Monday, 9 August 2010

Quis custodiet - in America too

Those observing the blogs and websites of the advocates of the no-questions-asked collecting of antiquities cannot fail to notice that a constant theme in them is that collectable "artefacts" (that is all they are concerned about) are not always safe in public collections. They argue that museums cannot be trusted to look after a nation's heritage, but private collectors can. This is a variant of the "Good Collector" model.

One constant theme in their arguments is that concentrating all the cultural property in one place means that if the building is bombed, flooded, burnt down (or looted), then irreparable damage is caused to the cultural property of the nation/mankind. From this point of view, it is far better, they argue, to scatter these assets in various poorly-documented personal collections all over the place, including across the ocean in America. A further variant of this argument trotted out by western collectors presumes that every museum storeroom in the world's "source countries" must be either dusty and neglected, or damp, mouldering and neglected, and artefacts in them must be falling to bits. A third these is that museums cannot be trusted because museum employees will steal the objects (sometimes replacing them by fakes). Discussion lists like Dave Welsh's Unidroit-L and blogs like Peter Tompa's "Cultural Property Observer" are therefore full of shock-horror accounts of such nefarious dealings by untrustworthy museum employees gleaned from the world's press.

But, not the whole world's press. It is notable that these lobbyists present mainly cases from countries with brown-skinned inhabitants. In addition these foreign lands are presented in the spirit of orientalism as necessarily having corrupt un-American regimes. Thus Turkey, India, various African and Near Eastern states, China, but also Greece and Italy.

These problems however are not so frequently discussed in collecting circles when they affect public collections neaqrer home. An article touching on this subject in the LA Times has not been noted on the above-mentioned blogs (Faye Fiore, 'Guardians of the Nation's Attic', LATimes 8th August 2010).
When Paul Brachfeld took over as inspector general of the NationalArchives, guardian of the country's most beloved treasures, hediscovered the American people were being stolen blind.[...] what kind of country leaves its attic door open, allowing its past to slip away? [...] "We have taken theft out of the shadows," Brachfeld said, recalling the days when embarrassing losses were kept secret.[...] Brachfeld, who came out of the Secret Service internal affairs, took the job a decade ago and was alarmed by a string of brazen thefts, some by trusted archives staff. [...]The magnitude of the problem is impossible to measure. The National Archives did not exist until 1934. There has never been nor will there ever be the staff to catalog every item in a collection that predates the Revolution and is still growing. [...] It's hard to know what's missing when they don't know precisely what they have — which is precisely what compels some people to steal.

It is notable that many of the cases that have been discovered that the article discuses mostly relate to a collector becoming suspicuious about the origin of an item they had been offered for purchase. It is clear that if purchasers were asking more questions about where precisely this "newly-surfaced" item was before it was being offered for sale and how the seller can prove it was not taken from an illicit source. This is what collectors of antiquities should too be doing far more of, but they and the dealers that supply them especially, are extremely resistant to this idea, they claim it would "end the trade". That is food for thought, isn't it? Why are they so concerned to impresss the idea that the "source countries" from which they obtain their coveted collectables are inherently full of thieves?

A long time back at University as part of my course we had some seminars on museum security and what was impressed upon us by the nice man from the metropolitan Police Force was that in many cases, thefts from public collections are opportunistic, the opportunity arose and somebody was tempted to take advantage of it. It is the same with site looting isn't it? If there was no opportunity to make money from it (by selling things to a man who happens by with a pocketful of dollars and who does not ask questions) then fewer natives would be shifting tonnes of dust and grit to find the odd piece of shattered stone and clay tablet for them.

But, to return to the original topic, the answer to part of the problem with theft from public collections is a far more ethical approach among collectors generally and a greater awareness of the possibilities that in certain markets there is a high chance that a great part of the material available is of illicit origins and taking steps themselves against its dissemination. That way, and only that way, will it be impossible for the sellers to profit from handling illicitly obtained material.
Vignette: Graffiti from Pompeii? Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? ('Guardians' would surely be a better translation of Juvenal than 'watchmen')

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