provenance can in some way have one "reconstructed" and it is interesting that he sees this as a task for academics working with the dealers. There seems to be the underlying notion in what several people are saying here that the "provenance" of many "orphaned" objects can somehow be "reconstructed" by (academics) "researching" in which auction catalogues an item figures. It seems to me that this comes a poor second to actually retaining a proper record of an item's collecting history, but that is by-the-by. How does it apply to material which may not appear in (or be illustrated in) an old auction catalogue? Some things were sold over the counter by dealers in brick and mortar shops which had no catalogues. Does the glib assurance that lost provenances can somehow be magically restored shelve the issue of the current no-questions-asked market?

Heba Abd el-Gawad spoke next [beginning 00:33:53]  but I'll start another post (below) for the last two speakers

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