Thursday, 26 March 2009

Keep Better Records, Keep Out of Jail

London antiquities dealer Malcolm Hays has been sentenced in absentia to three years in prison by a Greek court for allegedly handling stolen Greek antiquities. (Ivan McQuisten, ‘Greek court gives UK dealer three years in prison’ Antiquities Trade Gazette 23 March 2009). Hays says he is innocent and his London business was unwittingly caught up in a case of stolen Greek artefacts by doing business in July 1999 with a regular customer, a registered antiques dealer based in Athens.

It appears that the Greek dealer was raided in 2000 and “a large number of important but stolen artefacts in her possession” was seized. The dealer, Hays said, tried to explain away her possession of these items by producing the invoice she had obtained from one of the purchases she had made from Hays in London. This was for the sale of what Hays referred to as “a small number of minor artefacts and broken pieces” and not the items which were subsequently seized, though it is not clear what precisely was written on the document. Since, however, the document produced by the Athens dealer seemed to indicate that the objects deemed to be stolen had been obtained from Mr Hays, not surprisingly the Greek authorities wanted to speak with the London antiquities dealer, so they issued a European Arrest Warrant for him (which is the main topic of the Antiquities Trade Gazette article, see also The Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP).

Now it seems pretty self evident that anyone dealing in items which are liable at any moment to be questioned – and precisely from the point of view of their origins - needs to keep careful records of the movement of material through their hands. This applies to whether you are handling goods like firearms, explosives, pharmecutical products, or fresh meat. No mention is made in the article of Mr Hays’ ability to present to the Athens court proper documentation of precisely what he had sold the Athens dealer and of its legitimate provenance. This would appear to be the source of his trouble.

The whole matter as presented in the Antiquities Trade Gazette hinges on the very lack of proper documentation of the provenance of artifacts moving through the market which is regarded by most archaeological resource preservationists as the root of the problem with the illegal trade.

Mr Hays is going to appeal, perhaps we will see some of the missing documentation being presented in court, and maybe this will give the no-questions-asked dealers and collectors pause for thought about cleaning up their act and maintaining proper records of their transactions involving archaeological goods in order to avoid facing similar accusations themselves. I cannot help but feel that the effects of this would be beneficial all round.

Presumably there is another side to this story, if Mr Hays has indeed been sentenced it was presumably as (alleged) accessory to another offence for which we may presume a conviction was obtained; we might wonder who the Greek dealer involved was and what "stolen" artefacts are involved? How do the Greek authorities know they are stolen despite the dealer having what she says is an invoice for their legitimate purchase in London?

Vignette: jail for not being to document your answer to a simple question?

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