Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Provenance and licit antiquities

Over on the Yahoo Ancient Artefacts forum there has been a discussion going on for the last few days initiated by coin dealer Dave Welsh on the concept of the registration of artefacts in the trade to curb the ability of future looters and smugglers to pass off freshly dug material as "from an old collection". The concept seems quite straightforward, it is an extension of the idea behind the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, and akin to something UK metal detectorists have set up for themselves. Straightforward as a concept to a normal person that is, not so if you are a coin dealer it seems.

A taste of the spirit in which discussion (I use the term loosely) was proceeding (I use the term loosely) is the following exchange:

Defensive Dealer:

But you have NOT been saying "all along" that you would
accept an incomplete provenance as grounds for considering an antiquity to be licit
Paul Barford:
I still do not. [But what we are talking about is registering what is above ground and already on the market in order to create a watershed beyond which it will be increasingly difficult to insert freshly dugup material on the market passing it off as "from old collections", because there will be no evidence that any of it was].
Defensive Dealer (who in his reply omitted the section of my answer in brackets), answers "I still do not":
Then there is no basis for agreement, since if you will not accept a provenance as sufficient grounds for considering an antiquity to be licit, that provenance has no value to the collector.
Well, who can see the logic in that? Just compare DD's two statements a moment, look at the word "provenance" - see a difference? There is of course the world of difference between an incomplete provenance ("from the Simon J. Cowell collection" tells us nothing, "from a Sussex Collection" even less) and a provenance ("Five Oaks Field, Much Hadham, Herts PAS HTF-56789, found by Joe Boggins while metal detecting 12.09.09"). We don't even know even what country most of the objects on the market come from, let alone site within that country - just take a look at Mr Welsh's own stock a sorry result of the exploitive picking over of who knows how many archaeological assemblages, who knows where. Here we might have a clue what in fact Defensive Dealer is trying to avoid....

The point is if we had a proper and comprehensive register of what objects were actually above ground and actually in people's collections in 2010 onwards and the records were kept up to date, by 2030 it would be difficult for Dodgy Demetri and Deceitful Dennis to sell any freshly looted finds pretending that they were coming from those mythical "old European collections". The ethical collector of the 2030s (because the nineteenth century has to end in Collectalandia soon) would ask for the registration number, and Demetri and Dennis would be stuck with unsaleable tat on their hands.

Now actually from that point of view, and bearing in mind that once a site has been destroyed, it cannot magically be "undestroyed", what I was proposing in this discussion was that for the purpose of registration of currently held objects a partial provenance (the "from an old collection" type nonsense) would have to be acceptable to allow the find to be registered in the first place. One assumes if the proud owner had some documentation that it really HAD been in an old collection (or has the original receipt from its purchase from the Cairo Museum - oh yes, they do exist), this too would for part of the record. But as Oscar White Muscarella (in "And the Lie Became Great") said, over eighty percent of the stuff currently on the antiquities market has no provenance.

Accepting that objects would have to be registered on a 'present-absent' basis without decent provenances is not the same as agreeing that the registered objects all must therefore have entered the market by licit means. They could have been looted five years ago, well after the UNESCO 1970 cut-off date usually accepted as the watershed. If I steal a book from a bookshop, even if I write my name in it and nobody catches me, the book is still stolen.

The same goes for items where we have the name of the site they were taken from, but that site is protected by law. There is no way that merely "being told where these finds came from" can make them become licit finds without any extenuating details. Knowing finds bought on eBay are from Archar in Bulgaria does not somehow erase any of the damage done by the bulldozers and metal detectorists there (neither does not knowing, I see seller "empiredanny" has now changed his sales pitch). Likewise if a dealer has a false letter or provenance like those the Source allegedly saw being concocted with the participation of both finder and middleman in the Blanding cases, then it means nothing.

This is why I answered Welsh as I did. Merely "knowing the provenance" does not automatically make the artefact from that site somehow licitly obtained if it was not.

Whether antiquities dealers like it or not the mood is gradually changing. Recommendation seven of the nighthawking report was to stop the sale of archaeological finds in the UK (the home of the "anything goes" antiquities legislation collectors would like to see globally) without a provenance. If that legislation is ever drafted, that will certainly provoke a response. What a shame it is however that dealers and collectors will not do anything concrete themselves to push the illicit antiquities out of the market unless they are threatened with legislative change. What does that tell us all about that market?

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