Thursday 11 August 2011

Hearts and Minds, with What?

In the comments to an earlier post, art historian Dr Marc Fehlmann has among other things written:
Greed has become such an uncontrollable force within the global art market that I see a strong parallels with the drug-trade - and therefore - lack of political will. [...] Strict regulations for the transfer of cultural property in the EU and Switzerland have certainly improved the situation within the relevant countries, but there will always be guys beyond that "juristiction"... One might be able to change the current situation if it became more appealing to buy pieces with solid histories of previous ownership. If buying unprovenanced material would become an equivalent to consuming heroin, but acquiring pieces with attractive provenances would become 'chic' and convey palpable prestige, then we might change the behaviour on the consumer side.
This is of course the answer, what is needed is for collectors to take responsibility for the form of the market they frequent. Or rather first of all acknowledge their responsibility for the form it is currently in, and accept the need to take responsibility. On present showing, that seems likely to be an uphill struggle for them.

But with reference to what Dr Fehmann said, I’d like to ask, is it not already “appealing to buy pieces with solid histories of previous ownership”? Is it not “chic” and prestigious to buy “pieces with attractive provenances” ? Of course it already is.

Of course if such stuff was readily available “We might change the behaviour on the consumer side” [or "see change" perhaps]. The trouble is it currently is not, because of the cloak and dagger manner in which the majority of the finds (antiquities) on the market “surfaced” on the market. Collectors have long valued provenanced pieces, the problem is that one might very well suspect that most of the stuff they’ve been buying since the ‘magic’ date of 1970 has been of a provenance that nobody is going to admit to. It is not being unduly cynical to suggest a number of reasons why dealers have not been keen to let on just where they got most of their stock from and how their supplier came by it. These probably have less to do with commercial secrets and gentlemanly discretion about former owners of an 'old private collection' or simple carelessness of such mere details, than the fact that deeper enquiry would reveal that these "freshly surfaced" objects are instead from completely dodgy sources. That is, I submit a perfectly valid interpretation of the number of artefacts on the market with virtually no information about where they were more than a few years ago - that they were then probably still in a (now destroyed) archaeological context in the ground.

How is anyone going to “give” these undocumented pieces already circulating on the no-questions-asked market the provenance that would be required for the "provenance chic" model to work? Or are we to wipe the slate clean, accept that we’ve hundreds of thousands of potentially looted objects on the market (or dump them in a skip), and start stocking the market with freshly dug stuff which does have a provenance? That obviously is not that a sustainable model of managing what is left of the archaeological record?

How could anybody go about “changing the behaviour of the consumers”? Like the US dugup collectors who’ve joined the ACCG for example? What pointers do we have that even suggest it is possible to change attitudes to the extent that would be needed to severely curb the illicit trade to a timeline that would actually manage it before the world runs out of unlooted sites?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Collecting looted antiquities should be as shameful as wearing fur, as Joan Connelly often says

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