Thursday, 29 January 2015

"Working with the Dealers"

Antiquities La-la land
"International cooperation is key to shrinking the market for looted art from the Middle East" says UK MP Robert Jenrick () former director of Christies. After discussing deliberate destruction of monuments by fundamentalist Islamist militants, the conservative MP for Newark says, " it gets worse",
"through systematic looting, these works of art are funding the murderous activities of IS. Indeed, these activities are now believed to be their third largest source of revenue, after oil and robbing banks. [ooops PMB] A brave network of informants, today’s “Monuments Men”, give us shocking reports from the ground: IS employing contractors with bulldozers to harvest antiquities on an industrial scale; IS deploying militants to ensure their control sites and “supervise” digging; and licensing looting with a formal “tithe” of around 20%. The sums involved are difficult to gauge, but likely run into tens of millions of dollars of income for IS and other terrorist groups 
I'm not really convinced he's checked - or understands-  the next information he presents as facts either. I suspect his researchers have only half-read what they found on the blogs (and I think it is clear that's where this comes from). His conclusion is that "our heritage is at risk and is being used to fund terror and it is imperative that we act now". Well, it certainly IS imperative that we act now to deal with the trade in illicit antiquities, and it IS good to hear that a group of members of the British Parliament are urging action and have found support in the UK Culture Secretary Sajid Javid.
So what can government do? The key to fighting the trade in illicit antiquities lies in co-operation. In the UK and the US we are asking for coordinators to be appointed who can establish forums to bring together law enforcement, museum representatives, government and representatives of the art trade. We do not need new laws in the UK at least, where we have a robust framework tackling the sale of Syrian and Iraqi antiquities since the outbreak of recent conflicts....
"We do not need new laws in the UK at least?" I would question whether the Right Honourable Gentleman really has thought through how effective the UK's legislation in this regard actually is in practice. Is that what the Portable Antiquities Scheme would tell him if he asked (did he ask)? Is that what the CBA would tell him if he asked (did he ask)? Is that what the CIfA would tell him if he asked (did he ask)? Is that what the Glasgow Trafficking Culture people would say if asked (did he ask)? Is that what anyone in the UK researching illicit antiquities would say if he asked (did he ask)? Of course UK law needs changing. The Palmer Report (remember that?) and the Nighthawking report said the same thing about dealing with illicit antiquities - several years ago and the British government has.... done nothing. As for those "forums", are the police, museums and dealers the only persons needed to discuss these issues with the UK government? MP Jenrick  goes on to state the obvious that we need a change in law enforcement.
 In many countries dedicated art and antiquities law enforcement is under-resourced to deal with domestic crime and certainly inadequate to tackle international criminal and terrorist activity. Cases can go uninvestigated despite evidence, cooperation with the industry can be limited and penalties imposed by the courts are often dispiritingly low. That needs to change and there are positive noises from the UK and US governments. 
Yeah, and...? How are the police going to apply these "wonderful laws" when they do not work? But of course we get the UK's typically fluffy bunny approach to antiquities collecting beginning from "above all, we need to promote and reward good market behaviour". Hmmm PAS all over again:
And to the surprise of critics, there is much of it going on amongst major players in the industry. The decision of a number of auction houses to significantly increase their due diligence, principally by requiring evidence of provenance predating the conflicts of the early 21st century (using the year 2000 as an immovable date) is hugely welcome. If only objects with provenance of this kind can be sold, the market for illicit works will shrink. There is early evidence that this is changing the behaviour of buyers and sellers.
What the Dickens...? Where did this "2000" materialise from? How interesting that dealers and their supporters can declare it and pretend that they're being generous while ignoring the standard arbitrary date of 1970. I note also that the author accepts that objects with firm collecting histories going back fifteen years can be found - most dealers suggest they cannot and they'd all end up in the gutter if we insist on any kind of documentation. What "evidence" does Robert Jenrick have that even the major dealers are keeping out and collectors refraining from buying dodgily-documented items in general? The only thing that will surprise "critics" is Jenrick's statement in defiance of the fact that this is simply not what is happening, as anyone who looks into it can see. (By the way, critics of what?). Writing for the Art Newspaper the Member of Parliament for Newark blunders blithely on:
 If these standards could become common practice they will not only change the market, but ultimately feedback to those on the ground in Iraq, Syria and future conflict zones. Those of us who oppose an outright ban on antiquities—believing it would be counter-productive, creating a black market in which both antiquities of licit and illicit origin were traded—or of further restrictive laws and treaties, welcome the voluntary actions of the industry and hope they quickly become common standards that protect the industry from the heavy hand of some law-makers.
Well and truly in la-la land. In discussions with the antiquity dealers and collectors, all of whom will tell you they deplore heritage crime, the moment we get to the nitty-gritty "why don't you then....?' find a thousand and one reasons why they can do nothing to change the damaging no-questions-asked (ask no questions get told no lies) status quo. Christie's too guards jealously its right to be secretive about where exactly artefacts they sell have come from and been, and when. Reading the dealers' lobbyists's websites and forums (and there is no shortage of sources of information on this) shows unequivocally that there never will be any "voluntary actions of the industry" as a whole to make it more transparent and accountable. Over there, it is a 'cold dead hands' mentality and I do not see why Robert Jenrick (who surely, given his employment history, cannot be unaware of this) disregards this simple fact. At his conclusion, we almost hear the strains of Rule Britannia rising and swirling around his declamations:
In times of great turmoil it is easy to feel helpless and to turn a blind eye, but the leadership of the United Kingdom, the United States, our allies and that of the art business itself can make a difference. Our transatlantic campaign seeks to recognise and support those in the art business who take a lead, by urging co-operation, sharing of information in relationships of trust and resourcing and prioritising law enforcement—backing good market behaviour; tackling the unethical and the criminal robustly.

UPDATE 29.01.15 David Gill has a few words on this text too: 'The market and looting: a Parliamentarian's view' Looting Matters Thursday, January 29, 2015.

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