Wednesday, 11 November 2015

"Shut yer mouth" diplomacy

You probably know the type. Here in the UK, some of us occasionally have the misfortune to come across them in the pub. If they sense you are new to the pub and see you are alone, the type - usually a somewhat ageing gent dressed as if the 21st century had never arrived and whiffing vaguely of an aftershave that must have been banned as a health hazard since the 1970s - will sidle next to you and perhaps even offer to buy you a drink. You feel slightly irked by the sympathetic look flashed to you by the bartender as he hands you the drink - after all, the elderly gent seems quite scholarly and benign - until the horrifying truth dawns during the eternity as you sip it. The bartender knows the regular clientele only too well. You've been cornered by the type - a species which in less politically correct times might have been uncharitably referred to as a 'windbag'.

Torn between a compunction to remain polite and an urgent need to find any excuse to leave the pub - at some points, even the planet - you listen as the type endlessly drones on in excruciating detail about his homespun theories on Dubonnic coinage, you try to look suitably impressed while he repeatedly drops the names of the myriad obscure scholars he once met into his monologue, and you hover on the brink of extinction while he tops it off with random snippets of half-grasped Jungian philosophy.

"Gosh," you exclaim politely, while eyeing the tempting distance between the bartender's fruit-knife and your wrists.

"I know more about the coins of the Celtic Coriosolite coins than anyone else in the world," the type responds modestly (Moneta-L, 30/7/08). He then proudly goes on to add that he collects them and that although he has never had any formal training in archaeology, he knows far more about it than people who have. And those archaeologists or anyone else who disagree with him are just suffering from 'enantiodromia' (turns out he's rather fond of big words, especially those used by Jung, and, you suspect, even more especially those he feels will showcase his unrivalled erudition and overawe you).

For instance, despite the overwhelming view of most archaeologists, only he and his inner circle know that in fact "there is no such thing as an archaeological record" (Past Times, 8/12/14).

"Really?" you rashly dare to question, caught off-guard while preoccupied with checking you still have a pulse. "I thought the archaeological record was very important and that one of the reasons museums and antiquity collectors should avoid buying items without a provenance was that it would encourage looters to destroy the record to supply them."

At this point, a bemused smile plays over the type's face as he regards you with a look between contempt and pity. You are not, after all, even remotely in his league of superior knowledge and intellect. "I see nothing wrong with buying an unprovenanced item if it can tell us things apart from that detail," he patiently explains with an air of pained condescension (AncientArtifacts, 8/8/10).

Inwardly, you wonder if trashed archaeological sites are really just a "detail" and if the historians looking at bulldozed Roman remains in places like Bulgaria would see things in quite the same way as the mental giant facing you. But you sense that any attempt at rational discussion would be a mind-numbing exercise in futility. You wisely say nothing, you gulp down the rest of your drink and, muttering that you just remembered your house is on fire, you make a frantic dash for the door.


By now, I dare say readers may have sussed that my light-hearted portrayal of this fictional 'type' is loosely based on a real person and the quotations are his - though in real life the venues are online forums and a blog rather than a pub (I hope he wouldn't really corner an unwilling listener in the latter and, for that matter, I really know nothing about his fashion sense or aftershave). I've mentioned him anonymously before - and in case he fails to see the funny side in being the inspiration for a fictional character, I'll respect his feelings and keep it that way. I'll just refer to him as 'Anon FSA'.

While Anon FSA himself simply dismisses any views that diverge from his own as the drivel of a mere mortal - a "moron" as he once described me - and likes to depict those differing views as paltry "squabbles", there are others who rush to grab their (hopefully metaphorical) baseball bats - and this is where it gets serious.

His pseudo-academic ramblings have deeply impressed some more extremist members of the metal detecting community and they have eagerly seized on his cavalier attitude to genuine archaeology as if his assertions were authentic scholarship and gave them carte blanche. One in particular, John Howland (I've mentioned him once or twice too), has aligned himself like some kind of Billy Bunter crony.

