Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013: Plus ça Change, Plus c'est la Même Chose

Each year at this time, I sit down and try to make a summary of what has happened in Portable Antiquities Collecting (and Heritage) Issues to be posted in the symbolic last hours of 31st December. It usually takes me several days to go through it all, I end up with a horrendously long text (last year it was in three parts, of which the third never, as I recall, got written. Then probably only two other people in the world read it. In effect the exercise devolves into making me realise what a lot of things have happened and I have spent a lot of time blogging about which have already become foggy by the end of the year. It also has the effect of making it seem that a lot of good things are happening. Have they? Are we really getting anywhere with these issues?

So this year too, a lot of antiquities have been bought and sold. As was the case last year, a lot of smuggled artefacts have been seized....... A lot of antiquities have gone back to the country they came from, and the Grey Suit Guys  beaming graciously have made their trite little 'repatriation' speeches  (leaving the rest of us none the wiser whether the chain of culture crime involved was in any way touched). In a few cases, people have appeared in court, and a few even were sentenced to jail. Rather more owners of disputed objects have appeared in court fighting to retain them, most of these cases ending rather unsatisfactorily, as usual. So it goes on, nothing changing. 

In 2013, artefact hunters and collectors in the UK have all continued to benefit from the 100% positive  and uncritical publicity the PAS gives them, and sales of metal detectors continue to rise, the numbers of archaeological objects hoiked out of the ground without proper record and vanishing unrecorded into ephemeral personal collections is unlikely to be abating - but then nobody talks about any of that. Metal detectorists continue to be in denial, and the artefact hunting milieu continues to be a bottomless pit of guffawing, ill-educated half-wits egging the naysayers along. British archaeologists all insist that artefact collectors are their "partners" (or potentially so) and the British public continue to have the wool pulled over their eyes and wool stuffed in their ears about it. There continues to be a total lack of discussion of the problem, but then as British archaeology apparently teeters toward organizational meltdown and like the rest of heritage becomes a mere adjunct  of the tourist industry (serving mainly to produce gawp-worthy stuff), perhaps its already too late for that. So it goes on, nothing changing. 

Over in the States, the Black Hat Guys (narrow-minded dealers, collectors and their one-sided lobbyists) continue to weave their tissue of half-truths and to protest against any kind of scrutiny and regulation. The same old  hypocrisy, dumb-down glib rhetoric of self-interest which is all we get from these folk once again crowd out intellect. The authorities occasionally rehearse their usual going-through-the-motions-showtime-posery while all the time the flow of stolen artefacts continues to pass in (and out) of the barrier of bubbles at the border of the US, one of the largest no-questions-asked market countries for artefacts, dodgy and otherwise. And the dealers  there -pretending there is no rationale behind them - continue to make such a fuss about the "injustice" that there are "restrictions" of any kind. So it goes on, nothing changing. 

The only real change from last year is not a good one, looting in Egypt has picked up again after an apparent lull in 2012 (but then was this real or apparent?), as has looting of sites in Syria. We also seem to be seeing looting (scil. movement of artefacts) on an increased scale in Pakistan too. Only one object from the 28th January 2011 looting in the Cairo Museum turned up this year (apart from the two which had not been lost) - but then that has been the least of Egypt's problems this year.

Everybody has been getting excited about some notorious Cambodian statues going back, the Met's misnamed "Kneeling Attendants" (in four pieces), the "Sotheby's" fragment and possibly soon the Norton Simon fragment. They all come from one site, indeed one group of statues on that one site, a group from which a number of other parts are still missing (presumably scattered in private rather than public collections). The site itself has presumably other statues missing which we've not heard of yet, heaved onto lorries with the ones we know about. Around it is a whole urban complex with other temples, what went missing from them? In the jungle around are other sites, what went missing from them?

