Monday, 17 December 2012

Saving the Art, Losing the Record

Somebody calling themselves Keith Wilmott, apparently based in the UAE attempts to defend a collector of 'portableised' monumental Cambodian sculpture, though seems to have misunderstood what I was getting at. His argument falls into the familiar pattern:
1) "Mr XXXX is a collector, there have been other great collectors in the past (examples include XXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX, etc) - these people should be thanked for having helped save and preserve Cambodian art" [...] "You should thank the collectors who have helped preserve this art".
2) "Consider the Bamiyan Buddha destroyed by the Taliban, was this to be commended?"
3) "Would it have been preferable for these statues to have been left to be destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, or preserved as they have been"
4) "XXXXX Museum and the Ministry of Culture are indebted to Mr XXXXX for his financial assistance, and his many priceless donations".

The end justifies the means? Rhino horns and elephant ivory, left on a rotting carcass in the African sun and then when they get in the soil start to crack up and deteriorate. I really do not think though anyone would seriously (I do hope I am not mistaken here) suggest that poachers are "saving" this "beautiful material" by slaughtering the rhinos and elephants so some collector can "preserve" the horns and teeth (for us?). Arguments nmbers two and three are two-wrongs-make-a-right arguments. As for the fourth I think we can probably find a few totalitarian dictators that donated funds and objects to art galleries. Does that make the career path and moral choices of such individuals acceptable? Just because, among their other activities, they loved art (or the opportunities for self aggrandisement art provides)?

I really think these arguments are very self-serving and object centred. If we call every kind of looted and smuggled cultural property "art" (and thus transform anyone who dirties their hands with it a "connoisseur"), it may help make looting more palatable. The problem is that apart from being "nice/interesting to look at" ("art")  these objects are also other things. One of those things the sculptures concerned were, is part [so I am told] of a twelve-figure group standing until they were stolen and split up (the heads lopped off first). And that twleve figure group was part of a larger monument. Collector XYZ may save "bits" of the whole, but surely the fundamental aim of preservation is not to cut bits off and scatter them around, but see the whole monument intact. What has led to this monument NOT being intact is that the lopped-off bits are given a value by the international no-questions-asked "art" market. This market is quite happy to trade in and profit from no end of items of unknown and questionable provenance and collecting histories. Neither collectors nor dealers care a tinkers. They shrug their shoulders and say, "my hands are clean, I did not take a crowbar to these things, what can I do to stop them? But I can "save" the items". That is just a shameful cop-out as everybody with half a braincell can see that these people are deceiving themselves.

The reality is if (fictional) Bangkok dealer Wrong-Du-San has a whole bunch of dodgy statues in his shop and no rich collector comes in and buys several of them, he's not really going to be in a hurry to ask his suppliers for more, he's got enough cash tied up in the ones he cannot shift because discerning collectors will not touch it because the documentation is dodgy. The moment a rich collector comes in and buys several of them, because he is totalluy unconcerned that the documentation is dodgy, Wrong-Du-San gets a return on his investment, sees the opportunity to make more cash from undocumentable items, and asks his suppliers if he's got more of the same. The supplier, getting orders coming in, sends his agents out to procure more stuff, doesn't matter where from, just so the clients are happy. Supply and demand, if there is a demand for nice artefacts even if they have dodgy documentation, then the nice artefacts with dodgy documentaion will continue to "surface' on the market. If collectors stop buying items that rouse suspicions about their wholly licit origins, then the Wrong-Du-Sans of this world will have a load of unsaleable items on their hands, and will be in no hurry to get even more items, however nice, if their suppliers cannot also provide kosher and fully verifiable documentation.

Oh yes, Wrong-Du-San may well decide that antiquity crime is not for him and may well switch to drugs, or making little girls and boys available to tourists, but that is precisely the reason why, instead of being satisfied that a job is well-done when the "objects are repatriated". The only way to deal with the Wrong-Du-Sans of any milieu is to lock them up.

In the situation when the market is self-evidently contaminated by looted objects, I do not see how any collector can buy anything from dealers who have not given full attention to obtaining items which are demonstrably of wholly clear and licit origns. And I certainly see absolutely no grounds whatsoever to praise or "thank" those who do not take such steps. They are contruibuting to the problem. I say it really makes no difference if the looted art they buy is "repatriated" or shown to gawpers in some museum or other. 

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