Sunday, 14 December 2014

No-Questions-Asked Artefacts and the Grey Market

Rembrandt carcass of beef
The Die Spiegel article on the German antiquities law reform ( Konstantin von Hammerstein, 'Dubious Provenance: Pressure Grows for Museums to Return Stolen Objects', Der Spiegel December 10, 2014 (originally appeared in German in issue 50/2014 December 8, 2014)) includes a discussion of "Where Are the Artifacts Disappearing To?" 
Currently, the worst looting is happening in Syria and Iraq. The US State Department recently published high-resolution satellite photos of several excavation sites in Syria that provide clues as to the scope of the destruction taking place there. Within two years, the excavation holes at the Classical-period site Dura Europas had been transformed into a wasteland. Three weeks ago, a group of experts met in Paris at the invitation of the International Council of Museums in order to exchange information about what is happening in the region. But the experts had difficulty providing reliable knowledge at the secret meeting. "The region is a black hole" in terms of knowledge, said one participant. Still, it is obvious that major looting is taking place in Syria and northern Iraq. It is also known that Lebanese and Turkish authorities have intercepted many objects at the border in recent months. Turkish officials have reportedly filled several warehouses with seized antiquities. A number of objects have also been discovered at markets in Turkey and Lebanon.  But the lion's share of the stolen objects are simply disappearing. Art dealers claim that they aren't being offered much by way of goods from the Middle East right now and the authorities also haven't registered any major influx of antique objects.
This argument from negative evidence ignores the fact that looting did not begin yesterday - in Iraq it has been going on since the sanctions prior to the 2003 invasion. The question one has to ask is whether the series of dealers all adamant that they've not been offered new stolen stuff are the dealers to whom peddlars of stolen stuff would be going anyway with such goods. Would one notice an "influx' if the material is moving along well-used existing illicit channels?
So what is happening to the stolen objects? It is plausible that they will be kept in storage out of public sight over the next 10 to 15 years and will slowly start appearing on international art markets with forged papers just as soon as the current debate over illicit goods dies down. Another possibility is that wealthy collectors in the Arab region or in the Far East are currently expanding their collections. Experts are certain about one thing. The objects will reemerge at some point in the future -- as has always happened in the past. 
A subsequent section of the text indicates something of the dealers' reaction to the notion that they should be paying more attention to establishing the licit origin of teh goods they offer (it is called "Dealing Fast and Easy in World Heritage"):
Many art dealers claim to have good knowledge of where their objects come from, they're just lacking the right papers. "Do you still have the receipt for every piece furniture that your parents gave to you," asks Vincent Geerling, chairman of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA). The Dutchman operates his own business in Amsterdam and is also a private collector. No, he says with disarming openness, he only has one object for which he can say precisely where it was excavated. But he says he does know the history of ownership of his antiques. 
How twee. Mr Geeling confuses chalk and cheese. If you were selling meat in the local market, you'd need the paperwork. There are some goods where the history of how they came from the fields, what checks they've been through, and got to that seller are important. If Mr Geeling does not want to be bothered with the paperwork, then let him take up selling something else. Newspapers and stationery.

There is a useful definition of the 'grey' market:
What does appear to be clear is that there are few "white" objects being traded, meaning those for which both the site of discovery and previous ownership can be proven. There are also "black" objects, which are known to have been stolen from a collection or museum. But the majority of objects are "gray" because there is uncertainty about their provenance. "Art dealers like to say that gray is white because it clearly isn't black," explains archeologist Luca Giuliani, rector of Berlin's interdisciplinary Institute for Advanced Study. "And we archeologists say that gray is actually black because it isn't clear that it's white." 

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