Friday 18 November 2011

Kersel on the Antiquities Trade

Morag Kersel of the department of Anthropology De Paul University has another article out on the illicit antiquities trade. This one is called 'The Lure of Ancient Artifacts' . She starts by discussing why people collect ancient artefacts.
At the most fundamental level collecting is about accumulation – but the reasons why people collect range from the financial, psychological, or sociological, to the aesthetic, cultural and national. To some it may be sheer possessiveness, an unquenchable thirst. To others it is the thrill of discovery, or the powerful emotional experience of owning an object that “speaks” to them. For some, the act of purchasing an artifact in the marketplace conveys dominance over travel, leaving their comfort zones for destinations and adventures unknown. The purchased antiquity signifies conquest over a distant land.
She focuses on artefacts with "Biblical" associations (real or imagined) - mentioning in passing the Elie Borowski and Shlomo Moussaieff collections. She points out that -as metal detectorists, coineys and wreck-plunderers the world over,
Many of the high-end collectors view themselves as saviors of artifacts for the greater good. This category of collector also often fails (or chooses not) to ask the difficult questions surrounding the archaeological origins of the object of their desire.
Another motive is financial, Kersel notes the degree to which artefact collecting is promoted in "recent articles in popular news magazines (Time, Forbes) and newspapers (Wall Street Journal and the New York Times)" as a good form of investment ("safe(r) than the stock market" and makes a comment on "the lure of the ancient not only as mementoes of past trips, past lives and the ancient past, but of potential future profits and retirement “nest eggs”...". The international antiquities trade is easily worth millions.
Whatever the motivation – financial, faith-based, institutional, individual memento, or simply an objet d’art for the mantle – there is little doubt that the demand contributes to the destruction of the archaeological landscape, theft from museums and religious institutions, and the ongoing loss of knowledge and access to the past. There is direct evidence from Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and Latin America that the demand for artifacts leads to looting and theft. Collectors (high or low-end) nevertheless deny any negative consequences of collecting...
This is something that this blog has highlighted time and time again. The arguments offered are - when you start to dissect them in any detail - wholly spurious, weasel-wording, wishful thinking and willful distortion of the truth.

Kersel notes that the collectors of freshly-surfaced or at least previously undocumented loose items are (she says "often", I'd say "almost always"):
turning a blind eye to the tricky questions surrounding an object’s past history. Sometimes the purchaser is placed in an ominous quandary, lacking sufficient information with which to make an informed acquisition; licensed dealers do not always offer the complete object history and documentation of good title, which should be essential elements of the ethical standards of those who are licensed to trade in antiquities. The best scenario for protecting the archaeological landscape is one where people did not collect artifacts or where they are satisfied with modern replicas of ancient objects. At the very least, collectors, whether tourists or institutions, should refuse to buy antiquities before doing their due diligence, ensuring that the purchase is authorized, that the item was not recently looted and that it can be legally exported from the country of origin. Only in this way will the trade in illegal antiquities diminish.
In other words, do not support a no-questions-asked market. If the dealer has no proper answers to searching questions, walk on, do not buy. The problem is that they apparently lack the will-power and personal principles to do this, hence the consideration of the "lure" of the artefact at the beginning of the article. Just what hunger is the buying of potentially looted artefacts fulfilling among these people?

Vignette: Morag Kersel in person.


Anonymous said...

“Wholly spurious, weasel-wording, wishful thinking and wilful distortion of the truth.”

Pulling your punches again Paul!

It crosses my mind that what are quoted as the utterances of “collectors” very often come from dealers or others who have a major financial interest in the matter. Similarly, in the UK we hear a lot of what detectorists apparently say but a little research reveals that almost all of the spokespersons are antiquities dealers, metal detector retailers, detector manufacturers’ associates, rally organisers or detecting forum owners.

In most debating arenas the fact one has a financial interest has to be declared – but not in this one. So it might be instructive for your new readers in particular if, for an experimental period, you appended to each person’s name a code (either KFI – known financial interest, or NKFI – no known financial interest).

I think the KFI crew are acutely aware that their KFI status undermines the value of what they say just as your and many others’ NKFI status enhances the value of what you say. Why else would NKFI people be labelled radical/nationalist/agenda driven/socialist etc other than to try to obscure the fact they are simply arguing for what they see is right rather than for what is right for their own pockets?

Paul Barford said...

ACCG dealers, K-mega-FI,

Peter Tompa KFI (paid lobbyist),

Commercial artefact rally organizer KFI,

Treasure hunter, KFI

Nighthawk, KFI

eBay artefact-seller, KFI

PAS jobsworth/partner, KFI (salary, continued employment).

Museum ("maybe-the-next-trezure-will-boost-our-visitor-numbers") curators: KFI

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