Saturday 8 January 2011

Rory Tyler: "Rewrite the Artifact Law"

Rory Tyler, Moab radio personality and "cowboy poet" has a letter in the Salt Lake tribune (Jan 08 2011) called "Rewrite the Artifact Law" - doing his bit for US collectors' rights that the foreign-dug ancient-coin-focussed ACCG will not do. This is what he says:
[...] clearly there is no way to currently prevent looting of ancient artifacts. Where a black market exists, someone will supply its demands. [...] We need a new paradigm because the current one for protection and preservation is failing. [...] As long as the artifact black market exists, it’s going to be cops and robbers in the canyons.

First of all let us note that it is for him unquestionable that the looting odf archaeological sites in his country is taking place because people are collecting the things dug up. We note that the US coineys, wholly illogically, deny this connection strenuously. Mr Tyler however sees no need to defend this notion, and - frankly - nor do I.

In his letter, Tyler calls for a legalising of the market in dugup antiquities. Sadly he misses the main point, he has been drawn into artefact fetishisation by the collectors' propaganda. Perhaps here is a point US archaeologists and preservationists need to get over more forcibly. It is of course not "who owns artefacts" that is the problem. The law is not the "Artifact law" (sic) but the 1906 Antiquities Act (see 16 U.S.C. § 431 to § 433) and the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (Pub.L. 96-95 as amended, 93 Stat. 721, codified at 16 U.S.C. § 470aa470mm) - designed not to channel "artefacts" into one set of hands or another but to protect the archaeological record from being dug over clandestinely for entertainment or profit in search of collectables.

Under the impression that this is about ownership of clandestinely-excavated artefacts, Tyler proposes a solution for consideration:
Today, the richest troves of Southwestern artifacts exist in collections, public and legal, and private and often illegal. Rewrite the Antiquities Act this way: Declare amnesty for possession of all existing artifacts. Record and register them and allow owners to buy, sell, trade or donate them in a regulated market. This would accomplish several things.

First, the new artifacts that would become available to collectors would overwhelm the black market, reducing or ending the incentive for looting.

Second, an artifact’s history, that information valuable to scientists, would be recovered before it’s completely lost — for example, a family story about where Uncle Earl found it.

Third, create a digital catalogue, a virtual museum of items hitherto unavailable to researchers.

This is more or less what Dave Welsh is suggesting for other types of artefacts. Maybe the ACCG should reconsider its policy of not collaborating with local collectors of locally dug artefacts so US collectors are singing from the same songsheet.

As for Mr Tyler's suggestions, the "new artefacts" would only become available for collectors to swamp the black market if the collectors owning the now-legitimised artefacts decide to sell them, why should they? The other two notions sound like what the PAS is doing in the UK with the artefacts other collectors have dug up all over the place.

What is unclear is how Mr Tyler's suggestion of legalising the market in dugup archaeological artefacts from protected sites, so it is no longer "black", will in any way effect preservation of the archaeological sites from which they are being dug. What would be to stop looters going out to dig up a whole lot more during this period of amnesty? In any case the felony is not so much the "possession of artefacts", but the unauthorised digging into protected sites. I feel that were Mr Tylor's suggestion be adopted, there would be a lot of artefacts which their owners would be claiming were found "over there by my Late Uncle Earl" - rather than admitting that it was they who were wielding the shovel.


Anonymous said...

How strange, two identical suggestions in a couple of days saying we can overwhelm the illicit trade by expanding the "legitimate" trade. Hardly.

Tyler and Welsh completely fail to take account of the laws of supply and demand - in an expanded market looted goods will always sell first and fastest due to the price mechanism as their cost of production is zero. So to propose you can "overwhelm" the illicit trade by expanding the legitimate trade would be naive but for the fact that the proposers and beneficiaries tend to be the same people. So not naive at all.

There is of course a very easy and certain way to damage the black market that we won't be hearing from Mr Welsh et al - don't stock the wretched stuff.

Paul Barford said...

Well, I think we see here the fruits of careless buying. Stuff bought no-questions-asked but post 1979 legislation may be the delight of eye and heart of the original purchaser. But now the first generation owners are passing on, their heirs are going to have a bit of a job getting the money back from selling them if they were bought without papers from dodgy dealers. I think we are going to see more calls for an "amnesty" from people eager to protect an investment.

But then, why invest in stolen goods?

I think it terribly humorous that when we accuse the no-questions-asked market of being full of illicitly-obtained artefacts, its supporters tell us we are wrong, that it's "full of licitly-obtained antiquities". But they condition any attempt on their part to clean up the market by FIRST being given lots and lots of licit artefacts from outside.

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