Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Antiquarian book sale - Beverly Hills style

This prayer book is being auctioned by Ambiance Arts and Antiques, a flashy shop in Beverly Hills, on eBay. Although the book is undoubtedly valuable, both the sales pitch and the venue caused some amusement. It seems to be Beverly Hills at its finest. The price of $3,500,000 may seem a trifle steep. But we are advised that the book is not only "unique", it's also "rare" as well!

(I do wish people would realise that the word "unique" means 'the only one of its kind' - which makes the tautologous word "rare" a bit of a superfluous understatement.)

The description falls somewhat short of what might be expected of a normal dealer in antiquarian books but note the warning: "QUALIFIED BUYERS ONLY". In order to qualify, perhaps any potential customer must first prove: a) that he has more money than the entire economy of Switzerland and b) that he has had a full frontal lobotomy.

Although the "last page of this book shows the date", the seller seems to have trouble understanding it. The Persian year 1123 equates to 1744 in the Gregorian calendar and the Islamic year 1123 equates to 1711 in the Gregorian calendar, neither of which is "circa 1706".

The book boasts a "beautiful gold hard cover". That sounds extremely impressive but I suspect it actually means the binding is gilt morocco, which is not quite the same thing. And "70 pages" presumably means 70 leaves (in bibliographic collation a page is only one side of a leaf). And I'm guessing the baby phrases "hand writer" and "hand writing" are pitched at a semi-literate clientele who might have difficulty with the adult words "calligrapher" and "manuscript".

Curiously for an item offered for such a large sum of money, there is not the slightest hint of its condition (whether the binding is loose, whether any leaves are missing, torn, dog-eared, etc.) or, apart from its original owner, of its provenance (later inscriptions, library stamps, auction records, ALR check, etc.). A comment on Daum glassware offered by the same seller suggests an attitude to condition may be somewhat cavalier and a publicised spate of book thefts from libraries in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that a mention of provenance would be wise. I'm not entirely sure that the generous offer of free postage offsets concerns that the seller states "NO RETURN" in big red letters.

Sadly, if "Sultan Hussain Safavi [...] used it every day for praying and keeping himself out of sickness and trouble", it didn't work very well. Eleven of his twelve sons were slaughtered and his dynasty was nearing its end when he was himself beheaded. Perhaps a bad omen ...

Monday, 20 November 2017

ACCG own goal: With 'friends' like these ...

Original research - ACCG style
An American coin dealer recently called my attention to an old paper that he helped to compose on behalf of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) and challenged me to examine it on my blog, apparently under the impression that the paper was pretty much unassailable. He confidently assured me that it "was received with respect and interest by the Council for British Archaeology". I have now had time to read through it and my first comment is that the Brits can be disarmingly polite.

I note that this American "Newcastle Paper" was presented by the ACCG at a UK conference hosted by the Council for British Archaeology in March 2010 and has been reviewed previously. Even before slogging through its excessively exhaustive (and exhausting!) text, my first impression was not good. Its very title ("Coin Collectors and Cultural Property Nationalism") was ominous. The subsequent text deviously conflates two largely separate issues: a worthy struggle to seek a sensible and balanced solution in the sharing of international culture on the one hand, and a campaign to prolong a cavalier attitude to the destructive exploitation of foreign archaeological resources for commercial gain on the other. Disingenuously using the former to excuse the latter is not a great start.

Is the paper actually on behalf of "coin collectors" or is that term basically a euphemism for something else? Certainly, despite laboured assertions that the ACCG "is a collector organization, not a trade lobby" (p.44), its aims seem far more geared towards the mass acquisition of stock than the concerns of ethical individuals buying one or two coins. This is the organisation that declares its members "will not knowingly purchase coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites" (p.45) while failing to admit the irony of simultaneously fighting against any measures (even self-regulatory ones) that would help ensure the stock of the dealers who supply them was not.

