Saturday, 23 September 2017

To a Collector

I was contacted by a collector who also dabbles as a small-time dealer about some artefacts he had bought, he sent me photos and asked for an opinion. Whoah. Obviously slippery ground. He had stressed how 'responsible' he tries to be in buying, and for a number of reasons, I decided to answer him despite my misgivings, requesting that he does not use my opinion in any sales spiel. I am not going to post up my whole reply as I do not want to give the game away on what I think of the actual artefacts he showed me - primarily because I see nothing wrong with him selling them as almost all look from the photos to be fakes, a buyer who knows what he's looking at will too. The rest should just keep well away from the antiquities market. 'Caveat emptor and if he cannot properly caveat, he should buzz off because he'll only do damage' is my position. Anyway, here's part of my longer reply:
I am really sorry it has taken so much time to reply to your enquiry [...] Thanks for showing me these pieces. It’s an interesting challenge to say something about such items just from the photos, and of course in such cases I can only offer what is really a subjective opinion. Please do not quote my opinion in any sales offers.
You sent me seven photos asking for an opinion:[....] 
 [...] You tell me that [...] were sold by tarb2011. This seller seems to be offline at the moment, but has sold other objects which are ‘not-as-described’. But that does not mean everything he sells is fake, the middlemen who supply dealers mix fakes with authentic items. The purchase of antiquities on today’s market is very risky for a number of reasons. Take your [...] (if that is what it is). Bought from an online seller based in Dubai who has now disappeared (accountability?) who said it was found in Jordan. Now, while Dubai has rather lax laws about import and export of antiquities, Jordan has very strict ones. I bet Tarb2011 did not give you a photocopy of any export documents from Jordan, did he? And what if the object had been smuggled out of Egypt (after having been illegally excavated or removed from a museum store) by a Jordanian lorry driver taking agricultural produce across the border? On the other hand, if it is a fake, into whose money is Tarb2011 putting money? And so on. Even where the legalities are clear (and they often are not), the ethical issues are extremely foggy.
 One thing about beads, unless they have been excavated (legally or otherwise) from a grave, they are pretty difficult to find under normal conditions in Egypt. If they were excavated from a grave in the period after partition of excavation finds stopped (1920s) then they cannot be legally on the market (see below). I think we have to imagine how loose beads arrive on the market. Finding a small bead in the dust of the Egyptian western desert using the naked eye is actually quite difficult, the dust tends to cling to small objects. When it rains they are visible (but rain is very rare in the desert). Finding them in the agricultural soil of the Nile valley and delta is equally difficult. How, then, do we imagine hundreds of thousands of them are on the market?  A peasant may find four or five, a middleman may buy them and make up larger groups. That’s not a very good way of making money from something that is sold on to you for a few dollars… it could take him a few weeks or months to find enough to make up a batch big enough to attempt to smuggle out of Egypt (risks involved, bribes to be paid). Far more economical would be to find somebody (a local potter for example) who can make good copies of these minor antiquities, beads, amulets, shabtis and mix them in with some genuine artefacts and convince a dealer to buy the lot. Somehow those fakes will surface onto the market alongside the genuine ones…. Then there is the ‘old collection’ argument. We are told by all dealers that the items they sell are legal because they came from ‘an old collection’ made in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. But they will never give you documentation of that claim. A few moments thinking about it will show what a nonsense that is. I do not know how many antiquities collectors there are in the middle classes of the world’s richer countries (that is something for somebody to work out), but (a) collecting is easier now since the internet, and thus becoming more popular, (b) that middle class is expanding [...], and (c) the world population is expanding exponentially. So if today in Europe there are – let us say – 80 000 collectors or antiquities, and in the USA the same number, it is quite obvious that these collection cannot be supplied from artefacts coming from those collections made when there were many fewer collectors in the nineteenth century or even earlier twentieth century:  we must also remember that part of the material from those earlier private collections disappeared due to war, simple neglect, and also donations to public collections. There is also a problem authenticating objects by comparing them with others (most easily online). Most of the objects online are being sold by dealers (who will all claim to be respectable/reputable) and know what they are selling (because of many years ‘experience’). So you would in many case be comparing objects being sold by one dealer with objects sold by another. But there are many fakes on the market, some are really obvious even to a novice. Some are pretty good fakes (and as such, collectable in their own right), but the disturbing thing is that there are an unknown number of fakes out there that are undetectable and will remain undetected. There is an interesting book you should know about if you do not already (I would suggest borrow/ read online rather than buy as it is the thesis that is important rather than the cases that ‘support’ it). This is Oscar Muscarella’s ‘The Lie became Great. The Forgery of AncientNear Eastern Cultures’ (2000). On a similar theme are several papers by my colleague David Gill and Christopher Chippindale: ‘Material and Intellectual Consequences of Esteem for Cycladic Figures’  American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 97, No. 4 (Oct., 1993), pp. 601-659 .  Both of these texts point out that the antiquities market, by paying no attention to documenting where items come from and how they arrive on the market, allow fakes to contaminate the available data so that we can no longer tell what is what. The same goes for museums, many of which created collections from what private collectors donated (or sold) them. Those collectors obtained the material from a number of (now unknown) sources and fake items enter even esteemed public collections. In the same way a dealer may have sold you an object as authentic even though another opinion will tell you on the basis of their knowledge and experience is not (in their opinion) authentic. A dealer tends to have experience of what is on the market – and some of the objects he is handling are fakes. So it is not important that he thinks a piece ‘looks right’, if he is comparing it with other items that ‘looked right’ even though some of them (though sold to him as authentic) were made in 1983 or 2012 in a garage in Beirut. The coin dealer who sold you those beads may have been cheating you, more likely he over-estimated his own ability to tell real from fake. 
The result of this is that we should be very aware that the market today, in order not to shrink, but instead continue expanding, therefore MUST contain very many objects which have ‘surfaced’ much more recently, either because they are freshly looted and smuggled, or have been newly-made to look old. There is no other way today’s market could exist. Paul Barford

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