Sunday, 26 May 2019

UK Antiquities market Watch: What Value has a MOU with the British Museum Twelve years on?

More that twelve years ago, British archaeologists reckoned they had the problem with illegal online sales of British artefacts sorted out with an MOU with one of the major outlets (Maev Kennedy, 'Netted: agreement to control sale of antiquities on eBay' The Guardian  Tue 3 Oct 2006):
After months of negotiation, agreement was reached yesterday between the online auction site eBay, the British Museum, and the government's Museums, Libraries and Archives council, to control the booming trade in British antiquities on the site. Shoals of archaeological objects, an average of 600 a day when volunteers monitored the site, appear on the site [...]. Most are small base-metal objects of low monetary value, found by hobbyists wielding metal detectors - but priceless archaeological information is being lost with them, including previously unrecorded Roman and prehistoric sites. All finders are encouraged, but not legally obliged, to report such objects. However, hundreds of gold and silver objects, which must be reported under the new Treasure Act or the old law of Treasure Trove, also turn up on the site. Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities finds-reporting scheme at the British Museum, said yesterday he believes at least as much unreported treasure is being sold on eBay and other outlets, as is being reported. "The tragedy is that the exact find sites are never given, so no archaeologist is ever going to be able to go and investigate them, and the wealth of knowledge which such finds could unlock is lost forever," [...] The site has now formally agreed to allow a Portable Antiquities scheme to monitor such sales, and also to direct buyers and sellers to a code of conduct, reminding both of their responsibilities. Culture minister David Lammy yesterday called eBay a phenomenon, one of the century's greatest successes. "Like us they recognise that the expanding internet trade in art, antiquities and antiques has potential for abuse, and it is important that steps are taken to ensure that it does not unwittingly become a cover for criminality." 
The tone was optimistic, the PAS has this in hand - and that is what the PAS website still proclaims today to an uncritical readership (Scheme and eBay ):
The British Museum has partnered (sic) with to ensure that antiquities found in the UK are being sold legally on its site. In order to prevent illegal sales of treasure, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS, which is managed by the British Museum) has set up a team to monitor antiquities sold on and to ensure that sellers have the right to trade them. Where the listing is illegal, PAS will report it to the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police and, which has committed to end illegal listings. Dr Roger Bland, head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum said: "We welcome eBay's assistance in helping stop the illegal sale of antiquities on the internet with this partnership.[...]. We will also be contacting sellers to ensure that they have reported items and have appropriate documentation." 
The Scheme then goes on to defend dealers handling dodgy stuff (like it does collectors) solemnly intoning: 'In many cases, sellers innocently trade items on the web, unaware that finds need to be reported under the provisions of the Treasure Act', poor innocent naive British dealers confused by really, really complicated British legislation, eh? Who is kidding who here?

The website in its current form goes on to assert that "this partnership means we have in place a process to stop listings and take action against the individuals concerned". Who is kidding who here? There may be a process, thirteen years on, there are no effects.

There is more optimism in other articles of the time (Christopher Williams, 'British Museum to police eBay' The Register 3 Oct 2006) 
British Museum experts will monitor eBay antiquities sales and report illegal activity to the Met's Art and Antiques Unit in an arrangement announced today [...]. A team set up by the museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme will now keep an eye on eBay in the UK for dodgy-looking auctions. [...] eBay isn't handing over any cash to the taxpayer-funded museum to monitor its auctions. There's a memorandum of understanding though, so that's good. 
Only however while both sides honour the obligations implied in such a partnership. Is the British Museum doing all it can to achieve this?

There is similar enthusiasm at the Culture24 webpage.

Tragifarce in Bonkers Britain. Go to, search the 'British antiquities' section for 'gold' to see how "well" the UK is coping with this issue (no matter how many items have been mislabelled 'antiquities' there). Try too with 'silver'. Then tell me that Britain has the issue of Collection-Driven Exploitation under control. Whatever the PAS and supporters of collectors may say, it most certainly has not. This is Ministry of Silly Walks land.

Vignette: trade card, Contents of British Museum were uninsured

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