Wednesday 10 July 2013

Art Newspaper on the Vulnerable Cultural Heritage

The "Art Newspaper" (Riah Pryor, 'Call for levy on sales of antiquities', published online: 10 July 2013), has a report on a recent academic conference held at Leicester University, UK. The event was titled “Vulnerability and Cultural Heritage”. The newspaper focuses on just one aspect of what transpired. It concentrates on what was said by Julian Radcliffe, the chairman of the Art Loss Register, addressing the issue of "Protection of Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis". All the Art Newspaper thought worthy of reporting from that was that he made a certain proposal concerning the "art" market and antiquities. According to the newspaper Radcliffe prefaced this by saying:
 “Archaeologists have come to terms with the fact that the trade [in antiquities] is not going to go away, that things have changed and that much of the market is now behaving responsibly,” 
If this is what he really said, one can only conclude that Radcliffe lives in some far-off galaxy light years away from the real world - or at least real archaeologists. Archaeologists have never thought that the legitimate market in privately curated antiques, works of art and antiquities would ever "go away". I am not even sure there are many who want it to disappear (I am talking of the wholly legitimate market). What however has NOT changed is that the trade in dugup antiquities as a whole is very far from "now behaving responsibly" (if by that we understand a little more than not going for rival dealers with machetes or kalashnikovs). We are a whole universe away from dugup antiquity dealers taking a hands-on responsible approach to acquiring stock and exhibiting the utmost transparency about the transactions involved. One might ask what the director of a register of objects reported as stolen actually knows about the world of clandestine digging and clandestine smuggling and clandestine deals with shady middlemen before an object "surfaces" apparently from nowhere (or "could be anywhere") on the open market. Anyway, for the Art Newspaper (objective reporting at its peak, one hopes), the real thing of importance he said was about what it presents as his "cunning plan" to sort out the Antiquities Problem. He reportedly proposed:
"a levy on sales of antiquities to raise funds for source countries to help them better protect their heritage" [...] “My idea is to make it very modest, say 1%, and only apply it to items worth more than £10,000, so that no one can claim that it is inhibiting trade or is worth trying to avoid, for example by swops”.
We do not learn how much money he thinks this would generate and how it would share out between 196 or so countries all across the world who might need a share. It is quite disturbing that Mr Radcliffe reckons a hundred quid (from the seller or buyer?) of any antiquity sold for over 10000 quid is going to sort out the problem of the illicit art trade and pay to guard every lootable site in every source country of the world 24/7 from now till the end of time. Really? We do not know what the academics there thought about that. According to the Art Newspaper, participants in the antiquities trade have however questioned the feasibility of the idea.
James Ede, a London-based antiquities dealer who was not at the conference, says: “The idea of taxing collectors and museums in this way is a strange one, and I can’t see in any case how such a scheme could possibly work. Who runs it? Who allocates the funds and on what basis?” Dealers and representatives of the leading auction houses were not at the conference, which considered papers on a range of cultural heritage issues, but the organisers are keen to involve them. There have been discussions about a follow-up event to explore the idea further.
yeah, I bet there have. Anything to strengthen the partnership between scholars and collectors, eh? I'm with Mr Ede on this one. The whole idea is full of holes.

What, for example, is an "antiquity"? Is a fifteenth century wooden statue from a church in Bavaria or a stone one from a temple in Bangalore "art" or an antiquity if a fifteenth century buckle from Bolton dug up with a metal detector is a portable antiquity? When is an antiquity an antiquity (Ming period cash coins for example, considered by antiquity collectors as antiquities - but what about Ming vases or scroll paintings)? When are the transactions exempt? Would purchases by museums be taxable, or exempt? For example would the tax be levied on UK Treasure awards paid to metal detectorists when museums buy an object for their collection? That would be ironic would it not?

Would such a tax apply to sales within a source country, from collector to dealer for example, and then on the same object if the dealer exports it (legally of course) and sells it at a profit to a dealer in the US? Then would it be payable once more as the object passes from dealer to dealer? Or collector to collector? In other words, what is being taxed, the object or the transaction?

Then who is going to collect the money, and then allocate it? UNESCO desk jockeys? Who decides if countries get any money at all? Palestine and Syria for example? A military government which has just overthrown a democratically-elected government in another hot country? A country which persecutes a cultural minority (so the money would be spent on bolstering one cultural identity at the expense of another)? A nation which despite renewed requests from the source nation has refused point blank to give up the antiquities it manhandled off the walls of an iconic temple in the centre of the capital and has mounted on the walls of an iconic building in their own? The latter happens to be the case of the host country of the conference at which this proposal was made... How much money would the USA (huge area, many hundreds of thousands of pre-columbian sites to protect on Federal lands), compared with India (huge area, many hundreds of thousands of ancient sites and monuments to protect), and who decides and on what basis?

