Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Who Should Protect Antiquities?

There have been a few highly publicized incidents in the news lately concerning thefts of antiquities from government controlled places. Private collectors and dealers have pounced on these as an opportunity to show how antiquities would be better taken care of in their hands.

Yes, by all means, lets let the private collectors and dealers have them, because we all know that private collections are never robbed, fires and natural disasters never happen to private collectors, artifacts are never damaged in shipping. The difference is, the the theft or fire that happens to the average collector is hardly newsworthy. These publicized instances just give them another excuse to say "See! See! We were right! This would never have happened if that government/museum had released those items to the private sector. We would have taken better care of them!" This is simply not true in many cases. How many private collectors have received an item that has been damaged in shipping? How many private collectors have had fires or floods that have completely ruined their collections? Did these items fare any better in the private sector? At least when an item is kept by a museum or government, its provenance is generally kept as well. We know where it was found, what it was found with, and who had it earlier. The same can't be said for many items held by private collectors. Far too often that information is lost for one reason or another.

And what happens when things are released from the stores? Collectors scramble to buy the nicer pieces, but what happens to the more mundane items found with them? Who should look after those? What use would a museum have for an assemblage of items once the more visually appealing items found with them have been removed?

This is just another spin on the old argument against reporting finds because "It will just sit in a storehouse anyway, I'll take better care of it" Even officials, in response to the theft of 9 paintings from the Mohammad Ali Pasha's palace, have gotten in on this, saying

"This incident shows that Egypt is not ready to have items returned to the country at this point. They can't keep the things they already have safe, so why would major museums risk returning artifacts," a German archaeologist in Cairo told the Middle East Times, on condition of anonymity.

Let's use a hypothetical scenario to refute this argument: Let's say I buy a classic car. I find out that this car was poorly taken care of, left to rust out in a garage. I spend my money restoring it. I then find out that this car was stolen from its previous owner. Do I get to keep this car because I'll take better care of it? NO! It belongs to the rightful owner! Same thing goes for antiquities. Just because you think you will take better care of it doesn't mean you get to keep it. Items that are not reported where required are stolen items, period. If you buy an item without proof of legal acquisition, you run the risk of owning a stolen item. The only way to avoid this is to ask questions of the seller, and require provenance.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artifacts

Finally, after much hard work and many emails, a group of collectors in the Yahoo forum Ancientartifacts have finished a Code for Ethical Collectors of Ancient Artifacts. It is all valuable information, and something I would recommend to all collectors. You can find the original post here:

Here is the full text as written:

A Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artifacts

Version 1

1st March 2009

This is a voluntary code, reflecting the personal conviction of those who adhere to it. It concerns actions now and in the future, and aims to inform both new and experienced collectors.

Although it is clearly in every collector’s own interest to be able to separate the fake from the authentic, keep good records and care properly for artifacts, these guidelines are an attempt to go further by outlining common sense standards to protect our shared interests, and particularly the finite and fragile archaeological resource.

(1) Protect our archaeological heritage and uphold the law

• Only buy artifacts which you have reason to believe have been obtained and are offered in accordance withall national laws.

• Ask the vendor for all relevant paperwork relating to provenance, export etc.

• Take extra care if collecting particular classes of object which have been subjected to wide-scale recent looting.

(2) Check your source

• Verify a vendor’s reputation independently before buying. Assure yourself that they are using due diligence in their trading practices, and do not support those who knowingly sell fakes as authentic or offer items of questionable provenance.

(3) Collect sensitively

• Consider the implications of acquiring items which may be of religious or social significance to others.

(4) Recognise your role as custodian

• Do your utmost to ensure the wellbeing of the objects in your care.

• Consider the condition of artifacts prior to purchase and whether you will be able to carry out any necessary conservation or repairs. Any intrusive operation should ideally be carried out by a competent professional.

• Maintain and update records relating to each artifact, including its provenance. Make sure these records can be connected to the relevant object by a layman.

• Only buy from vendors who do the same.

(5) Keep artifacts in one piece and consider the significance of groups of objects

• Do not dismember any item, or acquire a fragment which you believe to have been separated from a larger object except through natural means.

• Consider the implications of buying an item from an associated assemblage and the impact this could have on study.

(6) Promote further study

• Liaise, where possible, with the academic and broader communities about your artifacts. Significant objects,in particular, should not be withheld from study. Try to find out more about the artifacts you own and their context.

(7) Dispose of artifacts responsibly

• Do your best to ensure that none of the above guidelines are infringed by the way you dispose of your artifacts.

• Pass on all information about each piece, particularly its provenance, and include as much original documentation as possible (even if the prices are blacked out).

• Give an honest description of any repairs or restoration.

• Promote responsible custodianship to the new owner and other collectors.

• Give thought to the disposal of your collection in the event of your death, and leave clear instructions as to how it should be sold or donated.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Italy Takes on Looting

According to this article in the Sunday Herald:

Italian police have found a stash of some 1500 looted items, and have arrested 16 people, 3 alleged tomb raiders and 13 of their alleged clients. It's frightening to think how easily these objects could have ended up on ebay, or in the hands of unscrupulous dealers and collectors.

What knowledge is now lost because of the way these things were dug up? Unfortunately we will never know. The only thing they were concerned about is "how much can we sell this for?" This is what happens in the world of "don't ask, don't tell" antiquities collecting. Items are ripped out of context, and what we could have learned from studying them in/with their surroundings is now lost forever. Looted items are passed from the looters to dealers, who don't care where they came from or how they were obtained. They only care about the money that object will bring. They are then sold to collectors who also don't care to know such information, they only care that it's something they want to buy, how much it costs, and is it authentic. Not a thought is given to how it was acquired. The historical record is being trashed, aided by irresponsible collectors hiding behind many excuses for what they do. These excuses range from "it's my right to buy whatever I want" to "but I'll take better care of it".

The article then goes on to describe an interview with a "retired" looter, one of Italy most successful, lamenting the fact that it's becoming more difficult to dig and sell his objects because of increased monitoring, stiffer penalties, and more aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen. It's causing the market to dry up. Darn, what a shame!

Collectors need to change their attitude. Too much is lost to looters, we need to do everything possible NOW to make sure we are not contributing to ongoing looting. They only way (short of not buying at all) to make sure you are not buying recently looted items is to ask for documentation of provenance, and walk away from the sale if none is provided. We should be working to create a smaller market in which these items can be sold. If more collectors refused to buy these items, then the dealers would be stuck with them, leading them to buy less from the looters. Eventually the looters would have no reason to dig, because no one would be buying the items anyway.

Collectors have a responsibility to know how their items were acquired, and should use due diligence to make sure they were gotten honestly and ethically. Let's think about it another way; people are always up in arms and boycotting businesses that get their clothing from sweatshops. They want these places shut down for unethical and reprehensible business practices. Why shouldn't antiquities dealers be held to the same standard as any other business? Shouldn't they be able to prove that their items were acquired honestly, legally, and ethically? A dealer who buys and sells items obtained through looting, no questions asked, is using equally unethical and reprehensible practices as the sweatshop owner. Why aren't collectors boycotting them? If people can do their research to find out where the clothes they wear every day come from, why can't they use the same diligence in finding out where their antiquities come from?

Collecting can be a wonderful experience. I'm a collector myself, so I'm in no way "anti collecting", but it should be done ethically, and collectors should always keep in mind the damage looting causes and make every effort to make sure they are not contributing to it.