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.

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