Thursday 8 October 2009

Concerned collectors – just a tiny voice in the wilderness?

Well, my draft proposal for an International Antiquities Registry went down like a lead balloon on the forum I posted it to.

It seems there is no real wish to consider such a scheme. But there are three other things to consider in the meantime...

1) Collectors making a purchase will continue to have to rely on former owners and their heirs keeping and passing on those extremely rare and easily faked little scraps of paper to know the provenance of an item (uncertain even then unless accompanied by photos) instead of simply looking up its IAR number.

2) Since the huge majority of minor antiquities do not even have the little scraps of paper anyway, collectors will continue to have no real way of knowing if most of the items they buy are really from old collections or from fresh digs - and thus still no way of knowing if they are contributing to the ongoing wholesale destruction of the world's heritage or not.

3) When registration of antiquities does come (and it surely will) it will be forced on us by government legislation - very likely with all the draconian bureaucracy and overkill such laws normally entail, and almost certainly including owner details (bureaucrats love that sort of thing even if there is no reason for it) - instead of being a self-regulated voluntary scheme which would have given collectors an excellent image.

Oh well...

I think Nathan Elkins has highlighted part of the root of the problem on his own blog. I suspect that many dealers have no strong desire to upset the status quo and some American coin dealers (who represent a large proportion of the trade in antiquities) have indeed organised a lobby which actively campaigns not to upset the status quo. Concerned collectors, on the other hand, have no lobby and no organisation.

It is true of course that dealers rely on collectors for their livelihood. But until concerned collectors become a large and organised group with a united front many in the trade will continue to ignore them.

Friday 2 October 2009

Heritage destroyed - and a missed opportunity

The destruction of the ancient heritage of Bulgaria is a tragedy not only for Bulgarians but for all mankind. The devastation is highlighted by Ivan Dikov, a journalist involved in an Australian TV documentary.

Bulgaria has an enormous archaeological heritage from many cultures and nearly all of it is being looted at an alarming rate but the Roman city of Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria) is "the ultimate example of the carnage that has been going on in the last 20 years".

"... Ratiaria, once a symbol of the glory and might of Rome, has been reduced to a huge field of 20 hectares covered with craters and hills. The sight is unbelievable: the land has been overturned again and again, by machines and by hand. [...] At one particular time there were 17 bulldozers plowing Ratiaria at the same time!"

While the TV team were there, a busload of tourists arrived and Dikov comments sadly that "The poor people really believed that the craters they saw were what Ratiaria was supposed to look like; they had no idea that 20 years ago it had standing walls and everything else". Ratiaria had looked very different only a couple of decades ago.

Bulgaria has been blighted by unemployment and widespread poverty since the fall of the communist system, and the tragedy (and irony) of places like Ratiaria is not only the destruction of heritage for the sake of short-term profit but a sickeningly missed opportunity for a real money-spinner - a project that would have preserved the heritage and provided far more financial gain in the long term.

As the Australian journalist, David O'Shea, noted: "The real tragedy in a place like Ratiaria is that the people searching for treasure are looking for a couple of bucks here and there, where what they could be doing is sitting in a thriving tourist center. There could be hotels, and bars, and restaurants, and tourists everywhere just like there are in Rome, or Athens. That's the real tragedy."

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.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Ratiaria Appeal

The Bulgarian Archaeological Association has called attention to their appeal to save the site of the ancient city of Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria. The site has been subject to prolonged and extensive looting.

The campaign includes a petition and a request for donations (link at top left). Several archaeologists and historians (including here, here and here) have aleady highlighted this campaign but it cannot hurt to publicise it on as many blogs as possible.

This plea graphically illustrates why not just archaeologists and historians but anyone genuinely interested in history should be sickened by the wholesale destruction caused by an unrelenting and thoughtless demand for artefacts at any price.

It is important to realise that this is happening not only in Bulgaria but around the world - in Peru, Italy, Cambodia and so on. Here, for instance, is a taster of where most of those artefacts from Israel are coming from. They may be legally exported but is their ultimate source ethical?

Collecting and preserving pieces of the past is a natural and intelligent pursuit - and it is fortunate that we already have so many items to study and admire - but the ravenous hunger for yet more and more objects to be ripped from the ground is nowadays fueled by an increasing population, is aided by modern technology, and has escalated utterly out of control over the past two or three decades.

The importance of establishing and recording provenance to distinguish between the items already circulating years ago and those which have been dug up recently has become imperative if collectors wish to avoid contributing to the ongoing devastation of a fragile and finite resource. That resource is a heritage that in many ways belongs to all mankind and it can never be replaced.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

False dichotomy: you're either with us or against us

That phrase "you're either with us or against us", epitomised by a version in Bush’s speech against terrorism in 2001 but used throughout history, has always seemed to me to have overtones of the playground bully’s "you’re either part of my gang or you’re the enemy" mentality. It makes good rhetoric but its basic fallacy is soon revealed under close analysis. In reality there is nearly always a middle ground.

An example of a false dilemma has arisen in the world of antiquities and there is a danger of getting caught between the extremists.

On one side there are those extremists – typified by a few coin dealers – who advocate thoughtless collecting, demand that there must be no limit to a massive supply of fresh finds, even if it means ignoring or changing the law, pretend that their type of object has little to do with archaeology, downplay the importance of context, argue that ethics are irrelevant, and even take the heady stance that any restriction, no matter how sensible, is an attack on human rights.

