Monday, 18 February 2013

Fakes and Dugup Dealers' Moralities

"Join us in the battle of stopping this person from ripping off other collectors like yourself" urge an anonymous group of.... (well who?)  on a website aimed at antiquity collectors accusing a well-known New York dealer of selling what they call "fakes". This is part of a vendetta which has long been carried out by certain dealers and collectors against this particular gentleman which it seems to me is intended to direct attention away from other important problems in the world of dealing in and collecting dugup ancient antiquities. I'm not so interested in that, I think anyone who knows what real artefacts look like is not going to be caught out by anyone selling Disneyland stuff which bears not even a passing resemblance to real artefacts. Anyone who sets out to collect anything without knowing the first thing about what is what really needs to rethink their collecting strategies. Experience however shows that a lot of people collecting antiquities are the most ignorant bunch of folk you'll meet this side of the Alpha Centauri, so this website will be just right for them. The rest of us can only look on in bemusement that any serious collector would need such a website. 

Note that these folk offer ABSOLUTELY no reasoned argument in support of their allegations. They expect collectors to simply accept what they say. Like sheep. This is quite typical in this milieu. This website looks like the work of Tim Haines' vindictive "Yahoo Ancient Artifacts" crowd, always free with criticism of what they do not like, never with any real arguments. They too like hiding anonymously and sniping at others. 
I'm more interested in another bit of the website. These anonymous watchdogs publish a list of
"Dealers of Actual Authentic Ancient Art". I presume this means these anonymous watchdogs are hinting that they think every single item offered by every single dealer on this list is not fake. Yet as soon as you open the page, right in the middle, staring you in the face is a link to the dealer with whom Harlan J. Berk (also on their list) is in dispute over the authenticity (or not) of a 410 000 dollar coin. So why are they both on this list? Most of the dealers listed are US-based, some V-coins dealers are there, but not all are (interesting). Some English dealers are listed but the largest is absent from the list (and the English Minerva-guy who claims he has a "zero tolerance approach to illicit, fake or smuggled antiquities" is also missing). On what basis is this list compiled? On whose say-so? Why hide your names? Dealer Dave is active in promoting this webpage, and in a message to one of his blogs, we find the link being sent by one Carlos Regueira, the dealer who runs something called "Minerva Galleries" from a low building by a big carpark in Fort Lauderdale.  (This is not to be confused with other Minerva-shops).

The list of "Actual Authentic" dealers is rather diverse, looking more like a list of the pals of the people making the list containing everything from American pre-columbian dugups, through coin dealers, antique dealers and dealers in dug-up Asian stuff. Like this one in the USA:  
This Collection of Asian objects is mainly made up of pottery from the Ancient Ban Chiang culture of Northeast Thailand [...] All pieces are definitely over 2,000 years old and many could be around 4,000 or more years old. Each piece of pottery advertised below is typically heavily covered with ancient encrustations and deposits.
And not an export licence mentioned by any of them (for Ban Chiang, see here). There is nothing to indicate this material is legally out of SE Asia and thus legally entered the US. It may be "authentic", but is it kosher? Is it ethical? This applies to almost every single dealer on this group's list. The objects they sell may be "authentic" (as an archaeologist I have my doubts about some things offered by dealers on that list), but are they kosher? As an archaeologist looking through what they offer I have my doubts about many of them. Is it ethical to buy them when no verifiable collecting histories are indicated up-front? Can such items be bought by truly responsible collectors (ie the ones for whom the Code of Ethics for Responsible Artefact Collecting is more than just a bunch of unread words)? 

Dealer Dave discusses the website and adds his own comments. Bemoaning the fact that the US government attempts to prevent illicit and stolen artefacts entering the US market, while doing little to protect that market by curbing dealers selling fake artefacts. He thinks a nanny state should step in and "protect collectors from fraud" (can't dealers do that?). He alleges that:
Many archaeologists [...] welcome open and uncontrolled sale of fakes because this tends to destroy confidence in antiquities dealers. It is a sad state of affairs when the ethics of supposedly responsible professionals become so twisted that crime is viewed as being socially beneficial.
First of all, it is not the primary job of archaeologists to police the antiquities market to weed out fakes. Archaeological concerns with regard to what is on the market are connected with where illicit items are coming from, their being on the market somewhere is a consequence (or cause) of the destruction orf archaeological evidence somewhere else, that is a matter for archaeological concern. The part of the collectors' market that demonstrably causes no damage to the archaeological record is no concern to any of  us, especially given the scale of the problem caused by ongoing no-questions-asked dealing and a failure of dealers themselves to do anything about this.

Secondly, if collectors were more worried about defining exactly how a particular item entered the market and where it came from, it would be beneficial all round, no illicit artefacts could be palmed-off onto collectors masquerading as something else, neither would fakes be able to enter the market by the same means. The "Cabinet W" example is a case in point. A could-not-care-less buyer is exposing himself to all manner of risks on that market.  I see absolutely no reason whatsoever that any buyer should relax their critical facilities through misplaced "confidence in the market". Anyone observing it in action today might be forgiven for thinking that to a large degree huge segments of it are nothing more than an "every man for himself" jungle, reliant on misinformation, misdirection and self-deception to maintain a facade of respectability, while beneath the surface all manner of dodgy dealings are obscured. Welsh mentions the allegedly twisted "ethics of supposedly responsible professionals" where "crime is viewed as being socially beneficial". What about the twisted ethics of a group of professional antiquity dealers who view the continued import from abroad of dugup artefacts which have no documented passage through the proper export channels as in some way "socially beneficial" enough for them to take it to the Supreme Court? 

A faker produces something which fulfils a need, fill a niche in the market, some of them very artfully. No harm is (generally) done to the historical environment in their creation, many buyers take great pleasure in their possession.  A dealer who sells looted and smuggled - though 'laundered' - artefacts on the other hand is putting money into the pockets of heritage criminals (and, most likely, worse). The niche in the market they fill is one that should not be there in a responsible market, a niche that satisfies itself with buying objects no matter whether thay are looted and smuggled or not, just as long as they are "they-can't-touch-you-for-it-laundered" for consumption. The objects that are in this segment of the antiquities market (whose boundaries are deliberately blurred) derive from archaeological destruiction, they derive from disrespect for the historical record, of the citizens of the state from which they are looted and taken (the "source country"). They derive from, and finance, criminal activity.  Which is worse Mr Welsh? Whose ethics here are "twisted" in a twisted and anonymous market of decontextualised archaeological material? 

The lack of links in this blog post is deliberate. This time, collectors can use their initiative to find those "recommended dealers". I do not endorse a single one of them.

UPDATE 23.02.13:
Not surprisingly the antiquitist clowns who decided to accuse somebody of selling fakes but offered no evidence to back up their claims (contenting themselves with heaping ridicule of the seller) have now had their account suspended and the website is down. With it has gone their list of recommended dealers.

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