Tuesday 31 December 2013

2013: Plus ça Change, Plus c'est la Même Chose

Each year at this time, I sit down and try to make a summary of what has happened in Portable Antiquities Collecting (and Heritage) Issues to be posted in the symbolic last hours of 31st December. It usually takes me several days to go through it all, I end up with a horrendously long text (last year it was in three parts, of which the third never, as I recall, got written. Then probably only two other people in the world read it. In effect the exercise devolves into making me realise what a lot of things have happened and I have spent a lot of time blogging about which have already become foggy by the end of the year. It also has the effect of making it seem that a lot of good things are happening. Have they? Are we really getting anywhere with these issues?

So this year too, a lot of antiquities have been bought and sold. As was the case last year, a lot of smuggled artefacts have been seized.......

Retrospective British Archaeology in 2013

70+ Journalists killed in 2013

At least 70 journalists killed around world in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Archaeologists Honoured in New Year's Honours List

Archaeologist Lindsay Allason-Jones, awarded OBE for services to archaeology in New Year's Honours list, also Prof AM Jones, Mary Rose Trust, MBE, and Richard John Buckley (Co-director, University of Leicester Archaeological Service.  OBE for services to archaeology) congratulations.

The only "heritage" one I spotted was a CBE for Mrs Philippa Lucy Foster Back, OBE (Chair, UK Antarctic Place-Names Committee and lately Chair, UK Antarctic Heritage Trust). CBE "For services to Antarctic heritage". Eh? Vignette: A real dame.

Monday 30 December 2013

A Shipment of 1,050 Illegal Antiquities Seized in Pakistan

News is only now emerging regarding a bid to smuggle 1,050 antiquities out of Pakistan by sea in February 2013 which was foiled by the customs office. The confiscated artefacts ranged from the prehistoric ages dating back to 2000BC to the Islamic period. This could have been one of the biggest attempts to smuggle genuine artifacts abroad.
A team of archaeologists from Islamabad later examined the 1,155 artifacts which had been confiscated. The archeologists declared 1,050 artifacts as antiquities while the remaining 105 came under the purview of counterfeiting as defined under the relevant sections of the Antiquities Act 1975. [...]  Usually, less than 25 to 30 per cent of the historical items being smuggled are genuine artifacts,” [...] However, this time the majority of items in the 28 boxes stuffed into a container from Islamabad to Karachi through a courier service were found full of genuine relics. [...] The collection is full of surprises ranging from rare artifacts to popularly known works (sic) from the Gandhara period, especially from 200 to 400 AD. The items included statues of Buddha carved in schist stone, stucco, bronze and terracotta. Buddha Head as well as other Gandhara period objects such as friezes, panels, stupa models, stupa relic caskets and caskets dating from 100AD to 500AD were also found. Furthermore, painted pottery from Balochistan dating back to 2000-3000BC was also discovered. Similarly, the Islamic period pottery, glazed tiles and other materials being smuggled belonged to the 11th – 15th century AD.
(see a similar case here).
Jamal Shahid, 'Majority of 1,155 smuggled antiquities found genuine ', 30th Dec 2013

Sunday 29 December 2013

Loose Statue Piece found at Gurna

Nevine El-Aref reports that "a black granite head of an unidentified New Kingdom king's statue has been uncovered in Luxor" in one of the Tuthmosis III temples. Of course Egyptian reporting being what it is, she identifies the wrong one as the findspot, it was not the cliff temple in Deir El-Bahari (in the Polish concession) but the Gurna temple to the southeast which is where the Spanish are digging.

I'm just a bit puzzled by that photo. It's a pretty poor shot (probably made on a mobile phone) and perhaps we should not expect every single Egyptian sculptor to be a master of his craft, or able to stick to the canon, but...  to be honest if I saw that as a loose find on eBay, I'd have real doubts about its authenticity. In the photo as we see it, the proportions look wrong, the eyes crude, the lips, the damage to the nose (looks too broad for the height where the break is). I'd be interested to know if the context was a sealed one, or whether there is a chance that this was a modern intrusive piece ( there are today surface traces of at least one reproduction antiquities workshop not so very far from the Gurna temple that was active when there was a village here). An odd items, but anyway, interesting.

Third US Arrest in Kapoor Case

The indictment of the girlfriend of Manhattan's Indian American antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, the third person criminally charged in the US in the case, has revealed the fake ownership histories of stolen Indian artefacts palmed off to museums across the world (citing "Chasing Aphrodite" blog).
The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has criminally charged Kapoor's girlfriend Selina Mohamed with participating in a decades-long conspiracy to launder stolen antiquities by creating false ownership histories. She is also charged with, more recently, helping to hide four stolen bronze sculptures as investigators closed in on Kapoor [...] Prosecutors allege that since 1992 Mohamed has been involved in the fabrication of bogus ownership histories for dozens of objects Kapoor sold to museums around the world. Since 2007, she also had nominal control over several of Kapoor's storage facilities. The possession charges relate to Mohamed's alleged role in the disappearance of four of Kapoor's stolen bronze sculptures -- two of Shiva and two of Uma -- valued at $14.5 million. Kapoor instructed his gallery manager to send the Chola-era bronzes to Mohamed's house in November 2011, the complaint states. After federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations searched Kapoor's Art of the Past gallery and storage facilities in January 2012, Mohamed insisted that the bronzes be removed from her house. They are now missing.
Selina Mohamed was arrested 20th December and has been charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property and one count of conspiracy, court records show.  

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office also charged Selina Mohammed with running three storage units in New York that stored looted antiquities. There is an interesting oddity about reports on the case. Nowhere is it explicitly said what Ms Mohamed does for a living (presumably somewhere in the Manhattan area), nor are there any photographs of her linked to the Kapoor case. Does Ms Mohamed have a connection with the fine art trade like Mr K's previous business associate and girlfriend? Just curious.

Kapoor's sister Sushma Sareen has been indicted and gallery manager Aaron Freedman, pleaded guilty to six criminal counts earlier this month (there is also a US arrest warrant out for Kapoor).

IANS, 'Indian American art dealer palmed off stolen Indian artefacts', December 27, 2013

"An Unrepeatable Moment in the History of American Art Collecting"

Sonya Quintanilla, George P. Bickford curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, talks about the newest addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art ( Steven Litt, ' Reincarnation, nirvana and the body electric: Indian and Southeast Asian art at the Cleveland Museum of Art', The Plain Dealer December 27, 2013.
"A less-obvious observation about the galleries is that together they constitute a remarkable cultural artifact that records an unrepeatable a moment in the history of American art collecting. The galleries [...]  are the legacy of a confluence of money, market availability and curatorial acumen that occurred in Cleveland in the 1950s and ’60s. [...]  many works were acquired between 1954 and 1983, when Sherman Lee served four years as a curator of Far Eastern art and then 25 years as director. Lee, who made the museum what it is today in many ways, capitalized on a $34 million bequest in 1958 from industrialist Leonard C. Hanna Jr., worth roughly $275 million in 2013 dollars. At the time, Quintanilla said, nationalist scholars in India championed the idea that Indian art should be exported to create greater awareness of the country’s cultural stature. “Intellectuals wanted major U.S. museums to buy this material,” she said. “Objects were flooding out, and were affordable and available. The 1950s and ’60s were a golden age of collecting.” It all came to an end in the 1970s, when Indian cultural policy changed, Quintanilla said. Yet by then, Western dealers were stocked – and Lee, armed with the Hanna millions, moved through the market with the precision of a sharpshooter".
Is it really true that all the objects on the market between 1970 and 2013 when this gallery opened were ALL bought by dealers in the 1950s and 1960s? That really seems to be stretching credibility...

