Tuesday 19 November 2013

Misunderstandings over the role of the PAS

Among antiquity collectors two countries stand out as being some kind of exemplar when it comes to the antiquity market, Great Britain and Israel. In both countries - unlike many others - once certain conditions are satisfied, the trading of archaeological artefacts is legal. Thus we find Peter Tompa writing about the legitimate antiquities market of Israel several times: here, here, and here. I mentioned the law by which this market functions here :
The state’s approach to the antiquities dealers underwent a total change beginning in 1978, when a law was passed making all ancient objects discovered in Israel from then onwards state property. The trade in newly-discovered antiquities was henceforth equivalent to the trade in stolen goods.
This however did not affect items in the trade and in private collections before 1978. Dealers could continue to buy and sell the items from old collections and in their stockrooms from before that date, and they were required (as in Art. 10 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention) to maintain a register of such items which they had in their stock. As was pointed out by Nir Hasson in his recent Jerusalem Post article (though the practice was well enough known well before this) this system was open to abuse, which has led to moves to improve it which it seems dealers oppose. These efforts to oppose making the system more transparent is what I had in mind suggesting to Peter Tompa that he might like to comment on the story. In return we get The Perils of a Registration System  (Monday, November 18, 2013):
 It's an article of faith in elements within the archaeological community that registration systems deter looting of archaeological sites. But do they work in practice? This story from Israel suggests otherwise. Instead, they may in fact only overwhelm everyone with red tape and encourage cheating by the unscrupulous. Isn't it much better to get at the problem with a system akin to the UK's Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme? Important sites should be protected by law, but it should also be okay to prospect on private property with permission as long as items that are found are properly recorded.
The logic behind that really escapes me. The registers kept by individual dealers are not to "prevent looting" but to register the legitimacy of the objects they are legitimately trading. They are an attempt to introduce some transparency into one of the world's few legitimate antiquities markets. That it is not working is clear, but the main reason for this is the dishonesty of the dealers involved.

I really do not know how many times it has to be explained to Americans that the Portable antiquities System is nothing to do either with the antiquities trade, nor the process of export licensing. How many times more? It seems a pretty basic fact, pretty easy even for the smallest narrowest mind to take in, yet some apparently have problems with this concept. The PAS was set up to deal with a gap in English and Welsh laws affecting artefact hunting, nothing to do with the regulation of artefact trading. These are two entirely different areas of law and practice.

 Mr Tompa wants to take a state with a legitimate antiquities trade based on fine equitable laws and impose on it the laws of another country. Why? In what way would asking dealers to trade only material previously documented (also involves looking it up and making a record of the results) by PASI (Portable Antiquities Scheme of Israel) be any less bureaucracy for dealers? Because the footwork is done by somebody else? At whose cost?

Let it be noted that Mr Tompa is doing in urging a change in the law is making a tacit admission that there is not enough material from old collections and old dealers' stock in Israel to sustain the market. And if that is the case in Israel, where the collecting of antiquities and relics has a long tradition going back hundreds of years of interest in the Biblical past, then why should we believe those dealers elsewhere who insist that the opposite is the case, that almost all the unprovenanced and unpapered antiquities on the market are unrecognized items from "old collections". 


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