Friday, 8 July 2011

Dotty Database of Dodgy Dugups

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A few weeks ago and quite out of the blue London archaeologist Dorothy King (aka PhDiva) announced something which seems to me to be extraordinarily rash:
Looting: Egypt, Libya, The Medici Archive etc: I've been working on a database of looted and potentially looted archaeological material, because none seem to exist and after the problems earlier this year in Egypt, and the potential issues in Libya [...] one is badly needed.
Let's come back to that - particularly with regard whether this one is needed. Dr King's rationale for hers is:
Initial conversations seem to be ... well everyone's getting political, and frankly is 'sitting' on their own material without sharing it, which kinda defeats the purpose of having photos as they are not doing any good if others don't know about them. I've dropped a few people emails as a courtesy to let them know I'm starting to put in Freedom of Information requests to get access to the photographs.
"Initial conversations" with whom? Obviously setting up something of this magnitude requires a considerable amount of planning and wider consultation, so who has been involved in this? Well of course, heritage is indeed an intensely political issue, why should it not be?

I suspect the reference to "people" "sitting" on material refers to that long-going collectors' whine about the Medici (etc.) archives. These archives allow antiquities-market-watchdogs to reveal that items coming onto the market at this or that sale in fact "look awfully like" a polaroid of something that in a dirtier state passed through the hands of specific dealers which suggests that they are 'tainted' goods. Collectors, dealers and their advocates accuse such public-spirited individuals as "playing gottcha" and it looks to me very much like Dr King is playing along with these supporters of the no-questions-asked market. For what reason, only she can tell.

So she's going to be submitting Freedom of Information requests to whom, precisely? She might have a problem for example with Italy, Israel, Greece (there is a nice Wikipedia article that gives a brief summary of FOI legislation across the world) though the Swiss legislation is not mentioned there. Also in some countries the legislation only applies to citizens of that country. The information is not supplied free of charge in all cases, Dr King will have to pay for copies of documents and photographs from countries like Greece - who is meeting these costs with her? If at some stage Dr King attempts to recoup some of the costs by making her database available only by subscription, then there are problems with making information taken from public records available for commercial gain. Are all of the institutions which hold data on objects (which for example contain information on ownership - so personal data - as well as ongoing criminal investigations) obliged to share this with a lone British archaeologist out on an undefined personal mission? One which in addition could threaten to undermine certain ongoing investigations of people involved in teh trade of the items shown on the photos she seeks?

One serious drawback for this enterprise is (as I have mentioned here before) that at least some of the material withheld from public view is evidence in ongoing criminal investigations and judicial processes. It is hard to imagine Dr King getting her hands on all of that (or the problems that could arise if she did).

It seems to me Dr King has not really identified the legal issues involved. True enough she notes:
Another issue is not to defame so, for example, I'm looking at getting a strong disclaimer prominently framed. For example: Polaroids of items that passed through Giacomo Medici; many items he handled were looted, but not all were and one wouldn't want to besmirch innocent collectors.
Eh? I suspect we have different ideas about what "innocence" means here, King seems to equate ignorance with innocence. I think a collector buying this sort of stuff needs to control where it is coming from or not buy. This collector - if they are careful enough in verifying that information - will not be caught with looted stuff on their hands. Those who are not careful enough most likely will - but that is not "innocence", it is wilful ignorance.

So, if I understand Ms King correctly, this DKLM (Database of Known Looted Material as another blogger called it) will have some photos of objects which may or may not be looted. What's the point of that? So a collector who bought no-questions-asked a Greek vase for the living room and paid x00 000 green ones for it, when she wants to redecorate and get the cash back, finds she cannot because some Dorothy King has made a public archive available on the Internet in which is a picture that looks awfully like their vase and it says its "looted" - making the only person who'll take it an ebay dealer for a two day private auction starting at $9.99. What are they going to do? I suppose it depends who their contacts are. They might know Doug and Dinsdale Piranha, who might go and have a word with Ms King (always a danger in this line of work). They might employ IT specialists to launch a DOS attack on Ms King's servers until they've sold it on, they might sue her - despite her "disclaimer". I'd say that if she gets this up and running, Ms King is going to be stepping on a lot of toes of people involved in a very lucrative business, some of whom potentially have a wide range of contacts ranging from those with contacts in the criminal underworld to those with contacts in the judicial world and government circles (not only across the northern hemisphere).

The opposite also applies, a wealthy collector fancies a Greek vase for the bathroom, sees one in an auction, checks it out on the DKLM database, does not find it, buys it. Ten years later they find it has become known that it was figured in a part of the Medici archive DK had not put on her database and the vase is unsaleable. Again, I think they and their lawyers might think (depending how the disclaimer is phrased and the resource presented) they'd have grounds for court action, or sending Doug and Dinsdale round to her mews flat.

Alternatively, since she seems to be thinking of some kind of interactive format, dealer A might post up a few pictures of something dealer B has just snatched from under his nose to render it unsaleable - whether or not it actually is looted or not. Then dealer B has a word with Ms King and her lawyers.