If anyone has the audacity to actually challenge Anon FSA's pronouncements instead of making a "frantic dash for the door" (as in the fictional scenario above), Howland will use every means he can think of to silence them. Apparently frustrated by an inability to form cogent thoughts or express himself in reasoned discussion, he resorts instead to playground bully tactics and engages in puerile name-calling and veiled threats. The latter consists of feverishly tracking down any personal details about the individual he can find - photograph, address, telephone number - and publishing them as widely as possible. It's clearly designed as a form of intimidation - pretty much the equivalent of a thug's "we know where you live, mate".

Since some scholars have been on the receiving end of this form of intimidation and are rightly concerned about the safety of both themselves and their family (one has received death threats over the telephone), the tactic is particularly vile and correctly condemned.

The blame for this incitement to thuggery lies not only with Howland but equally with those who allow him to publish his venom on their blogs. After seeing that Anon FSA had happily allowed two of Howland's poison intimidations as comments on his own blog and clearly supported them, I sent him the following comment on Thursday, 5 November ...

J***, while our views on archaeology and other things may differ, I had always respected you as a man of honour and integrity. I am now utterly shocked. 
While I have criticised the views of other people on my own blog, sometimes even with a degree of sarcasm, I would NEVER and have NEVER debased my criticism to such a personal 'ad hominem' level that I would even DREAM of publishing (or allowing commenters to publish) any details of their private lives - including addresses, telephone numbers, insurance numbers and so on. Such tactics are a form of gutter-level intimidation and play absolutely no part in any scholarly debate. 
I expect such tactics from your commenter; I do not expect you to permit or condone them. Blogspot allows the owner of the blog to vet comments before they are published or to retroactively remove them.  
In the meantime, I remain appalled. As a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, I would hope that you of all people would understand the standards of academic discussion and also appreciate the risk of bringing the Society you have the honour of belonging to into disrepute. Please restore my respect.

So far, almost a week later, Anon FSA has not published my comment but those of Howland remain. I still remain appalled.

Friday, 30 October 2015

"There is no evidence" that these antiquities are fakes

Let's be clear: the antiquities trade is notoriously plagued with fakes and some of them can be difficult to spot. Dealers in antiquities may handle hundreds or thousands of items over a long career and it is inevitable that even the most expert and honest dealer among them will inadvertently offer an occasional fake now and then. Even major museums can be fooled sometimes. But if common low-grade fakes or replicas that should not fool a myopic tourist persistently occur with tedious regularity among a dealer's stock, a line has been crossed. If that dealer has been in business for a very long time and we can reasonably expect them to have acquired a great deal of experience, we have to question not only the dealer's expertise but the honesty of their intentions. Such a scenario would undermine the credibility of the antiquities trade as a whole.

Back in April this year, after an earlier post querying some bronze lamps, I questioned several items that had appeared in the stock offered by Artemission, an antiquities business based in London and owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD). In my April blog post I candidly but unwisely stated my opinion on the authenticity of those items. Artemission objected and asked Google, the blog host, to remove both the blog post itself and any links to it in its search results on the grounds that my post was "causing serious financial and reputation damage" and that it contained "defamatory and unsubstantiated remarks which are presented as ‘facts’ when there is no evidence to support the claims". Google complied.

Fair enough, I have no wish to damage an honest business. I will NOT state my opinion on the authenticity of those items. I will NOT make any "defamatory and unsubstantiated remarks". And, to avoid any unfair loading in search results, I will NOT even include the name of the company in the post title or URL.

Instead, I will merely present the same selection of seven items I queried in my original post (items sold as fakes or openly as replicas on eBay or other venues by other sellers are on the left, very similar items offered by Artemission are on the right) and just politely ask Mr Karawani himself to explain why he feels that his items (those on the right) are authentic. Perhaps my concern is misplaced. In the meantime, I will remain silent and make no comment one way or the other.

