Saturday 18 December 2010

Has the PAS Stopped the No-Questions-Asked Trade in British Bronze Age Antiquities?

In a blog post with the challenging and unusually-punctuated title "You just don't get it do you Mr Barford!", UK metal detectorist and south coast legal firm secretary Candice Jarman suggests - quite against all the evidence - that there are no grounds for claiming that any part of the antiquities trade is carried out in the manner I term "no-questions-asked". In particular he states:
Mr Barford often claims that he is campaigning against "No questions asked" collecting and dealing. But how does Mr Barford know what exchanges go on between dealers and their customers? I imagine very few collectors don't ask plenty of questions when they buy an artefact, particularly concerning legal title and provenance. For a Bronze Age collector - standard questions are
  • where was it found?
  • when was it found?
  • was it reported to the local Finds Liaison Officer/PAS"
Collectors of other artefacts must ask similar questions regarding provenance. [...] Barford's ideas on the workings of the antiquities trade and collectors attitudes are based mainly on his imagination rather than fact
Well, let us take a look at some facts to test that assertion. Since the question of collectors of Bronze Age artefacts are specifically mentioned, let us see how one would go about buying today Bronze Age artefacts where the purchaser is presented with the answer to Candice's four questions. I am sure he is able to give the names and addresses of several good dealers that are able to do this, but a web search revealed that this morning the most prolific single source of such artefacts is eBay and the dealers that have their shopfronts displayed there. In the absence of Candice supplying evidence to back up his claims, let us use the eBay offerings as a sample to test these two opposing "ideas on the workings of the antiquities trade and collectors attitudes" and see which has a basis more in imagination than fact.

I'm looking here at I am also looking at British antiquities located in Britain, to examine Candice's claim in the specifically British context in which it was made (though I would stress that my own characterisation of the market is not so narrowly applied). A search today (excluding those described as "Celtic" and, those that were not fakes, clearly post-Bronze-age in date) revealed 22 items on sale. Most of them finish in the next week, and mostly with "buy now" prices ranging from £30 to £330. In fact the current sellers are two dealers and three metal detectorists. Let's have a look at the dealers. One British Bronze Age palstave axe is being sold by Helios Antiquities, "Ex. private collection, Chester, UK.", nothing else, no answer to Candice's four "standard questions".

Then there are the offerings of timelineoriginals. There are 17 of these. There is not much point listing them individually, lets just look at the answers to the "standard questions" Candice suggests UK collectors of such items routinely ask: 019566: "Provenance: found Suffolk, England" (nothing else), 011897: "Found Wiltshire" (nothing else), 018542, "Provenance: found West Yorkshire, from on old English collection." (nothing else), 018063: "Provenance: found South Yorkshire, England (nothing else), 015369: "Provenance: found West Lavington, Wiltshire" (nothing else), 015222: "Provenance: this gouge published in Benet's Artefacts of England & the United Kingdom, second edition, page 47, number B99-0102. Fine condition, with slight chip to socket rim", and so on. Of the eighteen, only 2 are given a findspot consisting of a place name ("in" or "near" - one because the place name is written in ink on the object itself). Another five are "provenanced" to a county. Another five are merely stated to have come from an unnamed "old English collection", and five have no information whatsoever associated with them. In no case is it stated whether these were hoard finds or single finds, in no case is the "standard question" "when were they found" answered (important here because to be legally sold without being reported, for example before the Treasure Act was changed making their reporting a legal requirement). In no case is any mention made of any of these items having been recorded in any official database, just one was published in a treasure-hunter's manual. This does not bode well for the ethical British collector's ability to ask the questions they should be asking before purchasing any of these objects with a clear conscience.

In passing we might note the "references" being cited by the seller (why in fact? is this staged 'book-learning' just for show to make it appear they know what they are looking at?) The most frequent works mentioned are the venerable Sir John Evans, The Ancient Bronze Implements, Weapons & Ornaments of Great Britain & Ireland, 1881 (sic), Benet's Artefacts of England and the United Kingdom, and the Ashmolean's catalogue of the McAlpine collection. Though the subject is not one of those in which I am most familiar, it is at least clear that this is hardly cutting edge grasp of the current literature on Bronze Age artefact typology...

Let us see how well Candice's questioning collectors would fare buying goods direct from metal detectorists or middlemen dealers. There is a "BRONZE AGE AXE HEAD GORGEOUS AXE WOOOOOW" going cheap. The description is quite interesting: "BEAUTIFUL BRONZE AGE AXE HEAD STUNNING PATTENA DAMAGE AT TOP IS CONTEMPARY IN THE MAKING OF THE ITEM YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT100% AUTHENTIC HAPPY BIDDING". No mention there of where and when found and reported to the PAS; seller Juliaross gives no contact details. A no-questions-asking collector might be tempted by an offer by "ancient17 " from Ilford: BRONZE AGE. BRONZE SOCKETED SPEARHEAD. c.1000 B.C. with the description: "97mm long. Tip lost and edge chipped. Some surface wear, otherwise a good example. Rare" but nothing else. Or perhaps they would be interested in two: BRONZE AGE AXE FRAGMENTS MM35 offered by metallinmaid ("ASSORTED TYPES, SIZES AND CONDITIONS LARGEST PIECE APPROX 58mm X 33mm X 16mm CONDITION AS PER PHOTO BOTH FOUND IN NORFOLK IN SEPARATE AREAS"), Nothing else.

