Monday, 4 August 2008

Ignoring the Inconvenient Truths

It must be an uncomfortable time to be a collector of portable antiquities. Their activities are coming under increasing international public scrutiny, dedicated organizations like SAFE are raising public awareness of the cumulative destructive effects of the portable antiquities market on the world’s precious archaeological heritage. They are referred to in less than favourable terms, with informed writers like Roger Atwood calling them "mindless consumers of heritage, depriving everyone alive and everyone who ever will live of part of the collective memory that makes us human". The feel-good factor of each successful reasonably-priced purchase of the next tangible personal “piece of history” must presumably for some collectors be tainted these days with a slight nagging worry about its origin. Surely, they try to kid themselves, “my cuneiform tablet fragment really was from an old European collection, like the nice gentleman who sold it to me so persuasively argued”. Further rationalization might include: “we all know that none of the recently looted Iraqi stuff is coming to my country, I read it on one of our ancient artifacts forums”. Others of course just shut their eyes and ears to criticism and carry on doing what they want to do.

A rapid survey of the web-based catalogues of a selection of US purveyors of “affordable pieces of the past” reveals a worrying trend. The world knows, for example, that looting archaeological sites in Iraqi for saleable portable antiquities has been going on since 1990, and carried out in some regions at the time of and since the 2003 invasion. Nevertheless, very few of the US dealers in portable antiquities selling substantial numbers of cuneiform tablets, both whole and fragmentary, cylinder seals and other so-called “minor antiquities” bother to put in their sales offers a single word about where the offered items have come from. Not an “from an old European collection” in sight, let alone “this item of course is accompanied by a full set of paperwork indicating legal origin and export”. The purchaser is expected to be impressed by the web design and company logo and put to the back of their mind the pictures from the newspaper and the thought that this object could be one of the tens of thousands ripped out of their archaeological context in recent years. It would seem that many buyers, eager to add further sought-after items to their growing personal collection, do not ask too many questions.

In fact the number of buyers who have pursued questions like this with the dealer before a purchase is obviously not sufficient enough for the vendor to feel its worth expending time explaining in their sales offer how each individual item on offer has been vetted for legitimacy. Not even in the case of the categories of portable antiquity which in this day and age most obviously call out for such an explanation. If we care to take a closer look, in most dealers’ catalogues (and not only in the US), this appears neither in the short caption or detailed description of dozens and dozens, hundred upon hundred items. Website upon website. Neither is there anything on the home pages of most portable antiquities dealers about their vetting procedures. It would seem that they are confident that their buyers need no such assurances from them. The most that any of them offer is that the dealer belongs to one or other of the trade organizations with some form of pro-forma codes of ethics, but if we take the trouble to read those ‘codes of practice’ of antiquities dealers, they are often worded in such a way as to leave plenty of wiggle-room ("not knowingly / stolen from collection/ scheduled archaeological site").

In the light of this, there are obviously many greedy collectors of portable antiquities to whom concerns on the legal origin of the goods they buy are of little concern, their interest focuses on getting hands on an attractive object. The lure of the exotic and romantic, the emotion of capturing and possessing for oneself, excludes all other considerations. These collectors are not at all interested in the wider issues, except where they can select from among them elements which they can claim as some form of justification for their careless acquisitions. We have seen these pathetic excuses trotted out time and time again. A repetitive series of glib statements comprising little more than aggressive and accusative rhetoric intended to deflect attention from the real conservation issues.

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