Monday 26 December 2016

What is Wrong with Collectors [UPDATED]

Stephen Churley on Ancientartifacts:
I recently acquired this little 11x8cms juglet on eBay that was misdescribed as Roman. It was covered in limescale apart from a little red paint showing on the rim which intrigued me. So I removed the lime very easily with diluted HCL to reveal some interesting decoration (see pics). I think it's delightful. The body is slightly carinated and it is handmade not wheelmade. It think it's a very early baby feeder, either Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age. It came from the collection of a deceased estate in Dorchester (UK), so it's not recently looted. Could it be Anatolian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, Armenian or Indian? My researches have not produced a parallel for the shape combined with the decoration. However, the decor does resemble this line drawing of a central Indian Chalcolithic Nagda ware pot which, it's been suggested, could be stylised 'antelopes dancing'. Here's the link from where I found the drawing: ASAA - THE AMATEUR ARCHAEOLOGIST ONLINE - Comparative Study of Iranian and Indian Dancing Figures Painted on Pottery
So, the fact that the previous owner died before cleaning the pot in his collection is some kind of indicator that an object was excavated in the source country legally and exported in accordance with the law? Eh? Surely the fact that it is as it came out of the ground is quite the opposite...As for this kind of "research" to find out what this decontextualuised artefact is and which area of the ancient world it might have come from, this is a good symbol of everything that is wrong with the current state of the antiquities market. Of course that is nothing you will hear from the Yahoos on that forum.

UPDATE, 30.12.2016

Collector Kyri sent a comment, but I want to discuss it here on top rather than down there. Here's the gist of what he wrote in response to my remarks:
I think you’re being a bit unkind to Stephen, he is a collector who cares about provenance and tries his best to collect ethically. I think you would find that most collectors do not clean their pieces, I certainly don’t, so its quite possible this piece has been in a private collection for decades without being cleaned. […] if you’re buying from a deceased estate the chances are very good that the piece has been around for decades and is not recently looted[…] I doubt you would find recently looted pieces being sold as part of a deceased estate. Unfortunately the vast majority of pieces have no context, it doesn’t mean they cannot be researched, I’m sure there are still thousands of pieces out there in attics waiting to be found.[…] With these types of sales unfortunately the person who knows the history of the piece is unavailable for comment.
There are two sets of issues here, about how collectors acquire artefacts after ascertaining that they are licit and then their curation of the artefacts in their care. I do not know Stephen Churley (as readers will know I am excluded from membership among the Yahoos), but I am basing this comment on what he wrote which I found on the Internet... What he wrote is pretty typical of general attitudes, which is why I discuss it (that it is typical is indicated by the fact that there are no dissenting comments from the Yahoos about it).

It is a nonsense to say in this case that 'X is a collector who cares about provenance' (scil. collecting history) since this text shows he bought an antiquity from an unknown source and does not even know which source country it came from. That is simply a misunderstanding of what we mean by collecting history and why it is important (and here we see why David Gill insists on the second term rather than the vaguer shorthand one). Mr Churley bought an artefact 'blind', with zero paperwork confirming legal excavation or export - that is confirming licitness. Zero.  That is not what can be called responsible purchasing by any stretch of the imagination. This object is orphaned by the market of legitimacy and should be considered unsaleable. 'Collecting ethically' is not buying unsaleable orphan artefacts. On the contrary, it is restricting purchases to items that can be documented as of ethical provenance, and if they cannot, not being tempted to add such contaminants to their collection.

And no, let's not go down the barren road of the 'Good Collector' argument. We all know how Renfrew curtly dismissed that one. Or if we don't, we jolly well should. Also let us discretely omit a deeper discussion this time about what in the collector's vies constitutes 'research' in this case betyond noting that this is a word frequently misused in the collecting milieu....

