Thursday, 12 February 2015

Commercialising the "Assets" of the Past in America

Roberta Mazza has drawn our attention ('There are merchants in the temple: selling and buying ancient Biblical artefacts' Faces and Voices February 11, 2015) to a business venture set up last year in the US to "Bring New Purpose to Ancient Biblical Artifacts". What that purpose is is strongly suggested by the name, "Ancient Asset Investments" and the frequent mentions of assessors' valuations. These good Christian folk seem obsessed by their tax reductions and showing off their generaosity donating manuscripts to various places. When you go to the contacts page it looks like it was set up by Todd A. Hillard from San Antonio, TX. Hillard is a well-known Christian author (co-author with individuals such as the Young Earth Creationists Ken Ham of Creation Museum fame). These books seem to be particularly concerned with the problems of indoctrinating your kids in what is called a "Godless world". Hillard is also reportedly co-author with Steve Green of a work ('The Bible in America') for which Amazon gives a date of publication for as 2013, but like other Green-Bible-collection-related stuff has apparently been delayed. Another Green Collection link is the apparent collaboration between Hillard's AAI and Scott Carroll's Manuscripts and Rare Books which seems to be where they are sourcing the products they deal in. here's the unctuous introductory video:


Posted on You Tube 10 Oct 2014 by AAI (embedding enabled).
The AAI appears to offer its clients access to a variety of material. These include Hebrew Scrolls which 'come from every corner of the earth' ('Price range: $25,000 – $150,000' or single books like the Book of Esther Price range: $10,000 – $125,000, but clients may prefer the added kudos proffered by the 'Unusually Rare Specialty Scrolls' Price Range: $200,000-$500,000. There is an endorsement by Josh McDowell on the front page, the Josh McDowell that inexplicably shows off his very old Torah scroll from Łódż, Poland discussed on this blog. This raises questions where precisely these scrolls are coming from and why the communities that treasured them are now flogging them to AAI.  The home decoration end of the market is also catered for by "Bible Background Literary Sets". Price range: $3,000 – $30,000. These are assemblages of "biblically-related artifacts" fixed in displayable presentation boxes. Clients are told they will:
illustrate the ancient world and bring the Bible to life. Supporting information is provided to offer guidance on how each item might be used in a teaching context. They make extraordinary gifts. For collectors, these sets are solid investments and absolutely unique treasures to own.
Then there are papyri bearing "Classical and Biblical Texts" including classical works (such as Homer) and biblical texts in Greek and Coptic. "Each text is virtually one-of-a-kind and would be prized additions to the most prestigious private collections, a university's special holdings or a museum's collection". Price range: $50,000 (for small fragments of biblical papyri in Coptic dating between 300 and 700 AD) to $1,000,000+ (for early fragments of the Greek New Testament). So that probably gives trashing mummy masks a pretty good return for the money. The website illustrates a "second century" papyrus, said to be a Ptolemaic royal document of unspecified nature "It was discovered in the infrastructure of a mummy covering. Traces of painted plaster can be seen". Not enough Palmolive, obviously.

In this object-centred world, the 'people' section of the AAI webpage tells us it deals with  just 'clients' (who have "the unique opportunity to utilize the artifacts they purchase to the greatest advantage, be it personal, emotional, or financial") and 'guardians'. The following two You Tube videos make it clear what it's all about:
Posted on You Tube 10 Oct 2014 by AAI (embedding enabled).