An early unwitting admission by contributor John Hooker that he hasn't got the vaguest clue what the full extent of "cultural heritage" actually is (p.5)1 sets the tone for much of the paper. It includes some valid and significant points but any overall case it tries to make to a naively miscalculated demographic is so compromised by a litany of schoolboy flaws - ranging from verbosity, waffle, repetition and tedious irrelevancies to shallow blame-shifting, inadequate denial (p.15), arrogant presumption (p.32), cringeworthy unawareness and stunning miscomprehension resulting from object-centric myopia, no conception of moral responsibility beyond the bare legal minimum, a long unsourced2 section plagiarised verbatim (!) from Wikipedia (pp.49-50), manipulated conflation, selective sycophancy and a plethora of glaring logical fallacies - that it tends to greatly diminish rather than enhance any perception of the trade as a worthwhile contributor in serious academic discussion.

A statement that "The collectors [read: US coin dealers] rights movement does not seek a confrontation, it seeks a solution" on the final page (p.61) begs a question: the "rights" to do what? To henceforth acquire stock responsibly by ensuring it does not conflict with archaeological concerns or to continue to acquire stock in the same cavalier way dealers did in the past and carry on encouraging looting until every last archaeological resource on the planet has been obliterated? The paper gives every indication that "rights" means the latter.

The paper includes not the slightest hint of compromise, not the vaguest trace of a realistic proposal to meet anyone halfway. Characteristically, it attempts to shift responsibility. An eager but wildly autoschediastic suggestion that a PAS-like scheme is a "viable model" (p.49) in countries that are incredibly rich in ancient sites reveals a simplistic object-centric approach oblivious to any potential for an archaeological catastrophe. Crucially, the paper includes not even, despite lip service (perhaps also cribbed from Wikipedia?), a real sign that the root problem is properly understood. Quite the contrary ...

The American coin dealer who brought the paper to my attention pointed out that "it was a statement of the pro-collecting point of view of the collectors' rights advocacy movement, rather than a completely impartial academic survey paper".

Fair enough, but it's one thing to display a certain amount of partiality. It's quite another to come out with daft nonsense such as holding an archaeologist up to ridicule for comparing ancient coins to "an endangered species" and then wordily pointing out how common they are (p.16) when it was blatantly obvious even from the quotation that he was talking only about coins that remained undisturbed in their context. Such silliness has a tendency to backfire - especially to an audience containing informed academics - and, instead of having the intended effect, implies that the person giving the presentation is either too thick to understand simple English or too ignorant to grasp even the most basic principle of archaeology. That impression is hardly helpful in promoting "the pro-collecting point of view".

And that's just one example of countless other faux pas in a long-winded but essentially slapdash paper that utterly drowns any valid points in a garrulous sea of uninformed blunders, contrived deceptions, plagiarised waffle and entrenched ignorance. Predictably, the end result paints an overwhelmingly negative picture of those engaged in the US coin trade.

I could very easily dismantle the "Newcastle Paper" through detailed analysis in another post but I post very seldom on my blog these days and I've already dealt with the ACCG earlier. Calling further attention to their inept propaganda merely highlights the worst aspects of a hobby I wholeheartedly support if carried out responsibly. In the interest of a balanced 'middle ground', if I post anything at all nowadays it is more likely to focus on some of the views expressed by those who oppose it. In the meantime, here's a gentle plea to the ACCG: either get your act together next time or do the collecting world a favour and give it a miss.

1  In this alarming paradigm of tunnel vision, "cultural heritage" applies to objects that can be "distributed" but not to the once intact archaeological sites they are "distributed" from.
2  Wayback Machine reveals that the footnote given is just a deceptive red herring and not the real source. Perhaps the authors hoped no one would ever bother to check. Should we place a similar trust in any provenance they may give for a coin?

Friday, 10 November 2017

Understanding the 1970 UNESCO Convention

There appear to be common misconceptions about a Convention adopted at the 16th General Conference of UNESCO on 14 November 1970 in Paris. Its full - and somewhat unwieldy - title is 'Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property'. (I'm hoping to propose a 'Convention on the Benefits of Not Trying to Cram an Entire Synopsis into a Title' at the next General Conference.) Its purpose was to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property (including of course ancient artefacts).

The Convention came into force on 24 April 1972 but it is important to bear in mind that it was just an agreement and was not in itself a law. It was left up to individual nations to implement the Convention in their own laws upon ratifying or accepting it. Since laws are not usually retroactive, compliance with them typically dates from the year each of those laws was passed, not that of the Convention. A chronological list of the years that nations ratified or accepted the Convention is published on the UNESCO website.