Now I'd be the first to admit that I do not have much practice at searching the Internet for British-found Bronze Age antiquities to purchase, whether provenanced or unprovenanced, and maybe collector Candice can give us a few hints on how to do it with more satisfactory results. Until then however I think it fair to say that one could be forgiven for not getting the impression that any of these sellers has had any experience suggesting that, even when spending several hundred pounds, buyers will always ask them for the answer to the four "standard questions" which Candice suggests are always asked by collectors who:
love history and when spending hard-earnt cash (and sometimes lots of it) on an artifact naturally want to know as much about it and its history as possible. All collectors realise that they are just temporary custodians of real pieces of history and with this comes responsibility to record and preserve all the information there is regarding the object.
Indeed. Well, obviously there has not been much of this "preservation" going on here. Yet, none of the sellers noted here on the basis of today's search seems at all bothered to explain to potential buyers why there is no answer to those four "standard questions" and the collecting history of the twenty or so items on offer today are woefully incomplete.

On the basis of this - and until collector Candice can show where I have missed today another twenty British-found items on offer with full documentation of preserved collecting history, I'm sticking by my version, and suggest that the picture he presents is in fact the one based more on wishful thinking than the current state of the antiquities market in the UK. It is not just here that anyone who cares to look can see that ("even here") and even after thirteen years of PAS outreach in England and Wales to instill "best practice" among those handling dugup artefacts, the trade in such items dugup antiquities is going on in a manner which quite legitimately may be termed "no-questions-asked". In fact, the only question to which these traders consistently offer an answer is "how much does it cost?". We can see that quite considerable sums of money can be made by selling off decontextualised bits of the British archaeological record to collectors like those whose interests Candice Jarman has set out to protect.

UPDATE 21/12/2010: Predictably, Candice reckons my "methodology" is flawed ("the "no-questions asked" market is tiny - just like your researching and reasoning abilities!"), and spotted some mistyping. Apparently sellers put up items for sale deliberately not indicating what their main attributes are and expect buyers to write to them individually and ask for more details. ("this is what most collectors do!") Would it not be simpler putting the information in the sales description in the first place? What actually prevents this?

As Candice notes, it is always possible that "only a general provenance is known - Mr Barford doesn't seem to have thought of that!" Ah, well I have, that is exactly what I am writing about, if that cop-out is to be adopted, as I said, then the information about "when" the object was found needs to be given (it is one of the "standard" questions apparently). I would say that most of us can see that the fact that it is not, indicates that the seller knows full well that the buyer is not likely to be interested.

As Candice says, "good provenanced antiquities are far more saleable than unprovenanced items", and "an axe with a PAS number given will be snapped up!". That may well be, but the fact remains that many items are being sold without any kind of information or assurances up-front either way. The reported high saleability of PAS-recorded items begs a number of questions of course. Is the function of the PAS to facilitate the selling off of the archaeological heritage to private collectors? if the mere fact that a public record made at public expense means artefact hunters and dealers can benefit financially, should they not be making a commensurate contribution to the running costs of the Scheme and its database? Is there not a danger that an unprovenanced item bought cheaply (because Candice asserts they are less saleable), smeared with mud and handed in at the next commercial metal detecting rally or metal detectorist club meeting for PAS recording, thus making it much more desirable to collectors like Candice who would "snap them up"? To what extent is this PAS enhanced value on the antiquities market merely adding more and more objects of false provenance to the PAS database?

Apparently it is sloppy methodology that in pointing to evidence against Candice's glib denial of the existence of a no-questions-asked market in antiquities, I have not looked at eBay sales of "Bronze Age Axes, weekly over several months". Well, I leave that up to my readers, they can all log onto ebay with Candice's assertions in mind over coming weeks and months and each time see what the evidence is that buyers routinely demand the "standard" information which he asserts is fundamental to a collector of such items. Nobody needs take my word for it, the evidence is in-your-face out there for anyone to assess themselves. In fact I certainly would prefer as many people as possible to be looking at the phenomena I discuss here and making up their own minds about the state of the international antiquities market. Candice says that no-questions-asked market does not exist, I ask any readers who care to look to consider whether that fits their own observations. What effect has thirteen years of PAS outreach instilling "best practice" among British collectors of portable antiquities had on the way they acquire and transfer ownership of dugup artefacts?

In reality, instead of me following the patterns of sales of the artefacts dug up by collectors and artefact hunters from the fields, moors and forests of Britain from over here in Poland, this is surely something the Scheme set up at great public expense to help manage the way finders handle these artefacts should be doing. I should be able to get these statistics from a study carried out under the auspices of the Portable Antiquities Scheme itself. How can policies be assessed if nobody is gathering information about their effects?

Tegneby, Sweden (WHL) a Bronze Age collector accuses a man of making up facts thus drawing public attention to the weakness of his own position.

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