Sunday, 23 March 2014

A Collector Repents


Here's something that does not happen often, at what would have been about nine in the evening, a collector over the far side of the Atlantic browsed/ read a dozen or so texts on this blog, and then sent a comment to one of them. The account name gives the gentleman's full name, he's a real person and the post is very articulate, honest and candid about collecting. For that reason (and to give me freedom to reply as I wish) I have decided to hide the gentleman's identity. I'll call him "Mr Respect". I have a lot of readers from the Washington area, and this reader is one of them, he lives in a small affluent looking town 42 kilometres from the White House. The gentleman starts off by admitting that he'd got into collecting minor ancient dugup artefacts "before fully forming a rounded perspective on the potential negative effects of that practice", but on reading around the topic, "Now I am frankly a bit ethically torn" and he asks my advice and for my "perspective on private collecting of artifacts [...] Am I wrong for doing it at all?". Whoah, heavy stuff for a Monday morning.

I think I'll pass on trying to present, at the moment, in a less-than-five-thousand-words-essay my perspective on private collecting of artefacts, I'm planning starting a book on that next year. Is it "wrong"? No, I don't think that per se it is wrong, but the way it most commonly is done is. We need to have collectors doing precisely what Mr Respect is doing (preferably before they start shelling out money), thinking about responsibilities.

Mr Respect is asking for my thoughts on what he should do with his antiquities. That I cannot tell him (a colleague was pointing out the other day the potential legal ramifications of offering such advice, apart from the ethical issues). Basically I do not now what he has, and what supporting documentation (if any) came with it, and would not like to offer any advice 'blind'. Having said that, I have a couple of thoughts on what he wrote, which I hope he will accept in the spirit they are written, which is to take a real, documented case to make more general points.

The first thing I found of great interest was right at the beginning, the writer's motivation for collecting: 
My intention has always been to expose the inexpensive and rather common artifacts to the people in my community, my friends family etc. as a way of broadening their perspectives [...] My intention is that eventually I would pass on the collection on to a museum [...]
This desire to use antiquities in order to be seen by peers as some kind of a philanthropist seems quite deeply rooted in the US mentality. We see the same thing in starkest detail among the arguments used by ancient (but oddly not Medieval) coin collectors, and those that lend or donate higher-end antiquities to museums of course. It also appears in the self-justifications of metal detectorists. In the US they all say they "share" their discoveries (in some less-than-well-defined form), while the British government has set up a Portable Antiquities Scheme to entice would-be sharers to co-operate (but pirate would-be sharers went ahead and produced the UKDFD to spite them). Observing what happens on the market and in collecting, we may ask: to what extent is this declared altruism in fact a cover for the desire to have some kind of status-enhancing 'trophies' to show off?  The same with museum donations. 

But wait a second. This "sharing in the community ... as a way of broadening their perspectives" argument may well be tenable in a five-shack-and-a-petrol-pump hamlet in South Dakota or Nebraska, but forty kilometres from the Smithsonian? That's just nuts. Mr Respect could take the family and friends to the museums in the capital for a day, throw in a pizza and sneaking into Peter Tompa's legal firm's office and leaving SAFE brochures in the waiting room, that's sharing too, far more socially useful and probably cheaper than buying ripped off antiquities.

Mr Respect then says that his misgivings stem from the fact that: 
possibly [I] am in fact reducing the impact of these object to historians and scientists. 
but then tries to assuage them by reminding himself that "the stuff I have is rather common, and it's uncertain to me what more could be learned from another example of a Roman evil eye ring". This is however a rather wonky object-centred approach. It is not the "loss" of an object that is a problem - the object still exists. Mr Respect has it and wants to "preserve and display" it before handing it on to somebody else to "preserve and display". But that is not the point. Neither is it the point that the object itself is of a rare type or not. What is the issue is that digging out objects (or collecting them away from a surface site )  from an archaeological site - like Archar or a patterned lithic tool scatter in the desert - produces lots of objects, the more saleable ones go to collectors who "preserve and display" them. The problem is the whole archaeological site they came from is trashed in the process. It is the destroyed archaeological context which is no longer available to be properly studied and documented - because it has been dug away. Check out the photos of the present state of Archar after the artefact hunters have gone over it ('Archar' on this blog).

