Monday, 21 January 2013

Bones of Contention: Portable Antiquities Parallels


Peter Tompa draws attention to an interesting article ('Bones of Contention') by Paige Williams in the New Yorker about Eric Prokopi and the 'Tarby' affair and its background. The article was clearly deeply-researched and produced after interviewing (or trying to interview) many of the key players. It also gives a number of names of people involved that seemingly have not cropped up before. Tompa of course quibbles "that the article glosses over open sales of  dinosaur bones within Mongolia itself" (ie fails to make use of the 'Two Wrongs make a Right'/ 'I am a Victim' argument beloved of antiquities dealers and collectors). He also quibbles that the journalist does not write what he'd like to see there "current Mongolian law on the subject does not appear to be quite as clear as the Government has claimed" (though as far as I am aware, his client was not charged with breaking Mongolian law, but US customs laws).  I was struck by a couple of passages:
Although some countries had fossil-trade restrictions, or were enacting them, certain dealers proceeded as though there were no rules; they justified their trade, in part, with the idea that exposed fossils, if not collected, disintegrate. [....] If the business sometimes resembled a black market, it was a small one: nobody seriously imagined getting rich digging up prehistoric bones. 
The point about ignorance and ignoral of the laws fits antiquities trading to a 'T'. Small or big a black market is still a black market. Note that the "not in it for the money" argument we see among UK Treasure hunters. Note also the "rescuing them from slow destruction" justification for their retrieval whether licit or not common to the fossil hunters and artefact hunters and dealers. This they share with underwater treasure hunting companies too.
Mongolia outlawed the trade in 1924, but bone runners have always operated from the Gobi, because they have found outsiders willing to buy fossils. “The Gobi’s getting hammered,” Mark Norell told me in July
Like virtually anywhere else that produces anything that can be commodified and collected, note the looting here goes on because people will buy, its the could-not-care-less collectors that are the looters here too. As a result a finite resource is being destroyed before everybody's eyes. Note the article's description of the fossil poachers and compare that with British so-called "nighthawks".

It is interesting to note that the Mongolians write openly of the role of this fossil case in promoting democratic openness and its role in fighting corruption. :
Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, one of the Mongolians who had helped launch the campaign to save the fossil, told me over Skype that government officials in Ulaanbaatar were thinking of the T. bataar case “as a way to clean out our house.” She noted, “T. bataar is actually fighting for our democracy. We’re going to use it to fight corruption. T. bataar will change lots of things in Mongolia if it comes back". 
Of course by continuing to finance the illicit trade by bribery and involvement in corruption, the smugglers and dealers who handle these items are undermining efforts to prevent corruption - and we find dealers freely admitting to doing business with those involved in these corrupt relationships 9see below). 

A notable quote is where Procopi writes that he'd like to reach a deal with the Mongolian President so that he (the President) will "look good to his people"
If he only wants to take the skeleton and try to put an end to the black market, he will have a fight and will only drive the black market deeper underground
The "deal" apparently involved Procopi knowing "just about all of the people involved in the business of central asian fossils" and he can help the Mongolian authorities "get to the sources" of the illicit trade ("I can help him do that if he is willing to cooperate and compromise") Honour among ... dealers?

Note the "making people comply with the law will only drive the Black trade underground" argument trotted out by antiquity dealers too. It is as though they think that having an open trade in illicitly obtained material, under everybody's noses, which is simply accepted with a shrug is any less damaging (to the resources we should be protecting by the laws infringed) than one that is carried out by criminals "underground". An underground from which objects surface on the open market anyway. Surely what is more damaging is the open sale of illicitly obtained stuff with nobody (dealers, collectors, palaeontologists/archaeologists, law enforcement agencies, academics, responsible members of the public) lifting a finger even in protest, let alone doing anything about it. That is really damaging, giving everyone the impression that an illicit trade is somehow acceptable, and is a problem that simply does not matter, a problem that can be brushed aside and ignored.

