Tuesday, May 5, 2009

There's No Link Between Buying Undocumented Items And Looting?

A comment from Dave Welsh in a post to the Ancient Artifacts forum on Yahoo: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Ancientartifacts/message/46911

"collectors (and dealers such as myself) actually do understand what collecting is all about,and also understand how specimens are discovered and eventually become available for collecting, thus they realize that collecting such common, low value artifacts as coins does not have anything at all to do with looting of archaeological sites."

Does this comment apply to ANY "low value" artifact, or just coins? Why do coin dealers think that coins shouldn't fall in the same category as other artifacts? The idea that illegally digging coins never destroys a potential archaeological site is just absurd.

For anyone that doesn't understand the damage that looting does, or how no questions asked buying perpetuates it, I recommend reading the book "Stealing History" by Roger Atwood. It gives a startling picture of the damage done, not only in terms of the knowledge lost by ripping items from their historical context, but also the physical destruction of precious antiquities that are deemed unsaleable by the looters.

After reading this book, how can anyone who has a love of antiquities or history not stop and think about how the "don't ask- don't tell" mentality of many collectors and dealers is contributing to this destruction? These are exactly the people that looters sell their ill-gotten items to. How can anyone say with a straight face that there is no connection between undocumented buying and looting?


Ed Snible said...

Welsh believes that most undocumented coins are from old collections, surface finds, and isolated hoards. He believes very few are associated with monuments or found in unplowed fields/forests. He considered an antiquity "looted" only if taken from grave or monument contexts. Perhaps he is wrong? Yet I have read that most finds in the UK are from tilled land on active farms.

Silver and gold coins are different than other artifacts because they are worth digging and melting. They were also mass produced. Supposedly they were frequently buried in out-of-the-way hiding places. Perhaps these differences are enough to make coins "different", perhaps not.

I read Atwood's book. All the looting is really a tragedy. I would like all antiquity excavations to be logged. I believe the way to do this is to strengthen property rights by giving property owners ownership or market compensation for reporting finds. This will give them an incentive to shoo looters off of their land. Holding antiquities for the common good is noble in theory but it provides no incentive to land owners to watch for diggers.

Perhaps the collective action of collectors contributes to destruction but an individual collector cannot signal suppliers by refusing to purchase. I do not know how to incent suppliers to stop digging. Without private property rights the only incentive is avoiding being caught. That has proven insufficient.

Robyn said...

Hi Ed, thanks for the comment. It's nice to hear from you again.

Of course this is what Dave welsh says he believes, and what he'd like others to believe too. I believe he's wrong. An antiquity is "looted" if it's dug up illegally and/or not reported where required. Many countries have laws preventing the destruction of archaeological sites by digging (as we do in the US) and require accidental finds to be reported to a government entity, even when digging with the landowners permission, for example during construction.

I suppose it's possible that coins were sometimes buried in an out of the way place, after all, there weren't local banks back then, but certainly not ALL coins, as Dave would have you believe. The idea that they are always found by themselves is absurd. All over the Old World the "tilled land on active farms" you mention are actually archaeological sites. Whole Roman cities, settlements and villas are in farmland in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Greece. That does not make them any the less archaeological sites!

The fact that objects like coins were mass produced also doesn't make them any less archaeologically relevant. Neither does it have any bearing on the destruction of the archaeological context when they are dug out of the ground to sell.

Of course collecting would be easier if the laws were different. The fact is, the laws were put in place for a reason, and as ethical and responsible collectors we need to follow them.

The collective action of collectors who buy with no questions asked absolutely contributes to the destruction caused by looting. And you are correct, an individual collector can't send a signal to a supplier, but as more collectors realize the damage they are contributing to, and stop buying without asking about provenance, they become a much larger group that CAN send a message to suppliers that looted artifacts will become increasingly harder to sell.

Anne said...

Hi there -

I've just bought a load of inexpensive uncleaned Roman rings from Ebay with the intention of cleaning them up to sell.

All the listing said was that they are from sites in the Near or Middle East. When I thought harder about this, I began to worry about ethical issues, and in consequence stumbled across your blog.

The seller's feedback suggests that some of their clients are museums. If this is proved to be true, does that mean that their goods are likely to be ethically sourced? What questions should I be asking them to establish whether these are objects it's OK to own?

I am keen to do the right thing, and obviously wish I'd thought more about the issues before buying. But if the worst comes to the worst, and I discover that the rings currently in my possession were looted (or probably looted), what would you recommend doing with them?

Hope you manage to find time to answer my questions, but no worries if not!


Robyn said...

Hi Anne, Thanks for the comment. About the rings, first I'll assume for the purpose of discussion that they are authentic, but a very high percentage of what's sold on ebay is fake. Did you get any sort of provenance with them? That's the only way to ensure that they were not recently looted. If they came from anywhere in the Near or Middle East and were not
accompanied by an export license, then they more than likely left that country illegally. They all have export restrictions.

You should always ask a seller about provenance, and ask if they have the proper export license to ship the item out of the country of origin, if one is needed. Educate yourself on the laws surrounding the objects you buy, and the countries of origin. Some have export restrictions that are decades old, some are fairly new. Here is a good website about the
anitquities laws of various countries:http://www.ifar.org/icpoel.php?region=south_america

You should never rely on ebay's feedback when it comes to antiquities. The most prolific fake sellers have 100% rating.

You don't say whether the museums you referenced are buying from or selling to the person you bought them from, but I would be leery about that. A user can make up any name they want, so you have to ask yourself: are reputable museums really buying and/or selling on ebay? I suppose it's possible, but not likely. In any case, if they were ethically sourced they would have had a provenance with them.

What to do with them now... DOCUMENT! Everything you know about them. Who did you buy them from, when, any restoration work you have performed. Take pictures of each item and keep it with it's seperate paperwork. If you do
decide to sell these items, pass all that paperwork along with the item, and encourage your buyer to add to it and do the same. I also wonder about whether you should clean them. Absent any provenance, the patina is the only thing that shows they weren't made yesterday.

Many collectors, including myself, started out exactly where you are. Buying without really knowing or thinking about the
long term damage to the historical record that looting causes. I have some un-provenanced pieces, bought years ago before I learned more about what I was doing. I won't sell them because they have no provenance earlier than me. What you choose to do with yours is a decision only you can make for yourself.

For some other great information on this topic, see the other blogs I have linked on mine.