Why Did National Geographic Suppress Egypt Story?

"According to Chris Hedges, his story was killed because National Geographic Television (NGT) had reviewed the manuscript, and concluded that publishing it would infuriate President Mubarak and his top lieutenants, who would deny NGT access to ancient archaeological sites in Egypt. Among those lieutenants: Zahi Hawass, who was then Egypt’s Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence."

Alan Mairson, 'Why did Chris Johns kill the Egypt story?', Society Matters November 10, 2013

Jordan Lead Codices

Clear about what he sells
New Year's Special Offer, two for the price of one, Zwinglius Redivivus reveals: "More Lead Codices Are Being Offered For Sale", these with droopy trees of life, menorahs, nonsense signs and prudish young man. But the Jordan Codices Facebook Community page closed down last month.
The British Team has made significant progress in both translation and scientific and historical analysis; however, we cannot continue to subject this discovery, nor its defenders, to biased media reports with hidden agendas and malicious allegations via internet and twitter trolls, whose reprehensible behaviour would see this hoard disappear into private hands or even destroyed.
Another one who thinks it is reprehensible to ask searching questions.

Sir Barney White-Spunner a PAS Clone

Hooray Henry Sir Barney White-Spunner of the Countryside Alliance (photo Jay Williams)

RSPCA has become 'sinister and nasty', warns head of the Countryside Alliance.
Gen Sir Barney White-Spunner urges members of the Countryside Alliance to stop donating to the “once great institution” and says charity is more interested in animal rights than promoting welfare. 
That sounds awfully like the British Museum labelling those with heritage concerns "trolls".  This blog will however continue to question the short-sighted self-interested epicureanism of the Bloomsbury White-Spunners and their allies into 2014. They can continue their policy of dismissal, taunts and insults, or they can engage in the discussion. How long can they pretend the issues do not exist?

Saturday 28 December 2013

Focus on UK Metal detecting: "People Like us"

John Carman (as quoted by Heritage Action here) reflects on the real problems underlying archaeological outreach and "community archaeology":
“For us to alter our behaviour to accommodate the excluded — by changing what we do — will mean that we will cease to be archaeologists. For them to change to accommodate us will mean they lose their own sense of who they are. As archaeologists we can do nothing about this because we would cease to be archaeologists if we did.”
Is that why the PAS have recently changed (again) what it is they say they do?
It was formerly known as the largest community archaeology project in the UK, but now tends to be a gateway to public archaeological knowledge.
What they fail to explain (again) is what they mean by "public archaeological knowledge", if it is public, why does it need a "gateway"? More Bloomsburian gobbledygook.Heritage Action live in hope that one day, what Carman says will be admitted by all "and British policy on portable antiquities will change from cajoling those who clearly won’t listen to absolutely insisting they all act in the common interest".

Vignette" Middle class (fence-owning) family (Guardian)

Friday 27 December 2013

45 Iraqi Artefacts returned from US

The Iraqi Embassy to the United States of America [has] received dozens of the Iraqi antiquities from a US citizen. A statement by the Iraqi Embassy received by IraqiNews.com cited “An American citizen, Mr. L. Riqsby of Florida recently returned 45 ancient Iraqi artifacts to the Embassy of Iraq in Washington, DC. The items, consisting of stone seals and small statues, were removed from Iraq post-2003.”  

Ahmed Hussein, 'US citizen hands over dozens of Iraqi antiquities to Iraqi Embassy to USA', Iraq News December 26, 2013

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: Landowner Criticises Jobless Detectorist

As Britain steel itself for the arrival of new benefit-seekers from eastern Europe, the Birmingham Mail revives the question of Treasure hunting on benefits: 
Farmer Fred Johnson, who owns the farm where the Staffordshire Hoard was uncovered [...] admitted he wished someone else had found it. He confirmed he had banned jobless Mr Herbert from his farm [...]  Mr Johnson, 69, said: “I wish it had been someone working who found it, I’ve got to be honest about that.

Birmingham Mail, 'Gold could be buried under M6 Toll says owner of land where Staffordshire Hoard found', 26th Dec 2013

Cleveland Museum of Art's new West Wing Opens Soon

Cleveland Museum of Art's new West Wing designed by Rafael Vinoly is now finished.
Thanks to the completion of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new West Wing, Northeast Ohioans can now travel with ease – artistically speaking – to places that once fired the imaginations of Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Columbus and Magellan.  On Thursday, the museum will launch a members-only preview of six new galleries containing nearly 500 works of art in jade, silk, bronze, gold, porcelain, ink on paper and dozens of types of stone, including the blue-gray schist of Afghanistan and the red sandstone of the Ganges Valley. A week later, on Thursday, Jan. 2, the new wing and its treasures will open to the general public. Ranging from monumental Hindu temple sculptures to delicate porcelain basins used by Chinese scholars to wash calligraphy brushes, the works capture the aesthetic, cultural and religious values of dozens of dynasties and empires that once reigned over a vast swath of Asia.
Steve Litt, 'Rediscovering China, India and Southeast Asia at the Cleveland Museum of Art: The new West Wing', The Plain Dealer December 26, 2013.

The video tour shows a lot of objects (without labels at the moment, one hopes this will change) organized by size and shape, big-sticking-up-in-the-air-statues, and things-flat-on-the-wall but apparently a mishmash in which big bits of knocked-off buddhist  and Hindu stone scuplturess figure predominantly. Before being added to this wannabe- encyclopaedic collection, many probably served a few decades as eye-catching ("classy") interior decor. In fact they more obviously raise the question, "where did that bit come from? And that one? and that?". Let's hope that the catalogue raisonné answers those questions.

"James Ossuary" to go on Display

This limestone burial box is typical of first century Jerusalem and has chiselled on side "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"
Although Golan's trial ended last year, the ossuary was returned only a few weeks ago by the Israel authorities. Golan plans to put it on public display, together with the expert opinions from the trial, so that scholars and the public can decide for themselves whether this box did truly contain the bones of the brother of Christ.
Matthew Kalman, 'Ancient burial box claimed to have earliest reference to Jesus', The Guardian, Wednesday 25 December 2013.

