Wednesday, 25 January 2017

American Collectors 'Disappointed' by Pandora Haul

The American 'Committee for Cultural Policy' go on about what they call 'Pandora's great disappointment' (anonymous article, January 23, 2016). This attempts to show that the joint police 'Operation Pandora' was some kind of a failure...because it 'has had very small results', they only arrested 75 people.  And the artefacts? The artefacts these collectors describe dismissively:
many heavily encrusted coins, a variety of ceramic shards, a common Islamic period ring, and 500 items stolen earlier from a Spanish museum in Murcia, mostly medieval Spanish coins. Greek police have found a fragment of a marble Ottoman tombstone and an eighteenth century painting of St. George and two other saints and “two objects from the Byzantine era,” hardly noteworthy objects, since similar items are found in many EU antique stores.
oh. Oh yes, 'many such objects are found on the market'. So that means that the [A]CCP does not feel they are worth dealing with. By the way, the coins in the photo are not that 'heavily' encrusted, many of them will clean up to look nice in a dealer's tray. Yes, there are many such coins with no legitimising papers in those dealers' trays.  So far there have been 75 arrests, let us hope the [A]CCP get their wish to see more arrests as the result of 'such a massive operation'.

As for the claim that the police should not be announcing as a success their capture of the sellers of such small artefacts, hardly worth bothering about, a parallel argument might be a certain interest group urging the police not to arrest people who molest very small children, but only those who  (with their small orange hands) grope adult women.

 They perhaps think it's enough to 'build a wall' around all the 18 countries involved and post armed guards on every single archaeological site across the whole of Europe and the MENA region, which they imagine would somehow be a 'better way to spend' the money spent on the police operation to investigate the dodgy antiquities market cost. I cannot see 'the Mexicans' paying for that... This so-called 'committee' should be ashamed of their embarrassingly naive so-called 'cultural policy' suggestions.

The way to deal with a dodgy market is either to police it or shut it down.The [A]CCP seems to think the cost of policing it is too high.

Anyway, I guess if Europeans want some 'advice' about how we should police our borders, I guess we'll ask the [A]CCP,  but until then, perhaps the collectors and lawyers of Tumbleweed Town could just worry about their own.


Paul D., Paderborn, Germany said...

Dear Mr. Barford,

I would like to ask you the question: What in your view makes a legitimate antiquity?

I'll give you a hypothetical example.

Let's imagine we have a Greek coin, pot, figure etc. which can be traced back to a British collection of the year 1890, not via hear-say but via an old publication with image. But there would be no evidence how and when exactly it left Greece.
Would you consider that to be an illicit antiquity today? Would you, as a judge, rule that it had to be returned to Greece?

How about if it could be traced back to 1920 ? 1969 ? 1991 ? Where would you want to draw the line?

Also, under what circumstances would you allow archaeological objects found today to pass into private hands?

For instance let's image an English farmer finding a hoard on his field. Let's imagine he calls in (real) archaeologists. They do a proper excavation and a proper study of the find. Let's image there are 500 coins found but the local museum only needs 50. Would you be ok with the rest being sold to private persons? Would you be ok with them being sold over seas?

Cheers from Germany,
Paul D.

Paul Barford said...

There seem to me to be a lot of Germans suddenly interested in asking me the same questions of me. Must be the effect of the new legislation...

Well, what do you think?

An object 'identified' by being illustrated in an 1890 catalogue - and we are sure it IS the same one, not one that looks like it... Since it was taken before the definition (UNESCO 1970 art 3) of what an illicit antiquity is, if it was in England in 1890, then I'd say that is as licit as you get. I would not say that if the source country wanted it back it 'should not' go, but that is a matter for negotiation rather than compulsion.

I do not see why all the stress is on "repatriation" - you are speaking like an American.

So, if you can document that it was out of the country in 1920 or 1969, then I'd say that's fine (with the same proviso as above).

No, 1991 - that is not kosher. Its 21 years after the UNESCO convention. If there is no documentation of licitness in accord with the provisions of that convention, then you cannot differentiate it as a licit artefact as opposed to an illicit one and no museum, responsible collector or responsible dealer should even consider handling it. It has been tainted by the carelessness of the former owner (and if he or she was careless in its disposal without the documentation, then I think we can all have very little faith that he or she was to any degree more careful during its acquisition). No, this is an orphan object - not collectable.

Like an entomological or herbarium specimen that has lost its label. Useless.

Archaeological objects can pass into private hands by the means that are legal both in terms of the heritage protection laws and ownership laws (so involving the landowner too which is often forgotten) in the country and circumstances involved,. but to SHOW legal possession, that has to be documented in a manner that the statements therein can be verified.

