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.


Ed Snible said...

I have posted to some pro-collector lists when governmental museums lose or damage antiquities. I'm not doing it because I believe that collectors would do a better job, or because I feel that official bumbling gives me the right to steal.

Official bumbling implies that source countries don't value mundane items highly.

There is a claim that antiquities are priceless and revered by an entire people. This principle is said to give governments the moral right to seize them from property owners. If a drug company wanted a rare plant or if uranium was found then the property owner would have to be compensated. Not so with ancient coins because the reverence supposedly attached to them is too great to allow them to be treated as ordinary property.

If antiquities were really valued so highly then the best-and-brightest citizens would be studying archaeology and getting million-dollar bonuses for conserving artifacts. Instead the highest-rewarded members of society are running investment banks, heavy industry, and mass entertainment.

I understand the research value of more data about finds and context. If I thought a boycott of unprovananced antiquities would work I'd join in. I don't think antiquities boycotts can work. Very few collectors of ancient coins have read even one article on the ethics of collecting -- not enough to discourage dealers. When the Royal Numismatic Society became concerned about this problem in the late 1800s they lobbied Britain to reward finders at market rates. That solution isn't perfect but has had higher compliance than system banning unregistered antiquities. I'd like to see it applied in a few more places.

I'd like to see, over the next generation, all collectors learning about this issue. One good way to teach collectors would be for a couple of dealers to appear who only sell fully-provenanced coins. If these dealers show up in coin magazine ads and at coin shows hawking the superiority of their licensed goods there will be no way to avoid the issue. Anyone could try this strategy (operating at a loss.) To make a profit selling only ethically provenanced ancient coins would be a challenge for a dealer without a special relationship to the antiquities department of a source country.

Robyn said...

Hi Mr. Snible, thanks for your comment.

First let me say that the topic of my post wasn't "bumbling", it had to do with the recent thefts and collectors/dealers using them as a platform for their rhetoric. I disagree that "official bumbling" implies that those objects aren't valued. Mistakes can be made by anyone at any time. As for countries claiming items that are found within their borders, whether collectors like it or not, many countries have such laws, and you don't just get to say "I don't like that law, so I'm not going to follow it". An ethical collector only buys from dealers who follow the laws.

I also disagree with your statement that the best and brightest aren't studying archaeology, they are involved in other businesses making more money. The highest paid doesn't always mean the brightest. Maybe the best and brightest that are studying archaeology are doing it because it's something they love rather than how much they get paid.

I don't claim that a boycott of unprovenanced antiquities will solve all the problems associated with looting, but it sure comes a lot closer than doing nothing and buying willy-nilly with no questions asked. That's the same as not sending any food to Ethiopia because it won't end starvation. Don't you think?

I do agree that not enough collectors read about the ethics of collecting. If they did, maybe they would think more about how their buying habits are helping to destroy the historical record.

Britian's reward system is largely ineffective because a great many finds are still not reported. You can visit just about any metal detecting forum and see that for yourself.

I don't think it would be a challenge for dealers to make a profit selling only provenanced items. There are already some antiquities dealers that I know of that do this. The only challenge would be that they would have to also pay attention to what they are getting from their sources and that all laws were followed instead of buying bulk lots on the cheap with no questions asked.