Friday 26 March 2010

Renfrew: Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: Progress and Problems

Renfrew: Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: Progress and Problems. I thought I would have a go at summarising the main points (see also the two posts below on specific aspects).

There has been real international progress in combating the illicit traffic of antiquities in recent years in which the Italian authorities have taken an outstanding role. In addition, two recent court judgements, in the United States and in Britain (United States v. Schultz ; Islamic Republic of Iran v. Barakat Galleries Ltd.), have recently and significantly recognised the right of nations to claim illegally removed artefacts as national property and to achieve restitution.

But the question arises: how can we ensure that these encouraging initiatives really do go on to have, as their successful conclusion, the reduction in the international traffic in looted antiquities? How far can these measures be made to apply on a truly international basis? Renfrew argues that the return to Italy of major antiquities from a number of museums in the United States should have a deterrent effect against the continuing looting of archaeological sites. The world of collectors internationally, should themselves draw what seems the obvious ethical conclusion from this: that they should therefore desist from purchasing antiquities without secure provenance and the ongoing looting of antiquities should cease.

The next stage, on an international level, must be to seek wider application of the principles which have now restituted material when this could be shown to have been looted after 1970 (Renfrew 2009). There should be the formal and published acceptance of the 1970 Rule by museums and then by private collectors in all countries. If the 1970 Rule were universally and scrupulously followed the looting of archaeological sites would suffer a sharp decline. Its application should make recently looted antiquities completely unsalable. When the 1970 Rule is applied, the ‘due diligence’ required of the good faith buyer requires more than the absence of dubious circumstances currently required. The buyer actually has to see and scrutinise documentation that the antiquities in question had been unearthed before 1970 or see a very detailed account of their provenance following excavation if they were excavated after that date.

There should follow the true internationalisation of such a position. National authorities should take a more active role in influencing collecting policies of museums and private collections if it is seen that there is a flouting of either international law or the widely shared ethical standards implied by the UNESCO Convention. Only then can progress be made.

Renfrew stresses that the seizure and returning to the country from which they were taken of illicitly obtained antiquities is a separate issue such as the Parthenon marbles, removed by Lord Elgin more than a century ago, or the Benin bronzes seized by Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, both understandably matters of concern for the countries of origin. The issue of restitution of items such as this, taken well before 1970 is not at all the same as the need to put a stop the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites through looting.

Brodie N. and Renfrew C., 2005, Looting and the world’s archaeological heritage: the inadequate response, Annual Review of Archaeology 34, 343-61

Renfrew C., 2009, Ethics in archaeological research: international responses to the illicit trade in antiquities, in D’Agata A.L. and Alaura S. (eds.) Quale futura per l’archeologia?, Roma, pp. 235-47.

UPDATE: See also David Gill's discussion of this text: "Renfrew on n Post-Disjunctive Forensic re-Contextualisation

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