Thursday 7 February 2013

Sunshine Laws for a Black Trade?

Rick St Hilaire has produced a post worthy of   reflection: "Spotlighting Black Market Antiquities with Record Keeping Laws", 06 Feb 2013 ). He proposes a system of effective record keeping laws to identify and expose cultural property criminals which certainly seem worth discussing, all the more so as he shows that there are (US) precedents for such a legislative change, and some good legal arguments in its favour.  He limits his proposed measures to "transactions involving the purchase, sale, consignment, or transfer of archaeological material over 250 years old and valued at $10,000 or more, individually or collectively". There are two serious flaws (leaving aside the whole question of the "minor" antiquities which form the backbone of the antiquities trade) in what he suggests. He stresses that the "privacy interests" of those selling artefacts must be respected:
Business records should be protected from unauthorized disclosure so that transacting parties could not be identified except by consent, operation of law, a lawful request from an enforcement agency, or through judicial process. 
So, basically in no way different from what we have today in that regard, with the seller of antiquities under no obligation to supply a potential customer with that information, or show the proof. It seems to me that instead of a system which means after somebody has bought some stolen object, the documentation of licit origins can be sought out and if missing the item is deemed stolen, we need a system which allows buyers to avoid buying stolen stuff in the first place. Nobody's going to take out a court order to see if a greek pot is safe to buy. The information making possible a judgement whether a particular object on the market is kosher or not needs to be up-front. I would say that in the case of the public good (artefacts belong to all of us) the artefact collector should be subject to public scrutiny as are people involved in other activities affecting the public good. If they do not like that, let them instead collect baseball cards, first editions of classic American literature or the prints of William Hogarth.

Secondly, St Hilaire suggests that the repository of this documentation should be:
Auction houses, dealers, galleries, shops, and other entities engaged in the trade of [antiquities] ... 
and to be effective, the records should minimally contain:
[...] All available import documents and export permits [...] supporting documents, photos, affidavtis, and the like when available [...]  shipping paperwork, etc. 
 That's fine in theory, but what about real life? Unless they go straight into the permanent collection of a museum, these objects are likely to be in circulation between various ephemeral private collections for decades, even centuries (like the collectors' mythical objects in old collections "since the time of Petrarch"). So these records need to be retrievable in future. So what about this sort of scenario? Some objects are imported by Todor Eyesnotatheef from his brother back in Sofia, there's some paperwork got from a local official they "work with". All the other invoices and other paperwork are in order. Todor has the piece restored in Brooklyn, paperwork from that too. He then sells it to Messers Grebkesh and Runn the well known Upper East Side dealers. Who gets the paperwork? Todor or Grebkesh? Then "Honest Joe" Affluento the Wisconsin casino owner and collector buys it. Do the documents pass to him, or remain with the dealer? After two years it's bought for an investment fund portfolio for Rubenbaum and Goldberg in Texas, to be sold by Heritage Auctions ten years later - meanwhile Grebkesh and Runn change hands before going bust and Todor retires. Where now are the records of which St Hilaire writes? If they'd stayed with the original importer they'd be lost as the office is cleared out. Surely if such a system is to be of any use there needs to be some kind of central repository which functions as long as those items are circulating (continually resurfacing) on the market.  This would also make it easier for the authorities to access and use these records for the purposes St Hilaire indicates. otherwise one could imagine them being sent on a wlild goose chase from one former owner to another, only to find that the records are incomplete due to firms going out of business.

St Hilaire assures us that:
No one wants an art and antiquities marketplace filled with heritage supplied by thieves, smugglers, forgers, and fences who seek illegal profits...
that is of course excepting those whose profits lie in dealing in the objects supplied by smugglers, thieves, fences and forgers. How many of them are there? Watch the discussion of St Hilaire's proposals.

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