How much of the money collected will go towards covering the costs of convening twice annually a suitably international and representative allocation committee and then the auditing committee who goes out and inspects the work being done in the field with the money and reports back? It would be highly naive to imagine that administering this programme will not cost millions in the first decade - but its a good source of "jobs for the boys".

In any case, what in fact do we mean by "protecting sites from looters"? If you put guards on a site, determined robbers only need to turn up with kalasnikovs and duct tape. If you put armed guards on sites, you end up shooting determined robbers. That will not stop Thugwit collectors in Wisconsin from buying the ensuing blood antiquities.

 In reality of course, much of the protection of sites against looting would be avoided by simply cutting down the opportunities for ruffians to make money by selling bits of pottery, corroded metal and carved stone or scraps of papyrus dug up in the fields, forests and deserts. The moment these things become unsaleable, the digging more or less stops. Dealers and collectors have it in their hands to stop the illicit antiquities trade, almost overnight. Have they done so? No. Will they do so? Well, Mr Radcliffe apparently imagines they are all already "responsible". I imagine that the fact that we can see what is going on indicates that, if that is what he thinks, he is utterly wrong. There is still a huge market for illicit antiquities. There is still a huge amount of freshly surfaced material on todays no-questions-asked antiquities market. Go figure what the connection actually is.

 Apparently at the Leicester conference, "participants also debated the merits of reviving the partage system, which in the past meant that excavated artefacts were shared between the host country and foreign archaeologists and their sponsors". I think we get the picture what kind of a conference the Art Newspaper thinks that was. A convention of the James Cuno Fan Club. I trust that the reality was somewhat different, perhaps we will get a more balanced report from the trafficking Culture folks who were there...

Coming back to the idea of taxing antiquity sales, in reality, all a tax would do is to introduce an additional feelgood factor into the antiquities collecting world. It would merely function as just another way of their constant shirking responsbility for dealing with the dirty and dodgy doings which are hidden by the no-questions-asked antiquities market.  If there was such a system, collectors/dealers will claim ever so loudly they are dutifully ("responsibly") paying the taxes, and then the blame can be placed on "them" (the 'furriners', who "must be (irresponsibly) squandering the money" if illicit antiquities continue to surface on the market).

Levy an internal tax by all means, within each market country, but let's use it to clean up the antiquities market, on education and outreach to collectors at home rather than fobbing off the real cause of the problem by throwing money at the source countries (no doubt stressing how jolly good and gracious we are being like the USA with its demeaning MOU-by-request-and-we-will-consider-it system). Simply remove the financial incentive for looting and a large part of the problem will be resolved. 



kyri said...

i thought the PAS were doing all the educating and out reaching with our tax pounds[thats a joke].if people are greedy and unscrupulous,they wont listen or care.personally i think if you tax the trade and create another funding stream for the government you will find that instead of turning a blind eye,they will go totally blind very quickly.

Paul Barford said...

I think the idea though was for the antiquities tax money to go to OTHER countries, the ones the artefacts were dug up in.

Larry Rothfield said...

Paul, I think your arguments here are pretty weak (and the fact that you are echoing Ede should give you pause). If you think that site guards and equipment for antiquities police go after smugglers makes no difference, how do you explain what happened in Iraq and is happening now in Egypt when the protection goes away? Your other questions are technical ones, and yes, the devil is in the details, but if this were properly designed it could make a real difference -- and not just in getting more guards on sites. It might also help prosecutors in England and the US go after the dealers and collectors, in at least three ways: by giving the police more financial resources to pursue these sometimes expensive investigations, by forcing transparency that will enable prosecutors to investigate chains of custody and thereby roll up networks more easily, and by making it much easier to go after a dealer and collector for tax evasion if they buy a dodgy antiquity and don't report it.

Paul Barford said...

Well, first of all there is nothing in my post which suggests that I think putting big sadistic blokes with machine guns or sniper rifles on a site with night-vision goggles would not be a deterrent to looting those sites. Obviously it would, I do not think however that is the way this should be going, nor do I think it COST effective.

Perhaps you are expecting some superficial comments on the lines of "wouldn't it be nice if..." and "somebody should..." ?

I think if an idea is worth proposing then it is worth thinking it through and making a concrete proposiition and not a vague wishy-washy vagueness which gets nobody anywhere.

From that point of view the issues I raised are not mere 'details", they are fundamental factors which need to be addressed BEFORE anyone makes a proposal of this sort, don't you think?

So, as an advocate of this approach, how about you supplying some thoughts on how to deal with the issues I raise, rather than just dimmissing them wholesale as "weak"?

Let us try to take this beyond "wouldn't it be nice if (somebody else) got something like this going?". So let's start looking at some basic issues... who, how, how much?

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