Tuesday 18 June 2013

The Idealism of NYT's Souren Melikian Challenged

 Souren Melikian (provides "unique coverage of the art scene and market from the view of a collector who is also a cultural historian") has written a feelgood article for the New York Times which would like to persuade us all to think that antiquities collectors are not such a bad lot, that provenance matters to them ("Antiquities, With a Proven Record, Drive Auction Market", NYT ), and slowly, but surely, the dirty antiquities market is cleaning itself up. In fact it would seem he's saying that we need not feel any angst about the market, we need not do anything about it as the situation is righting itself:
The market for antiquities from the ancient world is undergoing an upheaval that sends some works of art skyrocketing to unimaginable heights while scores of others are effectively becoming unsalable. The reason for this discrepancy lies in the Unesco convention adopted in 1970 [...] the convention is effectively being implemented by international institutions and, increasingly, by prudent collectors and dealers, fearful that the legitimate ownership of their acquisitions may be challenged in the future. As a result, important works of art that can be proved to have reached the market before 1970 shoot to vertiginous levels, while those that cannot fail to sell with increasing frequency.
Would that it were true, and of course it is not, not by a long chalk. The problem if anything is getting worse. (He's done this before, too: "How UNESCO's 1970 Convention Is Weeding Looted Artifacts Out of the Antiquities Market" PACHI, Saturday, 1 September 2012). Donna Yates is not at all convinced by his anecdotal evidence, based on her study of several thousand Pre-Columbian pieces, that is not a pattern that can be confirmed by hard figures ("No, NYT, listing a couple of lots doesn't prove that antiquities buyers care about provenance!" June 14,  2013. She calls the article "dumb and wrong".
the listing of a couple of random lots does not prove that buyers prefer pre-1970 pieces. You need stats for that. Real numbers. Trends. Etc. Not just a few random lots. You know what? I just finished a paper this week containing JUST those sorts of numbers. And...well, 1970 is not a factor for what I was looking at. Data from this year. Seriously. This is bad. Paper forthcoming. Sigh.

Good for her, and we all look forward to that paper. Mr Melikian however needs to pay more attention to what he's writing about in another area too. He intones:
The reason for this discrepancy lies in the Unesco convention adopted in 1970 to safeguard the buried heritage of mankind and shield standing monuments from looting. While many countries, including the United States, did not sign up [...]
Quite apart from the acronym not being capitalised, it should be well known to a NYT cultural-antiquity-guru-columist that the USA became a state party to the Convention back in the early 1980s. Though the fact that this has had in fact next to no effect on the way antiquities from both sides of the Atlantic are traded over there may be some justification for him simply not being aware of that fact. Neither does it bear any relationship to the truth to say that it is "prudent dealers" who are "implementing" it. The loudest dealers are OPPOSING the implementation in the US, even in residual half-hearted form, very loudly. Surely Mr Melikian is not unaware of that? If he is, I find that difficulty to understand, he must be out of touch with the US coiney blogs and forums.

But for goodness sake, the man says these dealers are implementing something, and then completely gets it round his neck what that something is. It simply is not true that the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was "adopted" (sic) "to safeguard the buried heritage of mankind and shield standing monuments from looting". It is simply not true, that is a US collectors' myth without any foundation in the text (or title) of the document itself. I wonder how long that fallacy will persist, certainly as long as newspapers like the NYT keep repeating it unthinkingly.

[Melikian is not all bad though, he does not like UK policies on artefact hunting and metal detecting  - see:  "The Amateurish Destruction of World History by Britain at Crosby Garrett", PACHI  Monday, 11 April 2011.

And let's just keep an eye on that article, how long does it take the NYT to spot the mistake and correct it? Will they?

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