Thursday 20 November 2008

Controlling the Illicit Antiquities Trade in the UK?

Kate Clark the author of the recently published review of the PAS would appear to have a sly sense of humour. On page 34 of her text she writes:

The scheme adds value to the work of the British Museum, including its role in implementing the Treasure Act and related policy issues – in particular the control of the illicit trade in antiquities.
The BM controls the illicit trade in antiquities in Britain? No, it does nothing of the sort. The 'Treasure Unit' in the BM has a memorandum of understanding with eBay by means of which it polices eBay for undeclared Treasure items. Staff members pore over the listings contacting sellers about items which they feel contravenes the Treasure Act. Most of the time the seller tells them it is “from abroad” and there the matter ends, because “No British law has been broken”. This is despite the wording of the 2003 Dealing in Cultural Property (Offences) Act concerning the scope of the definition of “tainted artefact”. The British Museum does not attempt to uphold this law (still less promote the respecting of the laws of the 'countries of origin') in its “policing” of eBay. Perhaps from a logistic point of view it is entirely understandable, but from the archaeological one there is a rather more troubling ethical dimension involved. An additional ethical problem is the presence of enormous quantities of fake artefacts which any antiquities collector will tell you being sold in great quantities through eBay as genuine (looted) ones. I am pretty sure that the BM has the expertise to spot the suspicious scarab, the spurious shabti, the dodgy didrachm, and yet depite the BM having cast an eye over them, they pass muster and continue to be sold (misrepresenting fake antiquities and selling them as genuine is also against British law).

The buyer is told the antiquity sales on the UK eBay are “policed by the BM” and have the right to trust that what they buy is therefore legitimate and authentic – which I am sure is what eBay would tell them. No, Ms Clark, the British Museum does NOT have any control of the illicit trade in antiquities in London or Britain as a whole.

Personally though I do think that something called “the Portable Antiquities Scheme”, adequately resourced could be an effective way of putting into practice HM Government’s declared intent of “cleaning up the illicit antiquities market” in Britain which for several years now has remained just empty words.

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