Thursday, 17 September 2009

Nine Fallacies of the Portable Antiquity Dealers' Lobby

Note from the author: Artefact hunters and collectors have a number of prefabricated justifications for their hobby and why it should be left alone and not asked to change its ways. A veritable crop of them appeared last night on the Ancient Artifacts forum, where coin dealer and ACCG agitator Dave Welsh is still trying to rabble raise in the shadow of earlier comments about the Near Shrewsbury hoard discussed here earlier. I do not know how many of the two thosand portable antiquyity collectors gathered there can see the fallacies embedded in his texts, so far only two of them have tried to query what he says. Either the rest of them are totally taken in by these weasel words, or they don't want to listen to the coiney. Anyway here is my answer. Normally I'd provide hyperlinks to where the things I mention have been discussed, but today I have a lot of work to catch up on, regular readers will know to what I am referring, incidental ones are probaly not going to follow them up anyway.It's a bit long - story of my life, "no time to write less".

Nine Fallacies of Dave Welsh,
a reply to AncientArtifacts message #49955

The Fallacy of Labels
Dave Welsh says: "I do not advocate legalizing looting". What he advocates is calling the process of exploitive and archaeologically destructive mining of archaeological sites as a source of collectables by another name.

Whether we call it "looting" or "artefact searching and recovery”, the effects on the ground are the same, a site is trashed. That is the sole effect that should be of interest to those who genuinely care about the past and its study.

The Banning Fallacy
Again Welsh trots out the tired myth that what is being proposed is "preventing ancient artefacts reaching western collectors". That is a total fallacy and he knows it. What people are requiring is to stop freshly looted material reaching these markets. There is a huge difference.

We Have Petrarch’s Coins Fallacy
The lobby to which Welsh belongs never tire of telling us that people have been collecting antiquities for a long while. This means that on the market there are hundreds of thousands of artefacts "recovered" in the past, and the destruction caused by this is water under the bridge, we can do nothing about that. I do not know anybody who feels that collecting this material is wrong - as LONG as you can document that it really was dug up in Grandpa's day, and is not something merely masquerading as "from an old collection" which is in fact from last month's fresh assault on Isin or Archar with a bulldozer.

The differentiation of these two classes of artifacts can ONLY come from the collecting and dealing community, through whose hands the material passes.

The collecting and dealing community have two choices, take responsibility and do something, or ignore the problem. Obviously what the lobby to which Welsh belongs is doing is advocating the second - hiding it under the pretence that its not a problem caused by dodgy dealers selling material which has indeed come from looted sites and illegal exports - but its a problem that "somebody else" must deal with, and dealers and collectors are not going to lift a finger to help. No, it is something they have to deal with. Only they have the opportunity, and they have the responsibility.

The Eternal Looter Fallacy
This lobby constantly refers to the fact that “looting has always been going on (so why should we bother about it now?)”. Matters are not s simple are they? Yes, we have reports of looting of Royal graves in the Theban necropolis in the twentieth dynasty, yes you can see ancient silver coins in heaps in Middle Eastern markets. But for example you do not see it in England, Germany, Spain, France, or North America (Utah for example), places where sites too are looted to fuel the market in illegal antiquities. Also in many countries we can document an increase in such digging for antiquities along with the expansion of the global market in antiquities, in Central America for example, Nigeria, Iran (Jiroft). It is utterly simplistic to say it has always been going on and collectors are just saving things from being melted down by ignorant brown-skinned oriental peasants who just see the scrap metal value.

The fallacy of this is of course that it does not apply to those who collect things like shabtis, cylinder seals, coptic textiles, Dead Sea scroll fragments, cuneiform tablets, and Anasazi pots. A moment's thought reveals that this is another of those little verbal tricks used to justify "not doing anything".

Also, one thought: if looters have always been with us, why is there anything at all left in the surface layers of sites such as tells anywhere in the world for people to dig out in such quantities today that (lobbyists like Welsh allege) people can live of the proceeds. What Welsh ignores is that I published a challenge to the scrap digger model proponents on my blog to test the validity of these claims, to actually show us (and the person proposing it) how this would work. It is actually far too simplistic of them to just say "well, you just go out and dig stuff up to sell". Let us see them do it before using this as a global argument.

I have no doubt some people do did up scrap on abandoned sites. I question whether the phenomenon affects archaeological sites on such a scale as to be used as a justification for a policy of inaction for the whole world. Logic says that it cannot - though if Mr Welsh would like to prove me wrong by taking up my challenge, then we can talk about it further. At the moment it is just an unsubstantiated generalisation of the dealers' lobby to justify taking no action on illicit artefacts entering the antiquities market.

By falsely representing themselves as “rescuers” of “things that would be dug up anyway”, lobbyists like Welsh open the way for their next fallacy.

The Laws are Made to Be Broken Fallacy
Hardly a discussion on this issue gets going than the US collectors-rights lobby invokes the Volstead laws and the failure of prohibition. This again however builds on the fallacy that what is being discussed is the prohibition of all antiquity collecting. Invoking this dubious parallel allows them to argue that legal restraints do not work. Welsh states:
So long as it remains profitable to dig up old artifacts, people will continue to do so. The only laws that can control this are the laws of economics.
Quite so, as long as it remains profitable to dig up old artefacts and sell them to people who will, knowing it is illegal, buy them because there is a market for them, people will continue to do so. The moment that market for looted goods dries up (because ethical collectors worldwide refuse to buy them), the damage this type of exploitation causes to archaeological sites will drop.

