Thursday, 14 July 2011

Take Your Cultural Property Campaign Home: Beam and Mote

In a comment to one of my posts, coin collector and dealers' lawyer Peter Tompa taunts:
Why don't you take your campaign against imports of unprovenanced artifacts to your home in Poland if this is so important to you? It would be interesting to see what kind of response you would get from your fellow Poles.
First point, while for several good reasons I do not write about it here, Tompa is wrong thinking I've not been involved in combating the trade in illicitly-obtained artefacts in Poland and across central Europe (and also have several things in the pipeline which for obvious reasons I'm not going to talk about here). Poland is to some degree a peripheral market - see the post below this - though one no less interesting for all that (and still developing). My current main concern however is with the much more damaging situation in the UK and its wider background.

Secondly, Mr Tompa assumes that the Poles (I presume under the assumption that they are some kind of backward unenlightened society of potato-eating peasants?) would not look favourably on anybody's exhortation to preserve the cultural heritage. Though of course as in every human society - including the USA - there are people with a yokel mentality, in general, nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr Tompa should not judge others, Europeans in particular, by the standards of his own Philistine fellows and neighbours. Mr Tompa apparently forgets that Poland is a country with a rich heritage, not least a thousand (+ 45) years of nationhood of which citizens are very proud. In fact newly-proud as the nation suffers the onslaught of globalising cultural pap eroding former values - we are at the other extreme of the globalising tendencies so promoted (under the guise of "cosmopolitanism") by the "cultural property internationalist" collectors. We however are well conscious of the fact that we have an eight hundred year head start on its epicentre in "Hollywood-Disney-land".

The Polish heritage is in addition one that within living memory the invader tried to extinguish, burning libraries and collections, blowing up historical landmarks. Some of what the Nazis did not destroy ended up being carted to the Soviet Union (though much soon came back). Polish heritage suffered much more during the War than that of almost any other nation and much of this was deliberate destruction, intended to break national identity.
This comes on top of the nineteenth century Partitions, when there was no Poland on the map and the partitioning states for the most part tried to squash Polish national and cultural identity in the interests of unification and of course the Poles, being the people they are, fought back very hard indeed to retain that culture. The traces of that remain in the national psyche even today.

For these reasons, the Poles are very sensitive to damage to cultural heritage (not just "patrimony" - as this is a multi-cultural cultural landscape). So in answer to Mr Tompa's flippant remarks, the Poles are in general quite sympathetic towards the fight against the depredation of the cultural heritage by theft, deliberate destruction and looting and for always have been. Interestingly in the area of cultural heritage preservation, in the communist period the destruction of this heritage - and in particular by theft, looting and forgery - was portrayed as a symptom of western decadence. This was an area of concern (or rather comment with a variety of books and articles, both specialist and popular being produced) well before the topic became fashionable in the west. Maybe I'll write something about this one day.

I'll split off the third point in answer to Tompa's taunt - about the actual scale of the market - as a separate post below this one.


Cultural Property Observer said...

I think you are being far too modest and should provide more information about your activities at home in combating the trade in illicitly obtained artifacts.

And more to the point-- why not blog about the cultural property injustices you see at home in Poland? I simply don't buy your size of the market argument and instead wonder if you might be worried you might be sued for defamation if you used the same tactics against fellow Poles that you use against American citizens--after all as a practical matter you must know it is highly unlikely Americans would go through the bother of trying to sue someone so far away. But, a fellow Pole who feels that you have defamed them just might....

I would also disagree with your suggestion that I think Poles are "provincials" in any respect. Poland has a wonderful cultural heritage and the US certainly has benefitted enormously from the contributions of Polish Americans.

Despite your protestations, I also wonder if your apparent lust for state control over anything and everything old (okay, old and found in the ground) really would gain much traction in post-Communist Poland, if you pushed the idea on your blog as forcefully as you have pushed it to be applied to Americans. Isn't the memory of state confiscations of private property too recent in Poland?

Paul Barford said...

Well, please leave it up to me to decide what I "should" be blogging about and what I do not.

Modest? Me? What a dry sense of humour that lawyer has.

When I talked about attitudes to cultural heritage here, I admit I really did not have in mind the "contributions of Polish Americans" over there. Seems to me that Poland is not the USA...

I am not quite sure what "state control" the smirking lawyer means. If he means export licences, even Britain has them (as do countries with licit antiquities markets such as Israel).

But state ownership of archaeological finds is precisely what is in the new Polish legislation, and there does not seem to be much social outcry about that. Just the same as with the corresponding measures to protect mature trees in the countryside. To be honest there is not a lot of resistance to this either from the metal detectorists since the stuff they are mostly after (WW2 hardware) does not qualify as archaeological material. I don't think there are many here who'd want to see a Crosby Garrett (straight out of the ground onto the market) type situation.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Your last point is an intersting one. I'm not sure why WWII material "from the ground" is not considered archaeological in nature-- though to be sure it is under 100 years old and UNESCO would therefore not apply. Certainly, in archaeological blogs and "trade publications," they are starting to discuss the need to preserve such mateial in situ for professional archaeologists to excavate.

As to the lack of interest in Polish cultural property legislation, like many things, it may have just slipped through without much notice. Interestingly, in Bulgaria the same cannot be said-- and the legislation passed there was quite controversial as well as being subject to a successful court challenge-- but that topic just opens up a whole other can of worms, no?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Your last point is an interesting one. I'm not sure why WWII artifacts are different conceptually than the Cosby Garrett helmet. I understand they are not covered under UNESCO because they are under 100 years old, but there has been at least some discussion in the archaeological "trade publications" about the need to preserve this material in situ for excavation by archaeologists.

As for the Polish legislation, I suppose it may have just sailed through largely unnoticed-- like many other such measures. Interestingly, this was not the case in Bulgaria, and that legislation was the subject of a successful court challenge-- but that opens up a whole other can of worms, no?

Paul Barford said...

There you go again propagating the "Article 1 lie". Poland is at liberty to declare what it wants cultural property, and consider what it thinks is archaeological material as such (Britain uses a 300-year yardstick, doesn't it). Here (with that thousand-year history) 50-year old boxes of screws are not treated as archaeological finds.

The Second World War is still within living memory of a lot of people (like my mother-in-law, who is not yet an archaeological artefact).

And yes, a lot of the battlefields, for example around Warsaw have now been collected away by metal detectorists in my own period living here - which is what is happening to Roman sites in countries like Britain and Bulgaria.

I actually tried to get some WW2 sites scheduled when I was at the Ministry, there was a lot of opposition to the idea.

The difference between Poland and Bulgaria is quite a simple one. In Bulgaria a lot of people are making a lot of money from looting archaeological sites. In Poland very few people are. We also came through the transition from Communism without the development of organized criminal groups, and looking at what is happening in other countries (which I wrote about in the HAPPAH volume), I think there is a connection there. I would say should there be a "court challenge" to the 2002 law, it would be very clear what sort of people are behind it. Since this is the way that the dugup archaeological heritage has been dealt with since 1918 (and this based on similar pre-existing legislation in the partitions), I wonder how such a motion would fare in a court anyway. Its like the coal seams under your land.

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