Sunday 30 September 2012

EES webinar AUTUMN 2012 "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Cultural Property and the antiquities trade in Egyptology " (Part two)

This follows on from the post above.
Heba Abd el-Gawad spoke next as an Egyptian archaeologist [beginning 00:33:53]. She starts off by discussing why the legalization of trade in antiquities in Egypt would not be very effective in the current situation, and asks who it would "benefit", the locals or the international buyer? (she seems to be suggesting the latter only). She has some interesting things to say about looting and collecting in Egypt. She notes the rise of new foreign markets (Turkey, Dubai, Jordan) alongside the traditional ones (America, Russia and western Europe) and the changes which were taking place before and after the Revolution, and speaks very articulately about public attitudes to antiquities in Egypt. The speaker then  raises the question of the nature of contacts between various interest groups, the SCA and academe, and both groups with the public. She also touches upon the issue of the relationships between dealers and the archaeological services of the "source countries", not just academics in the consumer countries. This surely should not be reduced to only working out what items are looted and their repatriation, surely there should be some feedback for the source countries about what elements of their cultural heritage are in the legitimate market as much as (or perhaps more so) in the illicit one [ends 00:46:08, I am not sure however she really has said very much about the antiquities trade as such].    [Tompa-alert, I am sure that some of the things she says will shortly be appearing on "Cultural Property Observer" blog

Keith Amery begins at 00:46:58. It should be noted that he was asked to come along at short notice and warned that he was going to speak without notes (as in fact the previous speaker had done too). "Obviously I am not David Gill as advertised, and our opinions would have been diametrically opposed, so it would have been interesting if we both could have debated this question" [note expression on Ms Perrin's face as he says this]. He starts off by saying how saddened he is that due to the laws in place, in effect Egyptians cannot collect the antiquities of their own past, unless they live abroad and buy from the London or New York market. He says they should enjoy the same (property) "rights" to these antiquities as the UK citizen has (one might ask whether that question could not be reversed - why does the brit think he should have the "right" to something that belongs to another nation?).    

Dr Amery attempts to present the legal instruments which regulate the antiquities trade in the UK. He suggests that the tripartite division between "source country", "market country" and "transit country" is an unhelpful basis for characterization of the market, with many countries (and he cites the UK as a particular example) falling into all three.  He then touches upon the 1970 UNESCO Convention pointing out its full English title (which in fact, speaking off the cuff, he gets wrong) makes it clear that its focus is illicitly traded items, and (although I do not fully agree with everything he says about it) I think he makes one point that is worth highlighting. He suggests that the Convention is there to aid free trade [00:51:30], rather than (as certain factions in the antiquity trade lobby would have it) to hinder it.  But he goes on to suggest it is a "bilateral" agreement (this is untrue, it is a multilateral one and its mainly the US which treats it in this manner, but later on in his presentation, it emerges what he wanted to say). 

Dr Amery he has a typical collector's view of the issue of legislation vesting ownership of archaeological material in the state (I presume he means one which  is applicable indiscriminately to all materials not just gold and silver as in the UK). He suggests that such vesting legislation (like in Scotland maybe) somehow "takes away any incentive" from members of the public to "protect the heritage". I presume he thinks that the only way members of the public preserve heritage is by filling their pockets with it. I know a heritage organization or two in the UK that would disagree with that point of view, maybe they'll write to him.   He suggests that the 1983 vesting legislation of Egypt has done "nothing" to protect sites and "antiquities". He says before the law was introduced, every minor antiquity found (he omits the question of artefact hunters as collectors like to speak only of [accidental] "finders") was sold to a middleman who'd make sure the object found its way onto the antiquities market and every artefact therefore found a safe "home" somewhere (that is collector-speak for the collectors' market being well-supplied by such material). Now, however - after the 1983 vesting legislation was introduced he says - the law makes such activity illegal and the objects that are found are being... well, what? Since he goes on to say that the law has not stopped the trade in fresh illicit objects, the obvious implication is that (if we do not postulate scarab and shabti fairies and elves to explain the magical disappearance of the one and the appearance of the other) the objects are still going onto the market, and still finding buyers who do not care about the legal situation, let alone the ethics of what they are doing. Oh no, here I am being "negatively" realistic again.

