Monday 16 February 2009

The tide turns for the British Antiquities market

The publication today of the Final report of the Strategic Study on Illegal artefact hunting seems to mark an important watershed in the long and sordid story of the British market in portable antiquities.

The report received surprisingly negative coverage in the British press, it has all the makings of a good story of course, loot, buried treasure, secretive night time activities, careful detective work by the investigating authorities. Probably for the first time in many years the British media came out with a barrage of unfavourable publicity for the artefact hunter and collector, usually the subject of fluffy bunny "unsung heroes" type praise. The metal detectorists were furious on the forums, over in the US officers of the ACCG were quick to come to their defence (here and here for example).

The Oxford Archaeology report has serious shortcomings, but depicts the scale of the problem as serious. It stands by the typically British policy of reasoning with the culprits, maybe if we are nice to them they will stop. I am not sure how effective this will be against the hard core of criminals who undoubtedly exist in the artefact hunting milieu who are intent on profiting from sales of stolen finds, often obtained at night during well planned and organised raids where anyone who stand in their way is threatened by physical violence.

We should recognize that there are limits to the degree public education will have an impact on this group of individuals. The report recognises this and concludes that the motor for this activity (there is a substantial analysis of eBay sales on which this is based ) is the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities. The conclusion is that the most effective means of dealing with the problem of illegal artefact hunting in the UK is to close the loopholes that allow them to find a market for the commodities they produce to make the venture worthwhile. Removing the ability to profit financially would clearly reduce the motive for these criminals to operate.

Monitoring of eBay UK by the Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, British Museum since October 2006 [main report pp 82-88] has shown that an element of the illegal movement of unreported Treasure items has been the lack of due diligence by British dealers in establishing provenance and title to sell while handling such material (hence current moves to have the Treasure Act amended to make it a requirement for all who come into possession of Treasure to have an obligation to report it). This monitoring of sales of antiquities listings on eBay shows a steady rise in the number of unprovenanced British antiquities on sale each month. Some of these at least seem likely to be the products of “nighthawking”, but which ones?

It is heartening to see that as a result of this report, British archaeologists are at last looking at the possibilities of regulating the local antiquities market. They are taking a vivid interested in the regulations reported here which were introduced last year on eBay in Germany, Austria and Switzerland which have shown that the auction house is prepared to take stricter action than has been the case so far in the UK. The Council for British Archaeology and PAS are now suggesting that Britain should be pressing eBay to follow suit in the UK to close down online auctions of illicitly acquired material.

The Director of the CBA suggested today at the launch of the Illegal artefact hunting report that there is a need for the introduction of a new criminal offence for a person to deal in such objects without being able to produce a clear modern provenance. Such a reform in attitudes and legislation would introduce the necessary transparency into dealings in cultural objects and ensure prospectively that persons dealt only in such objects with a recorded and substantiated background. Apparenly such a proposal is currently being discussed by a working group of the APPAG with the aim of identifying way add this to the legislation of England and Wales. There will be a review of the 1996 Treasure Act later in the year which will provide an opportunity to discuss this proposal with policy makers.

This all is bad news for the advocates of the current no-questions-asked market for portable antiquities which acts as a cover for the quantities of looted and smuggled material entering certain markets. They have until now had the "shining example" of Britain with its "wise" heritage laws which allow a question-free environment for the circulation of all manner of "pieces of the past". Now it turns out that the British are questioning the wisdom of this oversight, we may expect foreign lobby groups to start poking their noses into how this "source country" should treat the archaeological heritage found within its territorial borders as they do with those in SE Europe and the Middle East.

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