Stolen Ancient Egyptian artefacts to return next week

Next week, the US will be returning to Egypt a collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts stolen and illegally smuggled out of the country a few years ago. The problem with these artefacts was that in the absence of a proper MOU, it was really very difficult to prove Egypt’s ownership since they had been uncovered during illegal excavations in remote Egyptian archaeological sites.
Three years of diplomatic negotiations, however, during which existing ownership documents presented by the person claiming possession were proven forged, have finally yielded results with Egypt's imminent recovery of the stolen objects. The objects in question, according to Ibrahim, were monitored by the New York customs in 2011, during a failed attempt to smuggle them inside the US.
The items include a collection of wooden painted pieces of a sarcophagus from the Late Ancient Egyptian Period; a wooden sarcophagus from the Graeco-Roman era; a collection of wooden boats from the Middle Kingdom and limestone statuettes from the Third Intermediate Period.

Nevine El-Aref, 'Stolen Ancient Egyptian artefacts to return next week', 25 Dec 2013.

The Boxing Day Hunt

UPDATE 27.12.13:
Heritage Action mirrored my post on their Heritage Journal, and pretty quickly got a reaction from someone who apparently preferred to comment there than here:
mark 27/12/2013 at 12:54 Sorry but that’s offensive. You may not agree with metal detecting but that is going too far. You may think you and your sidekick barford are hilarious but you’ve overstepped this time [...].
Obviously not everyone thinks ripping a fox to pieces for "fun" is "offensive", otherwise there would not have been the Boxing Day meets yesterday. I'd like to think "Mark" was out there haranguing them.

We do however live in a society where I have the right to express my own personal opinion (and even get emotional about it) that ripping archaeological sites and assemblages to pieces for fun is also environmentally offensive. By the same token, Mark has the right to say what he thinks about the means by which I choose to do that. I would, however, prefer him to do it to my face, rather than being cowardly and sneaking it away onto somebody else's website. OK, Mark?

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Happy Christmas from PACHI

I would like to take this opportunity to wish a very Merry Christmas to all archaeobloggers, cultural property observers, responsible antiquity dealers, responsible collectors and metal detectorists everywhere, but above all every one of my readers - especially those who over the past year have engaged in honest debate about the issues raised here. Thanks.

As a picture, I chose an icon of the Holy Family (in a metal 'koszula' so even the metal detectorists can find it). This is a non-canonical representation, which emphasises the special significance of this time of the year for European culture, a time to look forward as well as for looking back.

Monday 23 December 2013

Brother Number Five and the Cambodian Antiquities

Our picture of the looting of art by the dismantling of Cambodian temples is becoming clearer. Larry Rothfield has drawn attention to an old article of Seth Mydans ("Lost temple looted by Cambodian raiders" The Guardian, Friday 2 April 1999) talking of looting of temples such as Banteay Chham by military personnel. There is now more information on this process. Chasing Aphrodite blog writes ("Blood Antiquities: After Lengthy Fight, Sotheby’s Agrees to Return Looted Khmer Statue", Dec 16th 2013):
At the Courmayeur conference, researchers Tess Davis and Simon MacKenzie reported on their field work this summer mapping that very trafficking network, which was responsible for plunder of 10th and 11th century Khmer temples across northern Cambodia. Among the preliminary findings of the research was that Ta Mok, the senior Khmer Rouge leader known as The Butcher and Brother Number 5, may well have played a personal role in the removal of ancient statues from Koh Ker. This lends support to the notion that looted Khmer objects at museums around the world should be considered “blood antiquities.” Attention now shifts to other Khmer statues likely acquired through the same smuggling network [...]. The case for the return of those objects has now grown much stronger.
The work referred to was based on field interviews conducted with participants and has led to the mapping out of two major trafficking networks, one linked to the Khmer Rouge and one not. The Antiquity dealers' lobbyist Peter Tompa however ("For those Bold Enough to Stand Up Against the US Government...", December 16, 2013 ) retorts that if antiquities were obtained from the Khmer Rouge, there are grounds for collectors to hang on to their knocked-off art:
It now appears that the Khmer Rouge may have sold the Koh Ker statue.  If so, doesn't that also undercut any Cambodian Government claim to the statue?  As abominable a regime as the Khmer Rouge was, it was also considered the lawful Government of Cambodia for a time. So, if an artifact was sold by the Khmer Rouge, the "lawful rulers" of Cambodia, how could it be considered "stolen" now?
Which I suppose gives a good insight into the sort of people dealers and collectors prefer to do business with.

Sunday 22 December 2013

The Metal Detecting Show 2014

At the end of May 2014, Warwickshire Exhibition Centre - a breeze-block built hangar tacked on to a farm building outside Leamington Spa will host a major new show for all Metal Detectorists and Treasure Hunters:
THE METAL DETECTING SHOW [...] will prove hugely popular with metal detectorists and collectors alike. It will bring together the very best of detecting technology from many sources together with a wide range of knowledgeable specialist suppliers. Visitors will be able to view and purchase the very latest products plus accessories which will enable them to enjoy their hobby to the full – a one stop shopping experience. A Coin and Artefact area where Auction Houses and Coin Dealers can be present will add to the interest and give visitors the opportunity to show and discuss their finds with the advisers present [and no doubt a good deal of no-questions-asked buying and selling of artefacts will be going on - PMB].
This "show" is being organized by Meridienne Exhibitions (the model train people) "working closely with our sponsor Treasure Hunting magazine" (the same one that sponsors PAS). They will be "presenting a number of features within the exhibition hall, whilst in the lecture rooms adjacent to the hall we will have talks on metal detecting and finds by acknowledged experts enabling visitors to obtain the most from their visit".  What will be absent is a picket of UK archaeologists handing out leaflets about the no-questions-asked antiquities trade and the exploitation of archaeological sites as "mines" for collectable artefacts. I imagine though the PAS will be there with a display of Treasure probably right between the antiquity dealers and the Treasure Hunter trade stand. 

Blogging – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. . .

This is my second post for Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s "Blogging Archaeology carnival" see here, and summary of first results  (other posts can be found at #blogarch). For December 2013, Doug has asked participants to write on: "the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of archaeology blogging", a topic that in part overlaps with last month's topic (see my earlier post on that topic). This is going to be a long one...

The Good

I think I covered a lot of what I'd say is "good" about blogging in my first post in this series, so there is no need to repeat it. Perhaps I could just add two other points.

The first is that it is clear to me that the area of archaeology which I discuss in my PACHI blog falls between two stools. On the one hand, to me it is a fundamental issue (related to the continued availability and accessibility of the archaeological source material as well as the public's vision of archaeology). At the same time, detailed discussion of the complex issues concerned seems to be regarded as a highly esoteric niche of the discipline. Indeed from reactions of colleagues it seems many archaeologists feel that this is not really archaeology, or even a concern of archaeologists. I therefore count it as one of the 'good' things that anyone reads my PACHI blog at all, and that the readership seems from present evidence to be very varied, and some of them quite persistent.

The second point is that several bloggers taking part in this Carnival have mentioned problems with "finding material". That is not a problem that affects the particular areas I write about, there is always something going on in and around the antiquities market, there is no shortage of disturbing things written by artefact hunters, dealers and collectors on their forums which must provoke comment. But this is not necessarily really a "good" thing, sometimes there is far too much to write about and attempt a balanced coverage. 

