Sunday 7 June 2015

"Murderous Dictators" and the Antiquities Trade

Political assassination ordered
from behind neo-classical facades
"The relationship between archaeology and murderous dictators is an old and shameful one" solemnly intones a coin dealer on the IAPN-sponsored lobbyist's blog, as if trying to construct one of their Two Wrongs arguments attempting to create a space within which no-questions-asked collecting is in some way justifiable.

Mr Google helps the library-challenged coineys out. The author of those words is able to cite as support a Romanian text in excruciating English by Cristian Olariu (the title of which he has obviously simply cut-and-pasted from the paper one may doubt he's even read) and another text available in entirety online. Instead of the Nazis this time, the comment focuses on "Fascist Italy".

Now, actually what Olariu describes (besides being generally known)  is the reference to the utilisation a glorious Imperial Roman past in identity-building by a modern state, and the linking of urbanistic and architectural projects to this process. Of course it was by no means not the only point of reference utilised for such purposes in 1930s Italy, this is just what the article Mr Google found is about.

Because many of those engaged in coin collecting and commerce in the US appear to be superficial half-brains they seem unaware of the fact that their own state does exactly the same thing, just a few blocks (insulae) over from the Washington office where that IAPN lobbying is carried out, is quite a lot of Neo-Classical architecture whimsically recalling a supposed link between Obama's USA and  traditions of Republican and Imperial Rome and democratic Greece. Among the white columns, cornices and pediments, there's a socking big obelisk right in the middle of the imperial axes which are bigger than any Mussolini contrived.

Over the sea, that hugely totalitarian dictatorship (to which the traditions of the USA in fact owe much more), Britain was doing exactly the same thing back in the seventeenth century replanning of London, and let us not forget Camden's Britannia written in the previous century linking the modern state with the glories of the Roman past. This has been well-studied both by essayists (Stuart Piggott has some good ones) as well as in research into the history of archaeology and historiography. Similar developments were taking place in other areas of Europe in the so-called Enlightenment, under dictatorships (like post-Revolutionary France) as well as under monarchies (Poland in the times of the Saxon monarchs and especially king Stanisław [note the name] Augustus). 

I think the years have long since passed when it was news to anyone who knew anything that archaeology has multifarious interactions with the contemporary world in which it is practised. That after all has long been one of the underlying tenets of the British post-processual approach (so, 1980s onwards). The many books and articles that have been written and published (sadly for the library-challenged not all on the Internet) on the aspect of the contexts of archaeological research under different political conditions - including under totalitarian systems and dictatorships - are a reflection of an existing awareness. The collapse of the 'Communisms' of central and eastern Europe was another impetus in the examination of the functioning of a number of disciplines under the somewhat specific socio-political systems they created (including a number of papers by the present writer - oh dear, not available on the Internet but between the covers of those paper objects called 'books' and 'journals').

I really think it is time that antiquity collectors and dealers engaged in the no-questions-asked trade gave up kidding themselves that they can in any way compete with any other discipline. Their constant sniping by pulling snippets from the most easily accessible resources without any attempt at deeper analysis and seeing what they write and do in context really do them, and collecting in general, no favours.

Which of those Classical and Middle Eastern antiquities "from Old Collections" now being so carelessly sold no-questions-asked on today's market were obtained and exported by dealers and middlemen working with those same "murderous dictators", with or without the use of corruption?

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