Saturday 16 November 2013

Problems in Regulating the Israeli Antiquities Trade- ACCG Jerusalem Style

In a previous post, I discussed some of the problems with the official antiquities trade in Israel. For a long time objects freshly 'surfacing' (from "underground") have been 'laundered' by abusing the system of paper registers which Israeli dealers are obliged to keep showing the origgins of the objects held in the dealer's stock. They are simply entered into vacant places (reusing old numbers) created by the previous sale of an object of the same type. Now as Nir Hasson ('Antiquities battle pits Old City merchants against inspectors' Haaretz 14th November 2013) reports, an attempt has been made to clean up the trade by making such practices impossible by introducing a new transparency to these records:
In an effort to put a halt to the current situation, the antiquities authority developed a computer database, which the antiquities dealers are required to use. It means their photographing every item that they have - from ancient coins to burial sarcophagi - and entering them into the database, to which the authority has access. In this way, the antiquities authority inspectors can compare the stock entered in the database with the merchandise in the stores and identify pieces that were not acquired legally. Dealers who don’t maintain the database can be denied a trading license. 
A good idea one would have thought. One that would surely be welcomed by all the Israeli dealers who want to carry out their trade legally and free the market from the dishonest cowboys. If one thinks that, then they'd be sadly mistaken. There is something else going on. These measures are meeting quite severe opposition from these "legitimate" traders. According to Hasson, antiquities dealers are even "threatening to smash quantities of antiquities, if the authority forces them to use [the] new computerized management database for the Israeli antiquity trade": 
The battle over the new system, according to the antiquities dealers, is a fight over the survival of the antiquities business [...] the dealers have united to pursue legal action over the new database, which they maintain is a burden they cannot sustain. They have hired a lawyer, Moti Arad, who has delayed enforcement of the database by requiring that the IAA develops regulations for the database and that it gets approval from a Knesset committee. “There are [government] authorities that begin with the assumption that everyone is cheating and their solution is to impose a terrible burden on everyone to catch those few who are cheating. That’s what the antiquities authority is doing. Anyone who wants to cheat will manage to do so anyway,” Arad asserted. “There’s a dealer who has 30 objects and 200,000 coins,” said leading antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch, who is coordinating the effort against the IAA. “We’ve calculated that it will take a year and half of a full-time employee’s time just to take pictures of the items.” 
Dear oh dear, poor dealer. Where did he get 200 000 licitly obtained coins from? Ah, "old collections" of course. So if he sells each one off even for five dollars, the stock is worth a million dollars. I think faced with the alternative of making photos of the items and losing the licence which would render selling them (legally) impossible, I'd get snapping away. Instead of agreeing to an increase in transparency, like the ACCG over in the US (faced also with providing documentation of the origins of certain items), Israeli traders have called the lawyers in. Of course not all Israeli dealers have boxes of 200 000 loose coins in their basement do they?

Like his US counterparts Deutch is reported as claiming that "the IAA’s claim of antiquities looting is baseless". Like an old song, we hear the strains floating across from Israel too, these are not looted finds the dealers protest, but "business is slow" and this is all old stock and "material from old collections"...  (people have been collecting antiquities since the days of Herod don't ya know?). Certainly this one is going to be interesting to watch and compare with the activities on other sectors of teh global antiquities market.

Iyt is interesting that we hear nothing of all this from collectors' rights organizations in the US, the ACCG for example is silent about the Jewish efforts, as is their trumpet "Cultural Property Observer". Why are they not supporting Dr Robert Deutsch in the most vociferous fashion?  Perhaps if they had US support, the dealers would not be smashing antiquities in protest.

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