Friday 25 July 2008

The right to own antiquities, or the responsibility to care?

At the beginning of this month there were changes in eBay regulations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland to comply fully with local antiquities protection laws. Over on the Yahoo Moneta-L discussion forum, the discussion (I use the term loosely) about these changes and their implications is still going on. Now it has developed into a thread called “Government intrusion and theft” which gives an indication of the direction the discussion is being taken by the ardent numismophiles gathered there.

The argument, typically, seems to be going in the all-too-familiar general direction of ‘property rights and the rights of private individuals to own property' with the argument about “The Right to Access My Past” thrown in for good measure. The arguments of this group run along the following lines: “Citizen X living in country Y has the right [“enshrined in law and the Constitution of his country”] to own as much and whatever kind of private property they can afford. The government of country Z has no right therefore to place any hindrance on that”. They argue that in buying tainted or potentially tainted foreign portable antiquities, no law in country Y was broken even if according to the laws of country Z the objects in question had been illegally removed. Calling country Z’s laws “bad, ineffective, laws” and “unconstitutional” is how collectors salve their consciences.

So in the Moneta-L discussion we find the sentiment that “Just because the government really wants something does not mean that they should be able to steal it” (sic). Surely, however, if we are talking about a finite resource, the government has a responsibility to try to protect it as best it can from damage and destruction, if necessary by taking it into custody and regulating how it is used up. That goes for wildlife, clean air or water, scarce mineral and other natural resources. If we have an anarchic free for all, they will soon disappear as each person asserts their constitutional rights to do whatever it may please them to do, to help themselves to as much of it as they want, to destroy whatever it pleases them to remove. The current environmental conservation movement is a reaction to the realisation that previous lack of controls was leading to serious damage for precisely those reasons. The archaeological record from which the collectable portable antiquities are taken is an easily damaged and finite resource too.

It cannot be stressed too much that the whole debate about the current status of portable antiquity collecting is primarily about conservation issues, not of personal freedoms. The collectors and dealers however are intent on presenting it in a different light, and public opinion should be able to have the information readily available from which the fallacy of their arguments can be judged. The profit-hungry advocates and other supporters of a cultural property free for all simply want to turn the clock back to the bad old days of unrestricted colonial destruction of resources of other countries.

The dealers and collectors advocating a free-for-all argue that if citizens of country Z see an opportunity to make some money by destroying the archaeological record to get items to sell to citizens of country Y, then they should be entitled to benefit from the “fruits of their labour”. They call that supporting free enterprise. Of course the bottom line is that its not really citizens of country Z or Y they are thinking of, but the ease of access of Citizen X (in other words their own) to the pieces of the past extracted by fair means or foul from country Z. They seem not to recognize that there is a line to be drawn between honest labour and exploitation. There is also a difference between ethical colleting and exploitive collecting of anything, fossils and archaeological artefacts included.

But surely if a peasant farmer from country Z finds something on their own land they should be able to sell it to the dealers Citizen X gets his stuff from? After all, it was argued over on Moneta-L “A person's property rights extend from the center of the earth to the heavens above”. Really? So if somebody owns a field in Heathrow Middlesex all the planes flying over it and all the passengers of the underground trains going under it are trespassing on their property? Well, actually no. Neither can the landowner actually do anything they like to absolutely everything in the air above or soil below. Let them try ripping out all the bluebells in the woods on his property and exterminating the wild birds there and they would fall foul of the The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Even in the United Kingdom (noted throughout the antiquity collecting world for its liberal antiquities protection laws), certain assets of even privately owned land form a finite resource the protection of which we all have an interest in, and the state enforces certain policies so these resources can be sustained for the use and enjoyment of all (both now and in the future). This is only right and proper, as is compliance with such regulations. As with the natural environment, so with the historical environment, which exploiting sites for collectables destroys.

Yes, a landowner has the right to do what he wants with the birds, trees, wild flowers, fish and archaeological resources of their property as long as they do so in accordance with the law. This is precisely what the new eBay regulations are enforcing. It does not matter if the would-be-purchaser, whichever country they live in, personally regards the laws as “good” ones, “necessary” ones, or “effective “ ones or not. The law is the law. Dura lex sed lex. Surely no ethical collector or dealer would want to buy items from a law-breaker? Would they? Well, the answer is there for anyone to see if they care to take a look at what they write on their discussion forums and blogs.


David Gill said...

Do archaeologists see this issue in terms of stewardship, whereas collectors and museums think in terms of ownership? [See Looting Matters.]

And I think you are absolutely right to stress the nature of the finite resource.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks David for that, succinctly put.

It'd be interesting to imagine what a "who owns antiquity?" book would look like if it had had the title "who cares for antiquity?" In what way is "ripping out pieces of the past" and buying, selling and hoarding them actually "caring for" the past? This seems an indefensible proposition to me.

We all own it and we should all care for it, but the dealers and collectors which we hear so much from these days seem to have an aberrant understanding of what is meant by "we all own" something. They seem to have the attitude of the social-margin guys who rip up and sell off for scrap the railings in town parks to fulfill their financial needs - arguing that "we all own them, so I do too". That would be recognised as the actions of an anti-social minority by most people in society. Let us hope that before long public opinion can recognise the same attitudes of a minority when they concern personal collecting of "pieces ripped from the past".


To own or not to own: Is that the question? Read SAFECORNER post for another take on the subject.

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