Monday, 1 September 2008

Who is being "Greedy and Acquisitive"

In a comment to another post here coin collector Phil Davis makes the point:

I'll address the issue of "greedy" collectors just as
soon as you've honestly engaged the notion of greedy, acquisitive nations. […] By the standards you uphold, the various treasures recently repatriated to Italy (not, I note, "re
ed") are unprovenanced and of no scientific value. Why then would Italy want these worthless baubles, and gloat at their return? Why would you, interested only in truth and justice and advancing knowledge, gloat along with
them? Isn't the Italian attitude, mine mine mine, just the "greed" of collectors writ large, and backed, ultimately, by the armed might of the modern state?
This comment totally ignores one vital piece of information about these objects. In the case of the material which is the subject of the Nostoi exhibition, Italy cannot be labelled as a “greedy acquisitive nation”. All of the archaeological material which has now been returned had not fallen out of the sky into Italy before it was smuggled out of the country. It was dug out of the archaeological record within the area administered by that state. It was then removed illegally from that country by people who presumably knew full well that they were breaking the law. It was bought by “greedy acquisitive” collectors who failed - despite all the warning signals - to check properly where the material had actually come from. It has now been returned to the place from which it was taken as, it is beyond a shadow of doubt, the product of illegal activity.

As such, some of the consequences of that illegal activity have been undone, though the damage done to the archaeological record of Italy to produce a few saleable collectables is irreversible. There are many more items in US and other collections that derive from the same spate of illegal activity and let us hope that “truth, justice and all that stuff” will eventually prevail here too and the material will find its way back to the place from where it was illegally taken away. Why anyone would want to condone illegal activity and label those who oppose it "greedy and acquisitive" is beyond me.

Phil asks why I would “gloat” along with the citizens of Italy that this material has been returned to that country. I am not gloating at all. I am appalled by this whole sorry business. I am appalled by the destruction of achaeological evidence that the Geneva Freeport photos for example reveal. I am appalled (as anyone who cares about the past would be) by the stories about the smashing of painted pots by diggers and dealers so they can be bought as parts of job lots by foreign museums and fitted together again. I am appalled by the trail of destruction caused by the commodification of information about the past as trophies of “ancient art” and the falsehood and hypocrisy involved in the trade of hiding of the true origin of these objects. That is by no means a legitimate trade. One may be grimly satisfied that some of those responsible may have been caught and punished, but we are all aware that this is just the tip of an iceberg (for example according to David Gill the Nostoi material accounts for only 1% of the Geneva evidence), and that is a cause for despair, frustration and real anger.

The public deserve to be shown the Nostoi material, and praise given to those that, through very difficult, time consuming and frustrating investigative work traced this portion of the material, led to its recovery and the apprehension of some of those believed to be involved. Let the exhibition serve to show the public (who pay for these investigations) the importance of continuing this work to the bitter end and bringing all involved to account. Let the international community viewing this exhibition think very deeply about the antiquities and “ancient art” trade. In particular about its effects on our ability to recover information about the past of the region this material has been looted from, taken from the local heritage of those that live there. That is the knowledge I and other archaeologists would like to see advanced.


David Gill said...

The Nostoi reminds us that there is a difference between acquiring objects legally and acquiring objects in an ethical way. Among the Nostoi are pieces that surfaced in public auctions with little hint about how they arrived there.
Returning objects do not give back contexts - but they do make institutions (and even collectors and dealers) think twice about acquiring objects that do not have a recorded history prior to 1970.
Best wishes

Phil Davis said...

Regarding specifically the Sarpedon krater: good riddance. This loss without compensation indeed represents the Met's karmic chickens coming home to roost, for selling the marvelous Ward coin collection to finance the purchase of the damn pot. But why shouldn't the krater be returned to Athens, where it was presumably made? At least, it appears to have been "legally" imported to Italy by a wealthy Etruscan. But does a trail of title really trump "heritage" in your world? In any case, why do the modern Italians have any special claim to the heritage of the ancient Etruscans?

What about the horses of San Marco in Venice? What's the chain of ownership there? They were perhaps made in Italy, perhaps Greece, but were (I assume) "legally" transfered to Constantinople, where they were prominently displayed at the Hippodrome for almost 1000 years. Somehow I doubt that the lawless marauders of the 4th Crusade signed a contract with anyone before they ripped the horses from the Hippodrome. Any claim the Venetians have on the horses is based on right of conquest only, but only if one accepts the validity of such a "right". I don't. Exactly how is this "right" different from "looting"? Why doesn't Turkey have a valid claim to the Hippodrome Horses now? Is there a statute of limitations for such claims? What is it? I guess the 19th Century is fair game, since the Rosetta Stone and of course the Elgin Marbles are subject to contention. I guess the 13th Century isn't, since I don't recall anyone in your camp arguing for the return to Istanbul of the stolen Hippodrome Horses. So what's the cut off point? and who decided it?


To visit Nostoi in Rome and see the objects with an expert, join Dr. Laura Flusche on September 4. Details here.

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