Ms King has provided an update on further developments (Tuesday, July 5, 2011 Database: the story so far ...):
Another issue has become the cut-off date for items to include as looted. Most scholars work with 1970 UNESCO as the date, although technically that should be whenever the country in question ratified the Convention.
well, no, technically the date when items illegally removed from the archaeological record become so is the date when legislation was introduced in the source country making it so. The UNESCO Convention merely provides a bridge allowing the international recognition of those local laws and instituting a means of respecting them internationally. It also is concerned with "the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property" and not looting itself. This is a common misunderstanding of its scope. Ms King continues:
I don't want someone trying to load up photos of the Elgin Marbles but I find it frustrating on the other hand that recent prosecutions in Italy failed less because of innocence than the statute of limitations running out. I've also taken the decision to go back to the '30s to include potential Holocaust Era claims. That may be controversial, but since we do it with paintings we should also with Antiquities.
Well, if she is "going back" forty years before the 1970 cutoff date, why not the Parthenon (please not Elgin) Marbles and the Dendera ceiling? Because they are not Jewish? What is this nonsense about Holocaust archaeological material? Archaeological remains of the Holocaust (like suitcases, photos and shoes in the Auschwitz museum)?

So, Washington DC dealer Sands of Time is offering items from the Paul Ilton ("the Bible was my Treasure Map") collection of archaeological finds removed from the Holy Land in the 1930s (like many others) when it was the British Mandate, would they therefore deserve a place on the DKLM? I think such an approach could cause Ms King and her collaborators a lot of headaches, as not all states had antiquity preservation laws covering these issues in the 1930s.

It seems to me that Ms King is trying to overlap with the work being done by others. Over in central Europe, countries like Poland and Latvia, government agencies have created such national databases which are accessible in both paper form and online. They cover losses during the Second World War and thefts from collections, monuments, and where the missing material consists of archaeological finds they are included. Egypt has created a database of material missing from museums and storerooms, which is being made available to (and through?) Interpol. There is the Art Loss Register and other databases of this type (including one for coins). The Jewish Claims Commission is just one of the organizations active in the recovery of "Holocaust objects". What liaison and overlap would there be between the DKLM and the databases of these other existing organizations?

The fault of all of these and Ms King's proposed future one, is that looting is a clandestine activity, done for the most part by silent people with metal detectors and spades out in remote locations, sometimes at night. Some looting groups are armed to make sure their activities are not reported. The only person who knows what these individuals have dug up and taken away are the middlemen who buy the products of this criminal activity from them to sell on. A database of "known looted items" is pretty pointless as a weapon to fight the trade in looted material. A few dealers have been caught with archives of things they have handled in their offices. Other dodgy dealers have been caught who kept no such records. Other dodgy dealers have not ever been investigated. The amount of looted objects known through databases of one type or another is miniscule compared with the number of items "surfacing" (from underground) on the market annually with no record whatsoever of where they were before that. This is the problem that needs to be dealt with.

The Dorothy King Looted Material Database is going to be very big. There are tens of thousands of items from one dealer operating from one warehouse complex alone, it is easy to see that if it is to have any pretensions to adequate coverage and gets all the material Ms King is seeking, the DKLM will soon reach the proportions of the PAS database. This raises the question of how it will be possible to search it, the structure of the database has to be thought out very carefully, perhaps Ms King is already in contact with the PAS to hear what they have to say after all their experiences with this problem. Another source of information perhaps more suitable to the scale of ms King's proposed operation would be the UK Detector Finds Database (UKDFD). This protocol needs to be consulted and in place obviously before the database can take shape.

A more fundamental question however (and obviously relevant to how it is going to be used) is for whose benefit Ms King's database is being created. On the one hand, its potential immense size would make it a wonderful weapon to use against the no-questions-asked market, making the scale of the depredation (and the quality of items/information lost) immediately and very visually clear. This would be something public opinion simply could not ignore. It will also make the archives of looted items available to many many more "gottcha" eyes and a lot more museums and collectors are going to find themselves in embarrassing positions over items they have purchased than they would when there was only a handful of specialists involved in checking these items. On the other hand, I wonder if law enforcement (for example) would use her database in preference to their own resources from which (if I understand DK correctly) her own would be compiled. It seems to me the primary beneficiaries would be dodgy dealers and careless collectors who will be able to see if an item in their hands is in the database or not, thus deciding what they will do with it - whether to send it to Sotheby's or ebay or do some private behind the scenes deal with it. But when it comes down to it "not on the DKLM" is not a guarantor of licit origins. So what is this database for, and for whom?

None of these topics of course can be discussed with the author of the concept as following the links given in this post will reveal she has closed her blog to viewers.

UPDATE 10th June 2011: The 'PhDiva' blog is now (currently) accessible to all and sundry again.

Vignette: PhDiva

2 comments:

Marc Fehlmann said...

a lot of assumptions here that appear to be the base of your bias. I would first wait and see what comes out of this before launching such an attack. Maybe there is something positive to be gained from it?

Paul Barford said...

Dr Fehlmann, it is odd that an attempt to discuss an idea somebody has had is immediately dismissed as an "attack".

It seems to me that Dr King has set out to do something, begun doing it (she uses the present perfect) and then gone about planning it and putting her initial thoughts out for discussion. That seems to me to be the wrong way to go about creating something which will be the size of what she apparently has in mind.

Well, obviously we will "wait and see", and see whether by such a modus operandi, she succeeds or fails.

My opinion is that it would have stood a chance of greater success if it had been consulted out more widely before she began to put it together.

As I said, yes, I do indeed see something positive in the final results, a good visual impression of the scale of the looting of the archaeological heritage to fuel the international antiquities market, something which it will be very difficult for public opinion to ignore.

 
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