[One saving grace, very probably something bought recently under the title "Roman evil eye ring", no matter how "reputable" the dealer pretends to be is probably a fake.]  Then Mr Respect asks about another qualm he has:
Everything has been purchased from supposedly reputable dealers that claim legal provenance - acquired before 1970 etc. which while perhaps legal is also perhaps morally wrong? 
If the object actually was dug up and sold before 1970, then I personally do not have any problem with that, as long as that can actually be documented in a verifiable form. A ("supposedly reputable") dealer's (nudge, nudge, wink-wink) verbal assurance however is most certainly not enough. Run a mile from such cowboys. You would not buy a used car or half a pig for the freezer here without the paperwork that the car is not stolen and the pig carcass has passed an inspection. Mr Respect is confusing legal and moral. Antiquities dug up ten weeks ago in a 19th dynasty cemetery in Egypt's Western Desert and sold over the counter in Grebkesh and Runn's Munich store and then shipped direct to Miami are not technically illegal in the US - ask Mr Tompa and Mr Pearlstein. Whether the laws should look like that is a different matter.

Then the uh-oh moment. Mr Respect says he'd been thinking of donating the Respect Collection to a museum, but:
I have been reading that donating to museums has become very difficult without proper export paperwork that establishes the items as having been legally acquired, or that document the item as being from an old collection in a way that is very credible. 
That rather suggests he's been carelessly buying things without such documentation. In his place, I'd write back to the dealers enclosing a xerox of the receipt and asking for a copy of the relevant paperwork to protect the value of his investment. Make them work for their cash. He asks what I think about the current "1970 cut-off" by museums, and whether difficulties in donating 'unpapered' items by private collectors ("so that they can become part of the collective knowledge of historians") and whether I think it will have a:
negative affect of the recovery of these items for posterity?
No, I am hoping it will have a positive effect in curbing the number of people in his country (one of the biggest no-questions-asked gobblers of portable antiquities in the western world) that give looters and smugglers money on the mistaken notion that they are  leading to the "recovery" (sic- from what precisely?) "of these items for posterity". In the place of boxloads of loose decontextualised geegaws and almost every accessible archaeological site in the world trashed by artefact hunters, posterity would, I am sure, be far more grateful for some unlooted sites they can study using the newest methods available to them. Why should our generation be the last to be able to see elephants and rhinos in the wild AND trash every archaeological site we can reach? Its called conservation Mr Respect. We should be conserving sites and not "just objects" in the same way as we should be trying to conserve ecosystems as much as individual rhinoceroses from poachers.

The object-centric approach is also visible in the focus on "repatriation" (a US aberration) rather than crime prevention.
And should I rather be orienting my thinking towards just returning them to their country of origin? Would I encounter problems from authorities for this? 
In answer to the second, unless you'd actually smuggled them out yourself, probably not. They might even give you a diploma (probably not cash though). But really, what is the point? Imagine someone in the US Department of State getting from Sophia, Bulgaria a package of artefacts once found in the US. In it are 234 sherds of assorted pottery, among them painted ones of Anasazi type, a chipped piece of stone and a note that the donor's late Uncle Teodor had brought them back "from America" when he went there to sell brushes, "several years ago". What would happen to those sherds? They'd go to a museum, perhaps one of the branches of the Smithsonian, and what would they do with a box of assorted loose sherds and an arrowhead, and what would be the point of that? Far better would be that selfish Uncle Teodor had left them where they were dropped by their users centuries ago for other visitors to the site to see.

