Thursday 23 October 2014

Private Collection and Documentation Standards

The commentator posing as William Pearlstein on Peter Tompa's blog refers to people for whom, allegedly, there is
the notion that private ownership is immoral and ought to be illegal. Which is clearly the position of the archaeological lobby, which is by now thoroughly radicalized 
This use of the terminology of hate-crime  is akin to Hooker's labelling of preservationists "soft-core terrorists and their unthinking followers". For the rest of us, there is nothing "radical" about wanting to see any finite and fragile resource used in a responsible and sustainable manner and not wildly exploited, driven solely by commercial greed and in the pursuit of short-term self-interest.

Concerns about the effects of private collecting on the archaeological record have figured in policy documents since the mid 1950s and the  1970 UNESCO Convention formulates some quite clear guidelines for the transfer of ownership of archaeological items. Since then, the archaeological world, and the rest of us, have had ample opportunity to observe closely the reaction of the antiquities trade to all this. From the mid 1990s we've had the opportunity to look closely over their shoulders through their use of the Internet to communicate. There can no longer be any excuse for people being unaware of what dealers and collectors do and say - and the discrepancies between their declarative posturing and wheedle-words and practice. If there has been any hardening of opinion about the trade, it is through the possibility of direct observation, public comment and questioning, taken with their public response to those comments.

It is a moot point that there are many who actually feel all "private ownership is immoral" [I assume the lawyer means all private ownership of archaeological artefacts]. I think there are many of us who are willing to accept that there are artefacts on the market which can be shown (documented) to be licit items of commerce. What we cannot accept is the special pleading that because we agree there are "some" such artefacts, any artefact where the dealer or collector has discarded, altered, lost, hidden or otherwise separated it from all but the most recent and vaguest collecting history must also perforce be "potentially licit". In a market which clearly is prone to being supplied by laundered illicit items, that is simply taking good faith too far.  The 1970 UNESCO Convention drew attention to the importance of documentation of legal export and (Art 10) transfer of ownership. That dealers have consistently ignored the principles presented there (still less, in the spirit of responsibility failed to expand on them in any way) is really nobody's fault other than the dealers themselves. If dealers and collectors had had their eyes on the ball, by now we should have artefacts each accompanied by ordered files of documents going back several decades as a response to the 1970 document. Do we have any? No. But that is not the fault of UNESCO, archaeologists, or anyone else. It's the fault of couldn't-give-a-damn traders and buyers. And now the same trade expects us to simply forget that licitness of artefacts can be documented, and treat all their undocumented artefacts on a par with the ones curated by responsible collectors who maintained their archives to proper standards. If private collectors are unable to maintain proper archives of the collections, then perhaps they do belong in a museum with proper documentation standards.

What kind of an antiquities collection is it that has no documentation? After UNESCO 1970, they can be regarded as nothing other than an accumulation of trophy geegaws. Private collectors have consistently shown that they cannot be trusted to maintain the documentation of their collections which are invariably split with the objects losing any kind of contact with any documentation that may have existed. It is for that reason that private collection attracts censure and no other.

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