Monday 10 May 2010

Antiquities and the Pirate Dealers

In any other field of commerce, the sale of material from verifiably known legitimate origin is not merely “laudable” but is essential for that trade to be considered legitimate. You cannot have a health inspector checking a butcher’s and the latter can offer documentation of the origins and testing of only 5% of the goods he offers and a shrug of the shoulder and the supposition that the rest are "probably OK". The same with other goods. Take for example music CDs; yesterday Poland together with the Czech Republic and Hungary was crossed off by the USA from their list of ‘pirating’ nations after massive efforts on our side to curb the sales of pirated CDs of unknown provenance, which has put a lot of collectors of such things here out of pocket and dealers in jail.

But what coin dealer Welsh is telling us is that only in the case of 5% of the artefacts (in this case coins) in existing US collections and dealer inventories are associated with any kind of information about where they come from at all. In the case of “95% (or more)” of the material currently in existing collections of ancient coins, like pirated CDs on a street stall or meat from Dodgy Dell’s the butcher’s have no recorded provenance. By Welsh’s own admission, in 95% of cases no dealer or collector can offer any direct proof that the artefacts they hold were not obtained by looting and smuggling. That they were not for example one of the coins in the documented shipment of a tonne of dugup ancient coins illegally moved from Bulgaria and sent to the USA through Frankfurt and passing without any problems through the barrier of bubbles under the noses of US customs. Those coins ended up on the market and no collector cares enough to ensure that none of them entered their own collection, few take any active steps to ensure the hygiene of their collection, trusting in the dealers. No dealer however can demonstrate that he actually cares enough to take any real steps to ensure that none of them ended up in their stock. The advocates of no-questions-asked collecting accept this as normal. They call this a “legitimate” trade. The advocates of no-questions asked collecting evoke the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, arguing that an artefact on the market should be regarded as “clean” unless it can be conclusively documented as tainted – knowing full well that the shady no-questions-asked market in which they participate and which they want to promote exists precisely to remove any chance that the illicit sources of artefacts can be identified.
A butcher cannot claim to be a legitimate businessman, nor ethical, if 95% of the meat he sells is of unknown origin and without hygiene documentation – “innocent until proven guilty” in this case means until the meat is shown to be tainted when somebody falls ill consuming items from his shop I suppose. This goes for tradesmen dealing in goods of any type, even in street bazaars. Why should it not apply to antiquity dealers? Why should they be allowed to get away with "it's difficult and I cant be bothered to make the effort" when it is this attitude that allows the entry onto the market of artefacts illicitly obtained from damaging archaeological assemblages?

If the United States of America can look into my pockets to see what music CDs I buy in my local bazaar here in Warsaw, I think they should also look at what pirate dealers are offering their customers if 95% of it is likely to have been dug up in source countries this side of the Atlantic and taken over there without any kind of documentation being kept whatsoever. We’ve sorted out the problem of music CD piracy in Polish territory to the standards required by the US, now let us see the US sort out antiquity piracy in the States involving artefacts dug up over here. That seems only fair.
Vignette: Polish customs help protect US intellectual property in a bazaar, when is the US going to clean up the antiquities marketplace in stolen antiquities from the Old World?


1 comment:

Damien Huffer said...

It sure does, but being American myself, I'd advise you not to hold your breath... All we can do as professional archaeologists and activists is keep the outreach/exposure/pressure going. :(

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