The Bad

When it comes to expressing the bad side of blogging, there are the same two answers from many archaeobloggers I am sure. The first is undeniably the time it takes. This blog is a spare time activity and, like them all, is incredibly time consuming. Much of the time goes on things that are not always obvious. Dashing off a draft text in a moment of inspiration (disappointment or anger) is no problem,  rewriting and editing it often is. Often too, what looks like a simple matter when I first spot something which I want to make just one small point (apparently easy to deal with in a three-minute summary blog post), when I start formulating the text and thinking more deeply about what I am writing, reveals itself to have some implications I'd not fully realised earlier. Then the text gets too long and it has to be shortened by deleting whole chunks which I'd spent ages laboriously formulating. (Even then, many texts in the end turn out to be too long anyway!) Finding the pictures that serve only for decoration also takes more time that I really can afford, but without them the page is grey and uninviting. Then there are the 'problem texts'. Something comes up, it should be mentioned, but need a lot of thought and maybe careful and considered phrasing to get it "right". I put off posting the drafts, sometimes for days until I am forced to deal with it (which takes up more time). Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day. But that does not concern blogging alone of course.

Which brings me to the other point mentioned by other bloggers, the feeling that many of us are "shouting into the void". As mentioned above, people are reading this. As long as I keep up a flow of new posts (see above), there are a reasonably satisfying number of 'hits' a day/week sometimes from rather exotic regions of the world (bearing in mind that this is a rather esoteric corner of the subject and sometimes laborious reading). The tracking software shows, however, that by no means are all of these people spending any time here. They glance at, read or skim, one post and scarper off to find a text about Miley Cyrus or whatever they were looking for. I sometimes spend several hours (literally if you count the thinking-it-over-carefully-in-the-car stage preceding putting finger-tip to keyboard) on a story, come up with something which seems to me a satisfying and new fresh angle on a hackeyed issue, and... nothing. I may spot that some metal detectorist wrote on a distant blog something insulting about "the crazy bloke in Warsaw's at it again..." and that's often the end of it. The text vanishes into limbo, to be accidentally come across eight months later perhaps in a Google search by somebody in Wisconsin who was actually looking for Miley Cyrus' bottom. Or I myself find an old text on a heritagey Google search, and I wonder, "hey, did I write that?"

This in itself is a good-bad thing.  On the one hand it's sort of gratifying that all my blog-spent time is reflected in the fact that a Google search on almost any archaeological heritage issue produces (at least at this end it does) a 'hit' or two to a post about it on my blog, often in the first ten or twenty items listed. Thus to some small extent, it is getting the message out. On the other hand, that has two drawbacks. Firstly, it highlights the fact that despite the number of archaeologists and heritage professionals out there taking a salary to engage with the public, there are precious few of them writing anything remotely comparable or engaging with what others wrote on a subject. The second problem is that (assuming people actually read what's there) its a huge responsibility. My view is my view. If the casual reader finds something by me  versus in effect only what a couple of guys from the antiquities trade write, then they only get the choice between chalk and cheese, with nothing in the middle to make them think about the issue more deeply. Unless (faced with two incompatible versions of the same topic) they just shrug their shoulders and move on to find a post about Miley Cyrus, they either accept what one or the other says, automatically rejecting the other. That's not what the heritage debate should look like.  

But then, it's difficult enough to follow the undeniable complexity of issues even from this one venue. Part of the problem with this blog in this medium is that there is a substantial body (resource) of laboriously-compiled information here; much of it would be really useful to somebody wanting to find out about the topic, but it's difficult to find it and link it together (even for me, who in theory should know what is here). There is no way to link all the related bits together, they are scattered through the various unrelated posts over the months and years as a subject develops. This morning, I spent ages trying to find an old post which I know is here about the Koh Ker statues forming a group of "twelve" (I wanted to add an update that they were nine) and try as I might with all sorts of search terms, cannot find it. If the author cannot find things, then what chance has anyone else?

There is too much dross here, a lot of long posts on little things. A museum director/ lawyer/ metal detectorist/ coin collector said this or that, which raises the point that... and then a long post discussing why I think that is the wrong approach. I defend doing that, it would be pointless to simply generalise and say "coiney lobbyists/ metal detectorists/ coin collectors / archaeologists/ museums" do or believe something. I give concrete examples which anyone can see for themselves is not made up (I give a link where they can see what I discussed in context). The problem is that these often involve what real people say/do and look more like personal attacks than "case studies" in an attempt to discuss a broader issue. Sadly, that is the way the individuals mentioned take it and react, which then bogs the blogging down in side issues. It is difficult to avoid this if you are talking about real things in a real world of real interactions rather than fobbing off the reader with abstract concepts.

By the time I began this blog, I was not so naive or inexperienced as to expect any proper discussion with any of the milieus mentioned here. Thus, like several other bloggers, I have put a lot of effort into looking very carefully at the reconstructed collecting histories of objects like the Ka Nefer Nefer mask and that "Leutwitz" (Cleveland) Apollo (I've not finished with that), or the Crosby Garrett helmet (not finished with that either). The result is.... total silence from the concerned milieus, even though the tracking software shows they read those texts very carefully. Those concerned, instead of clarifying their position (engaging with their public), clearly feel that if they keep quiet, nobody will notice what the blogosphere says and the issues will somehow go away.

This just repeats itself, every day, every week, month after month. The lobbyists for the antiquities trade come out with their glib arguments and crap. One can argue perfectly cogently and logically right out in the open that there is at least another side to the issue, or that they are simply plain wrong. As a result, they go silent, then three weeks later trot out the self-same self-serving mantra as is it was something new and fresh and there had never been any discussion, or if there had been, they'd not read, understood nor taken anything permanent away from it. Its the same with the metal detectorists, its the same with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (who read this blog too, but keep very, very quiet about it). While frustrating, this intellectual fickleness and superficiality are not unexpected. These people have no answers because in the situation we are currently in, there can be no satisfactory answers to serious questions about these issues, and - despite pious declarations - changing anything is the last thing anyone involved actually wants.  How long can we sustain this? We will see. 

Thus it is, as the metal detectorists said yesterday, those involved in this collecting and commercial activity currently (still) feel the best way to deal with their critics is to simply ignore them and dismiss what is said by anyone who articulates an opinion which goes against the grain as the "ranting" of some kind of an uninformed mental retard. Apart from those that resort to personal attacks and threats, this is the only approach they are capable of adopting. In my case this has been going on now since I started raising questions publicly 14 years ago (next month), it is difficult not to adopt a jaundiced view of the whole milieu and the possibilities of reasoning with them as a result.

This is associated with one of the risks attached to this kind of blogging. Somebody said after my talk in Ipswich earlier on this year, that in my presentation, I had not come across the way she'd been "led to expect". That she obviously meant that as a compliment indicates the way reactions of opposed interest groups to this kind of outreach can have an effect reflect on a person's reputation. Her remark was a reminder that anti-intellectual dumb-down superficiality rules these days, and not everybody is going to base their judgement of someone they've heard of (at second hand) on more than a superficial glance at what they actually write and why. Personally, I think this reflects more badly on them than me, but nevertheless it is an additional frustration.

