Thursday 11 August 2011

AIA Policies on Portable Antiquity Collecting

Collectors are frequently heard to moan that "archaeologists" ("here in the USA anyway") are "radicals" who allegedly want to "ban private ownership of antiquities". Like most of us hearing such repeated allegations, I was wondering where they are getting this information from. I wrote to the AIA a while back asking for clarification, but the query went unanswered. I wonder if a collector writing to them with such a query would also get ignored, that seems bad PR.

So what actually are the policies of the Archaeological Institute of America towards private ownership of archaeological artefacts, either found within the USA or those bought on the international market from foreign lands? The Institute's webpage does not have a separate page covering this topic (which is odd, because for many US citizens buying an artefact on the Internet or going out and searching is obviously a more accessible means of direct- tactile - "contact with the past" than participation in the excavations and fieldwork projects the Institute sponsors). On the page Policies and Documents, however we find the following texts referring to this problem:

Resolutions on the Importation of Antiquities (Resolution in support of the Draft UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; adopted by a vote of the AIA Council, December 30, 1970). This is the usual "we support the...." stuff, but collectors might note a little towards the end: "The Archaeological Institute of America urges that, in accordance with the provisions of the UNESCO Draft Convention, concerned countries take practical steps to facilitate the legitimate export, import and exchange of archaeological materials and antiquities". In other words, facilitate a legal market for antiquities so people can acquire them without going through illicit channels. That hardly looks like a postulate of an organization intent on stamping out private ownership of antiquities.

Resolution on the Acquisition of Antiquities by Museums (Adopted by vote of the Council of the AIA, December 30, 1973). Again the same sort of pattern: "It is recommended that all nations establish effective laws and develop proper control over export so that illicit traffic may be stopped at its sources. However, wherever possible, within the limits of national law, consideration should be given to legitimate and honorable means for the acquisition of cultural property. It is hoped that nations will release for acquisition, long term loan, or exchange, cultural property of significance for the advancement of knowledge and for the benefit of all peoples". The same comments apply, the AIA postulates facilitate a legal market for antiquities so people can acquire them ("for advancement of knowledge and for the benefit of all peoples") without going through illicit channels. There is certainly no evidence here that the AIA is intent on stamping out private ownership of antiquities.

Resolution on the Presentation of Undocumented Antiquities at the AIA's Annual Meeting (Adopted by vote of the Council, December 30, 1973, and revised 2004) "....must conform with the AIA Resolutions on the Importation of Antiquities [...] in accordance with the he AIA’s Resolution Concerning the Acquisition of Cultural Properties Originating in Foreign Countries (1973), "the Annual Meeting may not serve for the announcement or initial scholarly publication of any object in a public or private collection acquired after December 30, 1973, unless its existence can be documented prior to that date, or it was legally exported from the country of origin". Note there the word "initial" which is explained in the next document.

1973 Annual Meeting Presentation Policy (PDF) In 1978 the editors of the American Journal of Archaeology (AJA) adapted the 1973 Annual Meeting Presentation Policy to apply to articles published in the AJA. See Editorial Statement, AJA 82 (1978), p. 1. The policy has been clarified in the AJA 86 (1982), pp. 1–2; 94 (1990), pp. 525–527; and, most recently, in N.J. Norman, "Editorial Policy on the Publication of Recently Acquired Antiquities," AJA 109 (2005), pp. 135–136. It is worth noting that in collecting circles this publication policy of the AIA towards items which have been illicitly obtained in public and private collections has been consistently misrepresented in the creation of a straw man argument. I suggest collectors and "collectors' rights" advocates READ what the policy is before attempting to interpret what it "means".

