Sunday 27 July 2008

Make objects “rotting in museums” (sic) available to collectors? Have they any idea what they are talking about?

Alfredo De La Fe New York dealer in largely unprovenanced ancient coins and antiquities obviously has a poor impression of what happens in the world’s museums. On a collectors' discussion forum he writes:

“If the issue is one of conservation than the entire archeological lobby has done a very poor job of it on a whole. I would wager than more antiquities disintegrate on a yearly basis due to improper storage and handling because of lack of funding than those that enter into the antiquities and numismatic trade.
The solution is actually quite simple. […] museums have BILLIONS of dollars worth of antiquities and coins that are otherwise disintegrating or will never be studied or displayed within my lifetime or even my great grandchildren's lifetime that could be sold and used to PROPERLY preserve and study mankind's history.”

To a point, I agree with Mr De La Fe; US archaeologists must be doing a poor job on the whole of educating and informing the citizens of that country since people like him can come out with nonsense like this on a public forum showing they have no idea what museums are for or how they work.

In the news every so often appears an item that in one museum or another something has gone missing, or a painting is shown to have been damaged by poor handling, or that a museum has problems financing adequate storage space for excavation archives or some such similar problem. These are problems museums have and struggle to deal with, and yes, those which are caused by lack of facilities and resources are most often caused by poor funding by local authorities. News reports like these however never fail to be mentioned on the websites and discussion forums of collectors of portable antiquities. These are intent on creating the impression among their membership that this is the norm rather than an exception – hence antiquity dealer De La Fe’s ill-informed “wager” above. This is all intended of course to bolster the “simple solution” model; the "best remedy" for this "general problem" is to put the contents of museum stores on the market for private collectors to snap up and fill their homes with whatever they want.

This is of course one of the prime identity-forming mantras of being a collector of portable antiquities these days. To be accepted as one of the community, one has to join the chanting in unison,
give us what is rotting in your museum stores and we’ll not have to buy looted antiquities”.
In this community, the accepted response is then the chant:
if they won’t let us have what’s rotting in museum stores then they cannot blame us for buying looted antiquities, can they?”
In fact, as Coggins (1995, 61,67) notes the proposal of an unrealistic notion that the release of ‘duplicates’ would satiate the current and future market is simply a "smokescreen for inaction". One of many, I think, in the world of antiquity dealing.

I’d like to know just how much of the material archived in the archaeological stores (actually often kept in very good conditions), even of major museums, a dealer like Mr De La Fe could actually make “billions of dollars” on. I wonder if he really has any idea what sort of material makes up the bulk of the archives from modern excavations. Take Poland’s museums at the moment, boxes of prehistoric and medieval pottery and other material from large excavations on the projected route of motorways. Very little of this, aside from a few decorated ceramic spindlewhorls and a few brooches and pins is the sort of thing one would find in a New York antiquity dealer's sales offer. Or as another example I am familiar with, the excavation archive from the famous multi-period excavations at Mucking, Essex currently housed in the British Museum. I expect some of the Anglo-Saxon grave goods from the two cemeteries of the latter might find a US buyer if the price was sufficiently low to be attractive, but not all of the artefacts from the cemeteries are attractive collectables (hundreds of iron nails and other corroded – but now conserved and stabilized - bits of iron objects for example). How many sherds of Bronze Age cooking pot could Mr De La Fe actually shift a year? What is the size of the US collectors’ market for smithing slag samples, crucible sherds, fired clay oven fragments, roman tegula fragments, froth flotation residues and charcoal? What about the wet timbers from a well that were removed from a site near me in 2006 and undergoing conservation? Would a US collector want it now, or when the conservation is finished (and would he pay for that too)? How would he display it? How would they look after it? After all, in the Mike Pegg video mentioned yesterday we the manner in which one collector of sensitive ancient metal objects was keeping them.
I expect really what the dealers want is to be able to cherry-pick, take all the whole pots and legible coins and sell them, leaving the museum to look after the rest as their (incomplete) reserve collection. I wonder what they think the function of such a facility would be? Who would use it and for what after they've taken what they want? What kind of an idea is that?

Typically De La Fe does not go further and outline what he would consider to be the “proper preservation and study of mankind’s history” which would result from selling off the more commercially desirable bits of public collections. Obviously this "preservation" would therefore not be in a Universal Museum like New York’s Metropolitan just down the road from Mr De La Fe.

C.C. Coggins 1995, 'A licit International Trade in Ancient Art: Let there be light', International Journal of Cultural Property 4,61-80


David Gill said...

The more sophisitcated mantra is:
"create a licit market for antiquities".
See Looting Matters.

Ed Snible said...

Why not try selling the potshards and find out how big the market is?

The Israel Antiquities Authority considered selling two million potshards a few years ago. The Haaretz writer, Amiram Barkat, estimated they could go for $2 each, but that is just a guess.

I don't think the sale ever happened! It would have been nice to have gotten the antiquities out before someone set the warehouse on fire:

I agree with De La Fe that antiquities could be better preserved. One way to preserve them is to photograph them now to aid future generations of restorers in case there is deterioration caused by fire, water, pollution, etc. How can we incent museums to photograph their collections? One way would be to make photography cheap. I propose an automated system with a conveyor belt. Graduate students put the antiquities on the belt which is attached to a camera. The images are automatically uploaded to the Internet. This would allow a new kind of amateur archeology, similar to how African tourists switched from big game hunting to photo safaris when the animal populations declined.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks Ed for that.
1) with reference to the two news stories from Israel, I think that you are confusing here two things. The first is the material from mixed deposits on excavations which may not need to be incorporated into research archives on large research projects and secondly the site archives themselves (which is what was tragically partially lost in the 2004 Beit She'an fire). Selling unwanted bits of the former securely nicely framed and described is not necessarily a bad idea if the legal situation allows. In excavations where I used to work in Colchester, we gave visitors who had made a donation Roman tesserae found in the fills of Medieval pits dug through Roman town house floors. The proceeds were (as I recall) used to Xerox handouts for visitors.

Umm, you don’t get the feeling that the October 2003 article about maybe having to “sell artefacts” to make up for budget shortfalls was political provocation?

But you don’t need to empty museum stores to get artefacts in a frame. Look where some European metal Detecting finds end up:
is that crass or what? Dreadful to think the past of the source countries is being ripped out only so aesthetically challenged philistines can make and sell such tasteless monstrosities. Can Ancient Shapes show us the export licences I wonder ? (These seem to me to be likely to be Balkans region antiquities.)

2) Coming to your second point, I would hope that any digitalization of museum inventory records would be a bit more sophisticated than cheapo snapshots of sherds on a conveyor belt. I can’t really think what use they'd be, nor what “new” kind of archaeology anyone would be able to do with such photos without the context details being incorporated in the record!

There are of course well established and somewhat higher standards for digital recording of museum collections. I also think you’d hit all sorts of legal, insurance and union problems with using such an ad hoc workforce in the museums of many countries in the way you describe.

David Gill said...

Of course some museums buy potsherds ... think of Harvard.

And then consider how controversial that decision has been.

Paul Barford said...

There are some good comments here on this notion by Sebastian Heath:

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