Saturday, 14 February 2015

Todd Hillard Up Front

San Antonio Texas
I would like to thank Todd Hillard for contacting this blog and openly answering many of the points which I raised in two earlier posts 'Commercialising the "Assets" of the Past in America' and 'Manuscript Sales Site Down 'for Maintenance' (which in turn build on Roberta Mazza's two recent posts on the topic).

Since I gave my criticisms and doubts about 'Ancient Asset Investments' quite a lot of prominence, I thought it only fair to repost here up-front his replies hidden in comments. I think it worth doing this because it is, in all the time this blog has been going (and that's nearly seven years now) this is the first time somebody dealing in antiquities (see below) has come back with such a full and civil reply and exhibiting a willingness to discuss (rather than offhand dismiss) the issues. I would like to thank Mr Hillard for this - it is quite refreshing (compare this with the recent arrogant reaction from two academics at Acadia Divinity College who refused to engage in any form of discussion). There is a parallel reply which he had sent earlier to Roberta Mazza's blog. One paragraph of this earlier text clarifies an issue I had had too, so I take the liberty of including it here for completeness.
"We are completely revamping our protocol to ensure that there is neither appearance nor potential for conflict of interest. I’m also realizing that my choices of word on the website are leading to many, many misconceptions [...] For example, the term “street level sources” is causing legitimate concern with you all. Bad word choice meant to convey that we can acquire scrolls relatively inexpensively. In reality, nearly all of our scrolls come from genizahs and forgotten private collections where they have been gathering dust for decades, if not hundreds of years. Our vision truly is to get these items into the hands of “guardians” who will care for them and share them with the world again. [...] But poor morphological choices are only part of it. I realize there are substantial ethical and philosophical issues".

The three comments sent to my blog came one after another and appear under my post "Manuscript Sales Site Down 'for Maintenance'". They appear in the original form below the post, but here I've run them in together as they seem intended as one text. :
Dear all, this is Todd Hillard, the owner of Ancient Asset Investments. I was pleasantly shocked to see that anyone cared enough about what we are doing to give it such a thoughtful and thorough critique!

Roberta Mazza and I are already in contact and she has posted my response on her blog.

We are a very small company and what we are doing is continually morphing. Yes, the name Ancient Asset Investments, which I don’t care for. But it was either that or Scrolls R Us, so… Actually, we have been redesigning our webite for weeks. When I saw your blog, I immediately had it shut down to avoid further confusion. We hope to relaunch it on February 25. Between now and then I would love to engage in more dialogue. We are open to all criticism and concern and your input will help us do what do better… as long as we all remain objective and don’t speculate.

We are sincerely listening and interest in your perspective on what we are doing and we are ready to alter course. This week, a Cambridge student shared concerns about the way we “coordinate” appraisals. His concerns were valid. We are completely revamping our protocol to ensure that there is neither appearance nor potential for conflict of interest.

So I would love to continue this dialogue with people who care as you all seem to. We really do want to do this right.  First though, let me clear up some simple misconceptions and answer questions you brought up:

Prior to launching this business, I was a freelance “ghost” collaborative writer on about 20 books. I did not always embrace the focus and passion of some of the authors I wrote for. Steve Green’s book, the Bible in America, however, I can fully endorse. Solid research, interesting history and it tells a good story. I wish it were available in the general market. For now it can be bought at their Hobby lobby stores. I know much of what Steve is doing controversial, but in the year that I worked with the Greens on this book I found them to be good men who were fair and honest and I’m proud of my association with them.

• From a purely business standpoint, we saw AAI opportunity to sell a product at a reduced price and still put food on the table for multiple families. For a personal standpoint, however this business is driven by the vision to place irreplaceable artifacts in the hands of those who can care for them and share them with the world again. We worked with multiple accountants and attorneys over a period of 18 months to make sure this model was sound. Personally I get great joy when I see a scroll that had been gathering dust in a genizah placed in the hands of collectors, professors, rabbis and students who would never, ever have the chance to work with these artifacts were it not for what we’re doing.

• Currently, we are not dealing with any papyri (another reason to update the website) Although we use it as an example on the website, we have never sold papyri from mummy cartonage. I’m with you on that. I’m afraid that greed is going to fuel the “trashing” of masks.

• All of our Hebrew scrolls come directly from Israel. Most originated in different parts of the world and were brought to Israel after World War II. They were used in private homes and synagogues until they were no longer kosher and were “retired” to the shelf and the closet.

• Though not mentioned, we do provide substantial documentation regarding provenance and ownership as far back as we are able.