Code of Ethics (adopted December 29, 1990, amended December 29, 1997). Pretty short and to the point, two of the three principles refer to portable antiquities:

2 Refuse to participate in the trade in undocumented antiquities and refrain from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects. Undocumented antiquities are those which are not documented as belonging to a public or private collection before December 30, 1970, when the AIA Council endorsed the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property, or which have not been excavated and exported from the country of origin in accordance with the laws of that country;
3 Inform appropriate authorities of threats to, or plunder of archaeological sites, and illegal import or export of archaeological material.
There is nothing whatsoever here about any sanctions against (including participating in the trade of?) possessors of "documented antiquities", or those dug up and exported according to the laws of the source country - presumably this being demonstrated on the basis of "documents". So again, nothing about any kind of a "ban" on the private possession or trade in artefacts.

Code of Professional Standards (adopted on December 29, 1997). This covers many aspects of professional behaviour, the only reference to artefact collecting is the first point of the first section: "Professional archaeologists should adhere to the Guidelines of the AIA general Code of Ethics concerning illegal antiquities in their research and publication."

Now, and rather oddly, what actually is missing here is any detailed guidelines/policies towards collecting of (or trading in) artefacts taken from the soil in the territory of the USA. Arrowhead collectors, pot-diggers, coin shooters, civil war relic hunters and the suchlike. No published policy on metal detector use in the USA for example. Certainly the first principle of the Code of Ethics applies: "Seek to ensure that the exploration of archaeological sites be conducted according to the highest standards under the direct supervision of qualified personnel, and that the results of such research be made public" (but here the definition of "archaeological sites" is an important factor in interpreting this principle). The third principle of the second section of the Code of professional standards also might be applicable to metal detecting "meets" (and underwater salvage operations) for example: "Professional archaeologists should not participate in projects whose primary goal is private gain". It seems to me that this is a serious gap in the coverage of the topic by the AIA, whose policies are primarily focussed on artefacts on the commercial market and mainly those coming from other countries.

Then there is a Frequently Asked Questions page about artefact collecting (with the focus on museums) on the Site Preservation page, answering some of the commonly-raised objections heard by collectors:

Q: What is at the heart of the disagreement of between museums and private collectors and the AIA?
Q: So, what's the connection between collectors and looters?
Q: What are the necessary bona fides that an object should present to ensure context and provenance?
Q: Does the AIA want to abolish art museums?
Q: Isn't it better for an object to be acquired by a museum with curators, conservators, air conditioning, security, and an engaged public than to languish in much less favorable conditions in the country of origin?
Q: Doesn't the world deserve to see these objects? Aren't they part of the cultural heritage of all of us, not just of those who live in the area where the object was found?
Q: With local stewardship can come serious risk. Does the AIA really think that the Taliban should have been in charge of the Buddhas at Bamiyan?
Q: Isn't this disagreement between collectors and archaeologists really the work of a bunch of radical archaeologists who have lost touch with the public?
Q: What about the orphaned object that is out of the ground and circulating in the market with its context already destroyed and it provenance uncertain? Shouldn't this object be acquired and given a good home?
Q: In many cases there are multiple copies of certain antiquities, some with so many duplicates that they cannot all be displayed. What is wrong with the trade in multiples?
Q: Why is the AIA trying to prevent scholarship by refusing to publish information about unprovenanced material? Isn't that censorship?
Q: Should all antiquities be repatriated?
The answers to these questions again reveal the issues concern illegally obtained and illegally exported items, not the collecting of artefacts themselves.

The upshot of this is that all those claims in collecting circles about the AIA being a group of "radical" archaeologists who want to see an end to the antiquities trade and collecting of artefacts have no basis whatsoever in the published policies of that body. I doubt they have any basis in anything, except the clear tendency of the entire antiquity collecting milieu to make up foundationless myths on the basis of which they build up a picture of themselves as "victims" deserving public sympathy. I am sure, as is the way with conspiracy theorists in general, they will attribute the lack of a written statement to the organization having "a hidden agenda". Anti-semitic conspiracy theorists have something in black and white - their "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", perhaps it is time for the supporters of the no-questions-asked trade in portable antiquities to produce a "Protocols of the Elders of Archaeion" to persuade others of the truth of their allegations.