Although many museums and other institutions have adopted the year 1970 as a cut-off point in the acquisition of antiquities, that year is purely voluntary - based on ethical rather than legal considerations. The Convention itself (Article 7a) advises that they should be prevented from acquiring cultural property which has been illegally exported after the date that both the country of origin and the country of the institution ratified or accepted the Convention. In the case of the UK acquiring an object from Turkey, for instance, that date would be 1 August 2002 (although Turkey ratified the Convention in 1981, it was not accepted by the UK until 21 years later). It is of course up to the institution to determine if an object is likely to contravene that rule and, as said, most set a much earlier date for ethical reasons.

A similar responsibility (and ethical awareness) is placed on dealers and collectors to ensure they do not acquire illicit cultural property (Article 5e). Although nations are exhorted to keep an up-to-date inventory of their national heritage (Article 5b), that cannot of course include individual objects as yet unknown in archaeological sites (Article 1c) and it is therefore incumbent on dealers and collectors to establish that an archaeological object was legally exported.

If a nation declares that its archaeological material is under threat of pillage, other signatories undertake to control international trade in the relevant material (Article 9). In the US, such measures are normally effected by means of a bilateral memorandum of understanding (MoU) under its implementation of the Convention (Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act 1983). A summary of that Act is published by the US government.

The Convention also seeks to prohibit the import of cultural property stolen from a museum or similar institution or from a public monument (Article 7b), and return the property to its country of origin providing that it was documented and that compensation is paid where appropriate (the latter provision subject to certain conditions in the US). The UK stipulated that, in its own case, return was subject to its rules on limitation to claims (typically six years under the Limitation Act 1980). 


As said, there appear to be common misconceptions about what the 1970 UNESCO Convention is and what it is not. This was recently highlighted by the comment submitted by an archaeologist to an online article regarding the questionable collecting habits of an elderly Australian digging up artefacts in the Middle East:
“The short answer is, yes, it was illegal [...] International law sets the deadline at 1970 — the date of the 1970 UNESCO Convention — for the removal of artifacts from the ground for collection. So if she began in 1967 and continued for 11 years (as the article states), then she was breaking the law.”
The archaeologist was right to be outraged but, in fact, he was wrong about the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It is not "international law". Nor is there any "deadline at 1970". Australia did not accept it until 1989. Neither of course does the Convention have anything to do directly with "the removal of artifacts from the ground for collection". As its full title suggests, it concerns import, export and transactions.

The laws that the elderly Australian was probably breaking were those of the countries she was digging in. Her blatant disregard of those laws is reprehensible but it is important to employ the correct framework to condemn its illegality. In the case of Australia, the pertinent legislation is the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, which sets no time limit for "unlawful imports".

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Hawass to write opera about Tutankhamen

"Hawass to write opera about Tutankhamen" (Egypt Today, 12 September 2017).

It seems fitting that Hawass will "write" an opera about Tutankhamun. After all, only his profound modesty has so far curbed him from revealing that it was actually he, not Howard Carter, who found the tomb.

* The quotation marks around "write" suggest the potential use of a traditional MO: one person takes credit while another does the work.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Ancient Egyptian antiquity: real or fake?

A member of an online antiquities forum recently posted images of a bust that had just appeared on the market (see Update below). It seemed to be Ancient Egyptian. The seller of the artefact gave the usual story: old estate, in the family since about the 1920s, no details known. In other words, it had zero real provenance. But the bust itself did look convincingly authentic. Was it real?

Some members of the forum noted a similarity to the famous Nefertiti bust in Berlin. Was it contemporary?

Well, the bust does have an Amarna look ... but it is neither Nefertiti nor even female. I noticed it bore a startling resemblance to another bust at the Neues Museum in Berlin, that of a young pharaoh (perhaps Smenkhkare, Akhenaton or Tutankhamun) and registered as Ident.Nr. ÄM 20496.

In fact, the resemblance was rather too close. The breakage and fractures on the right side of the subject's face and neck (left side of the image) of the bust on the market were an uncanny match to those on the bust in Berlin. It was a little too coincidental and it was glaringly obvious that the bust on the market was a fake copy.

Taken in isolation, the market bust looks remarkably convincing. But of course the lack of real provenance was an immediate warning. Not only from a legal or ethical point of view. It is extremely unlikely that an artefact of that significance would not have been recorded and documented somewhere at some time.