This lack of feedback is something other bloggers mention, so it is not restricted to this area of the discipline. In my case, I feel the deliberate stifling of debate (or rather the denial of the existence of any issues to be addressed) which I perceive in the field which especially concerns this blog makes a nonsense of the notion that there is a heritage debate going on. Instead of a heritage discussion, even though blogging and related media have the potential to open the discussion wide, we are still faced with a frustrating 'dialogue of the deaf'.

The Ugly

That of course brings us to the third element of the triad. Heritage Action are fairly sanguine about the relationship between debating heritage and the inevitability of attracting the attention of the nastier metal detecting trouble-makers and time wasters. This discrepancy between the official propaganda about the "responsible attitudes" (to conservation) of this milieu and the sad reality had already become apparent, to the despair of the moderators, many years earlier in attempts to discuss the issues rationally on venues such as the CBA's Britarch, and the PAS' own forum.

Metal detecting artefact hunters identify very strongly with their hobby and in general the vast majority of them tend to react inappropriately to any attempt to debate the issues surrounding it. The same goes for antiquity collectors (especially dugup ancient coins) and their dealers who, while attempting to play the "gentleman scholar-collector" card, nevertheless feel intensely vulnerable due to the somewhat dubious sources of much of the the material in the trade which is obvious to all, despite the pretence they put up. Of course anything which undermines that pretence is highly unwelcome. In both cases, then, the nastiness of the reactions results from a series of underlying insecurities and an desire to shout down critics and frighten off others from entering the discussion or paying any attention to it. I have discussed elsewhere the related phenomenon of personal abuse, harassment and threats, and the attack on a member of my family in 2011, behaviour which is apparently silently tolerated by the rest of the collecting community. These relate however to a small core of complete head cases in the British metal detecting community, now well-known to the police. 

Other 'heritage issues' archaeobloggers discussing the antiquities market have recently been the target of some pretty worrying legal threats. I am thankful to note that to date this is not a problem I have yet had to face. The wording of some posts about certain subjects is often studiously slippery. Several times I see from the tracking software that some legal firm is looking very carefully at a group of related posts and I can guess who has asked them to, and think "uh-oh". Once I chickened out and deleted a post double-quick which I do not regret as it had indeed been badly-phrased.

Going on previous experience, nobody had seriously expected heritage professionals of the British Isles to offer much in the way of any support to critics of the antiquities trade and collectors or consider why they should. In the past few years, it seems however that there are those that willingly join in the happy-slapping of the collecting milieus they "partner", though always surreptitiously behind our backs, never having the conviction or courage to debate these issues to our faces. Maybe they think that is more "professional" that way. To the evident delight of the collecting milieus, the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme even went as far as labelling as "trolls" critics of current policies on the artefact trade and artefact hunting. This, together with Minister Vaisey's recent unthinking "Heritage Heroes" outburst, well epitomise the current parlous state of the public debate on the heritage in the British Isles.

This leads to a question: why, when there is the opportunity to use social media to open the debate on certain heritage issues and bring in more people into it, as well as to use them to increase awareness and inform, is this promise apparently being only partially fulfilled?  Is it to be ascribed only to the fact that institutional opportunities for such activity are limited and not enough people are concerned enough to devote their own time to such activities? Is the problem that the audience is simply not willing to become engaged and has no real interest in penetrating deeply into any topic where there are no ready answers? This 'carnival' maybe will give some insight into these problems as they are seen by other writers in various areas of the archaeo-blogosphere. 

A Discipline and the Ethics of Data-Sourcing

Arthur Houghton III considers it perfectly OK for "scholars" to ignore the ethical issues and use "important unprovenanced material" in their work and feels that there should even be some form of drastic punishment for those who refuse to handle such material. In April, two German investigators illegally obtained samples of material from the cartouche of Khufu in one of the relieving chambers inside the Great Pyramid. I would be interested to hear the opinions of artefact collectors who are not at all concerned to exclude looted or smuggled material from their database whether they think that the dates obtained by Dresden University from those samples should be used in archaeological discussions, and whether the origin of data used has any significance. Is using data from such samples condoning, and becoming accomplice to, the act that led to them being created? 

The areas where samples were illegally removed (Monika Hana)

Coineys Slow to Rise to the Occasion

Coineys are slow to rise to the challenge of demonstrating their heap-of-artefacts-on-a-table-interpretation skills on the coin from Acre, Mr Tompa had a bash then attempted to misdirect attention by off-topic praising the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and that's about it. "Maybe Mr. Welsh could help the gentleman from Warsaw?suggests a metal detectorist from Texas, obviously unable to remember my name - and unable to comprehend what this is about (I do not need 'help', I was inviting coineys to demonstrate their prowess), but obviously placing great faith in the abilities of the professional numismatist from California. Meanwhile, in a candid remark, the Distinguished Arthur Houghton has reminded us of the way these things were done in the Cultural Revolution of the Enlightenment, as documented by material held in the encyclopaedic British Museum. For example the fine engraving depicted here in which it seems a coin collector is being chastised and shamed for not being able to properly compare the pictures and writing on the two coins lying on the table.

Eighteenth century gentleman scholar chastised (British Museum)
It is quite clear that there was a deep interest among early collectors in flagellation, the British Museum's own online catalogue has quite extensive coverage of the topic depicted on objects arriving in the Museum from old collections. Sadly for numismatists who might interested in the topic, flagellation scenes are rarely depicted on ancient numismata (not even on Spinitra), so a thematic collection on this would be difficult to compile  - unless animal cruelty is invoked, in which case a number of Archaic Greek coins showing charioteers whipping draught animals is admitted, running through the Syracuse dekas and then a whole Republican series. Possibly some of the "[province] capta" humiliation issues might interest some of these folk, unprovenanced of course. I am not sure if there are collectable ancient coins showing the whipping of curs, maybe the distinguished Arthur Houghton III can enlighten us on that topic.

Saturday 21 December 2013

England's Bobble-Hat Detectorists Dodge the Issues Again

Over on the home page of a metal detecting forum near you, the artefact hunter members are grumbling:
"For some reason the recent Santa Hat Rally seems to have offended a blogger; his rant can be found here [no link given in fact - PMB, the article is I assume this one]. We aren't going to get involved with a slanging match with him and will not be commenting on his blog"
Admin, "Negative Write Up, Detecting Englands Response", 21.12.2013
and why not, pray? Because you do not really understand what this is about? As readers will recall, I was questioning the media coverage which presented what these people were doing as "archaeology". it would have been interesting to hear the club's own side of that story. I pointed out that the journalist's confusion was a direct result of current PAS public-speak about artefact hunting. I questioned the fact that finds were, according to the newspaper article being "recorded by a friend of mine from Cardiff" and was asking what this in fact meant. Again, it would have been more useful to the debate on what is happening to Britain's archaeological heritage to have some further information from the club as to what was involved, instead of a point-blank refusal to discuss the matter further.

