Wednesday, 23 September 2009

International Antiquities Registry (IAR)

A draft proposal...

What is the purpose of creating a registry?
Two of the greatest objections most collectors have about the idea of an antiquities registry are concerns about privacy and security. But not all registries are the same. There is not only one kind of registry.

Countries like Israel or Greece may use a registry to keep exact track of precisely where artefacts are – who owns them, are they licensed, etc. But that’s only their way of doing it, in their situation, in their political climate, in their position of being a source country subject to corruption and smuggling.

The purpose of collectors may be very different. As responsible collectors we want to achieve two main related goals:

  1. We want to diminish the destruction caused by looting and avoid making any contribution to it.
  2. We want to be able to distinguish between artefacts that have been circulating for years and those that have been freshly dug up.

Simple! That is our purpose in creating a registry. Thus...

It is the ARTEFACT we want to register, NOT the collector.

The two are not inseparably and inextricably joined together at the hip. Our primary purpose in creating a registry is to permanently determine the DATE (and hopefully location) an ARTEFACT was first recorded – thus giving us a means of distinguishing it from items newly looted.

It does not matter who or where its current owner is – whether they are Fred Bloggs next door or a Klingon on the far side of the moon. The owner’s details are utterly irrelevant and do not need to be recorded at all.

Neither does it matter whether the item is authentic or fake. The IAR would not be a means of authenticating objects. That has nothing to do with it; its only purpose is to establish the DATE when that object was first recorded.

Think of the IAR number as a serial number, a permanent date-stamp.

International Antiquities Registry (IAR)

There are only FIVE types of compulsory data.

1) IAR number (automatically assigned by the database software)
2) Minimum of two CLEAR photographs for identification
3) Description
4) Size and weight
5) Date registered (automatically assigned by the database software)

Spaces for OPTIONAL data such as owner, provenance (if known) and other details would be provided but NOT compulsory.

The person entering the data would select from dropdown lists for type, culture, material and perhaps other categories.

1) Searching by IAR number
2) Searching by the categories in the dropdown lists (see above)

Those are the basics.

A few points:
1) Only the assigned category would be editable. The main five fields would be permanent to prevent tampering (e.g. substituting different photos of another item at a later date). Corrections of description or size or further photos could only be added to the original information (in a separate field), not replace it.
2) The IAR would be used to record items only over a certain value, say, £100. It would be pointless separately entering hundreds of identical beads or other extremely common items.
3) It would be the owner’s responsibility (and certainly in their interest) to keep a note of the IAR number with (or even inscribed inconspicuously on) the object.
4) If the IAR number is lost and the item has not been found by searching the database, the item would have to be re-registered afresh.

While the Date is the primary goal of the IAR, if we are to combat illegal trafficking fully it is also important to know what country the item is being registered from – and a sixth field for Location should ideally be added to the IAR.

It would be easy for the software to capture the IP and automatically get the country from that – but that is open to abuse (e.g. a Bulgarian sending photos to a colleague in the USA and getting him to register them before sending the actual items). But there are two points to consider:

1) We would still be no worse off even if items were being registered from a country where export is regulated. IAR registration is not a passport; the items would still have to be smuggled out illegally as they are now. And at least we have the benefit of a date; the items cannot have been excavated after that date.
2) A solution would be to allow only designated officials (say, local museums) to enter items on the IAR on behalf of owners (with the items physically present). The public would have complete access to the Search facility of the IAR but not the Entry section.

1) The initial cost of software programming. It’s really fairly simple and not particularly innovative. It repeats much of the off-the-shelf coding that’s already out there. I dare say I could code it myself (if someone wants to pay me for my time!) but I would want outside specialised help on top-level security.
2) The cost of hosting. The software itself would be tiny. The only large storage would be the images in the database but hosting providing gigabytes of storage is not prohibitively expensive nowadays.
3) The cost of maintenance. I suspect the site could be maintained by only one person, or perhaps two staff at the very most. It would also need to be checked every now and then by an outside web security firm to ensure it keeps up to standards. Not expensive.

Meeting the cost
Since the current trade in antiquities is believed to amount to several million dollars a year, I would hope that major dealers and auction houses would be pleased to subsidise a scheme that gives them a very good image in the public eye!

1) Being able to distinguish between artefacts that have been circulating for years and those that have been freshly dug up
2) Diminishing the destruction caused by looting by being able to avoid making any contribution to it
3) Public Relations: collectors would be seen to be actively doing their part to preserve the archaeological heritage – a far better image than the current one of being perceived by many as selfishly contributing to its destruction

I don't think anyone would seriously suggest that registration would completely destroy the illegal trade - there will always be a black market in any type of goods - although I do think it would be hugely diminished.

It would of course take time for the effect to be noticed but perhaps only a few years if the scheme were to be given enough publicity. Responsible dealers and ethical customers – and there are plenty of both – would increasingly come to accept that an artefact must be registered in order to be saleable or collectable. Those items which were not registered (unless demonstrably in the proverbial grandma’s attic) would be shunned by the huge majority of people in years to come.

At this stage, I envisage the IAR as voluntary, not forced by legislation. Stigma alone may be motivation enough – especially in a few years time. Not many people wear real fur, legal or not.

Just a few thoughts. I’m sure there are lots of points I haven’t considered. But bear in mind that any project – no matter how big - has to start somewhere. Details or even major points are ironed out along the way.



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