Friday, 12 November 2021

"Researching Artefacts" the Dealers' Way

The Taino peoples saw their territories colonised by Europeans between 1492 and c. 1640 which displaced them and then led to a decline of their culture. Their descendants are starting to kick back against the people that profit from the sale of items of cultural significance to them that are treated as trophies by foreign collectors .

In case you did not know where they were/are despite
 the collectors and museums collecting (Wikipedia) 

An auction of pre-Columbian artifacts went ahead at Christie’s in Paris yesterday, November 10, despite widespread criticism about the sacred nature some of the items on offer, as well as the legitimacy of the sale. The house’s “Pre-Columbian Art and Taíno Masterworks” sale was preceded by an in-person protest, a slew of media articles, and a petition that circulated on, signed by 44,767 supporters trying to halt the sale. Official representatives from several countries in Central America published a joint statement condemning the sale. Nevertheless, the auction went on as scheduled, totalling €3,062,750 ($3,515,000), but with a third of the 137 lots going unsold. Christie’s defended the sale, saying the house recognizes its “duty to carefully research the art and objects we handle and sell.” [...] The most contested lots were 38 Taíno objects from the Fiore Arts Collection that are sacred to the Taíno indigenous people, 22 of which sold. [...] The push-back on the sale also comes amid a sea-change in public opinion about the ownership of cultural objects from the colonial era. [...] The day before the sale, the embassies of Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru in France issued a joint statement condemning the auction, expressing their “concern about the commercialization of cultural property,” in light of the “the devastation of the history and identity of the peoples that the illicit trade of cultural property entails.” 
Just take a moment to consider Christie's statement. I doubt that this "research" really was (as Wikipedia puts it) "creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge. It involves the collection, organization and analysis of information to increase understanding of a topic or issue". There may be (I've not seen it) a glossy richly catalogue. It may well have lots of artfully-lit colour photos of the items (it'll most likely not show you the backs of them). There will be some narrativisation of the objects, drawn from secondary sources and used mainly as a marketing ploy. There will be nothing about the manner in which the item was found in the ground, where and with shat, but some vague reference to previous collectors that flipped it. A few words on 'condition', that do not really contaiun any real information about former 'conservation' and restoration treatments and how they affect the current appearance and stability of the item. They are all the same. This is not research. What they call research is probably not much more than making sure that there can be no claims made on the object, that they have "can't touch you for it legality". This is done to reassure clients that if they buy something from this sale, they'll not be faced with claims from the government of the specific country it was removed from (which in many cases will not be listed in the catalogue anyway). So, the seller will look on the "stolen art registers" but will do nothing much more than this to establish that there really was a traceable path from the ground to the present owner that could have been challenged itf it took place in the open. This is how the entire global antiquities market works.

What about some market research? Why do not auction houses carry out public opinion polls, not among their clients, but the general public (the cultural heritage does not belong to just rich buyers paying $60000 for a single carved spoon in 'primitive' style that they can regale their dinner guest with tales about, or the dealers that sell them). How about asking the people of the caribbean region in general how they feel about this sale in a distant auction house of cultural items taken from their region, and whether they apoprove of it going ahead? I'd say many of them could think about a better use, for their community of that $60000 than some jerk having a trophy geegaw to put in his cabinet along with the others. This is the kind of "research" dealers could be doing, but they'll not.

Let's be clear, Christie's "research" protects clients (rich collectors), not the endangered cultural property of real people who colonialist sales like this simply walk all over.

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