Instead of coming out in the open and explaining what is happening, the club's admin only wishes to keep its own members informed, hang the rest of us that might have read that misleading (?) article:
"DE Member, [...] we thought we would let all DE members know what our thoughts are". So they stress that "all historical finds dug up on Detecting England digs are recorded with a Local Finds Officer", the administrators say that "no one on the digs claims to be an archaeologist and members don't describe them as archaeological in nature" leaving it still unclear where the journalist got the idea that they did from. The administrators  claim "we are just finding lost stuff [...] on agricultural land [...] so anything we find [...] are (sic) being saved from further damage". They add "the finds are never going to be in a meaningful archaeological context due to the ploughing".  So these "thoughts" are more or less the same superficial points detectorists all over the country come up with to explain waway any problems with what they do.

1) Finds in ploughsoil are not all without meaningful context, this is a myth artefact hunters like to trot out, totally ignoring the huge literature indicating the opposite (I published a bibliography of it for them on the PAS Forum, now gone when it was deleted). There is a whole branch of archaeology which works with precisely the analysis of the patterns of surface material across large areas, including from ploughted sites. These techniques have been adopted in other countries, Italy, Greece, and the Near East with the same kinds of results. I really do not see why this myth is allowed to persist by the British archaeological community (who was among the main pioneers of such techniques for goodness sake). Bonkers Britain.

2) Finds in ploughsoil are said to be being destroyed to a degree that justifies large scale hoiking. I am sure every detectorist has a two-pence piece covered with corrosion, or a shattered hammie to show - see? Look! But the truth is that when you look at the literature (I have) and when you look at the physical evidence - like for example we did the other day on the basis of the photos of freshly dugup artefacts from two British metal detecting magazines, there is little hard evidence to support this proposition, based on anecdote and "common sense", but not actually backed up by many hard observable facts.

3) To describe the removal as collectable geegaws of archaeological artefacts (hammered and Roman coins, Bronze Age tools and weapons, Roman fibulae) as merely "lost objects" simply shows a complete misunderstanding of the issues involved.   

 Bobble-hat-wearing detectorists may not want to come on this blog and discuss the issues sensibly, for one reason or another, but this does not mean the issues will go away. Of course they are in denial. One "paul mower" claims:
The blogger is a well known individual who delights in expounding opinions which have no basis in reality. Occasionally it is just best to draw a line under it and ignore him!
The way to deal with opinions that have no basis in reality is to demonstrate that fact. This should be pretty easy if they are making it up, no? The reality, Mr Mower, is that a newspaper article was written and published and raised points that should be being discussed. The reality is that in reply to some of that information being questioned, the "Admin" of Detecting England wrote some more stuff which raises a whole series of other questions. There is no sense in pretending that there are not real issues here, but if you like, you carry on ignoring them, and I and other concerned writers will carry on pointing them out, let us see who gets the most listeners when it comes to the crunch.
and where did they all go after recording? What archaeological information was lost when some of them were hoiked on those 22 rallies (none of which - nota bene - despite the "my friend in Cardiff" are noted in the list of "rallies known to the Scheme")?

UPDATE 24.12.13:
Uh-oh, another one hiding the posts. The thread about the alleged "negative write-up" and the attendant public-information statement and members' comments (with the virtual flashmob of jesticulating smilies without which no detectorist can express his thoughts) are now hidden from prying eyes.


Heritage Action in International Mode

Bogdan Zdrojewski, Polish Minister of
Culture and National Heritage
("Nie lubię kompromisów")

Apparently, "In Britain you need an official licence to play a harp in the street…" (Heritage Action, 'Embarrassing Inconsistencies #3: licence and license', 22nd Dec. 2013), more so I imagine nowadays if you happen to be a Romanian or Bulgarian busker. But, as Heritage Action point out in a clever play on words "but you have official license to metal detect our heritage onto eBay!"
And not just if you’re British. Everyone in the world is free (nay, welcome) to do it. Here’s a Polish metal detecting rally. Not in Poland, where they’d be locked up, but in Bedfordshire [picture of artefact hunters in army fatigues going equipped with metal detectors and whopping big spades]. Hey, Mr Vaisey, are Julek, Józef and Stefan "true heritage heroes"? Ummm.... cos I was thinking, you could ask the Polish Culture Minister if he would like you to send  him Wayne, Bozza and Gazz to return the favour.
Wayne, Boz and Gazz would have to comply with the same conditions as artefact hunters in Poland, the ones artefact hunters from Poland hoiking stuff under Britain's liberal laws are among those opposing.

Let The Cat Have a Go

Heritage Cat posing as Bloomsbury
Pete (after Jennificus)
My Christmas wish is that Washington lawyer and lobbyist Peter Tompa, instead of trying to answer questions himself, or setting that person posing as Arthur Houghton III on his commentators, would let his cat have a go at answering the difficult ones. I am sure that we'd get more sense out of the cat.

A cat would not say to an archaeologist "I think we disagree about the value of archaeological context, I do agree that it has some value, but in many cases it's at best redundant", any more than a cat would tell a nun of the Order of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration , "I think we disagree about the value of virginity, I do agree that it has some value, but in many cases it's at best redundant". I am pretty sure that a cat would see more sense than to attempt such a line of debate. I see no reason why Mr Tompa's cat would be less intelligent than most other cats on the Internet. 

We were talking about the value of the use of decontextualised coins as a source for researching the past, as opposed to those from a known context of deposition and discovery. I'd imagine Mr Tompa's cat (cats being able to focus their thoughts on the task at hand) would not skip off onto another topic. Mr Tompa himself apparently would never be focus enough to be able to catch a mouse or bird, as in his reply, he skips off wildly onto a totally different topic (a version of hominid hyperesthesia syndrome?)
I also believe that programs like PAS and the Treasure Act help to preserve such context (or at least the most meaningful aspects of it). They also help preserve coins-- which can go into private collections where they are cared for [...].
What the....? Neither the Treasure Act nor the PAS "preserve context", they allow the recording of findspots of some of the artefacts hoiked by some artefact hunters, which is by no means the same thing, as any sensible cat would know.

My neighbour's cat ("Heritage") is very concerned about this notion that artefacts are "cared for" in private collections, she says it's not true, pointing to a whole range of You Tube videos and blog posts that show the conditions under which these objects are stored and handled. They are heaped on tabletops, or living room floors, stashed away in plastic tubs from ice-cream, some are laid out in unsuitable display cabinets bought from IKEA (or Lidl) or homemade ones doubling as coffee tables. In no case can one see that any of these finds are labelled, allowing their linking with a particular findspot, let alone PAS record number. They are just loose geegaws in a personal ephemeral collection, and when that collection gets split, will lose even that loose association in today's collecting-history-free, no-questions-asked, antiquities market. My neighbour's cat has not finished a museology course, but she says that it is clear to her despite this that the notion of "taking care" here falls well short of any proper standards as should be applied to archaeological material. I'm inclined to agree with her. She pointed me to a post I'd made here just the other day, the UNObservant Mr Tompa obviously did not see it, "UK Metal Detecting: Do You Own This? " a question which I have asked several times but is answered only by an embarrassed silence and shuffling of feet by the supporters of the "hoik it all out now" approach to archaeological resource management.  My neighbour's cat joins Bloomsbury Pete the conservation-minded pigeon in Russell Square (who speaks out where the PAS is silent) in categorising them all as gormless.