The text on 'Process' of this business venture starts off with 'Step One – Acquisitions'. "Clients can often acquire artifacts for 1/3 or less of appraised values" it says. This is achieved through AAI buying bulk lots ("collections") and buying artefact "directly from street-level foreign sources". They boast "unparalleled access to undocumented and unidentified artifacts in the overseas markets". Moving along, 'Step Two – Research'. Now here's the significant bit. "At our clients’ request, artifacts may undergo in-depth research. The research documentation allows appraisers to value them higher than undocumented and unknown scrolls". Free of any charge to the clients, AAI gets their street-level-bought artefacts to "scholars of cuneiform tablets, papyri, Dead Sea Scrolls, biblical manuscripts and scrolls of enormous significance"
MRG places manuscripts in the hands of capable professors and select graduate students in strategic universities around the world. New leaders are given unprecedented opportunities to research and publish the most important texts available and thereby mentor a new generation of highly capable scholars.
But for the client, the significance is that this research has the capability of "Illuminating Value".
Artifacts are returned with dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of pages of documentation. This documentation aids the appraiser by documenting details and descriptions representing hours and hours of intricate observations—work that an appraiser could never afford to due on their own—yet this work illuminates the artifacts hidden worth as an asset, makes the appraiser’s job easier and can even secure much higher values for the items. Quality research adds great value to ancient artifacts—both for the clients and for the scholars who have the privilege to work with them.
Now, there are two issues here. First is absolutely no mention is made of any kind of documentation being provided to the client (still less the future 'guardian') of licit origins and collecting history ('provenance') whether free of charge or not. Neither is there any mention who will arrange export licences for objects moving back and forth across national borders or the objects even haviong any export licences (for example from Egypt in the case of papyri). This becomes important when these objects are taken onto campus or the premises of a research institution, but also - and more important for "the process" - when they are gifted. The donor has to show title was gained lawfully and ethically otherwise the gift cannot be accepted by any self-respecting institution.  The second issue is the use of students and university facilities for commercial purposes. Here one is getting into serious issues with professional ethics of teachers and institutes. This is especially acute in the case of in the case of what are reported to includef undocumented and unidentified artefacts obtained somehow in unspecified "overseas markets".  Which universities are allowing the exploitation of its students by this commercial enterprise?

Then we get to the nitty grity of the whole "process" 'Step Three  – Appraisals': "for any number of reasons, a client may wish to have a declaration of value. AAI [...] refer clients to independent experts who can give an estimated appraised value". The culmination of the AAI 'process' is 'Step Four – Gifting'. This "results in these artifacts being placed with good people who will care for them and share them with the world again, Our business model does this to the benefit of all involved, including the financial benefit of our clients". The AAI can even recommend suitable recipients, and organize some kind of a shindig where the donor can get dressed up, invite all his friends and people he wants to impress and strut his Christian piety and generosity. The list of AAI-linked "Dedication Events" begins and ends with a series in the autumn of 2014:
September 18: Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL):
Torah scroll  "The scroll originated in Germany and dates to the late 1400s or early 1500s." donated by Ken and Barbara Larson. here was a Christian dedication service
September 30: The Master’s Seminary (Sun Valley, CA) It is not clear what this is, seems not to be mentioned on Facebook page.
November 13: Trinity Western Seminary (Vancouver, BC) It is not clear what this was, it is not mentioned on the website, but see here.
November 18: Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). Neither is it clear what this was, see here. The events calendar does not go back that far.
December 3: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ft. Worth, TX
) Again no details, odd in the light of this.
December 5: Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX
) "This morning Dr. Scott Carroll, Director and Senior Research Scholar for the Manuscript Research Group, donated a beautiful Torah scroll to DTS" (actually paid for by Barbara and Ken Larson). See 'DTS Welcomes A Torah Scroll' (SC from 24:17), with a You Tube version. "This comes from North Africa" (Marocco) and part of it is "800 years old"....
Of the six educational institutions I could only find information about two, both of whom received Torah scrolls. What did the other educational institutes receive?I was interested to come across what seems to be the deletion of a blog post about one of these vents and the turning off of the comments under the DTS video. No mention is made of how the DTS one was taken from North Africa ... This reminds me a little of the fuss about Torahs donated by Rabbi Youlus and his Save a Torah foundation.  There seems a huge appetite for them in the US.


lalbertson said...

Paul, looks like you went down the same research corridor I did. Sent this list to Roberta last night at 3:00 am. :o) Glad to see I wasn't the only one with raised eyebrows.

Paul Barford said...

Sorry if I stole your thunder. You wonder though why more people - closer to the action - are not picking these things up. Where are the students and staff of Trinity International University, The Master’s Seminary, Trinity Western Seminary, Wheaton College , Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary? Did any of them question what was going on here?

Jimmy Lang said...

I thought he said on the DTS video that it came from Morocco. Though the video is a chapel service so I do not think it is designed to give the details desired. DTS has all their comments turned off on youtube from what I could see. If one really wants to leave a comment it can be done via facebook from what I can tell at:

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