Sunday 8 February 2009

Where to find the ethical collector?

Over on SAFE Corner a small discussion broke out over a report of Renfrew's talk in NY (Renfrew asks for clarity in New York). Collector and artist Bill Donovan writes: Archaeologists [...] fritter time and resources away fighting people who view antiquities as their connection to history and the larger narrative of world culture" and argues that "Archaeologists need to institute a system of documenting and releasing less signifigant finds, thereby allowing the creation of an individual known as the "ethical collector." I replied in the comments on SafeCorner, but post that reply (slightly edited for clarity) here too.

Well, first of all, I do not accept the argument that its „archaeologists” who need to change the current status quo. As Mr Donovan says, it is a “minority” of the population which are causing this problem, and the effects and scale of the quarrying of the archaeological record for collectables is an issue that the conservation-minded majority is becoming more aware of. The “benefits” of which Mr Donovan speaks affect that minority, the damage that is done by looters to the archaeological record to supply this erosive hobby affects everyone, and not only of the current generation.

If collectors want to carry on, then instead of just going on about their “rights” as collectors, it’s obviously time for them to start considering their responsibilities. I suggest that, instead of allowing themselves to be pushed about by the dealer naysayers as they self-evidently do at the moment, collectors need to take the initiative and show that a legitimate trade does exist and can exist (if it can). If collecting is, as Mr Donovan explains, an expression of capitalism, then it is the demand which shapes the supply.

The obvious first step would be for collectors to create a collectors’ code of ethics, which cuts out all the weasel-wording of the existing traders’ ones and answers the concerns of the critics of collecting in its current archaeology-damaging form. Let it clearly and unambiguously define what (in a period when the looting of sites to supply this market is taking place on an unprecedented scale) is and what is not acceptable to collect and how. Let it define the questions the supplier is required to answer to demonstrate to the ethical collector the licit origin of their goods, and let it say unequivocally that if the seller cannot answer the questions, the ethical collector moves on to one who can. Perhaps when they have defined what ethical collecting actually is, ethical collectors can form an association of people united under that banner which could act as its spokespersons, so we can bypass the aggressive defenders of the no-questions-asked trade that so far dominate the discussions and cloud the issues. That seems to me to be vital for progress in this area.

[Mr Donovan explains: I am against the state telling me I cannot own something as common as a bronze Roman coin. Roman coins were produced in the hundreds of millions, and are scattered in the top soil through out Europe].Collecting Late Roman bronze coins? I do not think this is in any place actually “banned” as such, though in some places (though obviously not in the USA) certain conditions have to be met. How can Mr Donovan collect them ethically? Well, thousands of them in perfectly collectable condition come from British sites and are recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Some are single finds and many are from hoards recorded under the Treasure Act and released on the market as superfluous to museum display and study needs. Buying only such coins should mean that one has an object which has been recovered responsibly and recorded by the archaeological authorities (so the information can be used by the public at large in whatever way they want). The object has a unique number and photo in an external database which is accessible online all over the world and can be associated with data on provenance and find circumstances. The PAS record can be the beginning of a chain of ownership which will accompany the coin as it moves from the collection of one responsible collector to another and show it has not been recently ripped from the layers of an ancient military site, cemetery or settlement in Bulgaria and illegally shipped by the lorryload to US wholesalers like many currently on the market. We have all heard the pathetic self-justificatory arguments from collectors, and – especially dealers - why this is “all right because…”. The point is though that any responsible thinking person can see that it is not “all right” at all. Archaeological artefacts are not potatoes to be dug up and sold and bought by the kilogramme.

Whether or not “archaeologists” and politicians should, at great cost to their own citizens, set up PAS-clones in all the source countries to primarily serve the needs of foreign collectors is something that we can obviously only discuss when collectors are able to demonstrate that they actually are concerned enough to actually buy only the provenanced and traceable antiquities that it would produce. At the moment, we see very little evidence that in the collecting community there is actually any real demand for PAS-provenanced antiquities for example. That includes the US market, the one which demands that every country sets up a PAS so they can freely buy the artefacts from them. Some US dealers are very dismissive of the whole idea of collectors buying provenanced so-called "minor antiquities", it is not difficult to guess why though.

