Thursday, 9 May 2013

Coin Repatriation In Question by Archaeolaw?

I am trying to see this latest contribution by "archaeolaw" (Kimberly Alderman)  as a rhetorical question: Does China’s Planned Demolition at Xingjiao Bring Coin Repatriation Into Question? With most US "cultural property lawyers" however, you never really know what they really are thinking ...

This is about yet another attempt of "attorney and notorious advocate for coin collectors Peter Tompa" to belittle the furriners who dare ask the US to help stop the trade in illicit artefacts. By dragging in two separate issues Tompa provocatively asks “Should the US State Department authorize repatriation of every last unprovenanced Chinese coin when China cares so little for major religious sites?” Archaeolaw seems to have fallen for it:
It’s a good question, loaded with moral inquiry. Is the source of the perceived obligation to return unprovenanced coins the appreciation of those objects by the home country? If the home country were going to simply melt down the coins to make something else, would advocates of repatriation still so advocate? We would be interested to hear the thoughts of those who support the repatriation of all unprovenanced antiquities (or coins, if they are to be distinguished).  
Well, I am not an advocate of repatriation. I am an advocate of not buying smuggled and stolen artefacts in the first place. That is the key, for the dugup artefacts that the US museums, dealers and collectors to have to be surrendered for "repatriation" they first have to be illicitly taken to the US. Nobody in fact is actually talking about "repatriation" of "of every last unprovenanced Chinese coin",  that is the invention and total fantasy of the "notorious lobbyist" (it is not provenance that is at issue but licit export). Neither would I dismiss - as "archaeolaw" rather tellingly does -  returning illegally obtained cultural property as merely a "perceived obligation" (and once again I stress that in reality it has nothing to do with "provenance"). Why on earth the motif of "melting them all down" should appear in this discussion is beyond me. Funny ideas these Americans have about the rest of the world.

Like the wholly xenophobic approach to the rest of the world: "China is going to destroy “most” of the buildings at the 1,300 year old Xingjiao Temple", they shriek, demonising the alleged slanty-eyed heritage-destroyers.

There is a difference between destroying 1300 year old buildings in a 1300 year old temple, and selectively demolishing modern structures built within and crowding the historical structures which most US commentators on this cannot see. I guess its because they do not have much in the way of real historical architecture over there, they have nothing to compare it with. They have no medieval towns of their own to revalorise by precisely such selective removal of later accretions within historic complexes. I suppose a US analogy might be the removal of alterations to the form of Poplar Forest (1806) Thomas Jefferson's Bedford County plantation and plantation house in what is now Forest, Virginia, near Lynchburg (where they are now actually rebuilding the service wing) in order to restore the complex to its original style. Why is there no comparable outcry over this? 

In actual fact, as Archaeolaw and Tompa could easily have checked (as at Poplar Forest), the buildings which are going to be removed at Xingjiao are post-medieval, the idea being to restore the complex to its original style, and the buildings will be replaced with new ones, moved back from the historic structures and designed in a style in keeping with the character of the site. The local authorities are planning to preserve the Xuanzang Stupa hall and the historic pagodas, but remove then rebuild most of the later surrounding ancillary buildings, including the temple’s abstinence hall and the monk’s living quarters.  The demolished buildings will be replaced, in accordance with the law, with new structures, resembling the originals.  Yes, the monks who live there are angry, it's their living quarters which are being replaced and they will be supplied with other temporary accommodation while the work is going on, understandably they fear the disruption:
 Master Kuanshu, Xingjiao Temple, said, "If these buildings in the temple are removed, the monks will have nowhere to live, eat or read Buddhist scriptures. Their daily rituals will be damaged. This is one of our top concerns."
I think we can all understand this and sympathise with it, and wish them the best of luck in resolving this problem. there is a far cry from that however and condemning the a whole nation on the imagined grounds that they are incomprehensibly about to demolish a complex of 1300 year old buildings. I'd say that the Americans trying to engage in their national sport of trying to impose their own notions on the rest of the world (like what is "Best for China" on the Chinese) should recognize, as did UNESCO and ICOMOS as early as the Nara Conference, that western notions of conservation and authenticity cannot be imposed on other cultures, which embody completely different approaches to these issues.  

Tom Phillips, 'Buddhist monks outraged at plans to bulldoze centuries-old temple', Daily Telegraph, 11 Apr 2013

Anon, 'Xingjiao temple seeks to preserve buildings', China TV, 13th April 2013
No, the planned revalorisation project at the Xingjiao Temple in no way brings the US resolve to help fight the trade in illicit Chinese artefacts by US dealers "into question". The very question however is extremely revealing of US attitudes. 

Photo: the buildings crowding around the historical structures at Xingjiao Temple, Shaanxi Province

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