Friday, 17 July 2009

Repeat: "Four legs good, two legs bad, four legs good....."

The pro-collecting lobby frequently presents collectors of portable antiquities (aka decontextualised archaeological artefacts) as erudite scholars on the whole engaged on a quest to increase our knowledge of the past. Here is one of them ("Fred S.") expressing his views on the future of his hobby:

I feel very sad at what I see happening and I am particuarly sad about this very real threat to the hobby of governments outlawing collecting of anything over a hundred yrs. or so (like the EU) and pronouncing objects over that meager time frame as being "antiquities" and "cultural treasures" and such like rot.? Now mainland China, Italy, Cyprus and soon others are getting into the game as well with various demands, all of them dire for private collectors.? If this trend continues, and it seems to be trending that way, I don't give the private ancient collecting community extinction in 100 yrs., more like 20 or so, alas.? Take care and be well...

Astounding, isn't it that groups like the ACCG can pretend it represents intelligent people engaged in a scholarly pursuit while it rams such nonsense down the collectors' throat and presumably looks on with a self-satisfied smile when it sees its supporters quoting such rubbish in public as here.

It would be difficult to know where to start explaining to the likes of Mr "S." the actual situation. Governments have not "outlawed collecting" of anything over 100 years, not in the EU nor anywhere else except Mr "S.'s" imagination. In the case of Cyprus and Italy (China being a more complex situation) the national antiquities legislation was in place well before the 1970 UNESCO Convention on (and let us again note the title) 'the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property'. I really fail to see what "demands" China, Italy, Cyprus and "others" have which are all so "dire for private collectors [...]". What, in fact, they ask from foreign collectors in countries signatory to the above-mentioned UNESCO convention is that they collect material which has been legally obained (they have determined is not stolen) and has been legally removed from their countries (with export licences). Is this really an impossible demand? Are the consequences of collectors abiding by such principles really so "dire"? It makes one wonder what "Mr S." collects and who he buys from, doesn't it?

Mr "S." says if the trends of the international community and (increasingly) domestic public opinion to get the antiquities market to clean up its act continue, that the "private ancient collecting community" will be extinct in twenty years. I'd say to him to stop listening to the inflamatory self-serving nonsense put out by self-appointed and commercially motivated spokesmen from the nineteenth century neo-colonialist no-questions-asked school of antiquities dealing with their advocacy of the maintenance of a damaging (erosive, exploitive and unsustainable) status quo. I'd ask him and his follow collectors to stop being mantra-chanting sheep mouthing the words prompted by no-questions activists. I'd urge them to make a bit of an intellectual effort and sit down with some books (or if he cannot manage that some websites), find out what the UNESCO convention actually says and what it deals with and why, read a few articles by Nathan Elkins and others and have a bit of a think about what he has just said actually compares to what he discovers.
Far from becoming extinct, the ethical collector could be taking the avocation into the twenty-first century and leaving behind the loud naysayers and no-questions activists in the dark shadows of an unenlightened nineteenth century legacy. Of course it requires a bit of intelligence and reflection to make that happen, we will all see to what degree the artefact collecting community is equipped to meet the challenge.

Vignette: Stop frame from an animated version of Orwell's Animal Farm. Bottom: The activists' website depicted in the 1999 John Stevenson film of 'Animal Farm'.

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