Monday 12 April 2010

A Collector (above) and Her Unprovenanced Shabti

In the above post I discuss where collector Meechmunchie says she disagrees with me over the best way to protect the archaeological heritage from looting. Now I'd like to discuss why what she says is doing nothing to protect the archaeological record from continual looting for collectables. This involves the sale of a shabti figurine on ebay last week. Sold by Barry and Darling "Bits of History" of Point Pleasant, New Jersey. They previously had had this shabti for sale on their V-Coins portal for 200 dollars recently. Nobody would touch it for that price, perhaps because there was no information offered about where it came from and when and how it had left Egypt. Like many of the artefacts offered by that dealer one might add. So they decided to cut their losses and put it on the venue where many collectors go in the hope of picking up cut-price looted artefacts. This is the description from the eBay sale.

Egyptian Faience Ushabti, 21st Dynasty, 1077 - 943 BC "Pale blue faience ushabti wearing a black painted seshed headband (tied at back) and carrying the usual flail and hoe. 6.0 cm tall. 21st Dynasty, Third Intermediate Period (TIP), 1077 - 943 BC. Not freestanding (will tip over). It has been repaired at the foot and there is a chip missing from the bottom, both are not visible in the image. Cute with nice coloring. cf Petrie "Shabtis" # 388 [...] All of our artifacts are guaranteed to be genuine. The items pictured is the ones that the winning bidder will receive. COA available on request. Item number AR0909-004.

There then follow two paragraphs saying what shabtis are for, the usual dealer stuff, followed by... well, nothing. No provenance, not even a "purchased from an unknown seller in 1953 and then kept in two New York collections since then, documentation will be supplied to purchaser". Nothing. For all we know from the description, the bloke Barry and Darling bought it from might have not long before that got it from Lyon F. Agin, loot suppliers to the well-heeled - who lied when he said "got it from a bloke just after the War, been in the family years mate" when in fact it came in a box of bananas from Egypt a few months before. The sales offer contains nothing whatsoever to contradict such a scenario, simply no information is provided whatsoever.

A responsible collector surely would not be buying such stuff "hoping it is not recently looted" or "to give it a good home anyway" (what is so "good" about their home relative to anybody else's?). Let it stay on the dealer's hands long enough for him to realise that it is no longer a viable proposition buying unprovenanced stuff, material which cannot be truthfully advertised as vefifiably legitimate in accordance with all considerations. Sadly 14 people bid for the item, and the winner paid 69 dollars for this item. Guess who.

The same person also has on her flickr photos website a scarab bearing the name of Tuthmosis III "When I stop being lazy I'll ask around and see if I can find out anything about its history!" (there we have that notion that context can be reconstructed just by "asking around"; no it cannot and I think from the poor photo there is a fair chance its a fake anyway - serves you right). She also first appeared (under a different name) on my blog having freshly bought herself a "Wenneb" shabti. Now that same somebody not so long ago was holding forth on my blog on buying dodgy artefacts:
I have absolutely no sympathy here. I think more collectors need to care about provenance on "small objects". Dealers seem to view the influx of a few who care as an inconvenience and lament the death of the "discreet deal between gentlemen"* nature of the profession. It seems like the privacy of the previous owner is valued more than the legality of the object, which is a shame. I've definitely gotten some snarky replies inquiring about provenance on Ebay..."if you don't like that it came from a 'german collection', don't bid." And they can afford to do this because I'll not bid, but a jillion other people who don't care will. [...] This fellow bought stolen goods and did no due diligence, and the galleries that sold it to him are no better than black-market dealers and back-alley fences for stolen goods.This is an attitude amongst collectors that MUST CHANGE, and perhaps if an example was made of a collector or dealer, it would help.
Fine words. But collectors just cannot stop themselves from carrying on collecting this stuff regardless, don't they? And they think up a jillion reasons why its OK, it's not their fault, it does not apply to this "one object" which they are "only giving a good home to".

This was the argument used by Robert Hecht, that provenance was not important, it was "preserving the object" by the prvate collector that was important. But see where that has got him and US collecting.

Now tell us, what are you going to do with that "cute" object? What are you going to learn from it? Do you not feel guilty about buying it, or proud of yourself that you beat the competition? A bit of one-upmanship. How much of your 69 dollars is Mr Barry going to send to the family of the man who dug it out? Let's ask him shall we? Mr Barry, do you have an export licence for that object or any documentation whatsoever that it actually left Egypt legitimately after, or before such export controls were in place? If so, why was it not mentioned in your ebay advert instead of all that junk about what shabtis were for? Is that not just a smokescreen, to make it look as if you are giving the gullible buyer a "lot of information" when in fact the most important information is missing? Do Barry and Darling sell many Egyptian antiquities without any actual documentation how and when they left Egypt?

Perhaps it should be made clear that I believe that by no means is the buyer of this shabti alone in this. In fact probably well over ninety percent of transactions involving antiquities which are daily bought and sold on the global market are being bought and sold in exactly the same way. I imagine each concerned buyer looks a bit ruefull when they realise once again that the seller is not going to cough up the details ("trade secret, client confidentiality, sorry") of how they actually know that this particular object is not recently looted from a site in, or recently smuggled out of, a source country. No documents, but he "has checked" and "knows" it is legitimate. The dealer puts on a hurt expression that their client "will not trust them". All aimed at persuading them to give up this provenance silliness: "of course it is OK, don't you trust me?" they wheedle. The client almost invariably gives in and buys, its all part of the game.