In the same way we are hearing a lot about the sordid story of one New York dealer, sitting in a jail in southern India. How exciting, "we caught one" and the US authorities are throwing the book at those of his accomplices they've identified - totally ignoring the fact that the trade which these same authorities are now, and only now, investigating ("thoroughly"?) had been going on right under their noses for a very long time. How so? After all, we are getting the pious little speeches from the Grey Suits about how important it is (now) to stop this kind of thing. Where were these people when for several decades Mr New York Shopkeeper was in his shop throwing drinks and canapés parties for potential customers? Why did they only leap into action when Mr New York Shopkeeper is caught outside the USA and locked in a foreign jail and investigations there start throwing up uncomfortable facts? Is this whole investigation finally lumbering into action only a begrudging US reaction to the slap-in-the-face that the foreigners got there first? And throughout the year we've been hearing of other sculptures going missing in India and Sri Lanka, and lorry loads leaving Pakistan as the US authorities congratulate themselves on having (now, only now) put a stop to what they claim is "the biggest smuggling operation" of its kind. Really? Where are the rest of the sculptures going? Where have they been going? The Jailing-Kapoor show is no doubt just one part of the tip of the iceberg. We should not let it lull us into thinking that the "something has been done" about the problem of the international criminal network involved in cultural theft from Southern Asia and that charging this one man, calling him "Mr Big" is all that really needs doing. Questions have to be asked how it is that this new York shopkeeper got away with whatever-it-is-he-is-eventually-convicted of. Questions have to be asked about all the people in his network, in southeast Asia, in Europe, but at the moment the blogosphere seems to be more interested in how many girlfriends the wealthy shopkeeper has had in the past decade. So it goes on, nothing changing. 

Then we have the ongoing saga of the Medici archive, Robin Symes and Gianfranco Becchina.Why? Why are these antiquities still popping up in sales of auction-houses-that-should-know-better?Where are the ones the sharp eyes of Christos Tsirogiannis have not yet spotted? Will some seller - unsure himself where they came from because it never occurred to him to ask and check - try to slip them on the market with some vague made-up provenance? Almost certainly. And once again we have the "Mr Big" model. What about all the other guys trading in looted stuff (coins included) who never made a polaroid archive to keep account of what he had where? Or where the archive never fell into anyone's hands? Are these artefacts now kosher because they cannot be proven with pictures not to be as kosher as they should be?  Zero discussion, so it goes on, nothing changing.

Cornell is returning a whole load of cuneiform tablets to Iraq. Who remembers the US dealers' lobbyists strenuously denying that there were any recently looted antiquities from Iraq in the US? They were most adamant about it, they were. No doubt there were some (putty-for-brains collectors no doubt) who believed them and carried on buying. This was just about the same time these same lobbyists were fighting tooth and nail to prevent US legislation being passed to regulate the import of looted items from (then) US-occupied Afghanistan, to their shame, they still boast about having succeeded. (And where are some of those objects on the lorryloads coming out of Pakistan likely to be coming from, and who is buying them?)  Still on the subject of items of unknown origins from private collections ending up in universities, over in Germany there was some brief discussion about the collections of a university which got some antiquities from a mysterious "Swiss foundation" which was briefly the subject of discussion before things quietened down again and nothing further was heard of the matter. So it goes on, nothing changing. 

After being seen at a RA exhibition the year earlier, the Crosby Garrett helmet suddenly appeared in the Tullie House Museum where it should have gone from the beginning (assuming the anonymous and unknown finder does not have a Bulgarian brother in law). Like almost everything else about this ill-fated object, the arrangement behind that is kept from public knowledge. An excited press conference was organized, and the results of the (also secret) archaeological investigations of its reputed findspot were half-publicised (keeping certain all-important details out of the public domain), but none of this has done very much to answer concerns about how it was removed from the ground and what we can say about its original context of deposition. In fact it has added confusion. Meanwhile metal detectorists have used the information about the findspot and looted a protected site just across the valley from it. No discussion about that to speak of anywhere of course. There are many questions still unanswered about the Helmet and the manner in which it was treated (in the full majesty of Bonkers Britain's wonky heritage legislation) and do you think - now we have the gawp-worthy thing itself on display to be gawped-at in all its reconstructed shininess - that any of these discussions will come up in further public debate? And what about the noisy stirrings in some circles, just after it had been found, about reform of the Treasure Act due to this unfortunate sequence of events, any evidence they've kept the discussion going to do that?  So it goes on, nothing changing. 