(Images can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

I'm hoping the owner of Artemission will be able to clarify the reasons for the worrying similarity and, while we're at it, perhaps he can also explain why the inscription on his example of an "incantation bowl" apparently lies OVER the burial deposits. I am familiar with these artefacts and I confess to being a little baffled. The inscription does not appear to be Aramaic as described and I would have thought that if it were contemporary with the bowl, the inscription would lie UNDER the deposits formed during burial. Just curious ...

I am also curious about quite a few other items that have appeared in the stock of Artemission but Mr Karawani seems a little touchy about having his stock questioned so I'll just swallow my curiosity about those.


The legal complaint requesting removal of my original blog post asserted that "The individual(s) behind this link are intent on damaging our company". Not so. I should clarify that in fact I have absolutely no personal grudge against Mr Karawani (I have never met him) nor do I have the slightest personal interest in damaging his particular company (I am neither a rival dealer nor a disgruntled customer). I am utterly impartial. My blog is not intended as some kind of witch-hunt; any mention of individuals, companies or organisations in the posts is simply incidental to an overall theme.

My interest is in the image of the antiquities trade as a whole and, as I have previously done with other dealers (e.g. here and here), I reserve my right to question or criticise ANY member of that trade who in my opinion may not be helping that image. Karawani is not only a member of the AIAD - an association proudly displaying the slogans "Purchase with Confidence, Trustworthy & Transparent Trading, Dependable Dealership, Reliability & Good Faith" - he is on the Executive Committee. The reputation of a member reflects not only on the credibility of the association to which he or she belongs but on that of the entire trade.

As I said, the antiquities trade is notoriously plagued with fakes. In common with merchandise such as fine art, autographs and other antiques, a key component in the financial value of an antiquity lies in its authenticity. A painting by Van Gogh or Picasso will not be accepted as authentic unless the dealer can prove beyond doubt that it is. The same must apply to an antiquity. It should not be a matter of having to provide evidence that an antiquity is fake; the onus must lie with the person selling the item to prove that it is not.

Nowadays, when scholars such as Elizabeth Marlowe and Oscar White Muscarella are questioning even museum objects unless they have a cast-iron provenance back to a documented excavation, the days of simply taking a dealer's word at face value are over. And when a dealer's response to questions is not to answer them but to simply stifle them by threatening legal action, the slogans of trade associations like the AIAD begin to look somewhat hollow and unconvincing. Is that the image the antiquities trade wishes to project?

Do such actions promote the aura of trade openness and transparency that conservationists have been campaigning for over the last few decades?


While I warmly welcome constructive comments from the owner of the business mentioned in this post, I would be grateful if other people refrain from passing any definitive judgement on his items in the meantime.

Note: Although made merely as a reproduction or tourist souvenir, an item becomes "fake" when deceptively offered as the real thing.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Greece: rise in looting during economic crisis

(stock image)
"The economic crisis has led many Greeks to antiquity looting and smuggling, with most of them being first-time offenders with no criminal record, says a National Geographic report." ("Antiquities Looting Increases in Crisis-Stricken Greece", Greek Reporter, 18 August 2015). And the shortage of cash has had a double impact. Budget cuts have left state agencies unable to deal with the situation. It is "estimated that in all of Greece there are only about 60 employees who work exclusively to prevent and disrupt looting".

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Time for a thoughtful reduction in UK metal detecting?

It is clear that the controversial pastime of metal detecting in the UK, even in cases where finds have been officially reported, has occasionally placed so much strain on limited public funds that the treatment of archaeological sites was compromised and fell short of best standards. One such case, for instance, concerned competing claims on the public purse by events at Creslow and Lenborough in Buckinghamshire during October and December respectively last year.

