Saturday 12 November 2011

The "Ancient Art" Market and the Trashing of Archaeological Sites

This Google earth shot of a chunk of central Mali is a bit fuzzy, but the best available at the moment. It shows pits dug by looters at the site of Mounya, 30 kilometers west of Djenné. Mounya is one of the most heavily looted sites in Mali. It is estimated that as much as three-quarters of the surface of the site has been plundered for artefacts sold on the illicit antiquities market (Maria Kouroupas, 'Illicit Trade in Cultural Objects', Getty Newsletter 13.1 Spring 1998)

Here is part of this area from ground level (photo from Kouroupas article) and the scale of the digging can be seen:

The items sought for sale include terracotta figurines of so-called 'Djenné type' dating from the 11th/12th centuries to the 18th century (the majority are from the 13th to 15th centuries AD). They occur in sites along the central Niger valley, especially in mound sites in the inner delta. Here's the description from a list of 'Artifact Categories Subject to U.S. Import Restriction, Mali Designated List Sections IA1- IA2, Human and Animal Figures': "Anthropomorphic figures, often incised, impressed and with added motifs, such as scarification marks and serpentine patterns on their bodies, often depicting horsemen or individuals sitting, squatting, kneeling, embracing, or in a position of repose, arms elongated the length of the body or crossed over the chest, with the head tipped".

Examples of such figurines of unknown origin can currently be seen on the websites of a number of dealers. Where did they come from?
Pierre Bergé & Associés, Paris, Geneva, Liege and Brussels.
David Norden African Antiques, Antwerp, Belgium.
Galerie Bruno Mignot (Arts Prmitifs), La Wantzenau, France,
Frank Bottaro, BC Galleries, Melbourne, Australia.(see Damien Huffer on this "gallery" here too)
Christie's Paris (2007).
Bakarat Gallery, Beverley Hills/London/ Abu Dhabi
Hamill Gallery Boston, USA (Bura terracottas)
And so on...

All of the above are simply listed with a generic and very general 'country of origin' provenance and no mention whatsoever of any export papers, and rarely any kind of collecting history. Some are accompanied by thermoluminescence test results, and obviously collectors are more interested in "authenticity" than legal origins. The problem is that since the 1980s, the no-questions-asked market has become infested with fakes, often sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ended up in some museum collections (Michael Brent,'Faking African Art', Archaeology Magazine - Volume 54 Number 1, January/February 2001). This could not happen if dealers were made to account for the full collecting history of an item and verify its legitimate origins. It would be nice to think that many of the items noted above could be fakes instead of looted artefacts.

These items can also be seen on many museum websites, again with no details given of the precise manner in which they were collected and exported. Neither is there any indication on any of these websites that any questions were asked whether these objects, which started to surface on the market in the 1980s, should have been/not have been acquired by those museums.

As we are well aware, certain fractions of the dugup antiquity trade (especially in the US) questions whether looting is caused by the no-questions-asked market. In order to examine that issue, we might look at the holes in the photos above. What were they dug for? For fun? For exercise? To kill time? Fishing bait? In fact those holes represent a substantial physical effort in a very hot climate. I suggest those who claim that the existence of a highly absorbent international market is not the cause of the looting of sites might like to explain to the rest of us their version of the origin and purpose of those holes, why they have been dug where they have been dug.

1 comment:

Damien Huffer said...

Just horrific! Not surprised at all that BC would have some of these in their stock. The videos I've seen would make you weep...

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