Tuesday 17 September 2013

"Not ALL collectors are thoughtless and unethical"

It is good to see that David Knell has begun posting again on his "Ancient Heritage" blog, as he is one of the few collectors in the blogosphere who in my opinion write eminent sense. In his latest post  ('Antiquities Collectors - An Endangered Species?' Ancient Heritage Monday, 16 September 2013) he makes  an important point. He argues that we should not "tar all collectors with the same brush". He holds that stereotyping them to the lowest common denominator and demonising them will only serve to alienate them. He says
Perhaps it is high time for a truce between those preservationists who want to protect the archaeological record and those collectors who also fully endorse that view. Not ALL collectors are thoughtless and unethical. Many of them are deeply passionate about history and collect old objects as an emotively physical and intellectual way of engaging with it, while fully recognising the vital importance of the archaeological record and scrupulously shunning any acquisition or action that may damage it [...] Get the message about preserving the archaeological record across by all means but let's bear in mind that a thoughtful and ethical collector can be an ally, not an enemy.
All well and good, as far as it goes. I think Mr Knell would have to look long and hard to find a blog, website or forum, publication, newsletter or trade magazine which actually goes any further than a bald declaration that "we are responsible /ethical /benign/ atruistic /only interested in the history/ not in it for the money/ love our heritage" and all that. I actually know of one site where a collector has formally announced that he has given up collecting a certain type of artefact (which he had a pretty good collection of) because of the difficulty of getting kosher (ie not looted) stuff. That's Mr Knell's own website, and Mr Knell's own principled stand. I would be only too happy to receive a flood of comments pointing out a host of other examples which I have missed that go beyond mere declarative posturing and take an active stand against dodgy and no-questions-asked dealing.

Almost all the rest of the antiquitist discourse is led by the naysayers. People like the ACCG, dealers, collectors who refuse to admit that there is anything wrong with no-questions-asked buying and selling of artefacts. We had the Yahoo Ancient Artefacts discussion list (Tim Haines) which declaratively says it supports ethical collecting, it has a code of ethics, don't ya know... except the link to it on their home page has been broken for several years (and checked just now still is, showing how important it really is in the day-to-day functioning of that group). This is typical. I could go on multiplying examples.

Readers will know that one of my leitmotifs is why, when we are told there are 50 000 of them in the USA alone, do NO dugup ancient coin collectors actually come out and say the embittered and cantankerous naysaying old men in the ACCG are, in more ways than one, seriously damaging the US coin market, and that they'd prefer their associations to do everything they can, and more, to keep smuggled coins off the US market? Have they got together and formed a breakaway "Real Responsible Ancient Coin Collectors Guild" (answer is no).  Do we hear even one peep from them anywhere on the internet? If there have been any, they've been very quiet and low-key.

It may be observed by anyone who cares to join several of their forums, that antiquity collectors in general (this goes for coineys and metal detectorists in particular) are particularly prone to behaving like sheep. A lobbyist says "everybody jump" and hundreds of them unthinkingly jump (or fax or write to the gubn'mint). We also see there what happens to the few collectors that raise their head a bit above the parapet, they immediately get shouted down (coineys and MDs in particular), let alone any archaeologist with an opinion of their own that may decide to brave the collectors' forums.

Where are the blogs, websites, discussion forums of those ranks of collectors who want to protect the archaeological record and are thoughtful (reflexive) and ethical, fully recognising the vital importance of the archaeological record and scrupulously shunning any acquisition or action that may damage it?

Basically, if they do not speak up, they remain invisible (and who is not to say imaginary?). They cannot be discussed in any heritage debate because they remain invisible. In any case, if they cared so passionately they would be propagating their views loudly among the collector community as well as being more visible outside. This is what Dorothy King was saying ("In Search of the Modern Antiquities Collector"). So far, I see David Knell (there was a Robyn, Pieces of the Past: Ethical Antiquities Collecting but she gave up trying to get the message across to the stubborn-minded, look at her comments and on the above-mentioned Yahoo list to see who they were, the same old culprits).

I would be more than happy to see these collectors band together into some kind of an informal but much more visible group and actively propagate the preservationist cause alongside those of us from outside collecting who are concerned about the effects of artefact collecting and trade on the archaeological record. I would also be only too happy to be able to contrast the activities of such a group with those of the willing participants in a no-questions-asked market, because they will show the latter that there IS an alternative. I'd feel more comfortable highlighting a group than individuals - knowing what is likely to happen in the latter case.

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