Basically, once hoiked out of the ground and taken away, these artefacts can never be 'replaced' - the effects of looting are irreversible. Placing the blame on somebody else (a looter "feeding his family" a "mom-and-pop dealer" doing the same by trading remnants of a trashed past). The no-questions-collecting of antiquities is murdering the past, and unconcerned irresponsible collectors' cabinets are its gravestones. Only collectors like Mr Respect can change that by putting a stop to the no-questions-asked trade of such things which can ONLY abet and benefit looters and smuggler, and cowboy and dodgy dealers. It is to nobody else's advantage.

UPDATE 4th April 2014
Mr Curtis obviously was wholly unappreciative of the time I spent answering his questions honestly instead of ignoring him off or fobbing him off with a platitude or two. Not even a 'thank you'.


11 comments:

Brian Curtiss said...

I don't know if my post back you went through. I am doing this on a mobile device and it was apparently too long and the. I was t sure once I edited it down a bit whether it took and went through. If not do let me know and I will try to recreate it. Long and short of it was I apologized for my lack of response, expressed my thanks and wanted to let you know that despite my taking some of it personally, that I accept your use of my post to further your objectives.

Best regards,
Brian Curtiss
Guitarbrianc@aol.com

Paul Barford said...

No, I never received anything, I assumed it was because I was actually a bit harsh (more than intended) and you'd taken it personally

For that I apologise, the points were really more general ones, they just got rehearsed in reference to a specific case - yours. But thanks for contacting me again.

If you'd like to reply again you are welcome to put forward tour point of view and react.

Paul Barford said...

your

Brian Curtiss said...

Thanks for the reply. I lost what was a fairly long post. Hate it when tech glitches result in wasted time that way. Anyway. Again apologies for the long overdue response as I did appreciate your thoughtful analysis and did read it with interest. I have sort of come around to concluding that in some respects, even being ok with trade in antiquities acquired legally and with good provenance is perhaps Counterproductive to your cause because it encourages the continued collection and trade. Would it not be better to take a stricter stance and say that any buying and selling of artifacts, even if technically legal, should be discouraged as contributing to the continued interest in and collection of objects and thus the continued plundering of sites? I appreciate the measured stance you are taking regarding the trade of so named legal relics, but perhaps is any moderation in that regard incompatible with the goal of stopping the looting of the sites? Just a thought. Maybe any commerce regarding these antiquities is bad commerce regardless of when the objects were acquired and how?

Paul Barford said...

1) tech glitches, if you look at my notes for posters of comments over in the sidebar, I suggest saving a copy before pressing 'send' - it sometimes happens to the blog owner too.

2) "being ok with trade in antiquities acquired legally and with good provenance is perhaps Counterproductive to your cause" well not really because my "cause" IS sorting out best from bad practice, not stopping collecting per se.

I am in two minds about this, it seems to be the direction the AIA is headed, but (while I see their point), I'm not really in agreement.

If you ban it totally, then what are you going to do with all the documented legitimate items from real nineteenth century private collections?

Does having people interested in collecting only objects of documented licit origins in any way encourage looting - which by definition cannot produce documented licit objects? What is needed though is for collectors to start actively looking at (and questioning) the sources of the material offered. that in itself would curb the trade in illicit objects.









Brian Curtiss said...

