Saturday 28 September 2013

To protect Syria's antiquities — don't buy them

Erin Thompson (professor of art crime at the City University of New York) has an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, To protect Syria's antiquities — don't buy them September 29, 2013.
Coins, jewelry, sculpture and other objects from Syria's archaeological sites can be stunningly beautiful and are eagerly sought by collectors. Recognizing the damage done by amateur diggers who supplied this trade in the past, Syria's domestic law has forbidden unauthorized excavation and export of antiquities since 1963. That essentially means there was no legal trade in recently excavated treasures even before the fighting began. But the chaos of the Syrian civil war gives looters and buyers unprecedented opportunities.[...] Since the fighting began in 2011, investigators have found hundreds of Syrian antiquities for sale on the black market in Lebanon and Turkey, the first step in a chain of transactions that, in many cases, will lead to sales in the United States and Europe. [...] You don't need to travel to a secret warehouse in Beirut to get Syrian antiquities. You can simply go online, where $119 will get you a coin minted in 150 BC for the Seleucid kings in Apamea, once a flourishing city and now a heavily looted archaeological site north of Homs, in the Syrian countryside. The website I saw informed the buyer that the coin shows an "earthen green patina with some minor deposits" — such coloring and encrustations mean that this coin was recently unearthed from centuries underground and is tantamount to an admission that it came from an illegal excavation. 
It is nice to see that part of this might be based on a reading of an earlier post of mine with a link to a coin dealer's website for that coin. Even nicer to see that if you follow that link, you find "this product does not exist any more". While it is good to see the message is getting across even to dealers, it is disturbing to read that the coin mentioned might have been destroyed (John Anderson, Praefectus coins, Vancouver Canada and USA).
The looting of a big chunk of heritage can take place like this, coin by coin, object by object. [...]  There is a simple solution: Do not buy antiquities. The United States is a major market for these objects, with some buyers who know better and many who don't. Americans can create a market for smuggled antiquities and drive looting, or they can defeat it. There was a major decrease in elephant poaching after Americans decided that the beauty of ivory was no excuse for the destruction that brought it to market. We stopped buying ivory buttons, figurines and other trinkets that seemed individually seemed too small to make a difference — but they did. We need to have the same attitude when we see a tempting ancient coin, statuette or piece of jewelry. 
Then the author addresses the usual justification of the heritage-grabbers:
Some collectors [...] argue that they are rescuing antiquities by giving them a new home outside of the instability of Syria. But such thinking only feeds the market forces that result in looting. Moreover, the extraction of "rescued" antiquities involves the destruction of the surrounding archaeological context and any associated objects that lack the beauty required by the marketplace. When context is destroyed, so is the chance for the kind of careful study that reveals the workings of ancient civilizations .[...] It is best simply not to buy antiquities, particularly from Syria or anywhere else where conflict and heritage are colliding: Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of South America and Egypt, where in August an entire museum was ransacked, with rioters stealing the antiquities and burning the mummies.  As the international community wrestles with what action it must take to end the death and destruction in Syria, every one of us can help simply by not acting — that is, by not buying Syrian antiquities, beautiful as they are. For the sake of Syria's heritage, and the world's, remember: No market means no looting
Powerful words.  Let us see if self-serving greedy collectors pay the slightest bit of attention.


Erin L. Thompson said...

Paul - I did use that piece of yours! Apologies that the structure of an op ed didn't allow me to give credit where credit was due. Thank you for commenting on the piece - ELT. ethompson at

Paul Barford said...

No problem, getting the message out as widely as possible is exactly why I sit here tapping out this stuff. And making people think again, so it's nice to see things withdrawn when they are mentioned and a reason given why they should not be on sale like that.

By the way I checked the link to your blog on your profile, fantastic blog on the Paris museums - full of wonderful humour. Loved it.

Unknown said...


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