Basically collectors could not care less about where stuff comes from, they feel they are only involved in the transfer of ownership of "minor" items:
[Museums] want dinosaurs and mammals, Herskowitz told me, while individual collectors prefer smaller pieces. “Not many people have a house big enough for a dinosaur,” he explained. “The most popular stuff is the stuff you can put on your shelf, like meteorites, trilobites, dinosaur eggs, and dinosaur bones. Like a nice vertebra—you can put it on your shelf and say, ‘Look, that’s a T. rex vertebra.’ ”
So as in archaeology, sites and assemblages are trashed so some jerk can have "cool stuff" trophies to show off?  And this s treated by dealers as something quite natural and proper. Palaeontologist Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is quoted saying:
“The commercial guys range from people who couldn’t give a shit about what they’re selling and the people who really would’ve been scientists if they’d had a good education.” 
Johnson is cited as an example of a palaeontologist who "has always kept amicable relationships with both the academic and the commercial side of the fossil world" and the journalist visited the annual fossil show in Denver with him ("he wanted to stop by the booths of friends").
 Though shady deals have been known to go down in back rooms or parking lots, I wanted to see if anyone was openly selling dinosaur fossils from countries that forbid their export. On one dealer’s table lay three raptors from China. Bones and beaks and claws were folded in red and brown sandstone, as in a bas-relief. One was priced at twelve thousand dollars, the two others at twenty-five thousand apiece. The dealer said that he had collected them ten years ago, when it was legal. (“Classic answer,” Johnson said.) At another booth, we saw fossilized pinecones from Argentina. (“Those have always been illegal.”) At another: sabre-toothed-cat skulls. (“Chinese.”) The legal and the illicit were all jumbled together. Johnson compared the situation to finding marijuana nestled among parsley and cilantro at the grocery store. “That’s the caveat-emptor part that I don’t like,” he said. “What’s colliding here is the potential for kids to get excited about science and the weird spectre of some of this stuff being tainted.” I stopped at a booth selling Chinese and Mongolian fossils and casts, and asked the dealer how he got them. “As long as you go through the proper channels, you’re fine,” he said. “Grease the right politicians’ palms and stuff comes out. You gotta pay off the right guys.” Overhearing this, a woman browsing at his table said, “I know all about that—I’m from New Jersey.” As I browsed at the booth of a man selling fossils that had been quarried in Germany, I overheard him say that someone “who works about fourteen hours a day might, once in his lifetime, find something.” Some quarry owners, he went on, “don’t pay well. If a worker finds something, he can get ten times more on the black market.” 
Sound familiar? So although Dr Johnson knows that these fossils were most likely illicitly acquired at the cost of the destruction of their context, he apparently is able to walk on past them, shaking hands with his "friends".  The legal and the illicit  all jumbled together, evasive (or lack of real) answers to questions about origins. References to corrupt government officials (nota bene, allegedly - is this just a cover story?) being behind their illicit export and the thieving quarry worker stealing from his employee because he's not paid enough. Again, those Two Wrongs Make a Right (plus a 'Victim Fights back') arguments trotted out to defend the illicit goings-on.

All too often we are asked (by dugup antiquities dealers) to believe that their case is somehow 'different' from any other trade, and they should be cut some slack by governments and not expected to comply with any kind of regulation of business practices. The truth is that there are indeed a number of parallels between the dugup antiquities trade   and other types of commerce in the collecting world. It is no surprise then to see even the same arguments trotted out by supporters of those other trades as we see with coins and dugup archaeological artefacts. I get the impression that most of the readers of the New Yorker piece are expected to believe that what is descried here in the sale of fossils is wrong. That massive damage is being done by the greed of people willing to ignore laws to profit from the no-questions-asking acquisitiveness of collectors. A lot of what is written there applies to antiquities too.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

Cue: xenophobic comments from "Cultural property Observer" ?

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