Friday 15 November 2013

The Trade in Antiquities from Israel: Provenance and Abuse of the System

The  Israel Antiquities Authority thinks it knows why the stock of legal antiquities in Israeli dealers' showrooms has not been depleted, despite 35 years of brisk sales. Nir Hasson ('Antiquities battle pits Old City merchants against inspectors' Haaretz 14th November 2013) writes about this, it is all due to "Fuzzy maths" and abuse of the system:
At the heart of the conflict between the IAA and the antiquities dealers is the question of the provenance of the merchandise. The IAA points out a rather strange mathematical phenomenon: The purported stock of totally legal antiquities that existed when the law was passed in 1978 has not been depleted, despite 35 years of brisk sales. “In 1978, when the law was passed, there was a certain amount of merchandise on the market. Since then, for some reason, it has only increased in size,” [Eitan Klein IAA inspector for the trade in antiquities] noted with irony. Whenever he asks an Old City merchant about an object, he gets the same explanation: “It’s from my dad’s time. It’s been here for a many years”.
This is a phenomenon met throughout the near East, its the same in Egypt, though there those "antiquities" are mostly fakes of varying quality. As everywhere "The problem is that even if not all of the merchandise predates the 1978 law, it’s hard to prove it". In Israel there has long existed a system of registering licit finds as part of the conditions under which a legal (registered) dealer can operate. This is what the 1970 UNESCO Convention recommends in its Article 10, in Israel it is put into practice: "Currently, antiquities are registered in records that provide details on the type of item, where it came from and when". Sadly, this system is being heavily abused by dealers (this problem with Israeli dealers has in fact been known for a long time): 

 “They sell an object, an oil lamp for example, and instead of deleting it from the list, they just bring in another lamp that was looted and give it the same number. Our only prospect of catching them is to do so in the act - while they are buying the stolen object,” Klein acknowledges. And that is his explanation for how, contrary to all reason, the volume of older merchandise is seemingly growing rather than being depleted. Most of the antiquities in most of the antiquities shops are looted from sites in Israel or neighboring countries, Klein said, adding that there are groups of Palestinians from the territories who specialize in the trade.
A few months ago I reported efforts to try and deal with this type of abuse. Nir Hasson's Haaretz article details some of the recent developments.

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