The same goes for deaccessioning “duplicate” (how to define that?) items from museum collections for collectors’ enjoyment. Again I would say let us wait with discussions of that until such a time that collectors can mature to a stage where provenance and associated documentation are not being lost every time an object is sold to a new owner (one can hardly call them a ‘curator” or “steward” is that information is lost every time an object changes ownership among private collectors).

I therefore really do not see the logic in Mr Donovan's response to Renfrew’s “a point of crisis has been reached in the destruction of the world's archaeological heritage, and that this can be met only by a general agreement not to acquire unprovenanced antiquities”. Mr Donovan says The position you are arguing turns many thoughtful, good-natured, curious, well educated, wealthy people into criminals.” I really fail to see the connection there. It cannot be denied that this is a conservation issue, not one of “personal rights”. Surely the “thoughtful, good-natured, curious, well educated, people” if they cared about the crisis of destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage would indeed agree “not to acquire unprovenanced antiquities”. They would not patronize cowboy dealers offering unprovenanced material from goodness-knows where. They would not be kicking against those trying to stem the tide of destruction of the finite and fragile archaeological resource, but working with them. That seems a no-brainer to me.

It’s the same as elephant ivory, same as any CITES protected items. The responsible buyer asks questions, if the seller gives an evasive answer, they walk on to somebody who can offer something which can be verified as not recently looted. There IS such stuff, isn’t there? After all, portable antiquity dealers bang on about how a “legitimate trade” (made up of all those items which entered the market legitimately since Petrarch started collecting coins) does exist alongside the cowboys selling looted items. Perhaps it is time to find out how extensive the one is with regard the other and collectors can act accordingly.

So, in a nutshell, to "create ethical collectors", it is obvious that we need collectors themselves (“thoughtful, good-natured, curious, well educated, people”) to become more aware of their responsibilities (through, for example, reading material like the SAFE website and supporting organizations like it) . I’d also like to see the responsible and ethical collectors working (for example through their internet forums) to bring the less responsible, the less thoughtful, good-natured, curious, well educated people in their ranks round to the idea of ethical collecting. It seems to me that the obvious first step is for collectors of portable antiquities to create their own code of ethics formulating what is and is not socially acceptable for collectors of portable antiquities in the twenty-first century.


Mark said...

I interviewed Lord Renfrew a few weeks back for an upcoming article in ARCA's Journal on Art Crime ( I questioned what he thought of restricting the antiquities market to only the known/documented objects to which he had no reply and hadn't thought of it (probably because it's so highly unlikely). Nevertheless, it does add another element to the conversation regarding the question of are collectors the real looters.

Maybe it can be made mandatory that collectors read Roderick J. McIntosh, et. al.'s article "The Good Collector". You make the profound point that collectors should develop a code of ethics of their own that falls in line with the 1970 Rule. This would benefit them because it would reduce the amount of scrutiny their gifts to museums and cultural institutions now receive.


Paul Barford said...

Thanks Mark for your interest.

One correction, a collectors' code of ethics is essential, though I personally do not think insistence on "the 1970 rule" would be helpful in getting it. For this reason I'd be satisfied with 1st Jan 2010 for private collectors if they cannot satisfy the 1970 one (I think its more important to cut fresh looting and the damage it causes than fretting about the damage already done and can never be undone).

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

As you know, we are waiting for the final draft of our Guidelines for Responsible Collectors in the AncientArtifacts forum. The responsible and ethical collector is out there, and we are gaining support, however slowly.

Thanks for your time,

Paul Barford said...

Thanks Robyn,
I have no doubt that there are a lot of responsible and ethical people out there collecting (and dealing in) portable antiquities. A strong code of ethics will go some way to sorting out the sheep from the goats and act as a foil to the rather unflattering picture that emerges from listening to the rant and posing of a vocal minority (composed primarily of US coin dealers) who are spoiling it for the rest of you.

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