This year saw the end of a long-standing saga, going on since 2010 of part of the Flamenbaum family's attempt to keep an item stolen from a German museum in the USA. It is 100% obvious what was the only right thing to do, but all sorts of spurious arguments got woven in to cloud the issue and justify the act. This is a typical example of the sort of knee-jerk attention-seeking arguments sought by the antiquitists' lobby (and no only, vide the discussion of the Rosenberg diary and Iraqi Jewish Archive), where media-provoked emotion overtakes rational discussion. So it goes on, nothing changing. 

In 2014, my eyes will be - without much hope I must admit - on the case of the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy mask, the only ancient Egyptian object in the world which according to a US court of law was actually in two places at once, which is why St Louis Art Museum feels perfectly comfortable having it in their collections. Because it is 100% obvious to the rest of us what the right thing to do would be, shame on you SLAM, your smug trustees and the whole damned city of St Louis. Nothing likely to change there either. 

Then we have the case of another object which according to the provided collecting history (coincidentally bought from the same US dealer) was also in two places at once, in an estate just outside Dresden in Leutwitz, Saxony and in a restorer's workshop, (funnily enough eye-witness testimony attesting both of these from the same person!). I spent a lot of time and effort dissecting this (reconstructed) collecting history back in October on the basis of the information in the official Cleveland Museum of Art publication. It turns out there are huge gaping holes in the story, ones that would have been obvious to any responsible museum trustee taking the trouble to examine the case properly. I am still not at liberty to discuss the information which Mr Bennett did NOT publish about the lead solder on the feet which is supposed to clinch the case that the base it now stands on was soldered there "over a hundred years ago". There are two reasons why I do not think it does anything of the sort. I think Cleveland need to come clean and publish the actual report with the actual results, because someone has got something very wrong here. Let them show it is I. [Cleveland appointed a "provenance researcher" in February, do they still have one?] A lot of people have read those texts about the Leutwitz Apollo on my blog (including CMA itself), I am sure some of them have some very pointed questions to ask Cleveland if they decide to go ahead and hold the promised big public debate about the collecting history of their newly-acquired work. But I bet they chicken out. It seems to me clear what the conclusion of honest and open discussion of the contents of Mr Bennett's book in such a meeting would be (unless the room is filled with namby-pamby yes-men classicists and burly menacing looking security men ready to throw out a 'trouble-maker' who asks an awkward question and insists on an answer). But they'll not give up their Apollo. So it goes on, nothing changing. 

The "publication" (I use the term loosely) of the Leutwitz Apollo and what the Museum thinks about it also contains an atavistic plea by Michael Bennett on behalf of the no-questions-asked antiquities market. I still cannot read it in one go, it sets my teeth on edge and my fists clench in anger. I see that the text I wrote on it (none too complimentary) never got published here - perhaps just as well. It surprises that such a text can be written and published in this day and age...

In April, I was able to give a presentation, at David Gill's kind invitation, of certain thoughts about artefact hunting and the PAS in England, it went very well and the confrontation in a civilised atmosphere was a very welcome change from what I get here (but the event did not go by of course without the usual aggro and discourteous behaviour from the side of the metal detectorists). I will be working this presentation up for publication (I should have done it months ago) and taking on board the comments. I think 2014 will be a busy year for me, I have a series of half-written publications on a series of related topics on hand, and now it is time to finish them. But for now, there's an Early Medieval cemetery report monograph on my desk fresh back from the publisher's "anonymous reviewer" and our project manager is pressing that I give that priority. Blogging might be light this year.

Vignette: Happy New Year to all my readers.

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