Saturday, 8 November 2014

Archaeologists Sell off Excavation Finds

"In the Golden Age we were all friends..."
The Art Newspaper (Garry Shaw, 'St Louis society attempts second sale of antiquities', Art Newspaper online only 06 November 2014) has a text on the sale by the St Louis branch of the AIA of two more artefacts in their collections from twentieth century excavations (see PACHI Tuesday, 28 October 2014, 'AIA in St. Louis Places MORE Ancient Artefacts on the Auction Block'). The text itself is pretty pedestrian except this:
both have a clear history and have been published. They were given to the St Louis Society by Sylvanus Morley, a Mesoamerican archaeologist, in return for the organisation partially underwriting his fieldwork, says Thomas Guderjan, a spokesperson for the Maya Research Program. “When [the objects] came up for auction, the Morley connection was not made apparent.
So how was title established by Bonhams with that piece of vital information missing? What is amazing is what we find under the article. The publication of the text was followed by two comments. the first by the Cultural Proerty Obfuscator from Washington, paid lobbyist for two antiquity sellers associations:
Peter Tompa writes (6 Nov 1421:59 CET)
 In the golden age of archaeology, archaeologists were collectors and some wealthy collectors were amateur archaeologists. Now, its seen as heresy for an AIA chapter to sell a well-provenance piece which has somehow become inalienable for the ideologues that run the organization. Hopefully, this episode will prompt a much needed discussion of the issue and how the AIA's positions have only alienated itself from others who also care about preserving artifacts from the past.
I think what he meant to say was "preserving information about the past" rather than just a box of loose old things. And perhaps he'll leave other observers to decide who has alienated themselves from whom, I'd suggest its the collectors and dealers who pine for the mythical Paradise of Yesteryear where crocodile and lamb were friends. In the same period which Tompa describes as a "Golden Age",  children worked in glass factories, you could be put in jail for homosexuality and in Mr Tompa's own country whipped like a cur if you were black and irritated your 'master'. I think the world has come on a fair bit from those days and I wonder what kind of justification it is of anything that "things were different in the Old Days and why can't we carry on doing it like that?"

In this case it is not that the fact that these two items have a collecting history which is the problem, but they are from the archives of a key early excavation project which is the issue. It would be like a museum in Britain selling off sherds and flints from the contemporary Major Hawley excavations at Stonehenge to collectors.  The two items on sale by Bonhams are described as 'urns', in other words grave goods from a research (not rescue) excavation. I really do not see why anyone should be mystified as to why this could provoke disapproval, ad not just from "ideologues".

Mr Tompa's BFF James McAndrew was an earlier commentator (6 Nov 14 15:56 CET). He opines that "there is no reason for the St. Louis Chapter of the AIA to not sell the two artefacts if they have acceptable provenance and legal title". I guess "ethics" does not count as a "reason" in some circles. McAndrew sees the fact that there is controversy over selling off the results of a research product to private collectors a symptom of hypocrisy
The AIA, like the SAA, has been advocating against the sale of artifacts with insufficient or "murky" provenance for decades driving a majority of collected items into obscurity or better known as "orphans". Here's an opportunity for the AIA to demonstrate its acceptance of a sale which satisfies their own demands on the market. It is ever more apparent that they like to argue for argument sake without a specific purpose or position.

Note the challenging tone of both of these comments. It is almost as if these people are saying petulantly  "if you cannot sell provenanced artefacts, why should you expect us and our dealer mates to?". Like children they snatch at any excuse to do what they want, regardless of what others think. In particular, McAndrews ignores the fact that the controversy concerns the status of these objects as the results of a research project, and their "provenance" is here a side issue.

In his comment, McAndrews conveniently sidesteps one element of the argument, which is the reason why artefacts whose origins are obscured by careless handling by the no-questions-asked trade are a problem. The problem is that such a could-not-care-less approach allows illicit artefacts to "surface" (from underground) on a market and successfully masquerade as "orphaned" [to use Andrews' phrase] licit items. "They can't touch you for it, they can prove nothing" nod-nod-wink-wink.

Nobody is denying that there do exist in the world of private collectors and dealers at all sort of levels, objects which -despite everything - do still have proper, responsibly curated and verifiable collecting histories. It is on the acceptance that such items exist that the notion that there is a legitimate antiquities market and that responsible collectors and dealers do exist is based. Museums and other public institutions are demonstrably far-and-away better at maintaining documentation of the objects in their care than the vast majority of could-not-care-less private collectors and dealers. It is therefore nothing out of the ordinary that AIA St Louis has possession of some documented artefacts.

What is remarkable is that there are so few comparably well documented artefacts on the market as a whole, which is why McAndrews is taking such an interest in these two pots. In a verifibly licit market, such items would be the normn, not the exception. The fact is, today's antiquities market is far from being verifiably licit, which is why these two documented items are attracting all this attention from lobbyists. I say take a look at this behaviour and work out for yourselves what it says about the antiquities market

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.