[by the way of course it is not just the 1983 law which vests archaeological finds in Egypt in the state, this legislation has a complex development, going back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries]

Dr Avery disapproves of the "present in a collection outside the source country before 1970" cutoff date for considering licitness of artefacts without any known provenance which he says is being "thrown out by the part of archaeology that vilifies the trade" (actually it comes mostly from the "part of archaeology" that is concerned with running museums, and mostly in the US). As is traditional in such circles, he says disapprovingly that this is a "guilty until proven innocent argument" which he suggests "does not hold water". So basically this means there is nothing wrong with the "no-questions-asked" approach to buying antiquities, by the Innocent until proven guilty argument, any artefact with no documentation of licit origin is automatically considered licit.

Dr Avery suggests that this 1970 cutoff date should not apply to artefacts floating round the UK market because (and now we see why he insists that the 1970 Convention is a "bilateral" agreement) the UK did not become a state party until 2002, forty years after the Convention was first written. So he suggests that if an object surfaced on the London market twelve years ago, in 2000, without any provenance whatsoever, it should be regarded as licit as an item which can be verified was in the collection of Rev. Thomas Smallbottom rector of Ambridge in Borsetshire in 1912. When he expands on the point though, one can see that he is confusing what is the ethical view (the US Museums use of 1970) with the legal one, whether deliberately so or not, to fit the format of this trade-friendly webinar, I could not say. There is however a legal grey area in the UK concerning the legality of import of items illegally exported from a country before 2002 (I'd add to judge from the number of items on sale which are apparently dodgy, the grey area in UK extends well beyond that date).

Dr Avery says that the number of small objects (I think he means just Egyptian objects) on the market already is "millions". He suggests that efforts need to be expended to select just the "most significant objects" (artefactcentrism-alert) to "protect". He mentions Britain's Waverley Criteria for selection of the most significant items for protection (to which I'd add that in my opinion they maybe OK for oil paintings and Jacobian chairs, but are pretty much rubbish as far as archaeological artefacts are concerned). He suggests that maybe countries like Egypt should apply something like that and let a lot of the "less important" artefacts  enter the antiquities market, in other words go back to "partage" so collectors can have them.

I think what is particularly notable is that three of the four panellists are basically suggesting that "backward" Egypt have got it all wrong and should scrap their whole antiquities system, buck their ideas up, change their attitudes and should do things the British way. One of them wants to see artefact hunting legalised and mitigated by the introduction of a Portable Antiquities Scheme clone, the next wants a Portable Antiquities Scheme clone to register dealers' stocks and keep UK scholars in touch with the market, while the third reckons Egypt needs selective vesting legislation (or was he advocating scrapping it altogether?) and to apply something like the British Waverley criteria to select a small percentage of "objects" that they were going to "preserve" and flog off the rest. Oh well, the Egypt Exploration Society was founded in the heyday of British imperialism, perhaps it is expecting too much to think they might see this approach as naked cultural imperialism. They claim to be speaking to an international audience, so why were only British models discussed?

As I wrote earlier, most of the panel discussion of questions sent in by viewers was not put out online due to technical difficulties, probably no great loss if they were of the type of the first question sent in, "does the panel think that if the legal trade in antiquities was banned, the trade would go underground?". That would have been sent in I guess by a supporter of the PAS and lo and behold, among the platitudes this produced in response we hear that the Bonhams lady thinks the existence of the PAS has in some way reduced the amount of illicitly obtained items on the market. I'd like to ask her how she knows that, what is her source for that. I think one only has to surf certain sites on the Internet to see whole arrays of artefacts with minimal information about collecting history on sale in the UK and I'd like to ask her how she (as a representative of Bonhams) is so sure how many of them are of legal origin and not nighthawked, or otherwise stolen. It seems to me the only way to achieve this feat on the basis of the information offered would be by clairvoyance.  

The next question was equally unoriginal, "can you archaeologists explain why looting is such a big problem from a academic point of view"? It looked like we were not going to be subjected to too much of the answers of that one. Several very short videos were posted documenting the technical problems they had in running the "webinar". In the end however the EES got the system up and running again for another 68 minutes ( But I'll put off watching that for another time.

Finally I wonder to what extent (in that first half) we actually got a proper overview of the "good bad and ugly" of the antiquities trade. Also to what extent did we see any concrete statements about the "cultural property in Egyptology" (whatever that was supposed to mean)?  We got a rather object-centred view of the possibilities of working together if we ignore the "negaitive" aspects of the ("Bad and the Ugly" parts of the) antiquities trade. But I wonder to what extent, even if the panellists can, we can in fact just ignore that? Until we address this issue with honesty, anything that is said is just so much hot are and pie-in-the-sky and ultimately meaningless (and at its worst damaging) fluff. 

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