In light of the recent shrinkage of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and other severe cutbacks in funding at both national and county level for the UK heritage sector at the present time, I wonder if British metal detectorists have accordingly scaled down the active pursuit of their hobby to allow scarce and already stretched resources to be focused on priorities such as dealing with genuine chance finds and discoveries or the urgent demands of emergencies and 'rescue archaeology', where sites are actually under immediate threat. There appears to be a strong case for thoughtful detectorists to curtail their digging in potential sites that are not under immediate threat and find other ways to amuse themselves in the meantime until funding to support their hobby in a reasonably responsible way has improved.

Many of those hobbyists proudly claim that the activity is primarily for the public good. Is this then a time for them to restrict their pastime willingly in response to the current situation or to simply carry on regardless?

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The subtle art of passing the buck: it's always someone else's fault

Dave Welsh, a coin dealer in Temecula, California, and a member of the ACCG, has posted on his blog about a proposed law that is rumoured to involve new due diligence requirements in Germany. (Parts of the proposal are controversial and details need to be ironed out but it is important to bear in mind that Germany has long been notorious as a prime market hub for looted antiquities due to its previously lax legislation.) Welsh also repeated his opposition to the proposed German law on a discussion list. Urging people to sign a petition against it, he intoned a dire warning:

"The strategy of the opponents of collecting is "divide and conquer." First Germany, tomorrow the world - one nation at a time."

Oh, I do wish he would spare us the melodramatic histrionics. Temecula is almost 100 miles away from Hollywood.

Curiously enough, although the fight against looting is already a worldwide concern, laws are normally passed by individual nations - one nation at a time. That's typically how law works. We don't yet live in a single World Empire (the UN is merely advisory); there's nothing to "divide".

After giving valid reasons why dealers prefer not to divulge their sources, he then went on to rant that the "anticollecting ideologues [...]  aren't interested in arriving at a reasonable compromise" and bitterly cried that "Barford and his ilk" will have triumphed if the law is passed.

Ah! I'm hoping that Welsh appreciated the usual meaning of the word 'compromise' - an agreement reached by both sides making concessions. It's a two-way street. Surely he wasn't suggesting that all the concessions should come solely from those concerned about looting and smuggling while the antiquities trade should do absolutely nothing to meet them halfway.

Let's assume he was being sensible. Well, I hate to say I told you so but ...

I proposed a "reasonable compromise" years ago - long before the present looting crisis in the Middle East - and I predicted what would happen if dealers ignored it. As it happens, Paul Barford was quite amenable to the proposal. It was Welsh and his "ilk" who were not "interested". He opposed it. He opposes pretty much everything except the status quo.

The current German law of 2007 concerns objects imported into Germany from another EU nation after 31 December 1992 or imported into Germany from any other UNESCO Convention signatory after 26 April 2007. Those dates are the current thresholds. The proposed amendment is rumoured to demand a provenance of twenty years (it is unclear which category this refers to; the EU category already extends back 23 years). At any rate, the legal thresholds are considerably more recent than 1970. Welsh's excuse for ignoring my scheme was purportedly based on his assumption that any laws would inevitably insist on the same threshold as the ideal mooted by the "archaeological community" and that is clearly not the case. So much for that irrelevant condition.

I patiently tried to explain years ago that laws are passed by politicians, not archaeologists. And the only people that politicians really care about are the electorate. Show the public that all dealers care about looting enough to have taken a "reasonable compromise" to combat it and I dare say the politicians representing the public might feel less urgency to tighten existing laws and be more open to accommodation on matters such as publicly divulging sources and graduating thresholds. But no, it seems that this dealer would rather pretend that proposals such as mine are impossible in the hope that he can just carry on with the status quo forever and not have to do anything.

And now, when events in Germany suggest my prediction may have been only too accurate, he complains that it's all the fault of "anticollecting ideologues" and everyone else. Sigh ...

