Friday 27 March 2015

"Italy Should Sell Recovered Antiquities" Eh?

For some, it's the money...
Anna Somers Cocks opines "Why Italy should sell the 5,000 antiquities recovered by the police" ("Improperly excavated artefacts could be auctioned to help cash-strapped museums"). There has been a lot of discussion of this idea. The Italians are not impressed with her logic: "La fondatrice di The art newspaper lancia una provocazione". Over in America it is a different story. Peter Tompa representing the dealers associations is all for it. Derek Fincham too, and Francesca Tronchin is enthusiastic. Professor Tronchin's title is symptomatic of the main problem, she ponders "What to do with recovered antiquities?" as if this was a problem for America. The issue is one for the Italians to sort out - on their own terms - and not something Washington (or Rhode College, Memphis, Tennessee) decides for them.

I fail to see what the legal basis underlying this whole concept is. Somers Cocks is suggesting taking "improperly excavated" (that's art-talk for "looted") off the market, sending them back to Italy as stolen goods (as per US law) and then through some transmogrification which she does not detail, the items are released onto the open market for museums, collectors and dealers to profit from as "legal" artefacts.
"choose a small number of masterpieces from the carabinieri’s hoard" [so that] "collectors and the trade would be able to acquire legally validated pieces".
How's that?  In any case, as we all know, very soon after coming on the international antiquities market in its current form most artefacts lose any "passports" (export documentation, transfer of ownership documentation), within a few years. On that form, most of these postulated 'released' artefacts will also pretty quickly lose all documentation of legality.

Tronchin goes a step further. She reckons that if Italy "floods the market" with lots and lots of these "legitimate" artefacts (how many looted and smuggled items does she think are seized each year?), they will somehow push out the "illegal" ones. Again the American does not explain the mechanisms by which this works.

If it were true that flooding a market with lots of cheap originals was a way to limit the illicit trade in antiquities by creating a massive licit trade in them, there would be no looting at all in Great Britain, with 10-16000 metal detectorists ripping stuff out of the ground perfectly legally day after day, year after year and a lot of it turning up on the market. But that is not what is happening. Sites are being illegally raided by night. In Great Britain, there never has been any real "cachet" in owning dugup antiquities, many farmers have the odd polished axe on the windowsill. On the contrary, artefact hunters see digging them up as a "right", and collection-driven exploitation of archaeological sites goes on.

As for "creating a massive licit antiquities market", I wonder if the Assistant Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Art and Archaeology has ever seen a dealer offer an artefact labelled "illicit"? By definition, the entire market is a "licit" one to those in it. And it is already huge.  Increasing the quantities of material on the market and a consequent dropping of price will only encourage more collectors, thus creating a bigger market. This is what we saw in the 1990s.

Adding more low-price material to what is already circulating will merely dilute what is coming onto the market, not replace it. This is because looters and middlemen only supply what is saleable - the rest, for example that duplicating material already commonplace on the market, is discarded on site (see Atwood's book 'Stealing History', for example, on this). Merely making some kinds of collectables common will not stop the search for the uncommon and rare. If the coveted - and therefore profit-generating - material is not available in quantity, then the looting will increase to meet demand.

I really do not see how Professor Tronchin sees this working, no dealer is going to fill their stockroom with stuff they cannot sell. To get it in their stockrooms for them to then sell for a pittance (as she naively suggests will happen if the market is 'flooded'), the Italian authorities will have to sell at 'dumping' prices, which defeats the object of what she is proposing (to make cash for the state by capitalising on the high market values). The two simply do not make sense.

But the market already seems to have a mechanism to deal with this, we see antiquities from the so-called "Grande Razzia" surfacing only now after decades of storage "somewhere" and slowly released on the markets in order to keep prices up. The same goes for antiquities looted in Iraq in and around 2003. Where are they now? On the market, or still in storage, trickling out? If huge quantities of recovered stolen artefacts are dumped on the market at ridiculous prices, speculators are most likely to buy them up, put them on ice a while and then release them slowly in coming years after the museums have given up trying to flood the market.

Professor Tronchin ignores the issue of motivation. Why would dealers actually go about selling at prices that destroy their own market?  While you may saturate the market with "Roman grot" coins (of which there are hundreds of thousands already in circulation without threatening the stability of the market) and greyware bodysherds, that does not affect the market for complete amphoras from wrecks and bronze statues of Hercules. These are different markets, different clientele. Simply shifting more artefacts at the low end of the market does not touch the dealers and their clients at the top.

