Tuesday 28 June 2022

ICOM Researching How to put Paper Watchman on Door of Empty Stable

Ta ra! ICOM, in close cooperation with its National Committee in Ukraine, is preparing an Emergency Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk for Ukraine to combat illicit traffic following the invasion. An invasion that started in 2014. How timely, eh?

The article mainly promotes ICOM and its "long track record in [...] protecting heritage from illicit trafficking", and how many "Red Lists" it has produced in the last 20 years.

ICOM will build on this expertise to protect cultural heritage in Ukraine by publishing a Red List with the support from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. ICOM is currently working with museum experts from ICOM Ukraine and neighbouring countries to research and determine which objects are most at risk of being illicitly trafficked. In fact, for each Red List, ICOM closely cooperates with art historians and archaeologists from the concerned countries, as these experts are in the best position to ensure that the objects included in the lists appropriately reflect both present and possible future threats. [Anastasiia Cherednychenko, Vice-Chair of ICOM Ukraine says,] “Our heritage is under threat, and to protect it, ICOM Ukraine is coordinating a team of experts who are working on an Emergency Red Lists for Ukraine. We know that the international community needs a tool that will help identify Ukrainian objects at risk of being illegally exported, and the ICOM team is mobilized to produce this List as soon as possible”
They say, "Red Lists are both flexible and non-exhaustive tools but share a common point by identifying objects protected by law, objects which can be the target of illicit trafficking, and which are also on high demand on the international art market". Basically, that could have been done ten years ago on the basis of the insane outflow of cultural objects out of Ukraine. Archaeological objects among them. Just take a look on the auction provider Violity (est Aug 2010)
Thousands of collectibles are sold and bought daily on VIOLITY. Our site is recognized by sellers and buyers as one of the most user-friendly, reliable and user-friendly Internet sites in the world. Convenient and well thought-out structure of sections and subsections allows you to spend a minimum amount of time looking for what interests you. [...] 5 502 797 active lots 142 000 users.
There is a war going on, but on open sale on this one site, you can see 108 pages of "Ancient and medieval objects (up to 1700).These break down as follows:
Ancient and early middle ages metalwork antiquities 2,703 ,
Ancient, antique and medieval glass, porcelain, earthenware, stoneware 490,
Christian cult metal work (crosses, pandants, encolpions etc.) 1,266,
Finger rings XVI–XIX cent. 933
The metal objects include personal ornaments (fibulae etc.. many probably the product of grave-robbing) and items of Scythian goldwork (mostly small objects - the sort of items involved in the Melitopol Museum discussion). On eBay.com at the moment, there are 1837 antiquities assigned to "Kievan Rus" (taking into account only the ones in appropriate sections, the search produces more items that are not antiquities) the majority of them being sold (during this war) by sellers living in Ukraine - most of them in the west and southwest, but including at least one apparently behind the front line. These sales did not start of 24th February this year, together with the so-called "Black Archaeology" that feeds this market, this has been going on for more than a decade (Sam Hardy will possibly have more precise figures).

Satellite photo evidence shows that looting has been taking place on sites on the south coast in waves since the earliest open source detailed satellite photos available from 2003. Coins and small metal objects from the classical sites among them (and stone and ceramic objects from looting of Trypilske Culture sites further west) are on open sale direct from the finders and ready for illegal export in internet portals just one mouse click away.

Objects that have already reached foreign markets are on open sale too, though this time often with a made-up "provenance" involving fictional (but conveniently anonymous or dead) previous owners. Sometimes a bit of dedicated searching by archaeologists and sometimes collectors reveals "dual presence artefacts". artefacts that a seller claims were long ago safely tucked away from sight in one place, while external evidence shows they surfaced much later in the hands of a Ukrainian artefact hunter (and sometimes amateur artefact-modifier - "pimping" the goods before selling them). The number of people in the foreign market countries that have devoted time to this search seems to be relatively small, and publications of the results even thinner on the ground. Two of these researchers have been threatened by the lawyers of a (the same) dealer implicated in such practices, and when the police are notified (at least in Britain, we hear a whole list of reasons why they cant, actually, take this up ("but we'll note it down"). Yeah.

So what are people like myself to do? Make a rolling record of those successive bunches of 6000 +1837 artefacts week after week, and when two or three years later international auctioneers Grebkesh and Runn offer stuff that looks suspiciously like material from Ukraine check through hundreds of thousands of those records to find one that instead of being from the "European collection made before 1968-70")  claimed was dug up by "RudiDetekts" from Kriyvy Rih in September 2022. And when that's been identified, trot along to the police only to hear that they'll "note it down"? Will it help if I clutch in my hand a copy of the "Red List"?  Will it? If I posted a copy of the "Red List" to the dealer's lawyers, will they stop sending me threatening letters, forbidding me from writing what I found? 

Yet the people selling online are there for everyone to see, ICOM, the Ukrainian authorities. The metal detectorists and pot-diggers admittedly choose remote spots (mostly), but a patrol could identify fresh digging (thirty fresh looters holes several metres across are not dug in eight to ten hours, but are several week's work). But the looting goes on, the same sites are visited over a period of several years. The goods come through the post (crossing the EU border in many cases), but somehow ancient fibulae and weapons (!) don't seem to show up on the scanners either at the point of export, or import.

And if ICOM or anyone else were really concerned about how they are going to stop the passage of any conflict antiquities there may be onto foreign markets a few moments thinking about the real world will reveal that since there is already an ongoing trade in antiquities, it makes sense for anyone wanting to get involved with the movement of material to tap into the previously existing network established over years clandestinely to move this stuff, instead of creating a new one in competition with it. So really the key to curbing postulated future trade is to tackle and dismantle the existing trade networks. It hardly take a brain the size of a planet to work that one out. Prevention is always better than a cure.  
In addition to the production of Red Lists, ICOM continues to foster international cooperation to fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural goods by encouraging the ratification of the international cultural conventions, such as the UNESCO 1970 Convention and the UNIDROIT 1995 Convention, as well as bilateral agreements between states, which are vital in addressing this illicit trade. This Emergency Red List will play an important role in ensuring state parties to these conventions will respect their international obligations. As international cooperation is crucial to fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property, ICOM counts on the support of strong international partners such as INTERPOL and WCO to raise awareness on this multifaceted phenomenon.
Those "Conventions" don't seem to be doing much, do they? Many countries that have signed such pieces of paper to look good don't actually do more than pay lip-service to "respecting their international obligations" in this regard, and just how much "raising awareness on this multifaceted phenomenon" is being done? In the UK for example. Who's doing that then? Well, there's David Gill's blog and ... and... um. The British Museum..? The British Museum, proud holder of colonial loot, hosts the Portable Antiquities Scheme that PROMOTES going around with a metal detector and hoiking out collectable items for collection or sale. Hardly the message we need. But there will be a Red List, so somebody will look good - and that will most likely be the end of the matter. And, meanwhile, the looting and the trade will go on; the looters and dealers will carry on making money. And anything that's lost - blame the Russkies.

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