Saturday 18 February 2012

Greece to Sell off its Ancient Heritage to the Americans?

In his comment on Friday's Olympia Museum theft, David Gill pointedly remarks:
This theft from a world-class heritage site is a crime against cosmospolitan society (not least in an Olympic year). Civilised commentators will condemn this act without reservation.
Of course we are well aware of a large group of people - difficult to say whether they are civilized though- who see a great opportunity for themselves in the news of the trials and tribulations of the Greek people trying to look after their ancient heritage. Californian dugup antiquity dealer Dave Welsh trumpets his hopes for the future:
The only truly sensible and viable path to adequate funding for the protection of archaeological sites and antiquities is to come to the realization that these responsibilities can no longer be funded by taxpayers. Archaeologists and others involved in cultural heritage issues must now recognize reality - society is not willing to continue to pay for archaeology, or for demands of archaeologists that countless millions of ancient artifacts shall be kept in state custody at public expense.[...] it is becoming increasingly clear that taxpayers do not want these onerous responsibilities and are not willing to provide financial support for the associated financial obligations. [...] redundant artifacts should be released (with provenance) to the antiquities trade at periodic auctions, to find their way into the hands of collectors who will care for them [...]
This is blatant plagiarism, isn't it? Watchers of the runup to the Presidential elections will recognize this as the position recently adopted by several of the Republican candidates. In particular Hick Turpin from 'the lootier state', Wisconsin. His campaign got off to a flying start after he proposed selling off the redundant objects in the collections of the Smithsonian and the National Archives. On learning that there were draft copies of presidential speeches in the latter, including ones somebody had been scribbling on, and they were being stolen, he is quoted in the Washington Post as saying something quite similar to Mr Welsh. It seems if he gets elected President, collectors all over the world will have a bonanza...

Duh. [I suppose I should point out just in case, the above paragraph is written in [ironic script]. It is not true - there was no Hick Turpin running for president, and nobody would be so stupid - I hope - to make such a suggestion in the USA, so why do US collectors think other nations would react any differently to their fellow citizens?]

Mr Welsh seems not to have noticed what happened in Greece immediately after the theft was discovered. The Minister of Culture tendered his resignation. He realised the extent of public anger at the theft of Greek heritage from the museum. I think it is pretty obvious that it is in precisely such times as this that the heritage of the glorious past, witnesses to the persistence of a people through the trials and tribulations of their long history, are especially necessary. Far from turning their back on their past, the Greeks as a whole have their national identity, and individual identities focussed precisely on their roots in one of Europe's most important classical civilizations. Just who does Mr Welsh think the Greeks are? Contemptible unthinking monkeys who have just come down from the trees? Inhabitants of some foreign land, so "they do things differently there"?

What a load of cobblers Welsh writes. He sees only collectable items to be bought and sold, a profit for himself and other US dealers. He rants: "society is not willing to continue to pay for archaeology, or for demands of archaeologists that countless millions of ancient artifacts shall be kept in state custody at public expense". Paying for archaeology and emptying of the museums of Greek cultural heritage are two different things. Those millions of ancient artefacts belong to the Greek people, they are a witness to the glories of their old civilization, far older than that upstart state beyond the Pillars of Hercules and which prendends to and wishes to emulate its glory. Mr welsh seems not to have noticed that the riots the other day were (among other things) about popular perceptions that the government was "selling out" to Germany. How does Mr Welsh think the news would be greeted that, if they were to go down the road he suggests, the same government was selling off Greek heritage to the Americans and Japanese (or Chinese)? I think it's pretty fair to say that in any country in the world, the opposition party would make mincemeat of any government who adds that to their policies. We might recall the fuss there was in Greece that there were plans to rent out heritage sites as film sets. The public was so incensed by the rumours that the Ministry of Culture issued a statement (not noted of course by the coineys) that the rumours were untrue.

Frankly, I think antiquity dealers like Mr Welsh long ago lost touch with the realities that surround them. Welsh and his fellow trade lobbyists are so full of hatred for anyone who stands in the way between them and the armfuls of dugup ancient artefacts they need to keep their businesses going, that they will say anything, anything at all, to attempt to provide some justification for what they are doing. Note though that these "arguments" are frequently of the "two wrongs make a right" format. The Olympia Museum was robbed by masked gunmen, so Greece must sell off the artefacts in Museums to US collectors to prevent more museum robberies. Peter Tompa calls that "logical".

[Let us note: When it comes to the cuts, what was being discussed recently was the cutting of 1500 museum and site guard posts due to the economic situation of the country. One of the main reasons why they are needed is to stop people pinching stuff to sell to dealers and collectors. Perhaps if dealers and collectors stopped buying stuff that is stolen, there would be less need to have a small army on each site and by each museum].

Vignette: Cap'n Red advises the Greeks to "give me your treasures"

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