And also, what happens to all the poorly documented artifacts already out there? I guess they will just get passed from here to there among collectors. But what is their value anyway at this point except as objects of interest for collectors to keep passing them around from collector to collector. The issues here seem daunting to solve. For example - what exactly should we do about the coin collectors? Is it even possible given what seems a huge rift between archaeologists and metal detector treasure hunters, to come to some sort of collaboration? What I mean is, what could be made to work? Is it stricter laws? Laws are broken all the time. Or is there a way to find a common ground and a way of working together? What I mean is, say a treasure hunter finds a stash of coins at a brand new site. What if they had some kind of archaeologist partner that would immediately be contacted to treat the site properly so that best practices excavation methods can be followed so that the potential for historical discovery is maximized? It seems not an impossible task to build a relationship between those who discover with those who then manage, preserve and maximize through best practices all the site can teach us. Would you allow the treasure hunter their financial windfall in exchange for their commitment to call in the archaeologist team they partner with so that the scientific and historical benefits can be maximized? Should the objects themselves even matter once all scientific cataloging and analysis of the site has yielded all there is to learn? Paul do you personally own any ancient objects? Because it seems from a scientific perspective that the objects themselves (assuming that all methods to discover as much about that object have theoretically been exhausted) have less intrinsic value (other than as art to be goggled at) than the knowledge gleaned from those objects. So let the prospector make his money so long as a true partnership with an archaology team ensures the maximum historical and scientific benefit of the site. Or has the wedge between the two become so deep that this is simply no longer possible? And should you as an archaologist really be so focused on the end consumer of these antiquities, or instead work to foster a positive partnership between entrepreneurs and scientists? Is that even possible or has the week become so poisoned that such collaboration is an impossibility . After all, no university could ever afford to pay the number of people who on their own in search or riches scour the lands. So why not find a way to leverage them? Shouldn't the focus be on creating a system that works? Their interests of finding and then profiting from the finds could work in conjunction with best site excavation and scientific discovery practices? But it seems an impendiment to this is both how vitriolic and how entrenched the different perspectives have become. One needs to look no further than the US government to see the destructive effects of people moving farther and farther towards diametrically opposing viewpoints rather than compromise and conciliation in order to make positive progress. Isn't focusing on the end collector sort of like focusing on incarceration of the criminal rather than on programs that through outreach and assistance and ultimately teamwork helps prevent the person from committing the crime in the first place? It's just food for thought and it might come of as naive to someone who has been duking it out in the trenches.

Brian Curtiss said...

Hopefully my last post went through. But to summarize a perhaps overly verbose post - it seems that both approaches are right - a partnership between profit hunters and scientists (despite that being a pairing of uncomfortable bedfellows) would help the situation in conjunction with responsible collecting. It seems there needs to be both. But here it seems your focus is on the collector primarily. Is it that you have lost hope for a partnership between profit hunter and scientist and thrown in the towel on that? Because honestly the conflict between you and the metal detector folks appears irrevocably to have eliminated any such partnership possibilities. Do you think you have contributed to greater polarization? Parody songs from your detractors certainly isn't going to make you want to sit and have a beer with them and find a common ground, so they are not helping either. Iis there fault on both sides? Do you feel you are making progress in any way with that community to bring them to the table? Or is the last hope the enactment of stricter regulations and focusing primarily on reforming the addict to eliminate the demand rather than trying to eliminate the supply? The metaphor doesn't really work I realize because this is about preservation. Thanks for considering my posts and thank you for the replies. I realize I have taken a great deal of your time. Thank you for that and for your thoughts.

Best regards,

Brian

Brian Curtiss said...

