Saturday, 16 July 2011

It's not "just" a "Customs case"

Wayne Sayles attempts a balanced post on his blog about the recent antiquities arrests ('Indictments in Customs case'), at the beginning it's looking good, I settled back with my coffee. Third paragraph, a little jab at somebody the old man refers to as "anti-collecting advocates" who are "prancing in glee". But then the fourth paragraph spoilt it all. Sayles misconstrues the comment about this operation having potential identified an international commercial network operating through New York as "an outright admission that smuggling by the antiquities trade in America's most active port for this trade is so rare that Homeland Security agents had never seen a case". Well, HS has a warehouse in Queens for smuggled antiquities - it was discussed in the press a while ago. Sayles fails (or does not want) to see the significance of what was being discussed. There is now a shifted emphasis here from the previous seizing of the individual out-of-place artefact at the border and sending it home amid a lot of unanswered questions. In this case, started with such a seizure, a blind eye was not cast over the context of that object being where it was. Let us hope this case - whatever its outcome - will show that its not the single captured artefact that is the problem, but what brought it there. And that is a message that is being sent out here, antiquity importers should have the export papers in order.

Sayles also considers that the words of the Homeland Security officer reported in the Wall Street Journal that "trafficked antiquities usually have been looted or stolen from their rightful owners" reflect "a distinct bias against the legitimate antiquities trade [...] a sort of profiling, that is inappropriate in law enforcement or in government service of any kind". I suppose it would if one thought that the notion of a "legitimate antiquities trade" involved in trafficking is not an oxymoron:
traffic [ˈtræfɪk] vb [...] [Business / Commerce] {often followed by 'in'} to carry on trade or business, esp of an illicit kind.
In fact the whole rationale behind the seizure of illicit exports of antiquities at all is that such antiquities have been looted or stolen from their rightful owners. Like the grave goods ripped out of old Native American burials in the Four Corners region so people can collect and sell them.

Antiquities dealer Sayles seems to be anxious that people do not discuss these investigations. He says it is coming to court where - like the recently ended trial over Caylee Anthony's death in Orlando: "The facts of this case will be presented and the evidence will be weighed. If it is determined that a crime was committed, the court will decide what action is necessary under law to serve the cause of justice". Well, the US criminal investigation and justice system never established how Caylee died, only established that she was dead. Bravo.

Sayles suggests with regard to the "Windsor Antiquities bust" that "In fairness to all concerned, we should let that process work". Indeed, I am all in favour of a fair trial of what are, as yet, only allegations. My feeling is that the three charged will probably in the end walk free, as the US simply does not have the laws which would deal properly with this type of matter. But I do not think we should simply ignore it. It seems indisputable that real authentic antiquities from a foreign country were being sold in some numbers by two of the defendants (and a third who is not facing trial). Like a toddler's skeleton wrapped in rubbish bags in the woods and a smell of decomposition from to boot of the mother's car, they came from somewhere and it is legitimate (unless you are a Pilennas County juror) to enquire how they got there.

I see this case as more of an opportunity to explore the masses of artefacts offered weekly by dealers all over the world and get the public to notice this and ask themselves, where exactly do these things all come from? Only that will form the moral background for collectors to start insisting on dealers cleaning up their act and being more transparent about the origins of the objects they claim are licitly on the market, and also form the social and political basis for showing the need for and importance of the creation of legislation which more effectively deals with the illicit trade in dugup antiquities before the archaeological heritage of some regions is simply looted away.

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