The Archaeologists must Supply us with Goods Fallacy
Lobbyists such as Welsh insist that since archaeologists want the market to contain provenanced artifacts to cut down looting, they themselves must supply them, these people periodically propose that duplicate objects archived in public collections (such as museum reserve collections) should be released onto the market. Or that any legal restrictions on digging of individuals into archaeological sites should be lifted to allow an artefactual free-for-all, which they propose could be “regulated” (sic) by instituting something like England and Wales’ Portable Antiquities Scheme. Welsh says:
The ultimate solution to the antiquities looting problem can only be to establish a regulated licit market in provenanced antiquities. That will ensure that antiquities go into the licit market, rather than into the black market.
No, that does not stop the treatment of archaeological sites merely as a source of collectables, it just gives it another name, but its prime function would to help keep the people who trade in them out of jail. To the archaeological record it makes no difference whatsoever if the saleable collectable geegaws ripped from the ground by a peasant's shovel go to dealers like Mr Welsh via the European black market, red market or green one(without plastic carrier bags). The far away peasant still dug some holes in a site to find it and any stratigraphic information there is gone for ever. As I say, that is the important issue. The archaeological record of the world is threatened enough by factors we can do little about, the illegal digging of sites for profit however is something we can aspire to do something about.

But yes, a regulated market that stops items circulating without documentation of licit origins is a fine idea - but let us note that even a rudimentary form of this is immediately challenged by Mr Welsh and his ACCG pals, in their Baltimore Illegal Coin Import Stunt. I wonder why? (Rhetorical question Mr Welsh).

The Quis Custodiet Fallacy
Behind this is the argument that in general, archaeologists “don’t look after” the finds they curate, and they would be given a better home in a private collection in a Wisconsin back bedroom. Every opportunity is taken by these lobbyists to highlight when a museum storeroom has been flooded or robbed. Interestingly primarily when they are in countries where the inhabitants have brown skins. When a (white) Long Island museum curator was accused of selling items from that collection, the lobbyists’ blogs were silent. It is of course very easy by such a pars pro toto approach to convince fellow collectors that their domestic accumulations of decontextualised “pieces of the past” are given a “better home” than in museums. I sincerely doubt however that across the whole extent of portable antiquity collecting that is any more true than “all museums are bad”. Once again superficiality of thinking in this milieu triumps over reason.

The Good Collector Fallacy
The fallacy therefore develops that the collecting of antiquities is in some way socially beneficial, it has nothing to do with personal acquisitive needs. The dealers who sell relics to collectors (wherever they come from) are supplying a public service. Their clients are all Good Collectors. Nobody knows, or at least has any dealings with real crooks. Welsh says:
This is my reason for opposing the efforts of Paul Barford and others (beginning with Colin Renfrew and Ricardo Elia) to portray collectors as being ultimately responsible for looting. That simply isn't true.
Collectors that buy looted objects are ultimately responsible for looting. There is absolutely nothing illogical in that. It is the laws of economics, if there is a market for a particular commodity, the opportunity exists to make a profit supplying that commodity. The bigger the market, the greater the opportunity, the more intensively the commodity can be produced without oversaturating the market. Simple. Ergo, the smaller the market for looted archaeological finds (because some day in the future under the influence of the efforts of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and other such organizations, collectors have woken up and started to apply strict ethics to what they do), the less demand there will be for looted artefacts.
Now whether the collectors that strenuously avoid buying looted or potentially looted objects are in any way distinguishable to a dealer on today's market is an interesting question. I have already drawn attention a number of times that the way sales offers are phrased seems to indicate that the dealers on the whole anticipate few detailed questions on the precise origins of finds from their clients as whole. They obviuously perceive the total lack of any provenance information time after time on their objects as being no hindrance to their marketability. The reader can draw their own conclusions from that vis-a-vis what proportion of the collecting community they regard as responsible for the continuation of the illicit trade.

The Archaeologists Must Sort This Out Fallacy
Again we find in Welsh's lobby a misrepresentation of the case. Welsh reckons that pointing out the relationship between no-questions-asked collecting and the current scale of looting is in some way a "mistaken concept" (though actually has failed to say how) which is "causing significant social damage" (while no-questions-asked collecting is merely causing archaeological damage he forgot to say). He alleges that it distracts "our attention from sensible and realistic approaches that would have a much better chance of solving the problem".

Well, as I have pointed out that "the problem" that dealers like Welsh are interested in is how to make money selling these bits and pieces without worrying too much about their origins being scrutinised. They want "the archaeologists" and lawmakers to establish (for them) a "a regulated licit market in provenanced antiquities", in fact ones that they put on the market for him to sell.

This is Not a Fallacy
In fact what this lobby is doing with all this verbal juggling is himself trying to distract the attention of the artefact collecting community "from sensible and realistic approaches that would have a much better chance of solving the problem", which are to stop selling and collecting antiquities which cannot be verified as not-looted.

I would imagine that for most people who are not collectors, there is nothing ridiculous or unrealistic about such a simple proposal. Given the amount of looted material entering the global antiquities market, the only sensible and realistic approach to curbing the damage this is causing to the archaeological record is to stop selling and collecting artefacts which cannot be verified as non-looted". To only sell clean goods.

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