Monday, 8 December 2014

Demonising the Position of the Preservationists

James Ede in a talk at  Manchester University (October 25, 2014, 'Dealers: Trade, Traffic and the consequences of Demonisation') bemoans the way antiquities dealers are 'demonised' these days. He was invited by Roberta Mazza because he has the reputation of being a level headed bloke with good arguments. To be honest, on reading what he said, it seems like his arguments differ very little from that of the ACCG coin collectors. He basically says "where there is a market there are dealers. We are needed. Don’t demonize us too much". There was no discernible trace in what he said of the notion here that it is the dealers who shape the market and that market could benefit from reshaping.

It really is frustrating that, even here, once again we are treated to the usual red herrings in justification of maintaining an immutable free antiquities trade. Mr Ede pretends that there is no awareness that:
There is a legitimate trade, and there is illegitimate traffic. Please can we also differentiate between the two. 
Yes, well we do. Article 3 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention defines one aspect of it, the CCPIA for example others. What is clear however is that certain dealers (usually the ones that shout loudest about legitimacy and the Law) are doing their best to kick against them, and fight the application of legislation. These are the people that need Mr Ede telling them about the difference between a legitimate trade in antiquities and one based on questionable premises.

Mr Ede does not like the AIA connecting site looting in Egypt and the antiquities market, yet he simply dismisses out of hand as "silly", "hogwash" and "alluring fantasy" the notion that there is a problem to be dealt with at all. But note that in the construction of his text this is solely because  too many people think antiquities are worth "billions", instead of just "millions". He is discussing the financial worth of the argument, and thus deflecting attention from the other issues, the connection between the looting, the theft from storerooms, and the fact that some of these artefacts have indeed been found either on the market or seized on their way there. It would be naive to believe that all such sales have been detected and stopped. Ede's is a typical straw man argument. So, ACCG-like we get the statement that there is no connection between the antiquities market and the supply of artefacts to a market:
Not a shred of hard evidence has been produced to back up this overblown hypothesis.
This Doubting Thomas neglected to specify what kind of hard evidence he wants to see. This "you-ain't-got-nuffink-on-us!" approach is exactly the coin fairies/coin elves model I discuss on this blog in another context.

The problem for Mr Ede is that he then has to go on to the next mantra: he then goes on to remind us that "huge numbers of legitimate objects have no provable provenance" and on that basis we are asked to accept that all objects without provable provenance are potentially legitimate (until proven otherwise). To use Ede's own words, "not a shred of hard evidence has been produced to back up this overblown hypothesis" for any individual so-called "orphan object". After all, he says "documentation can be forged". So in other words, a "can't-touch-you-for-it" kosherness is all he thinks we should expect.

In order to make it appear he wants to help, Ede asks rhetorically:
So, how do we further reduce the amount of illicit material making its way on to the market? The best way is by openness; by sharing information and not hoarding it for selfish reputational reasons.
But instead of developing that thesis in a more useful direction, he then complains at length that the archives of the investigations into Medici and Becchina etc are not fully available to dealers and they cannot be assured of a "they-can't-touch-you-for-it". Well, that's a shame, innit? They'll have to do the other kind and if they cannot do that, pass up on profiting on the paperless geegaw. I rather think Mr Ede has the wrong idea of what we mean by "keeping illicit goods of the market". It is not his solely object (and profit) orientated approach, but making sure that all objects currently circulating on the market got there licitly - otherwise keeping them off the market. If the only proof of licitness is "phew, not in the Medici archives", then frankly that object is better off the market.  "Can't-touch-you-for-it-due-diligence" is not the due diligence that the market of responsible collectors of the 21st century should be aspiring to. I rather think it is an entirely different type of openness, by sharing information about collecting histories and how an object arrived legitimately on the market and not ignoring it,  discarding it or hoarding  it that is required.

Like most dealers, Mr Ede has problems stating what the other side is actually saying. So we find this assertion:
Whatever we do to try and improve standards of due diligence it will never be enough for some people. They hold the view which says that because to a greater or lesser extent illicit material will always find its way onto the market, the answer is to close the market down altogether.
No. He's missing out a whole step of the argument. Bad practices are responsible for the ability of looted material to find a market. Preservationists want dealers to lead the way in abandoning any such practices and actively exclude dodgy material. IF they cannot do that, then yes, concerned society needs to make it impossible another way. In contrast to what Mr Ede asserts, it is not us that is saying that "illicit material will always find its way onto the market". Our belief is that it can be stopped and must be stopped and wouldn't it be nice if the dealers took the lead? And if that's not going to happen because the dealers consistently refuse to play ball or even discuss it properly, then the latter really cannot complain that they are being painted as the obstructive bad guys. And, no, the AIA "Guidelines for due diligence" are not "enough" - for reasons that have been pointed out (but ignored by the IADAA). When dealers are seen to be addressing these issues in a helpful manner, then maybe we might look at them in a new light. We cannot do that while they pretend the problems lie somewhere else, that they only want to do the right thing but, poor souls, are being victimised by the Nasty Archies.  This leads inevitably to the traditional 'Collectors Prime Nostalgic Whinge' ("it used to be so good"):
In the past there was a very valuable relationship between dealers, collectors and academics. That was in the days when museum curators believed that the objects themselves held valuable information; they didn’t feel that context was the beginning and end of everything. We need to rekindle that relationship and rediscover some trust. 
yep, let's all go back to the nineteenth century. The problem is that we are aware that there is so much more value in the context of objects (see Elizabeth Marlowe's discussion in "Shaky Ground" precisely about this opposition in the case of Greek and Roman statuary and the new perspectives, even in art history, offered by context and associations). WHY are we being asked to abandon current methodologies and approaches by shopkeepers anxious to "rekindle cosy relationships and rediscover trust" when it seems that there is so much acceptance on the market of that which is untrustworthy? How far are the shopkeepers willing to go to (re)build that relationship of trust, how far are they willing to go beyond the usual glib declarations that they have been making two or more decades now? ("We want to, it's the other side that will not"). 

Taking the "They're all agin' us" theme further, Mr Ede suggests that:
It is at this point that I sadly come to the conclusion that it is we dealers and collectors who care for the remains of the past more than our most vociferous detractors. We are not perfect, but no-one can say that we are not passionate about what we do. It is our desire, as well as in our interest, to safeguard the pieces we own.
Note the object-centredness of that statement. They care about the things, but it is not the "things" that is the issue but the destruction of archaeological evidence caused by getting those decontextualised "things" out there for people like Mr Ede to profit from and his clients to cuddle. Once again, we observe a total refusal to admit what this discussion is about. The refusal to admit that the other side has any valid concern is no basis whatsoever for rekindling any kind of relationship or the discovery of any basis for trust.

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