Wednesday 2 November 2011

Mr Aldrich's cunning Plan to Reform the Antiquities Trade

In the article discussed above published in Forbes, collector Peter Aldrich makes a number of suggestions in a "seven part plan to modernize and reform the antiquities trade" which merit comment. The first point is that most of them do not refer to reforming the TRADE at all, but nations facilitating it rather than protecting sites from looting. The collector suggests that his plan "would only work if it were based on solid grounds in economics and ethics, and were applied by all UN member countries, and by local governments, courts, universities, and archeological communities". Note that collectors do not figure in this list, it is just everybody else who is required to go along with it which is a pretty typical attitude from the milieu. So what are these "solid ethical grounds" and to whom do they apply if not to collectors?
1. The first step would be to amend national laws to vest primary ownership of subterranean treasures with the proper owner of the land where the find is made.

2. Each nation need govern the conduct and supervision of excavations, create procedures and fees for issuing recordable “provenance” deeds, license conforming archaeological digs, and determine what sensible “partage” (portion of the finds) should belong to the state. (The greater the State’s share, the higher the incentives by all toward cheating, and ultimately violence and corruption.)
If anything in the ground belongs to the landowner and the state has no say in what happens to it, what is to prevent the owner simply destroying any site that happens to be in the way of his swimming pool, supermarket, sewage disposal plant, gravel quarry, or digging up destructively and flogging off to collectors? The laws which assign curation of the buried archaeological record to the state in many countries are there for a purpose.

Mr Aldrich clearly sees excavations as artefact mines, rather than a controlled investigation of stratigraphic context. Like most collectors he has very foggy ideas of what archaeology is all about ("..'s all about diggin' up fings innit?"). His first and second points are mutually exclusive as written. How does Mr Aldrich intend the state "governing" the way a landowner digs up his own property on his own property? The word "partage' has a different meaning. What he means is vesting legislation. In what way is a fee payable for "provenance"?
3. Each nation would establish a registry, akin to a land registry, for the issuance and control of the deeds to properly registered cultural heritage artifacts.

Again, if sole ownership is vested in the landowner, who assigns "deeds" and on what legal basis? Who pays for the maintenance of such a register of thousands of individual objects? The taxpayer of each nation? What happens when an object leaves that country and goes to another, where is it then registered? What happens to all the objects currently in collections ("since the days of Petrarch don't ya know?"), how do they get registered and on what grounds?

4. The nations would be well advised to regulate and tax all trade in deeded cultural property. Every change in ownership would need to be recorded (and presumably taxed). Tax proceeds could finally give poor countries the resources to administer vigilantly the business of discovering and displaying cultural heritage. Landowners would now have the state as an ally rather than an enemy. All trade in untitled assets would remain illegal. Regulations could create a mechanism to prohibit the export of significant national treasures, with fair compensation to the registered “owners”.

This is wholly unclear in the light of the first point. Why would the changes in ownership have to be recorded if objects belong to the owner of the land on which they were found? By what law would the state mandate such a registration, and declare illegal the selling of a landowner of his own property? Likewise, how is collecting tax on registered items going to encourage their registration? Again, what about objects in collections before the institution of these registers? Who pays for them to be registered, so when they are sold a tax can be gathered on the transaction? In what way will the private ownership of unregistered artefacts be controlled? Let us note that the collector sees these taxes going, not to the preservation of the archaeological heritage from looting, but the "business of discovering and displaying cultural heritage". So we are back to the "archaeological record as an artefact mine" model.

In point 2, does the 'partage' not account for the disposition of 'significant national treasures'? Surely the collector should be aware that such regulations already exist.