The English hoard comes under the 1996 Treasure Act. Under that, objects are disclaimed and come onto the market (that's why collectors love 'the British (sic) system'). Would I be OK with that? Yes. That is the law in England as it stands. I want to see the law altered - but NOT in this respect. But again, if a collector gets three coins from the Lower Piddleton third century radiate hoard, the documentation needs to accompany those items to differentiate them from the proceeds of clandestine nocturnal artefact hunting on the scheduled site in the field of the neighbouring farmer. Otherwise there is nothing to show that the objects ARE legally obtained and not stolen.

Surely that is pretty clear and straightforward to understand.

If somebody wants to claim that the goods they are selling are of licit origins in a market which we know (and have known for decades) is full of objects which are not, he needs to stock those items for which he can supply the buyer with proof. If the market, half a century on from the 1970 convention, has not worked that out and thought up a way to deal with it, the market must either be full of retards - or people who have very good reason to keep secret just where they are getting increasing quantities of fresh artefacts. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and just assume they have cognitive issues to overcome.

I assume that answers your question. What stopped you from working it out yourself?

Paul D., Paderborn, Germany said...

Thank you very much for your reply. It sounds very reasonable certainly.

But let's dwell a bit on our 1991 pot/coin/figure. At worst [!] it would have been dug up in Greece in 1990 and left the country wrapped up in some tourist's dirty t-shirts. Not a pretty thought! I agree. Also that tourist would have faced a very high fine if they had opened his case at customs. But what damage to archaeology is done by handling the thing now?

Handling it now doesn't in itself create fresh holes in the ground. If every collector agreed to only obtain objects that were around in 1991, we'd be all right, Jack.
If our concern is the damage caused to archaeological sites in 2017, why care too much about 1991 (or 2001 for that matter)? (At least if we leave states and their claims on cultural property aside.)

The new German law I think is based on the same line of thinking. Because it works on the basis of two cut-away dates: 1992 for EU-, 2007 for UNESCO memember states. The year 1970 has no meaning in Germany except as a moral red line which at least public museums are very, very, very much encouraged to follow. And indeed they do!

Paul Barford said...

Your 1991 pot scenario involves you making an assumption, whitewashing the whole situation. You assume "wrapped up in some tourist's dirty t-shirts", but equally it could be smuggled in a van belonging to a criminal gang containing drugged and tied up teenage girls going to a seedy Danish brothel who had 'bought' them. The point is when dealing with illicit (or potentially illicit) antiquities, facts like that are covered up. But would you feel comfortable having art brought to you by those criminals in your home? KNOWING that such things go on, would you feel comfortable about having objects in your house of unknown histories which cannot be shown NOT to have been associated with such criminals? How is that "responsible collecting"? For what, exactly would you be taking "responsibility" for if you cannot exclude such items from your purchases?

>But what damage to archaeology is done by handling the thing now?<
That's like saying what's the problem with handling a painting stolen from the home of pensioners in 1990 since the victims of the crime are probably dead now, or kiddie porn photos taken when the girl was ten in 1990 and she's now an adult woman of 37 now. The painting is still a stolen one, and kiddie porn is kiddie porn - and neither should be in your home, whenever the illegal act which results in it being there was committed.

Also I think you miss the point, that half a century on from the 1970 Convention, we do not need any more undocumented artefacts on the market, whether dug up in 1990 or 2009 or September 9th last year.

>If every collector agreed to only obtain objects that were around in 1991, we'd be all right<
Let them not only agree, but DO it, and then we can discuss the possible implications for policy. We can only formulate policy on what IS not 'what might be'. So far, collectors and dealers have for HALF A CENTURY been kicking against the idea that the things they trade in and collect should be traceable, that the market should be a transparent one. Yes "it would be nice" if that were not the case. But ... antiquities dealers think they are a law unto themselves, and they are not accountable for anything they do. I say they need to lose that attitude.

So why do private collectors set themselves lower standards than museums?

Paul D., Paderborn, Germany said...

I think it is not so much a question of attitude as of law. If there was a simple law that stated in black and white that it is illegal to deal in archaeological objects that cannot be proven via documents to have been in the country prior to (insert year), there would be no more Greek pots "from an old collection" in the shops.

I was laboring the point about the 1991 pot because of an essay I was reading some weeks ago: "The Trade in Fresh Supplies of Ancient Coins: Scale, Organization, and Politics" by Nathan T. Elkins.
The author seems to make the argument for a late cut-away date as a workable compromise so as not to drive collectors into the arms of the trade's lobby. But I can see that you have powerful arguments against that.

So thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.

Paul Barford said...

The British laws on bird egg collecting are instructive. And if you look at the RSBP advice on what to do with old collections you cannot document, we see the seriousness of the implications which antiquity collectors may need to pay a little attention to.

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