Tuesday 28 April 2020

British Museum Curator Eating from Foreign Antiquities Trade Advocate's Hand (III)

St John Simpson and his official clutter (Guardian)
The denouement of St John Simpson's cosy interview with an advocate of the international antiquities trade involves some more questions where the British Museum scholar is persuaded to give the answers the trade wants to hear (Fitz Gibbon, 'St John Simpson Interview: Afghanistan repatriation, Daesh, remote-archaeology and the ILLICID report' Cultural Property News April 26, 2020). You can read this sorry stuff yourself, with its fixation  on "repatriation" - Ironic coming from a cluttered office a few doors down from the Duveen Gallery with its own looted and wrenched-off Parthenonic cultural property that should be repatriated right away. Pick out your own highlights, but I'll mention a few.

About half-way through, they get to the 64000 dollar question - the US antiquities and ancient coins being so much hand-in-hand:
Trade advocate's Question: Are there a lot of coins?
St John Simpson: Not very many actually.
Bingo. Mission accomplished. Mr Tompa and all the coin dealers rubbing their hands with glee. Yet the volume of ancient coins on the internet market (and indeed in brick-and-mortar establishments - as well as in the PAS database which reflects what collectors collect) considerably exceeds the number of artefacts. So I really do not see why St John Simpson leaps with such alacrity to provide legitimisation for dealers' protestations of innocence.  The BM has in any case a Coins and Medals (sic) Department, so I wonder why St John Simpson would be engaged to act as a consultant in any seizures involving coins. But actually he reveals the reason is nothing to do with the numbers that are on the market:
Coins have been a little bit more difficult to prove where they are from. You may have the place of minting but coins circulate internationally, whether they are of low denomination or high denomination. Unless they are in a consignment where we are very sure that they all come from one place we’ve had limited success returning coins.
And coins travel in envelopes and small packages, not the trucks that contain the statues and Palmyran busts, one may be stopped by UK Customs, the rest not. Oh and of course St John Simpson then has to add, apparently unprompted, one more point straight from the coiney songbook:
Non-collected coins of any value – for example silver coins simply get melted down.
Ms FitzGibbon smiled as she noted this down, another reason to claim that buying antiquities - even no-questions-asked should be tolerated and praised, they are "saving artefacts". It's a well-established collectors' protective mantra.
Trade advocate asks (trying to deflect attention from the real illicit antiquities): How much of it is fake?St John Simpson: There was some fake material amongst those that we sent back. Because they were mixed consignments, we felt it was appropriate to send it all back and not be the judge as to whether something should stay or not.
I'd like to know by which British law material was confiscated at the border when the experts engaged officially as consultants said (or did they?) were fakes? That is a serious question, to which I'd like to hear the answer. Since so much on the antiquities market is fake, how does that actually work in practice?
Trade advocate's Question (playing the victim): [...] The media only talks about looted treasures. I suppose they don’t want to disappoint.St John Simpson: Exactly. But the facts are not as widely reported or recognized as much as they should be. If we can come up with a different angle, in our experience, we will get the story to the public.
Hmm, and that 'story' is that James Cuno is a great guy and "museums are the best place to really discover an object’s history". Only?
Trade advocate's Observation: [...] Archaeological context is not absolutely required in order to do art history. Some say it’s foolish to close your eyes to this material.St John Simpson: I do agree. It is easy to classify the world in black and white, but the world is polychromatic in multiple shades. We shouldn’t ever exclude the possibility of getting any information we can from objects.
and then starts waffling on about the difference BM scientific analyses have made understanding what he euphemistically calls "orphan objects" (Daubney calls it "floating culture" - I'd say it's more "adrift"). This is a pretty appalling attitude of someone (art historian or not) employed in a major British research institution in the second decade of the 21st century to be articulating in a public forum. Archaeological context of archaeological objects matters. I suggest that since the PAS (based in the BM) is not at the moment able to get out and do outreach about the importance of context and the general uselessness of not recording it when handling portable antiquities should be concentrating on doing some better outreach around their host organisation.

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