Monday, 20 January 2020

"Compromise" on the Antiquities - by Legalising Tomb-Robbing?

'Anyone can do archaeology...'
Antique furniture restorer Clinton R. Howell is owner of 'Clinton Howell Antiques, dealers in high end English Antique Furniture' in New York  and current president of the International Federation of Dealer Associations, representing art trade organisations. In  the latter guise, he was moved to write a 'statement' in response to something Trump said... 'Trump’s Threat to Attack Cultural Sites Raises Broader Questions, " Cultural Conservation of Objects – Will it be history too?" January 18, 2020.

We may leave aside the issue of whether the irresponsibly spontaneous and infantile rantings of the narcissist in the White House raise any more questions broader than the motives of the millions of Americans who chose him as the representative of their nation.

Howell, however, suggests that the MAGA-ideology of Trump himself has become the national credo: “win at all costs” and asks what this means for global heritage conservation efforts.  He seems to regard that as some kind of civilisational norm: "winning at all costs has infected our (American) society in all sorts of ways and it has seeped into Europe".  Howell's argument is, however, merely clumsy and is based on depicting those who oppose current modes of operation of the antiquities market as displaying such a "win at all costs" attitude. In doing so, he demonstrates that he does not really understand the issues when it comes to so-called portable antiquities. I think he's been listening too much, and too uncritically, to the distortions of the likes of Peter Tompa.
Mr Howell
The main thrust of his argument comes from depicting those that oppose the way the current market works that facilitates trade in illicit artefacts as "non-compromising zealots". He then moralises:
 It isn’t hard to see that compromise and collaboration are a far more desirable route to achieving one’s goals. [...] if you wish to shut down the illegal trade on websites, don’t think that shutting down the legitimate trade is going to end that practice. 
He seems to fall into the self-serving rhetorical game as the lobbyists of the antiquities market that argue, circularly, that calls to cut out the trade in illicit artefacts are no less than a call to destroy the antiquities market as a whole, while loudly proclaiming at the same time that the 'legitimate' market is quite separate from that which deals in the illicit artefacts.

The rest of us do not see any such problem here. The compromise is to take effective steps to make that separation physical, get rid of the cowboy traders in illicit artefacts, leaving the guys who play fair a free hand to trade ethically with items that can be shown to be licitly obtained. The problem is that the dealers in dugup portable antiquities - for some reason - seem afraid of doing that. They prefer instead to pretend that the preservation lobby "wants the impossible" and most of all "wants" to get rid of the market as a whole. Having set it out like that, and demonised the preservationists, they then declare that they are justified in having no intention of working to cull the illicit antiquities sales. Mr Howell does not diverge from this time-worn formula for inaction.

As president of an antiques dealing federation, he takes the view that 'objects are just as important as sites—indeed, they give meaning to sites'. Both in furniture as in archaeology, that's pretty questionable on all counts. In the context that he is discussing, it could almost be taken as meaning that the 'sites' can be destroyed, and yet if the objects remain, not all is lost. The sites need the meaning given by the objects, but even if the sites are gone, the meaning in the object remains. And those objects are 'preserved' by collectors and dealers, the real saviours of the day. Is that it?

I take exception to a used furniture salesman telling us that:
Sovereign states that would like to see the eradication of the antiquities trade (sic) could take a page from the book of compromise. If one looks at how the United Kingdom (sic) has approached the unearthing of historical objects as an example, there is a rough template for how to deal with tomb robbing and/or illegal excavations [I presume he means the Treasure Act and PAS]. 
What, make it legal, and then let it go on, on the proviso that the artefact hunters voluntarily show us a little of their haul? So in the case of the looting of the average Etruscan cemetery, what 'objects that give the site meaning' would the furniture specialist suggest it should be obligatory to show the archaeologists? How does he see this template working in such a context? I think Mr Howell really does not see that the PAS is a product of the medieval and 1880s British legislative framework and not in fact the reason for its existence in that form...

He also does not see that in the case of an artefact hunter taking apart contexts (and tombs!) to put loose objects onto the antiquities market, it is not the loss or not-loss of the objects that is the issue, but the loss of the close observation and documentation of context that is trashed in the removal of those things that is the issue. And, demonstrably, neither in Britain, nor Etruria are tomb-robbers capable of making those records. Some of the British ones can barely write. And here it makes no difference whether the activity is legal or illegal, a looter's hole is not an excavation. A looter is not an archaeologist. A looter cannot produce archaeological information, they can only produce loose objects. The same way as I have a saw, hammer, chisels and nails and a lot of old wood in my garage, and can easily make a chair, with four legs and a seat, maybe even some rungs, but this piece of furniture would be of no use to 'Clinton Howell Antiques, dealers in high end English Antique Furniture'. It's not the same thing.

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