Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Cost of Ethical Collecting

A common argument among collectors is that an item with provenance will cost more than one without. This is simply not true in many cases. I found these examples in 30 minutes on Trocadero.com

(no prices listed, but even offers export papers with the item)

And these from Collector Antiquities, Dr. Bron Lipkin's website:

All are reasonably priced items. You may have to look a little harder to find provenanced items, but they are certainly there, and you can get them for about the same price as un-provenanced items elsewhere. As you are looking, you'll see that many items say "from an old French collection" (or some variation of that). I was asked once how you know if that's true, a seller can put anything they want in a listing. Simple, you ask for proof. If a seller is making claims of provenance, a buyer has a right and a responsibility to ask for proof of those claims. An ethical seller will have no problem providing that information. There's also no reason why you shouldn't ask about provenance even if there is none listed. The argument I hear from sellers about that is "I don't want to tell the buyer where I got it, then they will just skip over me and go right to my source". Sorry, that's not good enough. That argument fails for a few reasons. The
first and most important is how does a buyer know that is the real reason that information is being withheld? And while I'm sure that does unfortunately happen, I don't think that's the usual. If a lot is sold by an auction house, providing that provenance is not going to lead anyone to a source where they can get it cheaper. Another reason is that antiquities are unique objects, once an item is sold, there is generally no other like it. Lastly, dealers usually sell to each other at a discount, they are normally not going to make the same deals for collectors as they would for other dealers, expecting future reciprocation. The only way to make sure you are not buying a recently looted item is to ask for provenance. If a seller won't give me that information, I won't buy from them. Period.

There has been much written lately in blogs and forums regarding unknowingly buying illicit items, one such example was discussed in the Ancientartifacts forum on yahoo, with the end result being talked about here:

As it turns out, these shabtis have a high probability of being recently looted, and made their way to ebay and other sellers. The disturbing thing is that nobody down the line asked for proof of provenance. Why not?

Kudos to both Dr. Bron Lipkin and Rolf Kiaer for doing the right thing. I don't know where Rolf Kaier acquired his item, but Bron Lipkin got his from a seller he trusted and put his faith in. This highlights the importance of asking for paperwork to back up provenance claims, even with a dealer you trust. While a building a relationship with a dealer you can trust is very important to a collector, that trust should not replace due diligence, and you should still ask questions about how the item was acquired.

It doesn't have to cost you more to collect responsibly, so why would a collector want to risk more damage to the historical record by possibly buying a recently looted item?

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Smoke Screen?

In a message posted on Unidroit-L


Dave Welsh says:

I find very little in what Elkins (or anyone else in that camp) has to say on the subject of collecting ancient coins that does not similarly defy logic and likewise seek to assert requirements that would make it impossible to continue collecting ancient coins or other ancient artifacts.

The problem (in my opinion) is that radical archaeologists believe that their discipline inherently owns all ancient artifacts, and they are not willing to share this source material with collectors. The arguments presently being made regarding documentation and provenance impress me as nothing more than a smoke screen
whose true purpose is to disguise their true intention of making private collecting

Really Mr Welsh?

Urging collectors to get documentation and provenance is a smoke screen to disguise their true intention of making collecting impossible? Then how do you explain the fact that there are many private collectors out there encouraging the same thing? So called "radical archaeologists" are not the only ones talking about ethical collecting. There are many ethical private collectors out there as well that are trying to educate others on the importance of provenance and documentation. This is to help protect the historical record from the damage being done by looting.

Don't you think it would be like shooting themselves in the foot for collectors to be encouraging something that would ultimately bring private collecting to a halt?

Don't you think your "radical archaeologists" would have nothing to complain about if collectors would make sure their items were acquired legally, and had documented proof of that? And what is so "radical" about wanting to stop looting? They aren't trying to stop collecting, but stop the collecting of looted items.

Proper documentation proves that the item was acquired legally, and provenance (even if it doesn't go all the way back to the find site) assures the collector that they are not buying a recently looted item.

Stopping collecting isn't the goal, curbing the looting is. That's why archaeologists and ethical collectors are encouraging provenance and documentation. Why is that so hard to understand?

The problem is (in my opinion) that if buyers start asking for provenance and documentation, then sellers would no longer be able to buy items in bulk that are unreported and shipped from countries without export licenses. They wouldn't be able to sell items that they or someone else found using metal detectors, dug up without permission, and then didn't report.

My hope is that as more collectors realize the importance of ethical collecting, then sellers would have no chioce but to offer legitimate, documented items if they want to remain in business.

Picture curtesy of nationalgeographic.com

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Greek Antiquities and the Law

This was posted on the Unidroit-L forum on yahoo.



