Friday, 29 July 2016

Dealers, Lobbyists and their 'Coin Elves' Fallacy

The lobbyists who avoid discussing the issues surrounding paperless trafficking of artefacts try to deflect criticism by  tongue-in-cheek phrasing such as ...
The problem of course is that Mr. Barford and friends claim that any undocumented artifact is presumptively illicit-- when that is demonstrably untrue for lots of common artifacts in particular.
This is bollocks. They actually cannot demonstrate the masses of paperless "common artefacts" they sell are of licit origins. Neither do they want to. Even the artefacts that come to them with documents are presumably separated from them by middlemen and dealers in order not to allow customers to become accustomed to the idea that there are artefacts with proper paperwork. This has been going on for decades.

The dealers and their lobbyists want us all to believe that all those paperless artefacts they have are paperless, not because they have freshly surfaced somehow on the market from being physically underground. They want us to believe that they come from 'old collections' created before the notions of what was licit or not (national laws, international conventions) - in other words created in accord with the laws of the time. But of a time which they are unwilling and unable to properly define ("from the x-collection formed at any time before 1997"). That is of no use to man nor beast. The myth-making extend to wanting us to believe that those old collectors never retained any documentation (for example old invoices for insurance purposes) and that every single transaction involving them was done in an opaque paperless and no-questions-asked manner.

This nonsense fails to take account of one important fact. There never can have been enough material in (real, not mythical) old collections to supply the market in the second decade of the 21st century. Here are some reasons related to the social history of the collection of portable antiquities which show why this must be the case. While none by itself is conclusive, taken together we can see that the material so freely being sold on the no-questions-asked markets today must have been from somewhere else.

1) The population of the world has increased since 1970 (UNESCO Convention). If one in x-thousand people are antiquities collectors and that proportion has been stable over the past four decades, then obviously the number of collectors active worldwide before 1970 would have been less than half the number active today. So where have the extra artefacts come from?


2) In fact the number of collectors pre-1970 must have been much less than half the number active today. Collecting in general (and so also of portable antiquities) is connected with disposable income. This has increased relative to inflation over the decades since 1970. Obviously, the percentage of a population financially able to take up collecting in the past was less than it is today. Here's the graph for the UK

Quite clearly the numbers of people with disposable income in the first three decades after the Second World War were far fewer than the numbers today. The pattern of wealth differential and affluence in post-War Europe were different from those of the 1980s and 1990s and that today. There would have been fewer collectors among the populations of most countries recovering from the War before 1970. So where have the extra artefacts come from?

3) The market has changed. There has been a massive 'downmarketing' of the antiquities trade, before 1970 it was an elite and middle class hobby centred on town centre brick and mortar specialist sales spaces (galleries, specialist shops). Some offered mail order sales and their old catalogues are a clear indication both of the small scale of many of their business operations, as well as the relatively high prices (relative to earnings) of the objects they offered before the advent of the metal detector. The number of known dealers in this period was much less than today, a few hundred at the most in the more affluent countries, how many regular clients they had is anyone's guess (do any business archives from this period survive?), but the number would have been  limited by factors not in play in today's market.   Now almost anyone can collect antiquities. We have seen among their number today people in social groups C2 ad D among whom are many who can barely read or write, 

In the 1970s first the metal detector made certain types of finds more accessible, both from legal finds, but also many situations where their removal from the ground was illegal (this applies to almost all countries of the world in fact apart from the handful with bonkers liberal laws). This means many illegally obtained artefacts have been freshly-surfacing on the post-1970 market.

In the mid 1990s the advent of the internet sales of portable antiquities led to a massive explosion of the antiquities market to a form similar today. It is quite clear that the number of collections existing before this recent process cannot be the source of the supply of the market the size of the current one.

