Tuesday 5 April 2011

Antiquities: "the only area of the art world that deals entirely with stolen goods"

There is a well-written piece in the Huffington Post today by Daniel Grant about the antiquities trade ('Is It Possible to "Collect" Antiquities These Days?'). As the URL (.../daniel-grant/antiquities-collecting-due-diligence ... ) indicates the article is actually about transparency and the verification of collecting histories of items bought and sold on the antiquities market, a process covered by the term 'due diligence'. It is obvious to all those who are not actually artefact-hungry collectors or dealers that this process is vital to keeping illicitly-obtained artefacts where they belong, unsaleable on the shelves of dodgy dealers who bought artefacts of questionable and undocumented provenance no-questions-asked. This is particularly important if we accept that, as Grant begins his article:
Antiquities is "the only area of the art world that deals entirely with stolen goods." Perhaps that is an exaggeration -- certainly, many ancient objects were never looted from historic sites or even dug out of the ground -- but it is a bit of hyperbole that has a growing level of acceptance, to some degree with the public and overwhelmingly with archaeologists. Clemency Coggins, professor of archaeology and art history at Boston University, who made this comment, describes herself as a moderate on this issue because she believes that some antiquities can be legally owned. However, in her ideal world, antiquities dealers would "get out of the business".
Well, to be honest, however much I would like to believe that this catchy phrase is finding a "growing level of acceptance, to some degree with the public", I really do not. Not in the UK where "responsible" mining of what are now called "portable antiquities" on archaeological sites for their personal private collection is promoted as an acceptable, nay praiseworthy, manner of "engagement with the past". Not in America where twelve Congress men and a New York senator blithely side with those who want to see illegally exported antiquities sold on the US market with no administrative hindrance from the do-gooders, and suffer no political backlash for doing so (where are the bumper stickers?). For one reason or another, and despite public awareness of things like sites in Iraq being riddled with holes, and rows of headless buddhas in SE Asian temples, the average guy in the street does not connect this with the collectors of "ancient art" or the nice man that came to the school last year to show the kids what a Roman coin looks like and... let them hold one. I really do think however that all who care about preservation of information about the past which archaeological sites and monuments embody should work harder to propagate public awareness of these issues and lead to a growing level of acceptance in the general public that there is something very wrong with the way current policies treat the no-questions-asked market in dugup antiquities, and antiquities in general. After the comment about decent people getting out of the antiquities business, Grant continues:
One might assume that the trade in antiquities would be diminishing on its own. Almost every nation on the planet (the United States is a notable exception) has enacted laws to limit or prohibit the export of cultural property older than some specified number of years. With Mexico, it's pre-Columbian objects; with Pakistan, it's art and antiques dating before 1857. Presumably, no more comes out of these and other countries, leaving a dwindling supply of stuff that hasn't already been donated to museums.

However, there is always more stuff, and antiquities dealers abound, ready to sell it. Collecting antiquities, as critics charge and supporters acknowledge, may well encourage looting, smuggling and corruption, but is there a way to do it legally?

Ever since the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property -- and particularly since 1983, when the U.S. signed the treaty -- dealers and museum curators have been prompted to do "due diligence" in investigating whether objects brought to their attention have a clear and legal ownership or something more murky. What constitutes due diligence is not fully agreed upon, even by people who don't believe the antiquities trade should be outlawed.

Surely that should be the other way around, people who are engaged in the trade suggest its should be a mere "two minute" formality (often no more than an unspoken "do you trust me? Yes, I trust you, now show me what you're offering"). That is all many of them are willing to do.

It is indeed true that the US is a very notable exception to the general rule about the export of cultural property. Obviously US law sees the US has nothing at all in the nature of a national culture that it would be beneficial to the nation if it was kept in the USA (I find that a bit sad). In the same way therefore many Americans (dealers and collectors in particular who have a personal interest in getting their hands on it) criticise other nations who have and want to keep some for their own citizens, present and future, to enjoy and draw inspiration from. They call them "cultural property nationalists', "retentionists" and generally represent having a material interest in an ancient culture as a bad thing (unless you are of course a cosmopolitan American collector with dollars and ['Constitutional']collectors' "rights" - in which case you have an automatic "right" to buy the stuff whether or not the source country approves of the way you do it).

Photo: Clemency Coggins, Boston.


Mo said...

Hello Paul,

I don't look for artifacts on ebay but was quite surprised to see some Scythian items for sale.

I did not realise that these sort of items were that easily available on ebay.


I was looking at the Faberge. Not that I could afford it or would trust buying it on ebay if I could.

Paul Barford said...

So, at US $25,900, what chances do you think there are that they are real? (The Scythian, not the Faberge)

Do you remember the story last year about the amount of stuff missing from Russian museums? What kind of items do you think went missing? I'd have thought this seller would be wise to set potential buyers' minds at rest explaining how these individual items reached him, wouldn't you?

Otherwise people looking at this stuff might wonder how much was heirloom, how much stolen and how much Fake... Shuvalov library book stamp anyone? (Compare with the published examples from the real Shuvalov library in Petersburg)

But there IS a lot of looted archaeological stuff from the whole of Eastern Europe on western markets now, and I think the balance of the evidence is in favour of a lot of it being there because of organized crime.

I'd not recommend buying this, they are not very good examples of the style even. Better buy a really good book on it and feast your eyes on that.

Mo said...

I would not entertain the idea of buying an artifact.

I agree with you about the provenance and I am surprised that people would entertain the idea of buying a piece of Faberge on ebay. There are so many fakes about.

I'm afraid that my budget runs to pieces from the Kaliningrad Amber Factory (made for the proletariat).

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