Tuesday 20 October 2009

"Harpies of Cultural Property Nationalism"

A few days ago Missouri dug-up ancient coin dealer Wayne Sayles announced on his blog that he was going to give up his attempts there to “control drivel”, at the time he gave the impression that he was no longer going to try to oppose the views of preservationists (“time is an increasingly precious commodity and there is little point to hammering the same old tune on our dulcimers”). Instead it seems he meant he was not going to spend the time curbing his own drivel.

So, obviously a man of his word, just five days later he lambasts those he labels “harpies of cultural property nationalism” for “a nauseating stream of blog posts, news articles, discussion list comments and convention presentation reports that condemn the "illicit" trade in antiquities”. He claims that “the entire trade [in antiquities] is painted with a broad brush as illicit” by these people. He repeats the same text in the online "Coin Collecting News". Let's have a look at what he says.

1) Now as one of the "archaeological bloggers" he presumably had in mind, and fairly sure of what I think about the trade and generally pretty careful in choosng my words, I determined to see whether it is the case here that the whole antiquities trade is labelled "illicit". In some 700 posts here, I found the word “illicit” occurs 80 times. There is a search facility at the top of this blog, so I will save space by just stating that the reader can check themselves: there is absolutely not a single case where that word is used here to refer to the market in general on (in?) this blog. It is quite clear from the context of each and every one of those words that in this blog I am concerned with the participation of illicitly-obtained artifacts ON the market, and specifically the PART of the market which I think should concern us all, which I label “no-questions-asked” market. Sayles seems not to see the distinction. Certainly I do not see the market in antiquities as a whole an illicit one, but I do think illicit artefacts play a large part in it in its present form. I also think that the fact that neither dealers or collectors are the slightest concerned to know or differentiate where the items on the market came (or are coming) from enables these illicit artefacts to be disseminated alongside those of more licit origin (e.g., from old collections) which enables the looters and smugglers to continue to profit.

2) As for those Sayles persists in pejoratively labelling “nationalists”, what on earth is that about? (apart from being some more Saylesian name-calling). [Sayles, by the way, sees himself as a patriot and certain of his own writings in that vein seen from this side of the Atlantic certainly seem nationalistic to me, so when is the pot calling the kettle black?]

Dealer Sayles, it seems to me uses the term "cultural property nationalists" primarily to describe those who oppose the movement of archaeological material from one country to the next in defiance of export controls (export controls which dealers in ancient dug-ups argue should not exist and the ACCG Baltimore coin stunt and the IAPN and the PNG "freedom of information" battle with the US State Department are intended to challenge). Just recently the ACCG to raise money for this challenge sold a whole bunch of ancient dug-ups from unstated sources to collectors who could not care less where they came from (“the trade in antiquities does not require documented provenance […] provenance is not especially valued by collectors of minor objects”). They raised in excess of 32000 dollars for this. I think we all know full well that the people (metal detector users, peasant farmers, unemployed Gypsies, people working for organised criminal groups etc.) who sought out and dug up those coins in the ground of some distant corner of the ancient world on another continent did not get anything like the equivalence of 32000 for those coins when they were covered in corrosion and earth. We have a situation where moving an artefact from one country to another, cleanuing them up a bit and marketing them is a highly profitable enterprise, this is the problem. The foreign market where comparatively large profits are involved attracts the interest of those in the developing economies of eastern Europe and the Near East who can make a good business from buying old metal things in one country and finding a way to get them out to the lucrative markets (of which the epitome is the US market). These “exporters” are discomforted by the type of import controls (scrutiny of legality of export) that Mr Sayles’ organization the ACCG is actively opposing in the US.

Now I oppose smuggling of antiquities – there are mechanisms for legal export and import, and it seems to me that the licit trade (the one Sayles falsely accuses myself and my colleagues of not perceiving) complies by the letter of those regulations (the truly ethical trade would go further than mere adherence to the letter of the law, but that is by the by). That makes me a “culture property nationalist” according to Sayles. I also oppose the smuggling of the hides, tusks, teeth, feet, feathers in fact any part of endangered species, dead or alive – does that make me too a “Wildlife Nationalist” in Sayles’ eyes? I oppose drug smuggling (“Narco-nationalist”?) people smuggling (“Sex-Slave-nationalist”?), laundering of dirty money through overseas bank accounts (“Cash-nationalist”?), nuclear fuel (“Urano-nationalist”). The use of the label in the manner Sayles and his dealer-collector pals does in this way is just silly. There are good reasons why there should be controls over the movement of certain commodities, either for the sake of the commodity involved (sex-slaves) or the finite resource from which they come (CITES regulations). To lump all the issues involved in avoidance of export controls together under the one heading of "restitution of artefacts to a homeland" is simply confusing the issue (see David Gill on this confusion among the advocates of the no-questions-asked market and collecting). But then producing utterly simplistic arguments in favour of keeping the status quo on the antiquities market is the name of the game for Sayles and his dealer pals. Collectors (coin collectors especially) are not likely to question them, after all.

3) Mr Sayles and his fellow dealers persist in deliberately misrepresenting the position of those they oppose. Typical is his misrepresentation of what the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property actually SAYS. (Please read Article 1 and consider whether Wayne Sayles’ garage junk is eligible as he claims it will be - clue: “is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science”.) I guess in making such misrepresentations they are angling for the attention of those too dumb and unconcerned to check the veracity of what they are told by the agitators intent on winning what they see as a “cultural property war”. After all, if their clients started asking questions, the current no-questions-asked trade (which makes all the dealers involved so much money from selling other people’s cultural heritage) would simply collapse. The fact exists at all is a symptom of the mentality of those that patronise it.

4) Another example of this occurs in Sayles' post when he writes:
The approach of some, to characterize private collecting and the associated trade as "evil" or "illicit", and as the "root cause" of looting, is simply not going to solve the problem.
But, Mr Sayles fails (again) to recognize (or admit) that what is being criticized is a certain (though disturbingly widespread) mode of private collection and the associated trade (should be the other way round perhaps) – the “no-questions-asked’ approach. There are collectors and dealers who demand provenances for the artifacts to prove they are licitly-obtained. They are a minority, true, and the trade as a whole will be rendered truly licit when they become the majority and push the “no-questions-asked” cowboys and excuse-makers out.

5) Now I expect Sayles will say this is all “drivel”. Read the UNESCO Convention and read what the dealers say it says and decide for yourselves who is writing drivel, who is a “nationalist” and who is making (lots of) money out of the public exhibition of arrogant imperialist/ colonialist ideologies.

As Sayles says:
The situation is not going to improve until the rhetoric changes...

Whose rhetoric, I leave it up to the enquiring reader to decide.

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