Friday, 26 November 2010

Paying for Archaeological Preservation: the Californian's Cunning Plan

Ever since the building in Pompeii collapsed, I see Dave Welsh has been pushing his "cunning plan" to register antiquities and prevent looting and finance preservation of archaeological sites and monuments on Tim Haines' "Yahoo Ancientartifacts" list and hs Unidroit-L forum. The plan is the same one he outlined years ago:
to establish internationally controlled antiquities auctions, in which objects (whether surplus to museums, or recently found by archaeologists and others) would be sold with provenance after they had been duly examined and recorded, that the illegal trade in unprovenanced antiquities would be greatly diminished. Few collectors would want unprovenanced items in their collections when provenanced items become widely available.
Yeah, yeah. Objects "surplus to museums" we've heard that before. Once they've entered the market in its present form any provenance they had will be lost forever within a few years because "collectors traditionally" have not bothered about where the stuff comes from. First let collectors establish a tradition of preserving provenance to the same level as that assured by documentation and permanent curation in museums, then we can talk.

It is typical that the antiquities dealer is proposing a "solution" that rewards the perpetrators (providing the currently no-questions-asked trade and collectors with a huge supply of provenanced artefacts) and penalises the victims (requiring museums in so-called 'source' colonies to sell off what is left of their curated cultural heritage that has not already been looted and illegally exported). To cap that, we note that he also implies that the cost of setting it all up should be borne by those (archaeologists and others fighting for preservation) who are raising the alarm about the destruction caused by the perpetrators.

So let us see how the situation would work in practice. Obviously American collectors will want their own country to set the example and show how wonderfully the system they propose works. There is heavy looting on Federal land in the Four Corners regions. US Collectors argue that the "source countries" should guard their sites to prevent looters having access. So to prevent looting of ancient sites near Blanding and other areas like it similarly threatened like the Midwest around the Ozarks discussed here earlier, more guards with helicopter patrols are needed. This needs more money paid to America's antiquity preservation services. Welsh suggests this can be raised by selling off "surplus" items from museums to collectors at home, and presumably abroad.

The nearest museum to Dave Welsh's home containing material belonging to the earliest human cultures in the region seems to be the Santa Barbara Museum of NATURAL HISTORY (sic!). "The archaeological collection of 75,000 objects from the Santa Barbara coast and islands spans nearly l0,000 years of cultural development in the region". So plenty here for a Welsh Scheme to sell off to collectors. The 2009 financial report does not show artefact sales have made much of a contribution to the museum's revenue so far, so there is probably lots to flog off. Anyhow selling off maybe three quarters of the duplicate objects in the collections should raise a tidy sum for preservation work. Cutting the collections down to 20 000 objects by removing "surplus" will allow saving on exhibitions and storage space and probably curatorial staff.

There would have to be special legislation written to override the wishes of the people that had donated and financed the upkeep of of objects to be deemed "surplus" and to direct them from the Californian museum's property to state property. This is the same in most of the "source countries" which Welsh wants to do the same, as museums are generally financed by local authorities and not the state. There would then have to be some means of apportioning the resultant cash to the various state authorities concerned, in the Blanding case I believe that would be the BLM. When the BLM helicopters have flown off all the gasoline paid for by the first batch of antiquity sales, museums would be encouraged no doubt to find "more surplus".

Maybe Mr Welsh would like to pop into the Santa Barbara museum of Natural History and explain the logic of his plan to the director of the Board of Trustees and see if he can get his support.

Photo: Chumash pictograph of US no-questions-asked artefact collectors anticipating getting their grasping hands on objects deaccessioned from the nation's museums.


Jee said...

Surely, the simple way to prevent looting and finance the preservation of archaeological sites isn't the sale of provenanced items but A TAX ON THE SALE OF UNPROVENANCED ONES?


Paul Barford said...

excellent point! Really, an excellent point.

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