Monday, 2 March 2009

A Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artifacts

The antiquity collecting milieu is demonstrably full of Flat Earthers, conspiracy theorists and Deniers who persist in resisting any change to the current status quo which allows looting to go unchecked, and who are egged on by the dealers with most to lose. They shield themselves from criticism with reference to "reputation" (undefined) and "codes of practice" of the dealers, these however are manifestly unsatisfactory safeguards. There are however a group of collectors who are capable of thinking about the issues themselves who have seen through the smokescreen of false arguments and posturing of the dealers' lobby and are concerned to establish an independent idea of the ethics of collecting - a modification of the "Good Collector " model.

Yesterday on the Yahoo Ancient Artifacts forum a group of antiquities collectors published a document that has been compiled on the basis of several months discussion on that forum. It is a "Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artefacts" - still a draft and open to discussion. It would be good to see some input and comment from archaeological bodies (such as the PAS) and conservation groups. The text reads:

A Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artifacts
Version 1 1st March 2009
This is a voluntary code, reflecting the personal conviction of those who adhere to it. It concerns actions now and in the future, and aims to inform both new and experienced collectors. Although it is clearly in every collector’s own interest to be able to separate the fake from the authentic, keep good records and care properly for artifacts, these guidelines are an attempt to go further by outlining commonsense standards to protect our shared interests, and particularly the finite and fragile archaeological resource.

(1) Protect our archaeological heritage and uphold the law
Only buy artifacts which you have reason to believe have been obtained and are offered in accordance with all national laws.
• Ask the vendor for all relevant paperwork relating to provenance, export etc.
• Take extra care if collecting particular classes of object which have been subjected to wide-scale recent looting.

(2) Check your source
• Verify a vendor’s reputation independently before buying. Assure yourself that they are using due diligence in their trading practices, and do not support those who knowingly sell fakes as authentic or offer items of questionable provenance.

(3) Collect sensitively
• Consider the implications of acquiring items which may be of religious or social significance to others.

(4) Recognise your role as custodian
• Do your utmost to ensure the wellbeing of the objects in your care.
• Consider the condition of artifacts prior to purchase and whether you will be able to carry out any necessary conservation or repairs. Any intrusive operation should ideally be carried out by a competent professional.
• Maintain and update records relating to each artifact, including its provenance. Make sure these records can be connected to the relevant object by a layman.
• Only buy from vendors who do the same.

(5) Keep artifacts in one piece and consider the significance of groups of objects
• Do not dismember any item, or acquire a fragment which you believe to have been separated from a larger object except through natural means.
• Consider the implications of buying an item from an associated assemblage and the impact this could have on study.

(6) Promote further study
• Liaise, where possible, with the academic and broader communities about your artifacts. Significant objects, in particular, should not be withheld from study. Try to find out more about the artifacts you own and their context.

(7) Dispose of artifacts responsibly
• Do your best to ensure that none of the above guidelines are infringed by the way you dispose of your artifacts.
• Pass on all information about each piece, particularly its provenance, and include as much original documentation as possible (even if the prices are blacked out).
• Give an honest description of any repairs or restoration.
• Promote responsible custodianship to the new owner and other collectors.
• Give thought to the disposal of your collection in the event of your death, and leave clear instructions as to how it should be sold or donated.

I think the creation of this Code is a great step forward. Above all it seems to me that it places respect for the remains of the past above the self-centred interests connected with their posession and exploitation. That is an important difference between it and previous "codes". The text as it stands is explicit and allows none of the weasel-wording favoured by the dealers. If 80% of portable collecting within a decade was being done by people actually adhering (not merely paying lip service) to the principles embodied here, the cowboy dealers of undocumented material will have to change their current no-questions-asked business practices and the looters and their middlemen will have to find other markets. At the moment this Code is just a proposal from a small group on an Internet forum, the next question is how it could become the credo of an increasing number of collectors over a wider area. Also, how many dealers will support it?

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