" THESSALONIKI, Greece — Greek police arrested a veterinarian with more than 2,000 illegally excavated antiquities, including a small clay statue from pre-Columbian America, officials said Friday.... "The confiscated antiquities included more than 1,500 silver and copper coins dating from the 4th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D., Halkidiki anti-crime squad director Giorgos Tassiopoulos said. Police seized another 680 clay and bronze artifacts, including vases, lamps, statuettes and jewelry.

This is the astonishing reply:


What's the typical penalty for this in Greece? I wonder how many of those finds would have been reported if the Greekstate didn't claim everything in the ground as it's own without discernment.

Seriously!? So what this person is saying is "We'd report our finds if we were allowed to keep them"? Why not just say "Well, ya know, if every country would just make it legal to take whatever we want there would be no looting."

According to the article referenced, this was a Greek man, so he knew, or should have known the laws. He chose to deliberately ignore them. Is this how we want collectors to be seen? Shouldn't we be working to make collecting respectable?

There are laws for a reason. Greece has decided that it is in the best interest of its citizens to protect its heritage and have a say in what happens to antiquities that are found within it's borders. You can't just ignore the laws because you don't agree with them or because they get in the way of something you want to posess or sell.

A question not answered in the article is how did he acquire these artifacts? Was he digging them up illegally and not reporting them, as the law requires, or is this another case of "don't ask, don't tell" buying? Responsible collectors are getting a bad reputation because we seem to either be far out-numbered by the irresponsible ones, or they are much more outspoken.

Here's what I could find on Greek Antiquities Laws:

a. Current scheme based on Greek Antiquities Law of 1932 and 1950. All antiquities on land and sea are the property of the State, which has the right to investigate and preserve them.
Antiquities are broadly defined as "all works, without exception, of architecture, sculpture, graphic art and any art in general. . . and all other works and equipment in whatever material, including precious stones and coins."

b. Anyone finding antiquities or discovering them fortuitously must report the discovery to the authority; there are penalties for not doing so.

c. Antiquities may be freely imported (but must be declared); export can only be made after a decision of the Antiquities Council, and illegal export is punishable by a fine and up to five years imprisonment. Effectively, there is no export of antiquities.

d. Private collections of antiquities are allowed, but a permit is required from the Ministry of Education. Collectors must keep a detailed inventory and grant access to the Ministry for study, photography, etc.

e. All excavations of archaeological sites must be authorized by permit. Foreign schools are permitted three annual excavation permits. Otherwise the State may carry out excavations on national, municipal, religious, and private property, but must pay fair compensation to owners. Illegal excavations (including looting) may bring a prison term of up to two years as well as a monetary fine.

f. Intentional destruction or damage to antiquities carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine.

g. Sales of antiquities are strictly regulated. A permit is required for dealers, who are under the authority of the archaeological authorities. Dealers must submit a monthly list of antiquities acquired by them and offered for sale. The State has the right of preemption in any sale of antiquities in the country. Sales from private collections must be approved by the Ministry.

Knowing what we know of Greek antiquities laws, can anyone say with a straight face that all Greek antiquities for sale on ebay, etc, were ALL exported prior to the 1932/50 laws or have the proper export papers to prove they were exported legally? I think it would be a stretch to say that "many" of the Greek antiquities currently for sale on venues like ebay would hold up to that standard. That is exactly why the ethical collector should be asking these types of questions before we buy an item.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Most Common Arguments Against Ethical Collecting

The ethical collector, among other things, gives thought to what damage they are doing to the precious and finite historical record, and makes sure that all international laws and treaties were followed in the acqusition of that piece They ask the difficult questions of sellers regarding where the item comes from, and whether or not it has the necessary paperwork to show it was legally exported. An equally ethical seller will be happy to answer these questions and provide all documentation. (More on ethical sellers later)

I'll use this open question posted in the AncientArtifacts forum on yahoo since it seems to have many of the popular arguments all rolled into one:

For the Original post, see here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Ancientartifacts/message/46994

For the original reply, see here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Ancientartifacts/message/47002

"Hi this question is opened to everyone. I'm sure that most collections thats most of the "legal" antiques come from - do you think that the where obtained legally? Its not like the collector obtained the items any differently from the way we are obtaining it today- either way they came from looted tombs. The only difference is that after the 1960's or so - date put in place by the Egyptian government in terms of obtaining and buying Egyptian artifacts making it legal to buy items taken out of Egypt before the specified date. But I think we all fail to see the underlying factor that at one stage even stuff will a tracable provenance once was some"pirates booty".

