Sunday 27 July 2008

The Antiquity Trade and the Corner Shop

A Californian dealer in portable antiquities (Dave Welsh) protests:
Barford, Elkins and others in their faction love to emphasize this red-herring "dealer" issue, as though being a professional numismatist somehow characterizes one as crass, commercial and not respectable. The truth is that without dealers, collecting would become almost impossible. It would be as difficult as trying to live your daily life without any stores where you could go to buy things such as food, clothing and gasoline.”

I am not sure I like being described as part of a “faction”, but that aside, is it really a "red herring" to differentiate between collectors and dealers of portable antiquities in discussions of the effects of the activity on the archaeological resource? I disagree, it is entirely legitimate and necessary to do so, and it is special pleading to urge that we should not do so.

Above all, it is simply not true that collecting of antiquities “would become almost impossible” without dealers. Many arrowhead hunters, metal detectorists, mudlarks, privy diggers, bottle dump diggers, militaria seekers and others can get by perfectly well (and without breaking any law) without buying ever anything from any “professional” seller of contextless relics. In fact, they are far more likely to sell their duplicates to fellow collectors. Even in the somewhat cultural materially-challenged USA. Furthermore, the advocates of artefact hunting stress that this kind of searching heightens an awareness of the local historical environment and the seaerchers’ own place within it. While I do not personally find that argument totally convincing for a number of reasons, its obvious that buying some “piece of the past” taken by somebody else from the archaeological record is nothing like doing it oneself, the excitement of discovery, the opportunity to take responsibility for making proper observations and record and passing them on to posterity and learning from the experience. In fact, I would imagine the contact with the past from obtaining some object of dubious provenance from an Internet sales venue (even if at a bargain price) is vastly inferior to that gained from responsibly researching the full richness of past of a locality through recording the material culture remains left by past inhabitants. Merely snapping up bargains on the internet or from a dealer is an ersatz experience, a karaoke/fast food culture dumbing down of another type of human endeavour altogether.

But it is in his analogy to a food store that Welsh I think is being totally misleading. The two are not at all comparable. If I buy a product in my local store and it turns out to be tainted and consuming it causes me or my family serious illness, what kind of a food store is it that cannot trace the origin of the tainted product and help prevent others from being endangered by other portions of the same batch? In fact in many European countries, the documentation of the origin of such products is required to be scrupulously kept precisely for such purposes. It should be possible to trace its precise origin back to producer. In my local supermarket, the country of origin is clearly marked on the labelling of all products, fruit and vegetables included. If a client does not wish to purchase anything made in the Republic of Amnesia because of its human rights record or exploitive labour policies, they have the possibility to avoid buying Amnesian oranges so their money does not go in the pockets to support practices of which they disapprove. If the products I buy are produced in a manner which is damaging to the environment, I sure as hell want the opportunity to know about it and have the choice whether to buy that brand or something more environmentally friendly.

Not so with antiquities. The way antiquities are sold precludes such possibilities being available to the consumer - the collector. It is seldom that any place of origin is cited for portable antiquities (beyond that which can be guessed anyway from the typological features of the proffered object itself). The buyer is furthermore given the feeling that it would be almost rude (questioning the dealer’s “reputation”) to ask. The buyer does not know whose pocket the dealer put money in to have these objects to sell. The consumer is not offered the choice of whether they are to become an unwilling partner in a transaction that is shadier than shady since they are usually kept in the dark about the real origin of the objects and from whom the dealer got it and how. The consumer is prevented from being able to assess the nature and degree of damage inflicted on the historical environment extracting the objects on sale. In the manner in which the antiquities business is carried out today, there is no possibility of tracing the origin of tainted goods. No possibility of the collector conducting their own checks on the ethical hygiene of the objects admitted into their personal portable antiquities collection. Portable antiquity collectors are accumulating their minor treasures ripped from somebody else’s archaeological record without being able to take matters like that into consideration. Do they care about that? Do they enquire at all deeply into the reasons why they are kept in the dark about all this?

Antiquities dealing today simply does not live up to the standards of even my local corner shop. What does that say about the “legitimacy” of this trade? Whose fault is that?

Welsh goes on:
"Barford, Cindy Ho and others in their faction may protest that they do not oppose private collecting. I think this is actually sincere, to the extent that they have not publicly advocated banning collecting (as some of theirmore extreme peers have done). However, the difference is really moot because they do advocate a set of conditions and restrictions which, in the opinion of every professional numismatist I know, will gradually make collecting so difficult and cumbersome as to involve much more trouble and expense than anyone would want to go to. These zealots unfortunately just do not know enough about coin collecting to realize what effects the measures they advocate would have on our avocation/science".
I do not accept that accumulating and looking at a heap of contextless old coins on a table can ever be accorded the status of a "science". That is just a nonsense. They'll probably be claiming that phonecard or beermat collecting are "sciences" too. If the bloke that runs the corner shop where I buy my food can tell me where the potatoes for my dinner came from, then I do not see why if their trade is to be regarded as "legitimate", other sellers cannot do the same, and that goes for portable antiquities. Which is what, in effect the new ebay regulations in some countries discused here earlier are going some way to enforcing. What the people labelled as "zealots" are actually arguing for is the responsible revealing and documenting of provenance and provenience of sold and collected portable antiquities and rejecting from responsible collections that which cannot be properly and verifiably sourced and has not been reported through the channels that makes this information available as part of the resource of archaeological knowledge available to everybody and not just individuals. I imagine the effect that this would have is that it would make portable antiquity collecting a far cleaner, responsible, ethical and socially acceptable 'avocation' than it is at the moment. This is what the Portable Antiquities Scheme is aiming to achieve in the UK. Dealers like Dave Welsh, Wayne Sayles and those in the ACCG and all the rest say that this is a model they support and approve of. Let them show it by applying the same principles to their own dealings with the "pieces of the past" they handle and encouraging it in their clients. Let the antiquities trade at least try to come up to the standards of my local corner shop. Is that really asking too much?

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