Koh Ker, Four Down, Five to Go?

Justine Drennan, 'Momentum gains to unite ancient Cambodian statues', Associated Press Saturday, December 21, 2013
[The article discusses] the latest progress in efforts to bring back together the nine figures that once formed a tableau in a tower of the 1,000-year-old Prasat Chen temple. The scene captured a famous duel in Hindu mythology in which the warrior Duryodhana is struck down by his cousin Bhima at the end of a bloody war of succession while seven attendants look on. Experts say that looters hacked the life-sized sandstone figures off their bases during the country's brutal civil war in the early 1970s. Some of the statues were apparently smuggled out of the country and eventually wound up in the hands of private collectors or in museums abroad, as did many statues from other temples that the Cambodian government now hopes to reclaim. 
Duryodhana was hacked off his feet and eventually ended up in the hands of a Belgian owner whose widow put it on sale in Sotheby's (valued at $2 million-$3 million) in 2011.  The Norton Simon collection acquired the Bhima statue about 30 years ago. Discussions are reportedly now under way between the Cambodian government and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, about the possibility of returning the statue. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art got the two hacked-off "attendants" in pieces and sent them back in June this year. One figure of an onlooker to the duel had remained in Cambodia,  but the remaining four are still missing. 
A 2012 dig to gather evidence for that case unearthed the seven pedestals of the onlookers with some of the feet still attached, which archaeologists pointed to as evidence of pillaging [...] Two of the pedestals matched statues then on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met said the statues, called the "Kneeling Attendants," were given to the museum in pieces by different donors between 1987 and 1992. Evidence from the temple site convinced the museum's representatives that the statues had indeed been looted, and the Metropolitian in June returned the two figures, which joined a third statue that had remained in the country. [...] As for the four missing figures, experts and officials have failed to locate any records for one and have traced the other three to past auction catalogs but don't know their current owners. 
Well, obviously a case for Wikiloot. These are not small items, somebody somewhere has a statue in their hall or living room which a visitor could spot, where are the photos from the "auction catalogues" of the missing figures publicised? Why are the auctioneers who have been identified as having handled these objects not named and shamed?


The Preah Vihear Museum and Restitution of Knocked-off Sculptures

If the Norton Simon Bhima statue is returned to Cambodia, there is a real chance that it will be eventually possible to recreate the looted assemblage from which it came. The new Preah Vihear Museum’s largest building has been left empty and Cambodian officials hope that one day it will be the place where nine ancient statues are reunited from around the world to recreate the scene as it stood for centuries in the Prasat Chen temple, one of many ruins within the sprawling Koh Ker complex.
Koh Ker was briefly the center of the great Khmer Empire after King Jayavarman IV moved the capital from Angkor in 928 until 944. Until now it's received far less attention than Angkor's better-preserved temples 110 kilometers (70 miles) southwest. Coming after largely static scenes in bas-relief at Angkor, the Prasat Chen statues are key examples of the Koh Ker style's new dynamism — rare freestanding statues, with Duryodhana and Bhima portrayed as they prepare to leap into combat. These unique aspects of Koh Ker art are something the new museum hopes to highlight in the future, said Long Kosal, the tourism director for Preah Vihear province. Although officials say they need more time to make sure the site is secure, their ultimate plan is to place the tableau's statues together in a hall that mirrors the size and shape of their original tower. "The idea is to give the public the feeling of entering the original space" — and which pieces are still missing, said Philippe Delanghe, a culture specialist with UNESCO.
Justine Drennan, 'Momentum gains to unite ancient Cambodian statues', Associated Press Saturday, December 21, 2013

Friday 20 December 2013

Arthur Houghton III Advocates Corporal Punishment of Scholars

Arthur Houghton III writes uncompromisingly as ever, and evoking the latent violence seen in much recent antiquitist discussion in the US (especially in ACCG circles), indulges in flogging fantasies:
"Of course, any scholar who deliberately chooses to deliberately ignore important unprovenanced material in their work should be summarily dismissed from their position and taken out whipped like a cur"
I do not see the significance of "of course", especially if we are dealing with scholarship in a discipline for which origin of data is of importance. Such disciplines include archaeology, palaeontology, fossil taphonomy, entomology, conchology and meteorites, and probably a host of others.

What about those scholars making use of illictly-obtained, or illegally-obtained  data? Or about making use of data which could have been illictly or illegally obtained and there is no proof of licit origins?  Do we whip them too? What proper discipline would base any serious research on such material and consider it was "ethical"?

Vignette: Delaware Whipping Post  just across Chesapeake Bay from Mr Houghton.

Anyway, what's this coin collector talk about whipping dogs? What kind of people are these?

Mr Tompa "Loses" a Comment

Tombstone from Jordan (Yeshiva University)
Peter Tompa made a big thing about "Archaeology Magazine' publishing a short news item referring to a longer piece in the New York Times about a Jewish tombstone which he, jubilantly, says goes against the AIA principles on "unprovenanced antiquities" ("Archaeology Magazine Publicizes Unprovenanced Jewish Tombstone", CPO Wednesday, December 18, 2013). He concludes his post with the observation: "Yes, we can learn a lot from unprovenanced artifacts, despite what hard-liners in the AIA and archaeological blogosphere might say". Personally, I do not think anyone is denying that we can say something (sometimes many things) about, and maybe learn something from certain artefacts taken out of their context. To do so would be ridiculous, and certainly merit the name "hard-line", but then, who is actually denying that? On Wednesday, I sent a comment to the Tompa blog, but somehow it seems to have got lost in the aether (I see from that blog's comments sections that even the multitalented, ever-superior and distinguished Arthur Houghton III frequently has the same problem and has to ask somebody to do it for him). Atypically, I did not save a copy of the exact wording of this submitted comment (the ACCG bloggers are notorious for refusing to publish comments on their blogs which do not suit their world view).

I remember though that I started my response to Tompa's parting shot with the remark, "artefact or text?" What the NYT article describes is merely deciphering a blurred text in a known language. Reaching interpretations on the basis of texts and pictures is easy-peasy. They are what we call 'addressed sources' - ones that are intended to convey information, and so they do. That's what makes discussion of these issues so frustrating with coineys. They see only objects which are addressed sources, and seem quite oblivious to the fact that archaeology is on the whole dealing with 'non-addressed sources'. Nobody (almost nobody) is or was trying to convey a message in the way they throw away kitchen waste or deposit other rubbish. Yet that is what we mostly have to deal with. I really do not see what is really so clever that somebody can read an inscription saying "here lies Jenny" and tell us that a woman called Jenny lived somewhere in the place where this woman was buried. Duh. Having that same inscription on a stone associated with a particular grave (containing a particular assemblage of material) in a particular position in the vertical and horizontal stratigraphy of the cemetery, and in relation to other graves in that cemetery, which lay in a particular place in the settlement geography of the urban complex from which it came could give us a good deal more information than "Jenny". And that is the point, because somebody ripped off this stone, and it got to a private collector in the US (how, when?) who gave it to a church museum, who then gave it to somebody else, all the rest of the information has irretrievably gone. All we have is a group of smug young people happy because they read the name "Jenny" which somebody had written on it.  Not actually a big deal at all, is it?