At the end of the day its own to your own moral convictions whether you want to buy something or not, while knowing its history of acquisition.

Personally I think human nature to have something/ own something has led to this industry of buying artifacts. And all our past purchases in a way has indicted "there is a demand- now someone needs to supply".

As long as we want certian things, someone will make it there job to supply the demand no matter how. I don't think that not buying these items is clear cut solution. Someone else will scope this piece of history up , possibly not treat it well or even sell it on to someone else, eventaully a few years later making its way to your mantle piece / or another auction - with you not having the slightest clue of how its acquition started - (all you will be told was owned by an old man , now deceased " truth of the matter is in many cases people selling these items whom form part of the buying-selling chain don't really know that it was recently looted and as it passes from hand to hand it's looted history becomes more obscure until eventually it has a "provenance" - eg: from the collection of the late Mr. X- but whom did Mr. X get it from?, whom did the person whom sold it to Mr.X get it from, and so on ."

Here is the reply given:

"I'd like to answer your open question: I'll break it down into parts.

"I'm sure that most collections that's most of the "legal" antiques come from - do you think that the where obtained legally? Its not like the collector obtained the items any differently from the way we are obtaining it today- either ways they came from looted tombs."

Don't you think that's part of the problem? We can't continue, knowing what we know now about what we are doing to the historical record, to collect the way it has been done in the past.

"But I think we all fail to see the underlying factor that at one stage even stuff will a tracable provenance once was some"pirates booty""

No, no one fails to see that We can't change the past, but we, as responsible collectors, need to make sure that we are not continuing to contribute to looting now or in the future. We do that by buying items with legitimate provenance.

"As long as we want certain things, someone will make it there job to supply the demand no matter how."

That's true, there will always be irresponsible collectors to buy these items. As responsible collectors we need to make sure that we are not the ones buying them.

"Someone else will scope this piece of history up , possibly not treat it well or even sell it on to someone else"

Do you really think that justifies buying a recently looted item? Because someone else will just buy it anyway, so why not me? "I'll treat it better" has long been an argument of those not willing to report finds where required. Their theory is "it will just sit in a dusty store room anyway, I'll take better care of it, so I'll just keep it". Even for the average collector, "I'll treat it better" is not justification for buying a looted item.

"truth of the matter is in many cases people selling these items whom form part of the buying-selling chain don't really know that it was recently looted "

That wouldn't be true if they used due diligence BEFORE they buy the item. Ask questions of the seller. Ask for proof of offered provenance.

"as it passes from hand to hand it's looted history becomes more obscure until eventually it has a "provenance" - eg: from the collection of the late Mr. X-"

That's how it works. It's true that a large percentage of the items
out there were originally looted or stolen from legitimate digs, but as I said
earlier, we can't change the past. What we need to do now is change the way we
do things so that we don't continue to contribute to looting.

"but whom did Mr. X get it from?, whom did the person whom sold it to Mr. X get it from, and so on "

That's the importance of getting and passing on provenance, so we have this information going as far back as possible.

I think that this exchange shows clearly how collectors justify to themselves the "don't ask, don't tell" attitude that has been prevalent in the collecting community for far too long. It also shows just as clearly why those arguments fall short.

It's up to us, the collecting community as a whole, to change the way we do things so we are not continuing to contribute to the looting that has already done so much irreparable harm to our precious historical record.

Why we collect, and the problems it can bring

First let me say right off that I am a collector. I collect Ancient Egyptian pieces because I love the culture. Everything about it fascinates me.

I love to look at my collection. I imagine what it must have been like to live back then, who might have owned the pieces that I own now, and how such seemingly delicate pieces have survived for thousands of years.

Collecting is an enjoyable and educational pastime that has been going on for a very long time. People collect for various reasons. Love of a culture, a particular type of item, or the love of history in general.

But collecting brings with it many problems if not done ethically and responsibly. It uses the same finite resources that archaeologist and others use, but for different reasons. This resource is limited, and once it is gone, it can never be recovered, so we should respect it and help protect it so we can all continue to learn from it.

The way things have been, and continue to be collected, it's clear that this precious historical resource is not being respected and is being deliberately depleted by commercial diggers. Digging and metal detecting with total disregard to the laws are doing more damage every day. Everytime something is ripped from it's context without being properly recorded, any information we could have gotten from it is lost forever.

Irresponsible collecting encourages this behavior by buying items "no questions asked". This is only putting money into the pockets of these law breakers, whether directly or indirectly.

There are plenty of legitimate items out there to be bought, there is no justifiable reason to buy the illicit ones that seem to have flooded the market.

For more information see the links on this blog.