And also, what happens to all the poorly documented artifacts already out there? I guess they will just get passed from here to there among collectors. But what is their value anyway at this point except as objects of interest for collectors to keep passing them around from collector to collector. The issues here seem daunting to solve. For example - what exactly should we do about the coin collectors? Is it even possible given what seems a huge rift between archaeologists and metal detector treasure hunters, to come to some sort of collaboration? What I mean is, what could be made to work? Is it stricter laws? Laws are broken all the time. Or is there a way to find a common ground and a way of working together? What I mean is, say a treasure hunter finds a stash of coins at a brand new site. What if they had some kind of archaeologist partner that would immediately be contacted to treat the site properly so that best practices excavation methods can be followed so that the potential for historical discovery is maximized? It seems not an impossible task to build a relationship between those who discover with those who then manage, preserve and maximize through best practices all the site can teach us. Would you allow the treasure hunter their financial windfall in exchange for their commitment to call in the archaeologist team they partner with so that the scientific and historical benefits can be maximized? Should the objects themselves even matter once all scientific cataloging and analysis of the site has yielded all there is to learn? Paul do you personally own any ancient objects? Because it seems from a scientific perspective that the objects themselves (assuming that all methods to discover as much about that object have theoretically been exhausted) have less intrinsic value (other than as art to be goggled at) than the knowledge gleaned from those objects. So let the prospector make his money so long as a true partnership with an archaology team ensures the maximum historical and scientific benefit of the site. Or has the wedge between the two become so deep that this is simply no longer possible? And should you as an archaologist really be so focused on the end consumer of these antiquities, or instead work to foster a positive partnership between entrepreneurs and scientists? Is that even possible or has the week become so poisoned that such collaboration is an impossibility . After all, no university could ever afford to pay the number of people who on their own in search or riches scour the lands. So why not find a way to leverage them? Shouldn't the focus be on creating a system that works? Their interests of finding and then profiting from the finds could work in conjunction with best site excavation and scientific discovery practices? But it seems an impendiment to this is both how vitriolic and how entrenched the different perspectives have become. One needs to look no further than the US government to see the destructive effects of people moving farther and farther towards diametrically opposing viewpoints rather than compromise and conciliation in order to make positive progress. Isn't focusing on the end collector sort of like focusing on incarceration of the criminal rather than on programs that through outreach and assistance and ultimately teamwork helps prevent the person from committing the crime in the first place? It's just food for thought and it might come of as naive to someone who has been duking it out in the trenches.

Paul Barford said...

My, what a lot of questions! These issues are indeed complex, and require open and frank discussion - which basically is not taking place (and I would say the fault is largely on the side of collectors and dealers who consistently alienate their position through hostility towards archaeologists and others who raise legitimate concerns).

I am not sure which "treasure hunters" you think we should work with, those on BLM lands in Arizona for example? Or those ransacking tombs in Egypt, caves in Palestine or tells in Iraq? Many of them are targeting known sites anyway, "finding sites" does not come into it. Do you first want to repeal all laws making this illegal first so we can "sit down and have a beer with them"?

No, what we have to do is affect public opinion about damaging collecting and business practices. I stress my blog is about artefact hunters, collectors and dealers, not for them. Let others do the dialogue, beed there, tried to do it, got the teeshirt. I'm doing something else now.

Obviously my prime aim is to do what we all (collectors too!) can to protect the sites and prevent more being dug up to feed an uncaring trade.

I think I have given my position on most of the issues you raise in this blog.

As for the consumer, I believe it is the consumer who makes a market and dictates its direction. If a dealer finds he can't shift any dodgy stuff, unless he is really, really stupid, he'll stop filling his stockrooms with it.

Brian Curtiss said...

Paul thanks for taking the time to read and remains l. LWhen I looked back at my posts I realized just how long they were. Covered a little too much territory in my rambling posts perhaps. I was thinking of the potential for any cooperation between English coin hunters specifically to properly handle the sites when they are discovered. I was not implying forming a partnership with Egyptian tomb raiders. And the bottom line is, there aren't enough archeologists in the world to be involved in managing all the various sites that could be plundered. I hear you that you've tried focusing on preventing plundering at the source - the ones doing it - and found that impossible. There just too many people willing to do it and too much money at stake and not enough politicians/scientists etc that are able or willing to police, guard, litigate, pass laws or otherwise have the mechanisms necessary to protect against this. It seems those that want to protect the archaeological record are hopelessly outnumbered so your conclusion is the best way to make change is change the way collectors collect to reduce demand.

I'm going to spend some time educating myself. On what the specific countries are doing or not doing I their laws and enforcement as that seems another complex area that will require more knowledge on my part.

Thanks again for the dialogue. I'm going to let you get back to your work and thanks again for your time and thoughtful replies.

Best regards,

Brian

Paul Barford said...

You are welcome, that's what this blog is about. It is a pleasure to meet a collector who can actually articulate his thoughts and is willing to debate them. Thanks.

Paul


 
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