Almost certainly, each buyer persuades themselves, this one is legitimate. Look, it has a browning paper label on it, must be old, surely... yes. Only other people buy the looted stuff, this one I am sure is OK. Its the other dealers who buy from looters, not my favourite dealers (Ken Grabkesh and Donny Runn). They say it's OK to buy it and I trust them, they would not deceive me, surely... Not after all the money I have spent in their shop... Anyway, even if its not really all that legal, its going to a good home, I will look after it, poor cute little's better off with me than lying unseen in the earth or with those awful foreigners in the source country. Yeah, that feels good, nice, speak to me shabti, my shabti, tell me about the past.

I think that some people buying dodgy artefacts do so because of the frisson of doing so, cocking a snook at authority, expression of rebellion (what are you going to do about it archie? No American law was broken so there!). Most however I suspect persuade themselves that in their specific case, they are not really doing anything bad, that most probably the artefacts they buy are not tainted, just a little orphaned, just a little bit separated from their provenance. Or another common theme is that by possessing them, they are in some way a heritage hero saving the object from something. Perhaps there is a sense that the individual collector is in a sense deserving to be the curator of the object. Most of them would be appalled to it be even suggested that in consistently buying unprovenanced artefacts they might have touched looted goods. Yet the statistical chance of them doing so increases with every such purchase. A statistic most I suspect would prefer not to think about, or even deny.

These are all implications of some of what we see these people saying on the collectors' forums. Most of them of course do not discuss motivations, let alone ethics, so we have only oblique references to try and understand this phenomenon.


Anonymous said...

Look, I went out of my way to be reasonable with you and to initiate a dialog. I have never once said unprovenanced collecting was the right thing to do. My disagreements with you never once took any stance that I was supporting unprovenanced collecting, just that I feel there are ethical complexities to the matter that are worth considering before you threaten to ruin the life of a little boy. In this action I ought to have noticed the utter disregard for other human beings that characterizes your dialog, and that allowed you to netstalk and assassinate the character of a person you have never met and who made it clear they could be easily persuaded to your views! THAT is my problem with you, Mr. barford. You are an inquisitor. You may be right but you are willing to partake of any wrong to prove your point.
No, collectors are not helping the poor, but it is worth understanding that there are reasons people loot that go beyond being evil.

Anonymous said...

Also, no excuses. I bought this object and I did ask the seller on the provenance beforehand but got an unsatisfactory answer. I have never owned a wenneb shabti, but I do own a nestahy shabti. I also asked about its provennance before buying it, got a rather slippery answer then that it had been in his family for twenty five years. As for the scarab, it came from the Gardiner Architectural Museum in Quincy Illinois. I was referring on my flickr page that I had not yet written the museum to ask them if they had any further history of the object. I have since done so and they do not but have since written me and confirmed that they were the source of the object, confirming the sellers provenance.
You leap to a lot of conclusions to support your worldview and you cherry pick a lot of statements. Had you simply asked me to clarify these positions we could have had a good dialog here.

Paul Barford said...

Hello "Alice", another new assumed identity? Why? Why not use your real name?

Well, our definitions of "being reasonable" and "initiating a dialogue" obviously differ.

Now I REALLY did not "threaten to ruin the life of a little boy" I very much resent that, no matter how angry you are that I express the fact that I do not agree with what you say and do.

Remember that it is you who presumed to lecture me on a discussion forum on these "complexities" you claim I am ignorant of or ignoring. To me it just sounded like the usual litany of excuses to justify indiscriminate collecting. Funnily enough in some 35 years of studying the issues around antiquity collecting, I had actually come across two of the arguments you offer (I think this is the first time I've heard anyone proposing getting back lost contexts by simply analysing the chemistry of the object...)

It is hardly "netstalking" when yesterday you posted on the Ancient Antiquities discussion group that you had won this item, and the next day sent a post to the same list accusing me of not taking into account that looters loot sites for the money they can earn selling looted finds to people who can sell them to collectors who do not know where they come from. The juxtaposition was just a little too obvious to ignore madam. Do you see my point?

Also you cited a post about the little boy without noticing apparently that at the bottom, there is the self-same sentiment in black and white. Not the first time, not the last, why did my response surprise you?

Your second reply misses the main point, the time for the responsible buyer to find out if the seller has a decent provenance is surely BEFORE they buy and not after. If there is not sufficient, then how much of a wrench can it be to walk away from the deal? What then defines the ethical collector from the indiscriminate one?

That is my point. The dealers are not going to clean up their act if every time they have a dodgy item, some client, maybe every second, is going to say "oh, all right then, gimme gimme".

As I say, you have completely the wrong end of the stick if you think I stand for draconian rules and big sticks. What you will find if you look is that what I have consistently argued for the last decade or so is the need for self-discipline in collectors. A self-discipline which is lacking. You for example bought the shabti because it was "cute" and cheaper than it was. The fact that you had no way of knowing whether it had been looted recently or not did not at the time disturb you. Only when somebody commented on it does it become a problem?

You are right, the ethical problems here are complex, but its not the ethics of little boys picking up sherds and trying to sell them to tourists, it is in the ethical dilemmas of the people at the other end of the chain. Not the people who have little cash and education, but the way those who have both use them. In my opinion of course.

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