Compromise means compromise; it involves mutual concessions. I wonder if Welsh has questioned why I, as a former collector myself and someone ardently in favour of collecting, so often ridicule the ACCG. I wonder if he realises that my criticism of them is based on my perception that, in a world where public image is so vital, the blinkered, arrogant, hideously uninformed, rabidly anti-academic and recklessly intransigent attitudes of that lobby group pose as great, if not greater, a threat to the future of collecting than most of the "anticollecting ideologues" put together.

Maybe if the ACCG and other groups like them actually got off their backsides, showed that they themselves genuinely cared about the looting crisis by proactively taking concrete steps to combat it instead of merely whining when someone else does, things would be different. And the public - represented by the politicians who actually pass laws - might take them more sympathetically and less cynically.

My proposal may not have made a huge practical difference, beyond improving image, to the antiquities trade in Germany itself (the legal thresholds already predate it) but the advantage of it as a universal database and deterrent to looting is undeniable. And, if the "tomorrow the world" prediction is correct and artefacts currently unrecorded apart from on precarious bits of paper are to stand a realistic chance of being traded almost anywhere in future, the adoption of such a secure and permanent scheme is patently urgent.


Regarding the IAR: I have no huge personal incentive to develop it into reality. I no longer collect antiquities myself. If people want me to develop it, they will have to back it enthusiastically and consider eventually forming a way to support it financially. I have already explained its potential. But I am not prepared to go it alone.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Your typical "antiquity" on eBay - where did it come from?

Someone recently asked my opinion about an object offered by a UK seller on eBay. The object is grandly described as "IMPRESSIVE ANCIENT ROMAN TERRACOTTA OIL LAMP WITH APOLLO 1ST-3RD C THAMES FIND" and it highlights the old caveat emptor warning to perfection.

Despite the seller's description, the figure is of course Diana, not Apollo. It is a fairly accurate copy of authentic lamps depicting this motif that were made in North Africa during the late 2nd to mid 3rd centuries AD. It looks quite convincing at first glance.

However, even judging just by the photos, the unslipped fabric doesn't ring true, the surface looks artificially patinated, and the piercing of the handle is dubiously proportioned. And poor Diana must be slightly alarmed to be reaching up to pluck an arrow from the quiver on her shoulder only to find that the artist has forgotten to include it (though perhaps just as well; she could be a trifle bloodthirsty at times).

Authentic lamps with this motif are quite common. Sadly, fakes of them are even commoner. I suspect this example is a more sophisticated version of F5 and of the same series as F6.

As usual, apart from the dubious assurances of "Thames find" and "British found" by the seller, there is absolutely no indication of where the item came from. A provenance (collecting history) for an item is not only an ethical precaution against inadvertently acquiring looted artefacts; as Elizabeth Marlowe rightly pointed out, it is also an important factor in avoiding fakes. Dealers in fine art have accepted for decades that a work purporting to be by a top artist is worth very little unless accompanied by a watertight provenance. The antiquities market, both high-end and low-end, is every bit as notoriously saturated with fakes as the fine art market. Perhaps it is time that a similar standard for provenance is more widely adopted for antiquities.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

US "returns" Syrian lamp to ... Iraq

After seizing antiquities in a raid at Deir ez-Zor in Syria, it seems the US Government handed over ALL the items to Iraq in a well-publicised ceremony.

One problem with that ceremony is highlighted by a lamp displayed with other items on a triangular blue sheet in one of the photographs (see image). It appears to be authentic and is a Syro-Palestinian type of the 3rd - 4th centuries AD. In other words, the lamp which was seized in Syria is likely to have been made and found in Syria.

The bits and bobs handed over to Iraq are a strange assortment - including a tiny fake bust of Nefertiti, a modern metal-smelting crucible, a leather manuscript in Aramaic, pieces looted from Mosul Museum, Islamic coins, and so on. After a proper analysis of what the items really are, it is intended that any Syrian antiquities will eventually be transferred on to Syria.


Paul Barford and Sam Hardy have covered this topic in admirable depth.



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