As for the statements:
 its quite possible this piece has been in a private collection for decades without being cleaned. […] if you’re buying from a deceased estate the chances are very good that the piece has been around for decades and is not recently looted […] I doubt you would find recently looted pieces being sold as part of a deceased estate. 
That is precisely the sort of soothingly self-deceiving, wishy-washy arguments collectors lull themselves into a false sense of righteousness with but which flies in the face of logic. If Kyri was knocked down by a bus tomorrow, in his 'estate' would be objects bought last week, last month, last year as well as, potentially, items bought at the beginning of his collecting career.* That a former owner is now dead does not make any looted and smuggled artefacts they bought any the less looted and smuggled - just more difficult to identify as such if the paperwork is got-rid of by a seller ... which is exactly the essence of no-questions-asked buying and 'they-can't-touch-you-for-it-'legitimacy'. And relying on the latter two methods are as far from what can really be considered as ethical collecting as chalk is from cheese.

So this is an collectors' acquisition fail. The record on curation is equally poor. The object in question has passed onto the market without any paperwork. This is the fault of the previous collector who had an object in his possession and kept it in a manner that it was divorced from any paperwork he or she received with it, and documenting its licit origins (or perhaps not - which is why they got rid of it). Collectors (those that claim they are the 'Good' guys) say they are 'preserving' and caring for artefacts that otherwise (back in the lands of the brown-skinned folk they mean) would nopt be as well 'preserved' or looked after. But then a museum would have an accessions register and files with all the documents preserved in their archives. Where are the archives of the average private collector's collection? Why do the majority of artefacts purporting to be from 'old licit collections;' virtually never come accompanied by the papers from those archives? Because they've been discarded (why?) or there never were any? How can collectors claim to be curating these objects properly if they are failing in this basic duty?

Curation has another aspect, and that is conservation, dugup objects cannot just be plonked in a case which has a different environment from the state it was in the ground (or in a previous collection). They WILL deteriorate. That is obvious. So I really do not see the logic of somebody telling me that 'most collectors do not clean their pieces'. If the object is not cleaned, how can its state of deterioration be observed and a suitable treatment chosen to look after it? An object removed from the ground (or water) covered in a salt encrustation obviously needs to have that removed because underneath it all sorts of changes could be operating. A collector that fails to treat an object in his care properly, either through lack of expertise or lack of facilities/skills/resources is NOT exercising that 'care' in any meaningful sense of the word and it is irresponsible for such individuals to even take such an object into their 'care'. As for Mr Churley gaily describing how he pumped his pot with chlorides, one wonders just what he was thinking writing such a thing on a public forum.

The Yahoos used to have 'a voluntary code of conduct for collectors', but the link to it has been broken for many years, probably because no collector ever felt the need to even see what it said because they had no interest whatsoever in what the definition of 'responsible collecting' actually is. Sad, but true. Yahoos.

But if we apply the 1970 cut-off date (when the question of being required to produce and maintain documentation first came up), it should be pointed out that the collectors' mantra of 'being around for some decades' is still not enough as that is now 46 (47) years ago.  If we apply that criterion, 'some' decades are not enough, five would be needed.



kyri said...

hi Paul.i think your being a bit unkind to Stephen,he is a collector who cares about provenance and trys his best to collect ethically.i think you would find that most collectors do not clean their pieces,i certainly dont so its quite possible this piece has been in a private collection for decades without being cleaned.i also buy from deceased estates,most times im lucky and there is paperwork with the piece.i have bought pieces mentioned in letters or with BM passes from the 40s and 50s and if your buying from a deseased estate the chances are very good that the piece has been around for decades and is not recently looted.for one you know the owner never wanted to profit from the pieces when they were alive,they had to die for them to hit the market.also i find that on many occasions these pieces are found in provincial auctions sold in probate sales at very low estimates or even in boxes of brik-a-brack going for peanuts. i doubt you would find recently looted pieces being sold as part of a deceased estate.unfortunately the vast majority of pieces have no context,it doesnt mean they cannot be researched,im sure there are still thousands of pieces out there in attics waiting to be found.just last month i bought a british mark 2 ww2 helmet from a German deseased estate [a 95 year old woman]i dont know where she got the helmet from,there is no paperwork,just a bullet hole in the top and a inscription in german saying "souvenir from north africa 1942"im 100% certain the helmet is a genuine relic from the north african campaign with or without having the details of where it was found.with these types of sales unfortunaetly the person who knows the history of the piece is unavailable for comment.

Paul Barford said...