We seem to be observing another manifestation of the typical situation when discussing things with US collectors. On the one hand we have rational observers differentiating between a legitimate and legal antiquities market (in artefacts obtained and taken from the 'source' countries by legal means, or documented as having been in some collection prior to 1970) and dealings in illegally obtained and "undocumented" antiquities, ones about which there are doubts about their licit origins. These people say material of these two different types should be treated differently. On the other hand we have those - almost all of them representing the trade and collecting milieus - who equate the two, see them as the same market. For them, anyone who wants to curb the sales of the illicitly obtained and "undocumented" material just "surfacing" on the market from goodness-knows-where-and-how is against the whole market and collecting as a whole. Through insisting we see all antiquities as equal, these people are in fact refusing to accept that there is a legitimate and legal manner to acquire and use antiquities.

Certainly the AIA takes a very clear stand on the illicit trade in artefacts. There is no evidence whatsoever that their policies in anyway oppose the legitimate and responsible collecting of archaeological artefacts.


Cultural Property Observer said...

This raises the question whether the AIA's speakers at various CPAC hearings are following their organization's own precepts. More than one has said no to suggestions about licit markets in source countries and no to the trade in duplicate objects.

Paul Barford said...

Ah, so these "radicals" we hear so much about are not AIA archaeologists at all, they are REBEL radical AIA archies... (?)

But we were talking about AIA policies, weren't we?

Whatever some individuals may think or say, in actual fact the AIA has no policy which corresponds to what the conspiracy theorists in the collecting advocacy community claim.

And its checking the facts that counts, not alarmist myth-making based on coiney anecdotes.

Chris Exx said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the useful digest of AIA policies. I am still parsing them but they do appear more flexible than I was led to believe.

Chris Rose

Paul Barford said...

Well, whose fault is it that collectors allow themselves to be "led to believe" something by the lies of the n-questions-asked dealers and their supporters when the contrary evidence is ever-so-easily available online just a few mouse-clicks away?

Time and time again the dealers and the ACCG lie to collectors, each time an MOU comes up for consideration for example, it's all documented here, with the reasons why what they are saying is not true.

And you were complaining about the way I wrote about collectors who passively "allow themselves to be misled" by liars. There's a US adage that comes to mind: "Fool me once, shame on you, Fool me twice, shame on me".

So how much else that the no-questions-asked mob tells you is complete fabrication swallowed by too-gullible collectors unable to sift fact from interest-driven fiction? Have a look and see, I think if you trusted the dealers, you'll be profoundly disappointed.

[By the way with reference to a comment you made on Dave Welsh's (or someone's) blog about joining the tea party movement and voting for another "regime" than this one, you seem to have been led to believe that Obama is responsible for more than he is: the Cyprus and China MOUs were both signed under the PREVIOUS "regime"]

Chris Exx said...

Hi Paul,

I do understand that the previous MOUs were signed under Bush.

But the Tea Party is a whole new kind of Republicanism -- at least until when and if it gets into office and then we'll see.

The question is: Am I willing to pay for more flexible access to ancient coins by hanging a new level of crazy albatross/politician around the neck of my country? Despite my rash statement, I think that would make wandering the seas for eternity seem a preferable option.

Collectors feel misunderstood but I don't think we have done a good job of representing ourselves. Too much wah-wah and too little hard work on our part to make sure we are not supporting smugglers and looters.

Since some of these are the same people creating counterfeits that plague us, and possibly also people supporting human trafficking and terrorism, it is in collectors' interest as much as in the interest of our critics for us to have nothing to do with them.

Changing ingrained attitudes is hard, especially in a group that perceives itself under attack. I hope we are making some progress.

Chris Rose

Paul Barford said...

It might be instructive to examine more carefully who it is who is fanning up this perception of being under attack. And then when you've worked out for yourselves that its the no-questions-asked dealers, you might ask why. In whose interest it is.

If coin collectors were consciously working together with archaeologists and conservationists (after all the ethos which underlies the Portable Antiquities Scheme you all like so much), then there would be no place for feeling to be under attack.

What is under attack is IRRESPONSIBLE use of the archaeological resource.

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