Caveat emptor!

-- UPDATE --

I have now tracked the item down. It is being sold by Thomaston Place Auction Galleries of Maine, USA, on an online auction website and bidding is due to end on 26 August 2017.

Auction description:
Head of Amun, New Kingdom, post-Amarna Period, Dynasty 18, reign of Tutankhamen, ca. 1336–1327 B.C. (in our opinion). Probably from Upper Egypt, Thebes. Sandstone with remnants of pigment, having refined features, portion of flat top cap and indication of beard, now missing. The features resemble those of Tutankhamen, indicate this was probably his commission, as part of the reconstruction of the temples. 8 1/2" tall. Loss to nose, scratches and chips, nice age patina.


The item is now shown as having sold for $15,000.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The trauma of authenticating antiquities

"Roman Ring" (Stage One reject)
"How can you possibly tell it's fake just from a photograph? It needs to be handled in person under magnification!"

I hear that protest from inexperienced buyers of antiques and antiquities all the time. They may have seen paintings being minutely examined under microscopes and X-rays by experts in a TV programme but they fail to realise that these procedures are advanced steps in a progressive process.

Regardless of whether an old man-made object is a painting, an antique, an antiquity or anything else, the process of determining if it is authentic or not (i.e. if it is actually what it seems or purports to be) follows a graduated path.

For the purpose of this blog post we'll focus on antiquities. As with paintings and other collectable items, an artefact's provenance (history of ownership) can play a vital part in helping to establish its legitimacy - in both the authentic and legal sense - but here we'll leave that aside and concentrate on the object itself.

Authentication Stages
There are at least three basic stages in the expert authentication of an antiquity.
Stage One: Visual check.
This initial stage can be conducted simply from an image (or series of images) of the object. The object can be identified and an assessment made of whether it is potentially an authentic example of its type. The majority of extraneous objects such as fantasy pieces with no ancient counterpart, obvious fakes, reproductions and other irrelevant distractions can be readily weeded out at this stage with no further action necessary. 
Stage Two: Physical examination.
If the object has passed Stage One (potentially an authentic example of its type), it then progresses to a physical examination. Ideally, this involves a meticulous analysis aided by any basic tools that may be appropriate, including magnification, lighting devices, scales, swabs, solvents, etc. Characteristics such as style, artistic details, epigraphy, construction, manufacture, fabric, patination and so on are closely compared with parallels (both those documented as genuine and those documented as forgeries). Any former repairs, alterations or restorations are detected. 
Stage Three: Scientific analysis.
If the results of the physical examination in Stage Two are inconclusive or need to be verified, the object may then be subjected to scientific analysis such as metal testing, thermoluminescence (TL) dating, radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology or whatever method may be applicable in order to gather more evidence.
What many people fail to understand when they are incredulous that an object can be condemned without going through Stage Two or Stage Three is that the object has already fallen at the first hurdle and failed Stage One. Too often, they are under the delusion that since they cannot tell if the object is fake from only an image, no one else can either.

I did say 'expert authentication'. Expertise varies. New collectors frequently regard institutions such as museums or major auction houses as infallible oracles whose pronouncements can be treated as gospel. But it should be borne in mind that no matter how prestigious the institution, the opinion given is only as good as the individual giving it. While people employed by major institutions are typically screened, possess impressive academic qualifications and may have enormous knowledge in their own field, their competence in gauging objects that are less familiar to them may fall far below that of a small dealer or collector who specialises in objects of that type.

By 'expertise' I mean not only a deep knowledge of the type of object being reviewed, it also entails a huge degree of experience in handling both genuine and false examples of them. Even someone with that background can make mistakes of course - hence the frequent need for subsequent stages before venturing an informed opinion - but more obvious fakes can be confidently rejected by merely glancing at an image of them during the first stage.