It seems the American advocates of such moves would benefit from taking a look at the British Museums Association policy on deaccession. This emerges from precisely such sales (a pottery collection and Egyptian statue). This is in Britain, with its all-too-liberal attitude to antiquity sales. Why should Italian museums be any different from UK ones? What about museums in the States, do they sell off "duplicate" material in their care, much of it donated by collectors for hefty tax refunds from the state? How would that be organized? I want to know what makes the US feel that it can dictate what others should do with their cultural heritage without first installing the same system at home.

Professor Tronchin also suggests that making cheap antiquities available from the items recovered from culture criminals will in some way "bring antiquity to a broader audience". This is a typical American collectors' argument. I really wonder whether people have to possess artefacts at home to "appreciate antiquity" any more than you have to keep a lion on the back porch to bring nature to a broader audience. There are surely other ways than the consumerist buy-buy-buy past to achieve this aim. We used to have things called books...


lalbertson said...

Dear Paul,

Thanks for saying in a blog post much of what I couldn't in a distilled tweet. I strongly believe that the ideas being proffered are based on faulty reasoning. While the suggestion is well-meaning, at least in some cases, it is also unfortunately under-informed, so that the extrapolated satisfactory conclusions of these types of hypothosi most likely wouldn’t achieve the preferred outcomes Anna Somers Cocks and others believe that they would (e.g. more articles for collectors/external museums, more money for cash-strapped source country’s heritage operation).

This type of well intentioned, if somewhat short-sighted suggestions are too frequently made by people from external countries who would like to see changes to a foreign power’s sovereign laws but which are proffered by individuals who really haven’t a depth of knowledge as to the reasons and circumstances laws were pasted in the foreign country in the first place.

Has Ms Cocks or some of these others looked into why Italy needed to design strongly specific legislation in the first decades of the 20th century? Could she, or they, site any of the causes for concern that those laws were implemented to address?

The Italian paradox of legislation is all the more frustrating, because from the outside everyone sees these rulings as too strict and from the inside many see them as a mere impediment. Inside the country its a break a law and hope not to get caught, and if you do, apply a “condono” or appeal or repeal the conviction until you achieve the desired ruling or the statute of limitations expires.

The legal system is a rodeo in the wild wild west. Just ask the J.P. Getty Museum and Marion True, Gianfranco Becchina or perhaps even Amanda Knox.

The political and legislative system in this country makes it extremely vulnerable to illegal activity and graft and it is this very “system” that first needs to be fixed before we proffer ANY solutions to the perverse carelessness towards the very patrimony that Italy is built upon both in the economic and social sense.

Even if these folks could convince Italy to change their law and go for a ride on the sell some of your antiquities hypothesis bus, (and they most assuredly won’t) do the proponents truly believe the resulting cash flow will go to its intended source?

Have they explored fully any of Italy’s previous attempts at commodifying its patrimony? Do they have any understanding at all of what happens when the cash comes in to Italy’s political/legislative/operational machines?

To start with Ms. Cocks might inform herself with the success/failure of Italy’s past attempts at privating its culture.

She could begin by exploring the management and spending related to the MOSE project, EXPO 2015, or Patrimonio SpA for a taste.

And while she is at it, she should take a look at this brief cast of characters (not a complete list by any means):

Giancarlo Galan
Maurizio Lupi
Ercole Incalza
Marino Massimo de Caro
Marcello Dell'Utri
Massimo Carminati

If that’s too much Google search time, she can just skip to Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index which showed Italy was ranked last year as just as corrupt as Senegal and Swaziland.

This is why I say “no” to Italy’s legislation liberalising its heritage laws.

Despite the well-intentioned legislative achievements in 1939, Italian heritage will continue to face a process of decline and deterioration no matter how much money you throw at it because it doesn’t result solely from scarce economic and practical resources, but also from key government officer holders and its citizen’s incapacity to protect and therefore instil value into its heritage.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks for that informed comment. I really am getting sick and tired of idiot US collectors and slimy US dealers coming up with ideas "how Uncle Sam should make other people do things" which they camouflage as a "desire to protect the heritage" but what it's really about is "I want your stuff for myself" - pure and simple.

We might wonder why Somers Cocks writes about "antiquities" and not - for example, paintings, manuscripts, incunabula, or selling off ancient sites as building land, tearing down a palace or two to sell off the stonework as architectural salvage.

The blog post was too long, and mainly addressed to Prof Tronchin's ideas which were, I felt, more than "faulty logic"

>>haven’t a depth of knowledge as to the reasons and circumstances laws were pasted in the foreign country in the first place. <<
Indeed, to do what Somers Cocks suggests means a change in the law, and that cuts right to the core of how antiquities are protected in countries that have these legal systems. I do not think half these collector types even know what the laws actually are, let alone how they relate to anything else.

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