4) Not all artefacts in pre-1970 private collections made it back onto the market. Some collections were passed down through a family on the death of the collector and then disposed of in so-called 'estate sales'. In other cases, the family of a collector may in ignorance, haste or carelessness discard a lot of  'granddad's old junk' - which ends up in a skip (I am sure many of us in our families have relatives who on seeing something for sale reminisce that their parents 'had one like that' when they were kids and now they wish they'd not thrown it away). Some collections are destroyed by fire, flood, vermin or other disasters - not to mention in hostile action in times of conflict (huge numbers of art and collectables destroyed in many parts of continental Europe in WW2). Some collectors donate their objects to museums. So quite obviously the holdings of the smaller numbers of collectors acquiring these items in the past cannot fully supply the existing market. So where have the extra artefacts on the market of 2016 come from?

Let's put this up here.
Dura Europos with holes (see here for larger version)
And this:
Apamea recorded via Google
Just two sites of many which are riddled by this kind of digging. There are many more in Iraq. In the latter case people on the ground saw exactly what was happening in those holes - they were being dug by artefact hunters who offered their finds for sale on the spot. Now there are weak-willed people (who obviously have never seen one) who try to argue that what we see in these photos are fox-holes. The rest of us see through their insincerity.

"Perhaps these holes were dry" they wheedle. I doubt any antiquities dealer on earth would shift so much earth in a hot country after the first five tonnes of soil they shifted and sifted through produced no results at all, how stupid do you have to be to think anyone is digging these holes for no reason? (Or rather how stupid do they think the brown skinned "natives" are who are allegedly doing what no white man would?). If you look carefully, you can see the digging is not random,. it is targeting areas potentially artefact rich - and avoiding for example streets.

Please look at these photos in the awareness that there are a lot more sites which look like this, at Archar (Rataria) in Bulgaria for example, or Wanborough in the UK, or Slack Farm in Kentucky USA just to name a few morphologically similar examples. 

I see here looters' holes, which are where they are for a reason. 

That induces me to think that there are artefacts which came from those holes somewhere.  

I think that is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to draw from the physical evidence we have before us. The whole world has this evidence before it.

Coin fairy
Collectors and dealers would have us believe that these artefacts are "nowhere". They postulate some kind of mechanism (let's call them artefact fairies) which in the name of maintaining cosmic order automatically spirit all these illicit artefacts away from the bad humans who produce them and want to trade in them. They take them to some inaccessible artefact fairyland from where none of them will ever return to reach the open market in any way or form.

Artefact elves
They want us to believe that the artefacts on the open market today come exclusively from another source. Some mysterious process is at work where somebody (let's call them artefact elves) is taking material from some secret store of automatically licit artefacts and surreptitiously releasing them on the open market without any identifying paperwork to avoid revealing themselves.   

Now, many dealers and collectors may believe in the coin fairies and the artefact elves, like they do tooth fairies and the existence of a global anti-collecting conspiracy run by the Elders of Archaeon. The rest of us however may reach another conclusion, that the artefacts from looting all over the world (UK nighthawks too) "must be somewhere;' and from that somewhere there is nothing to stop them surfacing on the open market as long as that market accepts without question (because they believe in coin fairies) paperless artefacts of unknown origins.
If we accept that (in my view perfectly viable and logical model) then we do indeed come inescapably to the conclusion:..
any undocumented artefact coming onto the market from a barely-known source is presumptively illicit
Rather like collections of wild bird eggs in the UK after the passing of legislation (Protection of Birds Act 1954; section 1(2)(b) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) a person, without a relevant collecting licence, in possession of a wild bird egg for that possession could not show the egg in their possession was taken from the wild before the 1954 legislation came into force, they would have committed an offence. The burden of proof is on the collector to demonstrate licit possession, not the government to show an offence had been committed. There is now a problem for those who inherit undocumented collections in disposing of them. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that for exactly the same reasons (connected with conservation and growing public disapproval) private artefact collecting will go the same way as the once-popular bird egg collecting. Worth thinking about.

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