Wednesday 12 September 2012

Repute and Establishment in the Antiquities Trade

The paid blogger lobbying for the ancient coin dealers' professional associations has a few words of advice today about buying antiquities from war-torn Syria (Tuesday, September 11, 2012, ICOM Working on Syrian Red List ). Cultural Property Observer:
wishes to join others in their concern about the consequences for archaeology of the chaos in Syria. [...] Many Syrian artifacts are self-evident to the knowledgeable scholar and collector, and while most do not reach the level of high art, CPO counsels against acquisition of anything that is clearly of Syrian origin from anything other than reputable sources.
Ah, that's nice - but what lies behind such words? He was asked by me in the comments to that post, for the meaning of "reputable" sources:
Meaning? How would you define that concept ? What kind of repute and by what scale is it measured? What about objects of potential Syrian origin? 
Ignoring the final part of the question (a pretty significant one as far as I am concerned) he replied:
 If someone buys from an established dealer (preferably one associated with one of the recognized trade associations) they can generally buy in confidence. As you may know, there must be hundreds of thousands if not millions of objects of potential Syrian origin that left the country long ago with an uncertain provenance. Any due dilligence should recognize that fact.
No, any REAL due diligence would not touch with a barge-pole any of those items "presumed"  to have been licitly exported "long ago" from Syria but without any way to prove it. They do not exist for the truly responsible collector. A dealer who offers such items without any explanation upfront, hoping the potential buyer will "presume" they are kosher without checking should not be touched with a barge-pole. Drive the cowboys out of the trade. Let us "recognise the fact" that this is PRECISELY the mechanism by which the looted material will "surface" on the market. A market so easily contaminated with such material and which takes no steps whatsoever to do anything about it cannot be considered to be a licit market.

So "reputable sources"  are defined by Mr Tompa as "an established dealer", preferably one "associated with" the "recognised" trade associations. What actually does that mean and what safeguards are there? An established dealer (Windsor Antiques and Palmyra Antiquities has recently made a plea deal in a US court and is awaiting sentencing. He established his business in 1995. So is Mr Khouli an "established dealer" according to Mr Tompa? What about Frederick Schultz Ancient Art, run by the former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental, and Primitive Art? Or Malter Galleries, well established in time (by his own account) to give Bruce Mc Nall his start in coin dealing? Subhash Kapoor has been dealing in New York for several decades, but I personally will not be buying anything from him on those grounds alone. I do not reckon you can get more "established" than auction houses like Sotheby's or Christie's, but then a perusal of the pages of "Looting matters" suggest that even objects sold by these venerable "institutions" of the art world (and a few others beside) sometimes turn out on closer inspection to nevertheless have extremely troubling collecting histories. 

I am sure I could find more examples of "established" dealers who belong to no end of "recognised trade associations", but I think it is clear that in this trade the fact that somebody has been trading a long time and not yet got caught out (or at least convicted) is no guarantee of kosherness of the objects offered unless they are supported buy other verifiable documentation. Even Mr Eisenburg and the Brothers Aboutaam, suppliers to the world's major museums,  have found themselves with items on their hands that they've thought the better of keeping...

And what of those "recognised" trade associations? What actual guarantee does membership of one or other of them offer? To have any clout, the association has to take active steps to police what their members are doing, not just react if a problem is brought to their attention and loudly talked about. How many of them have an active ethics committee? What percentage of their members are investigated each year? What about the AIAD and the sellers of Pa-Miw shabtis for example? What action has the AIAD taken against their members who have them in their stock? And by whom do these "trade associations" have to be "recognised" (and why)? Anyone can set up a trade association, antiquity and coin dealers have a variety to choose from, if they get chucked out of one they can join another, no-questions-asked.

This (vague "established", "reputable" and "recognised trade associations" nonsense) is just so much antiquitist claptrap isn't it? These words, in fact, mean absolutely nothing.

The obvious conclusion is that "reputation" and "establishment" is a smokescreen for the could-not-care-less. The ONLY measure by which any individual item's legitimacy can be measured in today's market is not what a nice suit the seller has on, or how nice his smile and firm his handshake is. it is not what a flashy, professional looking website he has, it is not how nice his gallery in the best part of town looks.  These are superficial distractions. What is important in today's market is how well the reputable seller can document the legitimacy of the objects he is offering. 

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