I then added to my comment an invitation (including a link) to readers of Mr Tompa's blog to participate in the challenge (not such a difficult one as the artefact has two pictures on it and two lines of writing) about the Acre Christopher coin. Sadly the comment never appeared, so Mr Tompa's many esteemed readers will not see it and will not have the chance to exhibit their skills and allow us to examine the methodology they would apply to the study of a specific decontextualised object. That's a shame.

More on the Chinese Art market

China's art market suffered a much-steeper decline last year than industry experts previously suggested,  according to a report published Wednesday by a pair of auction watchdogs (Kelly Crow, "China art market declines more than suggested" Market Watch Dec. 18, 2013).
Details about the sales performance of China's auction houses have been difficult to glean since the country's art market started to boom five years ago. [...] Now, amid growing scrutiny of China's art-selling practices, researchers are poring over sales data anew and presenting a fuller -and darker-portrait of the Chinese market than the auction houses had painted. 
Among other information contained in the article is that there are at least 355 auction houses in  mainland China and that buying habits are somewhat different from the west, Chinese paintings and calligraphy were in greater demand among bidders within China, whereas Chinese jades and porcelain proved more popular among collectors elsewhere. The article also mentions growing concerns about non-payment by winning bidders as well as fake and misidentified items on the Chinese market.

Protecting Asia's Heritage, Strategies for Fighting Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property

Last week there was a two-day international symposium on "Protecting Asia's heritage, strategies for fighting illicit traffic of cultural property and fostering restitution" held in Kathmandu (Nepal). The symposium titled was organised by UNESCO and the Nepalese Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. The aim was to exchange knowledge on the state of illicit trafficking of cultural items in South Asia, the status of the implementation of international legal frameworks and best practices on preventive measures and restitution processes, and challenges in establishing a system to identify and locate cultural properties. Recommendations were also made on the best use of international legal tools and frameworks, and customary laws and provisions on strategies for the return of cultural properties:
The event brought together about 100 experts from various sectors related to cultural-heritage preservations and included 20 speakers from the South Asian region and UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Interpol, the World Customs Organisation and other regional organisations. Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Ram Kumar Shrestha said illicit trafficking of cultural properties poses a huge threat to Nepal and other nations, and the meeting hoped to seek ways to curb this situa
South Asian Cultural Experts Exchange Ideas On Preservation Of Cultural Heritages, Bernama Dec 18

Deaccession Debate: Christie’s Potential Shopping List of Detroit Institute’s Art

The painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Wedding Dance,” c. 1566, currently in the Detroit Institute of Arts is a favourite of mine (many archaeologists like Bruegel for the material culture, especially pottery shown), and it is one of the star items featured on the valuation of portions of the DIA collection which was made public yesterday. You can see the document from Christie’s Appraisals, Inc. here ("Fair Market Value for Financial Planning"). Quite apart from the questions raised by the whole issue of selling off museum collections like this, where practicalities come into conflict with idealism, I see some problems emerging here.

Like the two items of African and Oceanic Art in "phase 1" (p. 2). One of them is ivory, the other a Benin bronze, for goodness' sake. I can see that being even more controversial when it was merely in the collection. I am sure American collectors will be happy to see all that American art (pp 4- 11) sold abroad spreading US culture in foreign parts, just as they assiduously collect other people's culture - but what about that "American Indian Art" (p. 12)? It's from the Ojibwa (north or south?) and British Columbia. The other bit of pre-colonial art of the Americas is hidden away at the end of the list (p. 81) - how did that get on the US market? In contrast, on pages 13 to 19 we see the "phase 1 antiquities" - and spot a telling caveat: "assumes the source of origin (sic) and provenance is (sic) such that the work could be traded freely within the United States". It is interesting that the value is not considered to depend on whether the item could be legally exported out of the US to another country - also dependent surely on how it came to the US market. There are a couple of interesting Mediveal European "architectural elements" (p. 20-33) portableised and taken to America - there's loads of them listed, how did they get on the market? These have no caveats... The 'phase 1' Chinese antiquities (p. 34) comprise a Yuan bowl, but then also a dugup Shang bronze (nice to see the caveat there too). There is none on the Chola-period sculpture from "South India" on page 56, rather odd in the circumstances of another discussion going on about antiquities from precisely this region now.

Talking of caveats, note the ones on two items, 127-8 and 131 on p. 35-6, and 173 on p. 46.  - ooops? Looking through the extensive sell-off list of European "Furniture, sculpture and decorative objects" (pp. 35- 46) it is interesting to note, despite the fact that many of these medieval sculptures would have been made for altars in European churches and private chapels and their coming onto the market might have involved dodgery (theft), none of these objects have any caveat about value being dependent on their origins. Why? Surely these should be treated in no way different from any other portable antiquities cum art, like Greek pots and naked Roman marble torsos.  The only caveats on the extensive list of phase 1 sell-off items originating in the Islamic world on pp. 57-63 also concern authenticity rather than origins. Odd.

PHASE 2 gets even worse. Now in the African and oceanic Art (p. 85) there are two Benin bronzes (and two bits - one 'ceremonial' -from Papua New Guinea).  There is another Ojibwa object on page 89, then loads more sell-off antiquities.  The same caveat is there, many of these items come from grave-robbing (sarcophagi, cinerary urns), but the Dacian helmet is not in the list. Then (page 93) there's some decontextualised - no doubt very pretty - pictures cut out of a medieval manuscript book . The Chinese antiquities on pages 94-98 are not felt to merit a collecting-history-caveat. There are the same issues as before with the two "European Furniture, sculpture and decorative objects" (p. 100) - one possible authenticity issue. Note the delicate suggestion that other items in the collection might not be what they were bought as. 

Thursday 19 December 2013

New York court decides that sellers at auction can remain anonymous

The Art Dossier is reporting: New York court decides that sellers at auction can remain anonymous On Tuesday New York’s Court of Appeals handed down a verdict that reversed an earlier decision in a case which would have meant an end to the practice of auctioneers in the state keeping sellers’ names anonymous. Obviously antiquities dealers will be interested in this development, as the anonymous "property of a collector" is one of the key tactics used to avoid saying where stuff came from.
 In an October 2012 decision that came in a dispute over the sale of a 19th-century Russian silver-and-enamel box, a four-judge panel in the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ruled that state law required that buyers be allowed to know the names of sellers in post-auction paperwork for the deal to become binding.
The case was reviewed and it was decided unanimously that the auctioneer was acting as the seller’s agent, which meant that the absence of the name of the previous owner was not a hindrance to a binding deal in the state of New York. More in the New York Times.

UPDATE 20th Dec 2013:
Meanwhile those in the trade single-mindedly continue to pretend they do not understand why the no-questions-asked trading of antiquities is a problem. They demand "transparency" from others but consistently refuse to see the need for it in the dugup antiquities market. There really is no point in discussing things with such people.

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