Thursday 31 July 2008

The Antiquities Trade and the United Nations

Pro-collecting polemists in recent weeks have been vigorously alleging that protection of the archaeological heritage of a state is driven by “nationalism”. The trend began developing some time ago, but interest in this model in collecting circles in the US in particular seems to have been revived by the discussions around James Cuno’s book “Who owns Antiquity”.

Is it actually “nationalism” to want to attempt to curb the destruction of the archaeological record of a region to feed the international market for looted portable antiquities? It seems to me that in the way it is used by portable antiquity collectors, this argument is in fact largely a confusion of several different things. Its main function in the portable antiquity trading milieu is to act as another of those foundationless ‘collective identity mantras’ and self-justifications exploited as an excuse for inaction. Matters are not so simple, the argument takes on a totally different (and somewhat sinister) shade of meaning when contrasted with the attitudes of portable antiquity collectors in the UK busily acquiring their own “pieces of their own past” (more of that another time no doubt).

When I look at the ‘arguments’ being currently thrown about with abandon on the US collecting forums in support of their notions, I cannot help but get the impression that their authors really have not taken a close enough look at what has been going on in the heritage world in the last twenty years. The intellectual position the dealers and collectors are proposing to attack seems a throwback to those of the 1970s or 1980s and is quite unrelated to the discussions currently going on in the international heritage world. I guess this is due to them remaining outside these wider discussions of what are, after all, conservation issues in which they apparently have no practical interest.

Another tendency is emerging with greater clarity in some areas of the milieu. Their new ‘cunning plan’ is to attack the United Nations, and more particularly the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since it is the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property which lies at the basis of much of the current criticism of the trade and which if more generally applied in an effective manner would place obstacles before those dealers and collectors wishing to ignore certain niceties such as export licenses and establishing legitimate provenance.

In particular a proposed focus of these attacks is suggested to be "the UNESCO practical use of nations to represent cultures” (pardon?). It is suggested that “the latter should be especially embarrassing to archaeologists (sic) because it shows that they are buying into an argument that they cannot support from their intellectual perspective. This hypocrisy should really be exposed dramatically”. I am sure we all look forward to the exposure of any hypocrisy there may be in this line of argument, but whether or not it will be found to have come from the conservation lobby remains to be seen.

It might be useful to remind ourselves of the nature of the UNESCO “intellectual line” over the supply of portable antiquities to the collectors’ market that “archaeologists” (sic) would allegedly be unable to “buy into”. A good place to start would be the wording on that topic of the 1970 Convention itself:

RECALLING the importance of the provisions contained in the Declaration of the Principles of International Cultural Co-operation, adopted by the General Conference at its fourteenth session,
- CONSIDERING that the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural and educational purposes increases the knowledge of the civilization of Man, enriches the cultural life of all peoples and inspires mutual respect and appreciation among nations,
CONSIDERING that cultural property constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture, and that its true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding its origin, history and traditional setting,
- CONSIDERING that it is incumbent upon every State to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft, clandestine excavation, and illicit export,
CONSIDERING that, to avert these dangers, it is essential for every State to become increasingly alive to the moral obligations to respect its own cultural heritage and that of all nations,
CONSIDERING that, as cultural institutions, museums, libraries and archives should ensure that their collections are built up in accordance with universally recognized moral principles,
CONSIDERING that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is an obstacle to that understanding between nations which it is part of Unesco's mission to promote by recommending to interested States, international conventions to this end,
CONSIDERING that the protection of cultural heritage can be effective only if organized both nationally and internationally among States working in close co-operation, […].

The nitty gritty of the body of the Convention follows on soon after this. This is of course is the main source of angst for collectors who do not want to worry about the issues of precisely how an item they want to buy came onto the market where they find it. (Such reflection would only get in the way of deciding whether it is “authentic” and the price is right, which seem from their forums to be their main concerns when buying archaeological items from foreign lands from a dealer.)

I am sure that it may be comfortable for the unconcerned collector to be dismissive of the Convention, but to claim that there are intellectual grounds for doing so seems to involve not a little special pleading. It will be interesting to see where these polemicists will find grounds to show which of the eight propositions in the preamble of the Convention is alleged to be “embarrassing” to the archaeologist to support. They all seem pretty reasonable to me. I look forward to the reasoned argument by the pro-collecting milieu that we should all be ashamed to hold such things as self-evident, and why they feel themselves to be justified in flying in the face of international opinion on these matters.


Ed Snible said...

If the UNESCO conventions are mostly about preventing illegal digging why does UNIDROIT include postage stamps in its definition of Cultural Property?

Paul Barford said...

Well Ed, this is where I find totally incomprehensible and foundationless the arguments of the US portable antiquities dealers and collectors who as we have seen time and time again try to place all the blame for this document and all their problems on some “radical archaeologists”....

They seem not actually to have grasped the essence of the 1970 UNESCO convention, or the fact that it was not drafted by archaeologists for archaeologists in order to make antiquity dealers’ lives difficult but addresses some wider issues.

Its actual title is “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”. So it is not “just” about excavated objects, but the ILLICIT (let’s keep an eye on the fact that this is the fundamental issue) movement of cultural property.

In terms of the Convention, cultural property is defined as “property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories:…” among them (c and d) are archaeological artefacts taken from the ground and monuments, and lower down (g iv) the postage stamps you are so concerned about.

The list in the (Rome, 1995) International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) “Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects” clearly derives from it.

Basically if the US wants to define certain items falling into the categories listed as cultural property, the Convention says other nations must respect that, whatever they may think of the merits or otherwise of the decision.


hi, i went through the story collection. Very informative. I am a journalist in Tamil Nadu in South India. Today I am writing a big story on the idol scam by Subash Chandra Kapoor. Thanks for the story collection

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