Broad Categories
Objects that are offered as antiquities fall into four broad categories.
1) An object (complete, fragmentary or repaired) that is certainly or almost certainly ancient in its entirety. 
2) An object that is obviously modern in its entirety. 
3) A 'restored', 'enhanced', 'married' or altered object that is certainly or almost certainly ancient in part and obviously modern in part but in which the borders are clear. The judgement of such an object is clearly subjective but factors such as the degree of modern material or treatment and the extent to which the original integrity has been affected are taken into account. 
4) An object that does not fit into the previous classifications due to uncertainty. This vast category requires at least Stage Two of the authentication process in order to reach a worthwhile conclusion. And in many cases doubt may still remain.
It is typically the objects in the second category that fail Stage One. It may also be wise to avoid many objects in the fourth category. The judgement of those in the third category is largely based on a consideration of intent and degree. While honest restoration may be perfectly acceptable, substantial alteration can be classed as a form of fakery. An ancient papyrus with a purely modern inscription, for instance, is undoubtedly regarded as fake.

Sometimes, an owner's refusal to acknowledge that their object is not what they want it to be is passionate and my own diplomacy in dealing with that situation was nurtured by bitter experience. I had to authenticate items brought in by members of the public when I worked at an auction house - and their reaction could be unpredictable if I had to inform them that the item was a fake or reproduction. It could be particularly hazardous when conversing face-to-face. Some would merely go into a stony state of denial and tell me how stupid I was while a few owners would launch into a plethora of expletives and threaten me as they slammed the door on their way out.

None of us is fond of anything that may shatter our dream - and it is often wise to seek more than one opinion - but it needs to be realised that a huge proportion of objects purporting to be antiquities are so outrageously fake to anyone familiar with the real thing that they can be condemned outright - even from only an image. In those cases it's not the object that needs to be handled, it's the truth.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Is protecting the archaeological record simply "political correctness"?

Dave Welsh, an American dealer in ancient coins, has expressed his hope that the recent US election will lead to a relaxing of measures designed to protect cultural heritage. By regulating the international transport of ancient artefacts, those measures help to protect the archaeological record by making items looted from it more difficult to smuggle abroad, including those potentially traded by coin dealers who turn a blind eye to where their stock comes from. He sees those measures as "political correctness" ("Political Correctness Loses", 9 November 2016).

His blog post is rather long but the last sentence sums up the thrust: "... their primary loyalty is not to the interests of the American people, but to the interests of archaeology".

Let's have a look at the "American people" ...

Welsh clearly loves ancient coins and I can easily understand that - ancient coins are fascinating - but let's get real, the vast majority of American people have zero interest in either dealing in ancient coins or collecting them (about 50,000 ancient coin collectors is a rather minute fraction of over 324,000,000 Americans).

Conversely, a large proportion of American people do have at least a passing interest in history and archaeology. That is reflected in the media. There are countless TV programmes devoted to that interest. But I'm scratching my head trying to remember the last TV programme I ever saw devoted to ancient coins.

Since archaeology and its contribution to our knowledge of history are clearly of interest to so many people, it seems to me that protecting it from destruction (such as that potentially encouraged by tiny minorities fixated by coins) is not a matter of "political correctness"; it is simply common sense. It is respect not only for "the interests of the American people" but for people all over the world.

--- UPDATE ---

Dave Welsh has responded to my blog post by saying:
"The 1983 CCPIA does not refer to or in any way seek to address the "archaeological record" or its protection. It instead describes the detailed steps required to process requests from foreign governments for import restrictions upon specific types and classes of artifacts."

The 1970 UNESCO Convention (and the 1983 CCPIA which implements it in the US) was designed to protect "cultural property" and the archaeological record of a nation is undeniably its cultural property. Protecting that archaeological record by seeking to prevent bits and pieces of it being smuggled out of that nation is well within its remit.*

But I think Welsh is missing the point I was making in both the title and the content of my blog post. My post was about his use of the phrase "the interests of the American people".

Far more American people are interested in archaeology and its contribution to our knowledge of history than they are about dealing in ancient coins. Regardless of Welsh's own opinion that more weight is given to academic pressure than that of the coin trade in implementing the law, the interests of the huge majority of American people are being given primary importance.

That is NOT "political correctness". That is fairness.The law takes the interests of both the majority and the minority into account. It does not seek to ban the collecting of ancient coins; it merely seeks to stem the enormous flow of recently looted or otherwise illicit coins being illegally smuggled into the US by encouraging dealers to check and document the source of their stock.

(* Which is why I pointed out the futility of trying to define which specific 'bits and pieces' of an archaeological record meet the criterion of "cultural property" in a previous discussion. They are all part of it.)



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