5. All excavations would be best if conducted under the direction of qualified and licensed archaeologists skilled in not only the art and discipline of excavation, but also in the administration of proper title and deed registration. Finally, funds from taxes would be able to create real and exciting fieldwork for hundreds of trained archeologists.
I am not sure what to call an excavation carried out by an archaeologist who is not qualified in "the art (sic) and discipline of excavation". Looting probably. Archaeology is not the partitioning of the excavated archive in the hands of private collectors, deeded or not. That is not archaeology. Who is going to look after the snail shells, animal bone fragments, slag samples and waterlogged wood from any decent excavation? And the excavation records? Obviously the collector fails to realise that the aim of protecting sites is not to use them all up, no matter how opportunistically and exciting that may be. Again, though the archaeologist is presented here only in the role of artefact miner, getting the excitement of the "find" which is then sold off to collectors.
6. States could also create public “heritage trusts” with the proceeds from the sale of antiquities. This would give the public a resource for preserving, studying, and displaying its own antiquities.

Oh, look. The PAS. Paid for by ripping up the heritage for saleable artefacts. But wait, how does the state get to be selling the "antiquities" if they belong to the landowner (point 1)? What kind of state-funded "heritage trust" does the US collector actually have in mind? How would it be constituted and what would it do?

7. Landowners, tenants, farmers, and developers would be compensated by the state, or its “heritage trust”, for the expenses and lost revenues arising from excavations.

Well, again, totally at odds with the first point. If the landowner owns all the loot, then surely costs are recouped by selling the loot to collectors, and the archaeologists in this model are just there to mine the stuff and issue the authenticity certificates. So let me get this right, instead of developers paying for the excavations their development necessitates, the state is going to pay them, they get the land free of archaeological encumbrances and the collectors get the finds? And the archaeologists get... what precisely? Who pays for their work and from what? Suppose the site is a flint knapping site with few whole tools, and the sale of the artefacts raises a few hundred dollars, but the excavation and post-excavation work costs tens of thousands of dollars and at the end there are no displayable artefacts for the local (or site) museum because they've all been sold off by the state? Where is the sense in that?

Mr Alrich says that his plan

"could beneficially reform the structure and economics of the antiquities markets, lower the level of violence and corruption that afflicts poor and rich countries alike, and increase dramatically the employment and research opportunities of the archeological profession".
One of the things it does not even set out to do is protect sites from artefact mining. I do not see here any evidence that the "structure' of the antiquities market would be altered, since it claims to be dealing all the time with "material from old collections" and until every single piece worldwide is entered onto an Aldrichian register, there will be no change in the amount of fresh material entering the market and masquerading as such. The creation of a register of this material should be given priority over any legislative changes leading to any massive influx of new material onto the market.

Likewise I cannot see how increasing the material coming onto the market from every new excavation will improve the economics of the antiquities market. it will lead to a fall in the cost of antiquities which would no doubt delight the collector, but dealers with overheads will have to seek a wider and wider market to meet them. The scale of damage caused by collecting will again increase.

The "level of violence and corruption" engendered by the antiquities market is a matter for the police, not an excuse for adopting an "anything goes" approach so that thieves get what they want without coming into conflict with the law.

There seems little point in dramatically increasing (sic) "the employment and research opportunities of the archeological profession" if that profession is to be reduced to the level of artefact miner for the antiquities trade. If we wanted to prostitute ourselves, I can think of more comfortable places to do it than the middle of a muddy field. Not all archaeologists are prostitutes - though Mr Aldrich may consider us "radical" for not taking this way in life.

Aldrich considers his plan would restore the "joy and honor" to collecting. But at what cost? What about the millions of people who are also stakeholders in the past and yet are not collectors. What does the Aldrich model offer them? The opportunity to become history gobblers too?

I wonder whether Forbes sees everything in such simplistic and black-and-white tones as is presented in this article they have just published?

1 comment:

Damien Huffer said...

Hmmm... You have broken down his points better than I did, so I commend you for that. It really does read like he expects new students to join excavation teams so as to get hooked on excavation, sans anaysis, to then help feed the market. Nor does he mention the incredible amount of time and money it would take to find in-country people to enter every single artifact held in storage somewhere onto such a registry! Consider museums at the county, province/state and national level + Universities + institutes, etc. etc.

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