Monday 2 February 2009

Illicit Trade in Egyptian artefacts: a collector speaks

In the previous post I made a mention of what an antiquities collector said on Yahoo's ancient artifacts forum about the origins of some shabtis that have been appearing on the market in some quantities recently. In it we see the main problem is the no-questions-asked way in which artefacts like this change hands. Here is some more of what the collector said:
I know a very go[o]d friendthat lives in Egypt and sells Egyptain oranments to Austrila, South Africa and has had his fingers in the illegal trade too. He tells methat in the last 5 to 6 years dealing in antiques is a huge trade inEgypt esp[ecially] with tourism not being as good as it use to be. He tells me

that the main places of sale is to Germany and the Nordic countires, he says people pay the price and don't ask
[uestion]s. He says hundrends of "low" value objects
are discovered weekly. I was told that when locals are employed to work in the winter dig season they make sure they pocket a number of items for themselves to see themselves through times of no work etc. [...] He also pointed out to me that there a quite a few excavations going on in the delta parts of Egypt and a lot of pottery has been discovered and is being sold illegally to Europe. In desperate times people sell there hertiage next to nothing.

Well, no-questions-asked collectors buying these items stolen from excavations are no doubt are very happy to get their preciouses at such prices. Is Mr Seshan's friend implying that he thinks the 'Wenneb.. shabtis' we are discussing were stolen from an excavation by somebody temporarily employed to take part in the project?

Collectors so often try to justify themselves that by "giving artefacts a good home" they are in some way "saving" them. If they are being stolen from excavations in progress they are not, they are contributing to the destruction of knowledge. Some collectors suggest that if they did not buy the artefacts, the metal would be melted down, because - they claim - the real (sic) destruction of archaeological sites all over the world is not done by looters looking for artefacts to sell, but by scrap metal merchants, looking for metal to melt down. 'Wenneb...'s' shabtis however are in no danger of that, but what may have happened to any metal objects in his tomb equipment is another matter. Where is it? How does the collector buying a dodgy shabti on eBay know how the rest of the assemblage was treated? An assemblages that was dug up and dug into, divided and discarded in order to put a few brightly coloured and shiny pieces of mysteriously-marked faience onto the foreign markets. This is a very feeble (and object-centred) argument.

Mr Seshan's informant "has had a finger in the illegal trade" (it says a lot of portable antiquity collectors that there are not too many other milieus where somebody could write on a public forum that he has a good friend who engages in illegal activity and not attract negative comment). It is interesting that he is suggesting that the illicit trade is on the rise in Egypt.

The collectors would say that this is because "Egypt has restrictive laws" which prevent "finders" benefitting from a reward system like in the UK. But our informant is sugesting that many of the finds which are reaching the western markets come from theft, pure and simple, from excavations. Since no-questions-asked dealership is unable to tell us how many items reaching foreign markets were "found" and how many "taken", this argument really has no force.

It is interesting to learn that the "main places of sale" for illicitly obtained artefacts from Egypt are now "Germany and the Nordic countries" where there are collectors (or dealers?) who "pay the price and don't ask questions". Presumably though these countries are just as much staging posts for the movement of these items further afield.

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