Wednesday 2 November 2011

"There's Big Money And The Need For Reform In The Antiquities Trade" - Forbes

Robert Lenzner writing in Forbes magazine notes that "Theres Big Money And The Need For Reform In The Antiquities Trade". He writes that the "number of newly minted billionaires everywhere including Russia and the Middle East means more would-be collectors wanting to show off the fruits of their fortunes on the walls or alcoves of their palatial homes". He reports on a conversation he had with an old friend Peter Aldrich, a retired real estate investor from Boston who is a Trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a donor there ("who began collecting Greek and Roman artifacts in emulation of the late Leon Levy and his wife Shelby White (donors of the new Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York)". Aldrich told him of his concerns about the cultural heritage of the ancient civilizations which form the body of the Forbes article (discussed in this post) and then sets forward some ideas about reforming the antiquities trade (discussed in my post below this). Aldrich writes:
Watching the Greek financial meltdown, and the struggles of a society fighting a diminished standard of living made me realize that an unintended consequence of the crisis will most probably be the acceleration of the despoiling of Greece’s treasured “cultural heritage”. Not only will the government cut the already meager expenditures for conservation and preservation in its museums, but certainly what little policing of archeological digs that exists will disappear altogether. But even more worrisome will be the desperation of rural households that will lead unemployed men to crawl back underground to find the treasures of the past, at night, in secrecy, illegally to harvest what “belongs to everyone” and is managed by no one. Black markets are fueled by desperation, greed, neglect, and ill-conceived prohibitions. Greece is about to have all in abundance.
Black markets are instead primarily fuelled by the people who will buy commodities on it. We note the trotting out of the "ill conceived prohibitions" argument so favoured by collectors in the USA. Are all attempt to regulate something by their nature "ill conceived" if they stand in the way of the greedy and the commodity they want, be it booze, kiddie porn, elephant ivory or an armoury of AK47s? Surely one way to help Greece cope with the problems ahead (of which artefact smuggling is one of the least important - which does not mean we have to fold our arms and let it happen) is surely stop people buying the proceeds. Increased border vigilance all round.

Aldrich reports that when he set out to buy "museum-quality ancient art from private hands", instead of the lofty aims he claims he had, he "received an expensive education about the destruction and looting of historically significant artifacts and the illicit international trade in antiquities":
I found that the current market system stimulates, enables and creates looters, black marketeers, and unscrupulous middlemen, dealers and purchasers. Sadly, the more that nations claim ownership of all “cultural heritage”, and the more they attempt to prevent trading of such, the greater becomes the corruption and level of violence in those suppressed markets.
Really? So, again, the fault is on the side of those that try to stop something bad going on, rather than those involved in it? I do not see the logic in that. It is like saying kiddie porn and rhino poaching are the fault of the lawmakers who try to stop them. Ergo, if we legalised them, there would be no problem, no incentive for corruption. But then who'd protect the abused children? What about the dead rhinos? Aldrich uses the term "radical archaeologists" does he also consider that those who oppose child pornography and rhino poaching "radicals"? It seems to me Aldrich sees here loose artefacts, and does not see the trashed sites they come from. He thinks the aim of legislation is solely to "retain artefacts" rather than prevent them being dug out of otherwise unthreatened sites.

Thus he proclaims:
The process of preserving antiquities, so crucial to our understanding of history, demands a plan for the sensible discovery and preservation of cultural heritage... which it seems clear he means only loose artefacts, collectable antiquities. Let's take a look at this "cunning plan" in the next post.

UPDATE 4th Nov 2011:
David Gill also discusses this text from a slightly different angle: "Trustee of Boston MFA talks of the joy of collecting". I had not realised that the "something I wrote earlier" had actually been published. Gill has some background information on "Aldrich's association with recently-surfaced (and returned) antiquities" which he says makes it hard to take his seven point plan to reform the antiquities market seriously.
Perhaps a more [sic, surely" "less" PMB] radical solution would be for collectors like Aldrich to insist on seeing properly authenticated documention before making their acquisitions. And in this spirit, I hope that he will publish the full collecting histories of the objects in his collection and include the pieces that he has donated to public museums.

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