• Though not mentioned, we handle all export and import issues. The free trade agreement with Israel and the fact that these are not archeological in nature makes the process simple.

• There is no “title” per se on items such as these. We are usually the first to document their existence.

• Any students who work on our materials are paid as interns. Right now we do not have any formal arrangement with a particular university for research, but we hope to.

• All the seminaries in your list received Torahs.

So I hope that clarifies things a little. Please fire away if you have more questions or other concerns. If it’s not appropriate to do this on the blog, please feel free to contact me directly. [email redacted - PMB]

PS. I was finishing this post in response to the Commercializing the Assets..” post when I notice the new thread on our site being down for “maintenance” Actually in light of the recent confusion we took it down to update and clarify many of the concern that have been raised.

In answer to your additional questions,

The Iraqi, Yemenite and Morrocan Torahs were acquired in Israel where they were brought by immigrating Jews from their homeland. The Yemenite probably came to Israel during operation “on Eagles wings between 1949-50.

They entered North America through US Customs via FedEx.

Yes, Mr. Larson’s first contact with a Torah was through Josh McDowell. The Lodz Torah was brought to Israel from Poland by Holocaust survivors… we think. Honestly, we rarely know the exact route a scroll has followed, so we must qualify dates and specifics with lots of “probably”s and “possibly”s.
Certainly we are in agreement that "Ancient Asset Investments" is a better name than "Scrolls R Us" (!). I see no reason for any surprise that anyone "cared about what we are doing". The notion that the heritage is a shared interest underlies AAI's own business model, and yes, a lot of people care about our heritage and the way it is handled. I think the main issue here is precisely the assumption that nobody much would care and therefore not much thought was given to how the promotional material might be seen outside the intended audience. If the company was selling vacuum cleaner components or garden fresh vegetables that would be the case. One of the fundamental issues behind this blog is though that it is surely unacceptable to trade in pieces of cultural property/heritage as though they were just potatoes. Thus a company selling such items which is "continually morphing" perhaps has not really been thought-through adequately before being activated - and perhaps the actual commodity being traded requires rather more careful treatment. But, having said that, it is good to see that it is reacting to the debate.

In particular it is notable that the website said nothing about the issue of documentation (surely which should be at the forefront of any legitimate activity involving such material). Mr Hillard assures us that "though not mentioned, we do provide substantial documentation regarding provenance and ownership as far back as we are able" and AAI "handles all export and import issues". I am not clear though that the matter is as "simple" as we are told, although Torah scrolls are not archaeological in nature, those made (or containing material made) before 1700 - as at least two of these scrolls they handled seem to do - fall into the category of "antiquities" by Israeli law. As such any collector selling such items (according to my reading of the 1978 antiquities law) needs to clear that with the Director of the Department of Antiquities who has first option of purchase. I'd be interested to know how this was handled. Also is "as far back as we are able" good enough in the case of those from Holocaust Europe? There are many ways artefacts from other regions end up on the Israeli market for which "came with refugees" is a convenient explanation. They still surface on the Black Market here in Poland (yes, Łódż torahs too), assuming they left as private property of Holocaust survivors does not mean they did.

I am glad to learn that AAI is not dealing with any papyri, whether or not they come from mummy cartonage. I think this whole area is currently an ethical minefield and best kept well away from unless the collecting histories have watertight documentation of licitness.
I am not really convinced about this issue of "placing irreplaceable artifacts in the hands of those who can care for them and share them with the world again" when that implies that in the source nation, they cannot. Scrolls on the market are not "rescued" from "gathering dust in a genizah". Neither am I too sure about them 'not being kosher'. This seems a confusion of ideas - becoming  pasul does not mean that sacred objects lose their character, they are unfit for worship, which is what the genizot are for. Jewish rites vary and varied but these  shemot were not stored in the genizot so they could be taken or sold for secular use, in many areas they were supposed to be buried. I feel very uncomfortable watching the Dallas video where we see prayers to Jesus being said over one of these scrolls. To me that is not paying any kind of 'respect' to the values those artefacts represent, instead it is a wilful and enforced ("we own the artefacts so we can do what we want") imposition of alien values upon them.

I do not doubt the goodness, honesty and sincerity of the people involved in any of this. I think though that to some degree they have become so wrapped up in their own concerns and needs that they are excluding the possibility and failing to see that there are others with equally valid concerns and who see other needs which should be taken into account too. It is good to see that AAI's Mr Hillard at least is willing to discuss them with outsiders.

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