Monday, 15 December 2014

Policing the Heritage or Discrete Withdrawal?

Derek Fincham ('Two Ways of Policing Heritage' December 15, 2014) feels "uneasy" that some cultural property professionals exercise more vigilance than sellers of dugup antiquities and items are identified as having a dodgy period in their history. Dealers who are unable to verify the collecting history of the pieces they bought rely on a "they-can't-touch-you-for-it" ploy, hoping that there is no evidence out there which falsifies their concocted or reconstructed collecting histories. They cannot check, he alleges, because:
the auction houses have no good way to match these objects because these photo archives are closely held by law enforcement agencies and a group of researchers. There are claims that the auction houses could go directly to Greek or Italian officials and have these objects checked against these databases for free. As Christos Tsiogiannis answered when asked by Catherine Schofield Sezgin: “The auction houses, and the members of the international antiquities market in general, always have the opportunity to contact the Italian and Greek authorities directly, before the auctions. These authorities will check, for free, every single object for them.” But it seems they [the auction houses or their consigners] do not do this. 
Why would that be? The reader can judge for themselves how certain those sellers are that the object will not be figured in those archives. They can decide whether there is a reason why they prefer not to draw the attention of the police to any particular object, but apparently it is far preferable to run the risk of an academic spotting any eventual match after which the item is discretely withdrawn:

where they disappear back into collections in most cases, and we are left with little progress in stemming future looting and protection of sites. And so each new antiquities auction continues the cycle of public shaming and return. But the looting continues.
 Far better then for the consigners and auction houses to approach the police from the outset. Each time an auction house/consigner withdraws an object, David Gill asks whether either have contacted the relevant authorities giving details of where the controversial items currently is. I would like to think that the ethics of both would lead to the answer "of course we have, right away', but I fear the fact that very few of these items ever appears at some fanfare press soirée while being repatriated tells another story. How often would we hear such a conversation?
Hello? Police? This is Lucifer Grebkesh of Grebkesh and Runn antiquarian art... oh hello Reg, didn't recognise the voice, hope you are feeling a bit better now after your holiday. Look, we've got this vase on our premises and we are about to withdraw it from sale... what? Yes, we think it is stolen. Somebody's spotted it in an archive of dodgy objects. Can you send someone round this afternoon and take it off our hands, feel a bit uncomfortable with it in the shop, I've got a reputable business to run. We'll give you all the details, like the last time. Yes, yes I know, we really must be more careful with our suppliers [sigh]... What? At two? That's fine. I'll send Maureen out for some nice cake.

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