I am being no more 'unfair' than people that buy artefacts potentially stolen from the cultural heritage of the citizens of other countries to play with, pretend they are doing 'research' and display as trophies without having paperwork to confirm that they were legally excavated and legally exported. There are too many points here to answer in a comment, I have updated the post. I will leave aside the other comment about the bullet holed helmet stripped from the body of a fallen soldier (readers will know what I think about such trophies).

kyri said...

Hi Paul,you make some interesting points,some i agree with,ie record keeping is a must and not keeping records is inexcusable.the orphaned = unsaleable and attaching labels like contaminated or toxic to pieces is in my opinion nonsense,each piece whether orphaned or not stil has a worth and im not talking a monetary can quote Renfrew and likewise i could quote any number of illustrious archaeologists or scholars who hold a very different view on collectors and whether orphaned pieces are worthy of study so lets not bother going down that road.
when i was referring to cleaning i was talking about pottery,i have never had the need to clean encrustations on pottery,in fact i think it adds character to the piece,other people,especially dealers would take a different view.sometimes the encrustations may be all that is holding the piece together so i prefer not to meddle with them unnecessarily.finaly if we go down the road of a 1970 cut off date than we will be excluding at least %80 of the antiquities on the market as of now ,these pieces are not going to just dissapear,they are out there whether we like it or not,that is why i prefer some kind of register with a grandfathering so as to stop the looting that is happening now.David knell suggested a similar scheme but it didnt go down well with most dealers and some collectors.there is nothing much we can do with the looting that happened 30/40 years ago but it would be nice if we could help now.
i agree wholeheartedly with your dislike of war trophies dug up and "striped off dead bodies" but we cant ignore the fact that war is a horrible thing and that trophies have been taken as souvenirs for millennier.the ancient greeks did it the romans to.there is a big difference between going around a WW1 battlefield with a metal detector in 2016 and digging up fallen soldiers to strip the bodies and a soldier who was there and fought in the war and decided to take a souvenir home,a big difference.our museums are filled with war trophies,just last month i visited the royal maritime museum in greenwich and there on display was Nelsons uniform [yes striped from his body] on display with a bullet hole and even his blood stains[its the most popular thing on display in the museum].i dont think its right to just throw in all war souvenirs together and try and label all of them as unethical.

Paul Barford said...

We are not discussing "whether orphaned pieces are worthy of study", but whether they can be automatically considered "licit" by 'responsible buyers'. To treat them as such strips the adjective responsible in this case of any real meaning. Taking 'responsibility' for what, precisely?

Since 1970 there has been in existence a document stating what can and cannot be considered licit and setting out that one of the criteria for judging it is precisely documenting the following of procedure. If for the past half century dealers and collectors have ignored that and been discarding precisely that documentation, then they really cannot have a grudge towards those who, fifty years on from that principle being established, see the lack of that documentation as a feature disqualifying an artefact being licit.

It is precisely the issue that 80% of artefacts on the market may have surfaced since the promulgation of the 1970 Convention which is the problem. Artefacts which entered the market after the 1970 Convention surely need to be rigorously excluded. If an object cannot be demonstrated by its seller to be licit, then what business has he having it in his stock?

One obvious interpretation of the fact that so few dealers will accept any form of registering is that it would really quickly reveal how many of the objects they sell are indeed freshly looted and smuggled. They try to suggest other justifications, but deep down, you and I know what is the more likely reason. Look at what is happening in Israel at the moment with registration of Israeli dealers' stocks. If they cannot sell freshly looted stuff, the trade dies. But then is a trade which relies on selling paperless looted and smuggled commodities not something that should die out anyway in the 21st century?

>there is nothing much we can do with the looting that happened 30/40 years ago<
So you think it is OK that people can profit from the products of culture crime and blood antiquities after a few decades? What about Holocaust art? Profits made from handling artefacts stolen in the Cambodian civil war which ended more than 40 years ago? Or from items stolen during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus? Is a stolen object any less a stolen object (and even a blood antiquity) after 'enough' time has passed? When is it OK, and when is it not, and in the case of artefacts with obscured collecting history, how can you tell one from the other? Because is not blurring the distinction not the REAL reason why collecting histories are systematically discarded? Collectors who refuse to believe that could be the case I think are just attempting to deceive themselves.

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