Thursday, 30 July 2015

Licit Antiquities and the German "der gewissenhafteste Händler nicht leisten kann"

There are two views developing at the moment in the discussion of the antiquities trade. There are those (like myself) who believe there are licit and illicit artefacts. Then there is the Archaeological Institute of America which now (Cf here) argues that all antiquity sales lead to the looting of sites and therefore their official policy trends today towards declaring the trade in antiquities as a whole to be anathema. The vacant airheads of the US antiquities trade lobby fail to recognize such a distinction, and assume that the whole world thinks like the AIA, and labels anyone who raises question about illicit antiquities "anti-collecting extremists". Leaving such arrant sillyness behind, what is a licit antiquity? Or what is an illicit antiquity? There is no simple answer to that question. This is my take on the definition, which I assume will not be too controversial to most normal people:

1) A licit antiquity cannot have come onto the market by theft (an object taken from a museum, public collection or private owner) or dug up in a place where the digger had no permission to dig and take.

2) It cannot have come onto the market through the finder/excavator/artefact procurer failing to report an item which by law should have been reported (the criteria become complicated in UK law where it depends on the material and object type concerned, how many were found together and other factors)

3) It cannot have come onto the market if, after the commencement of certain relevant legislation, it is removed from a site or monument and the removal or excavation constitutes an offence (which is how the UK's Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, puts it).

4) A licit antiquity cannot have come onto the market by leaving the source region or country after a certain date without following the relevant export procedure. That date would correspond to that of the establishment of an export licensing requirement for that class of object in the source country (or import requirements in the destination /transit country).

It might be thought that there was a decent definition of licit/illicit artefacts in the 1970 UNESCO 'Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property'. Sadly that document is deficient in a number of respects (and needs rewriting) and this is one of them. While in the preamble it is stated that cultural property existing within a state's territory is threatened with "theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export", the Convention itself does not address looting (clandestine excavation) and it is not clear whether the latter is covered by Art 3 ("The import, export or transfer of ownership of cultural property effected contrary to the provisions adopted under this Convention by the States Parties thereto, shall be illicit"). It seems that criteria 2 and 3 above are not really catered for in the document. Yet that does not mean that a piece of Anglo-Saxon gold metal detected in England and not reported within 14 days is NOT an illicit artefact when sold by a New York based dealer. Quite obviously, it is. Likewise an item removed at night from a scheduled archaeological monument in Kent is not a licit artefact when it comes on eBay.

The problem is any Tom, Dick or Hamid can (and do) say "a British find, this artefact is legal and 100% authentic", or "an old collection forgotten by time, the packing material crumbling at a touch". The buyer it appears never asks for any other 'corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative', so dealers rarely supply them, even if they have them

So, taking the example of a ripped off mummy mask from Egypt, what would make it a licit antiquity is not "old New York collection [sometime, don't bother asking, I lost the papers]", but that it had been acquired and taken out of the extent of Egyptian antiquities legislation before it made such private possession and export illegal. The situation in Egypt is a bit complicated, but it is "generally accepted" that the cut off date is 1983 with some new antiquities laws. If we resist the temptation to be purists and accept this, then obviously any seller who claims to have a legal, licit artefact from Egypt to sell, must be sure that it WAS exported before 1983. He has to be sure, otherwise the claim that it is "licit" is guesswork (and wishful thinking guesswork at that), invention and (if he claims he is sure but is not) deceit. That may be self-deceit if - on the principle ask no questions; get told no lies - he was careful not to enquire the details too carefully of his supplier. It is therefore logical that in order to be able to affirm honestly that a given artefact is licit, the seller has to have the information when and how it came out of Egypt. 

So how come we find German antiquities dealers stating openly that it is "impossible" to ascertain this information in the case of the items they sell? That they cannot trace the collecting histories back even 20 years. If they cannot trace it back to 1995 even, how can they state that they know where it was in 1983? 

Are there any German dealers who can read English who can answer that? Where are you guys? Why hide behind "collectors" like the other lot?  

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