Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Financial Times "Collecting" Columnist and Blood Antiquities

In the "collecting" section of the  "Life and arts" column of the Financial Times, Georgina Adam ('Antiquities: The spoils of war', March 11, 2016) apparently attempts to soothe collectors' concerns about the antiquities market. Her 1200 word article sets out to answer two questions, "What’s really happening to the treasures being looted from the Middle East? Are they funding Isis?" but fails on both counts. In fact there is very little attempt to even seek evidence to answer the first question, she asks a number of English-speaking dealers whether they have seen some, all deny it and she regards the case closed. In any case, are we talking about "Treasures" (pots containing hoards of gold tablets) or smaller individual items like spindlewhorls, coins, lamps and beads? Ms Adam has failed to even try to find out where they go, but skips round that issue in her article. But the message to the English-reading collector is "they are not coming here".

As for the second question, "Are the [items] being looted from the Middle East funding ISIS?", isn't that the wrong question? Are looted items from the Middle East (Iraq and Syria) being used to finance any of the horrific bloodshed that is all-too-visible in the media from there? Surely that is the issue, not just bloodshed by one organization which Ms Adam wishes to demonise above all the other fighting factions, Islamist or not.

Personally I'd start the search with the evidence on the ground, readily available. There are the looted sites, pockmarked with holes (satellite evidence) with copious discussion now on when the holes appeared and who would most likely be responsible for them. Then we have the fact that we know  that there is in the territory Adam focuses her attention on a “Diwan al-Rikaz” (an archaic phrase that literally translates to “Department of Precious Things That Come Out of the Ground”). Adam could also say more about the Abu Sayyaff raid and the documentation allegedly seized, she does use photos of the artefacts retrieved from his home. (Was a photo of the Nefertiti-bust inserted to invite ridicule of the conservation lobby?)

As most articles siding with the antiquities trade do, Adam begins with the gambit which we've seen before. It develops from a statement that "some (usually unspecified) people say the antiquities market is worth [insert number], but experts disagree". Then an expert or two is produced who says the market is not worth that much, and the story is half-written. Simple. This time “The numbers are greatly inflated,” says James McAndrew, backed up by Randall Hixenbaugh (says its a small market worth "200 million dollars a year").

Having seemingly "solved" that invented problem, the write deftly slips into asking whether the antiquities trade out of the region directly finances one specific group....

Here Christos Tsirogiannis is roped in, he has a single sentence: "I have no proof or even information that looting of antiquities is funding IS terrorist activities”. This article is almost writing itself. If Adam asked Tsirogiannis which group or groups he actually does have evidence of being the recipient of the finds from the black market trade in items across (for example) the Turkish border, she does not quote his answer (which I would expect to be of the same 'we-don't-know' ilk). I wonder what kind of proof Ms Adam is searching for.

This is followed by James Ede (“I do not believe selling looted works is financing terrorism in a big way” - size again, even if it is supporting the killing in a small way, nobody should be bringing looted items onto the market). Michael Will concurs (“We don’t have the evidence that Isis is selling antiquities to fund its activities” - well, apart from the existence of the Divan al-Rikaz and are the documents produced by the US Department of State all fakes?). A spokesman for the London numismatics dealer Baldwin’s is quoted saying collectors would not be interested in stuff "from the region", I deal with that in the post below this one. Then Sam Hardy has a say, but what he contributed is mainly reduced by Ms Adam to "no one seems able to point to major items that have appeared — on the legitimate market, at any rate" (size again).

Then the author slips into playing-the-victim mode:
The problem with this powder-keg of a subject is that it seems to have no middle ground [...] many academics and archaeologists are bitterly opposed to any trade in antiquities at all, saying that only a blanket ban can prevent further looting .
Do they? Do they all say that? Or are there some saying that but others who want to see the trade become more transparent and accountable than it is now? That is not, and in a market fuelled only by truly licit antiquities, not tantamount to, a ban. I really do not know what kind of 'middle ground' Ms Adam would like to see on nighthawking, spray-can graffiti on ancient monuments - standing stones for example, pollution of SSSIs, rhino-poaching or any other conservation issue. Whatever she does think about that, I'd suggest that when we are talking about measures to preserve the finite and fragile archaeological record of the so-called 'Cradle of Civilization' from looting to feed grabby dealers and collectors on a greedy and careless antiquities market (and even if there is a suspicion that some of the funds are going to finance killing), there should not be scope for a "middle ground". It should be opposed by all of us, collectors or not. Surely one of the functions of responsible journalism is raising awareness.

Vignette: Looting and deadly force

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