Tuesday 28 April 2020

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

Antiquities trade and
museum scholars?
The American Committee for Cultural Policy was established to "strengthen the public dialogue on art and cultural heritage policy through education" and... [it's pretty obvious when you look at who is in it] help the no-questions-asked antiquities trade go about its business. Over in the US, they seem pretty concerned that in Germany, there was a project looking at the antiquities trade (ILLICID: Transparenz – Provenienz – Verbraucherschutz Fakten und Handlungsempfehlungen zum Handel mit antiken Kulturgütern in Deutschland). In fact, they are very concerned, as it brings to the fore the question of where, in the 21st century, the antiquities market is going. For those who want to stay in the colonial nineteenth century, that's a bit of a problem.

Fortunately for them, in Britain the Guardian's Arts and culture correspondent, Lanre Bakare, found a bloke who had some views on this German report (see my take here, here, here and here), but two weeks later, encouraged by what Bakare had obtained, we find ACCP's Kate Fitz Gibbon interviewing him too. I do not know if the British Museum has an explicit written policy about staff members interacting with antiquities trade influencers, if it does not, it should have by now.

The resultant text is very long, jumps about from subject to subject, all however on the instigation of Ms Fitz Gibbon, who to judge from the published account had the British Museum curator wrapped around her little finger. Where she led, he dutifully followed, apparently he's a bit of a yes-man. Just like the BM's Portable Antiquities Scheme cannot say 'no' to the metal detectorists, the BM's Senior Curator for the Middle East just down the corridor apparently could not say 'no' to the dealers. So we have this: Fitz Gibbon, 'St John Simpson Interview: Afghanistan repatriation, Daesh, remote-archaeology and the ILLICID report' (Cultural Property News April 26, 2020).

And though it's at the end of her title, they started with the ILLCID report.
Antiquities Trade apologist's question: [...]  You stepped forward recently to point out that cultural policies in Germany in particular were being driven by misrepresentations about the illicit circulation of art. Can we talk about that first, and get the unreal picture out of the way, and then talk about the realities, and the way forward?
St John Simpson: Yes, let’s get the ILLICID report out of the way. The key fact about the ILLICID report is that [...]
and you can read the rest in Fitz Gibbon's recounting of it here. Maybe I'll come back to it another day, there are other problems there.

The persuasive(?)
Kate Fitz Gibbon
But to come back to the main point... I don't know why this is happening, perhaps St John Simpson can explain it to us. The report he is discussing is called "Transparenz – Provenienz – Verbraucherschutz Fakten und Handlungsempfehlungen zum Handel mit antiken Kulturgütern in Deutschland" (Ergebnisse des BMBF-Verbundprojekts »Verfahren zur Erhellung des Dunkelfeldes als Grundlage für Kriminalitätsbekämpfungund -prävention am Beispiel antiker Kulturgüter«). The word Syria does not occur in the title at all. It's not a report on Syria. So why is he discussing "Syria, Syria, Syria"? Why, when the report is on what it is on, does he so blithely witter on about the recent trade in stolen and looted items from Iraq? He does it as though they disprove what the report is saying about Syria - when the report is not about Syria but about the illicit trade of items from the whole area - including Iraq (!) Weird.

Mr Simpson seems confused about what this report is on. It is attempting to look at the grey market in antiquities in Germany. How to define that? In Britain (where Mr Simpson is based), it's pretty difficult too. The German researchers note the EU legislation, and there are two specific regulations concerning antiquities from Iraq and Syria. On top of the dates of introduction of export controls in individual countries these form a good benchmark, and that is how they are used in the report.

But Mr Simpson ignores all that as irrelevant to what he wants to say (or what Ms Fitz Gibbon wants him to say) is reported as saying:

Actually,  it is far from 'the key fact', there is a lot Mr Simpson is avoiding saying, but the British Museum scholar gets the numbers completely round his neck. I wonder how he would go about designing and executing a project looking at the grey market in antiquities in the UK. Could he? First of all the number 356,500 is wrong. Look at pages 19-20 where he got this from:
Unter insgesamt 386.500  recherchierten und gesichteten Angeboten wurden in 24 Monaten 3.741 Lose mit 6.133 antiken Kulturgütern aus dem östlichen Mittelmeerraum (AKOM) als projektrelevant erfasst. Darunter befinden sich 2.387 Objekte, die nach wissenschaftlicher Einschätzung mit hoher Wahrscheinlichkeit aus dem Irak und/oder Syrien stammen (38,9 %). Von den 289 durch die Altertumswissenschaftlerinnen und Altertumswissenschaftler gesichteten und den 197 regelmäßig analysierten Akteuren und Plattformen boten 90 auch AKOM in Deutschland an. Bei mehr als 65 % der Angebote lagen die Standorte in Süddeutschland. Dabei wurde eine kontinuierliche Verlagerung des Handels in das Internet beobachtet.
First of all those 386500 artefacts are all being sold in Germany in the research period. [Note that this is in Germany and not 'available to German buyers' which is another thing - and if they are prepared to pay postage costs a higher figure.] So it will include Pre-columbian artefacts, Saharan prehistoric lithics, items metal detected in Britain and the Balkans, ancient coins from all over the ancient world (Mr Simpson's Afghanistan and adjacent areas of India included). But the project took as a sample area (p. 16) the 'Eastern Mediterranean', so Turkey, Egypt, the Holy Lands right over to Iran (German collectors and dealers love 'Luristan'), but not Mr Simpson's Afghanistan/Turkmenistan main area of expertise.  And as the report makes clear, 3,741 lots with 6,133 ancient cultural goods from the eastern Mediterranan region they were examining were found in the 24 month project. It is this sample that is examined more closely with regard to the relevant national and EU legislation. Not the arrowheads from Mali, the Han cash coins from China, the dolphin token coinage from Olbia, but a specific, concrete group of material from countries with very clear legal situations.

Of the 6133 objects examined, of the 289 actors and platforms identified (197 of whom were regularly analysed), 90 offered antiquities from the area of the Eastern Mediterranean (as in the map above) and locations in southern Germany accounted for more than 65% of the offers. The researchers noted that there was a constant shift of trade to the Internet - so not the kind of thing that tends to be uncovered by UK Customs operations, except by accident. Among the 6133 objects, despite the 'competition' from antiquities from other regions, as many as 2,387 objects were considered highly likely to come from Iraq and / or Syria (38.9%). It does not matter for the (actual, not imagined) purpose of the report that some/many of these items might be fakes fraudulently sold as authentic antiquities.

 Talking about the way forward in dealing with the illicit circulation of art (sic) is not something that Kate Fitz Gibbon and St John Simpson really got around to doing in the end. It's probably not really on the agenda for the ACCP.

Part two: Dismissing the value of remote sensing,

Part three: Getting him to say a few more things.

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