On the other side are those extremists – typified by a few narrow academics – who seem to think that no object should be outside the country where it was found no matter how long it has been there, deem every undocumented object as ‘looted’ and insist that every artefact must have documentation for the past forty years regardless of circumstances, or think no artefact should be in private hands and would ban collecting altogether, in some cases even giving the impression that they would prefer to destroy objects rather than letting them fall into the hands of the great unwashed.

It is human nature that it will always be the extreme views that grab headlines; majority views are not sensational. But there is a real danger that even rational people get carried away by the propaganda and falsely see only two polarised camps; they may feel that they can belong only to one or the other. You're either with us or against us.

Are there really only two options? Ignore the propaganda, stand up to the playground bully tactics for a moment, and a whole new perspective emerges. In fact there is an enormous middle ground, the one that doesn’t grab headlines.

A favourite tactic of the camp defending the status quo in collecting is to portray those who question them as "radical archaeologists". The emotive word ‘radical’ implies extreme or fundamental change. In fact, the only real change that most of those concerned about protecting a fragile archaeological resource are asking for is that those who wish to collect artefacts do so more thoughtfully and responsibly than they did in the past.

Is it really only archaeologists who want that change? Thoughtless collecting can easily lead to rampant destruction of the archaeological record. The archaeological record is the source of much of our knowledge of history. Are archaeologists the only people who care about history? That seems a bit dismissive of the intellectual capacity of the rest of us.

A hackneyed tactic of those who would be happy to ban collecting altogether is to portray all collectors as shallow and selfish individuals who are interested only in possessing pretty art objects to put on their mantelpiece, as fiends who will stop at nothing to acquire them. It conjures up an ugly picture but in reality a great many collectors are highly intelligent and kindhearted people with a deep passion for history and for the objects they own, and an altruistic desire to share that passion, often at considerable personal expense. Their genuine knowledge of the past frequently exceeds that of those who criticise them.

Middle ground
Such propagandist tactics can all too easily sway opinion. But neither of those two extreme camps represent or acknowledge the middle ground: the thousands of people, including many academics (and several archaeologists), who enjoy owning a few artefacts but do so responsibly because they also care about protecting the archaeological record.

Despite what the two polarised camps would like us to believe, it is not a question of Collectors vs. Academics. There are plenty of people who are both. It is a question of Extremists vs. Extremists – plus a rather large middle ground. The views of the middle ground are unextreme – so not very exciting or sensational – but perhaps it is time to publicise those views a bit more.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Minor antiquities: the importance of keeping records

Paul Barford, an archaeologist with a keen interest in protecting the archaeological record from looting, recently observed: Surely there are more than enough shabtis on the market with verifiable provenances showing licit origins ...

No, Paul. Sadly, there are not.

The big impressive shabtis with lots of hieroglyphs are 'high-end', in a similar category to other major antiquities. If you happen to be an oil magnate it is relatively easy to find and insist on those with a long provenance to the Bagsofmoney Collection and illustrated in Sothebys/Christies catalogues. No problem.

But the run-of-the-mill (affordable by those who aren't millionaires) shabtis are in a similar league as other 'minor' antiquities: ordinary scarabs, pots, amulets, lamps, fibulae, etc. The huge majority don't have even hearsay provenances, let alone verifiable ones. Vast quantities of such things came into Western Europe and North America in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Many were bought as souvenirs or knick-knacks long before export licences were needed. Many of the things themselves were probably thrown out unrecognised by heirs and certainly most of the early receipts have long gone. If such low-money stuff ever went through any major auction house at all (very little did) it would have been in unillustrated multiple lots. Problem.

I imagine Paul's remark was actually rhetorical (as was my reply) - in fact he is of course thoroughly aware of the issues regarding collecting - but it makes a useful springboard for discussion since it does succinctly encapsulate the views of many worried about heritage conservation and the effects of unbridled collecting on a fragile archaeological resource. I share that concern and I'll comment in general on the situation from the collecting point of view.

It seems easy to insist that only objects with a documented history before 1970 can be collected. But that would condemn nearly all the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of minor artefacts already in circulation to oblivion.

The only sensible option is a more pragmatic approach, a middle road, one which embraces the notion that unrestricted and irresponsible collecting will encourage the destruction of a finite and fragile resource, yet one which also acknowledges that the huge heritage of undocumented artefacts which already exists must be cherished.

Objects without context
The view expressed by some that objects without context have no value is patently nonsense, a blinkered view held only by those too biased to see beyond their own goals. Context is king - it is not only how we can learn about the ancient world in general but even how we advance our knowledge of the objects themselves - and an object divorced from it is a frustratingly missed opportunity - but that object is still by no means meaningless. In an ideal world every artefact would be carefully recorded in its context - and we increase the chances of that by collecting responsibly - but it would be madness to spurn those artefacts collected by earlier generations simply because their context was lost.

Cut-off date
The problem lies in distinguishing between those thousands of objects inherited from old collections and those objects which are being ripped from the ground today and obliterating archaeological evidence in the process.

It's no good indiscriminately insisting on a documented provenance going back before an unrealistic and arbitrary cut-off date such as 1970 (even the UNESCO Convention itself didn't come into force until 24 April 1972, the USA didn't accept it until 1983, the UK accepted it in 2002 and Germany ratified it in 2007). That arbitrary year may serve for museums acquiring major objects which are more likely to have records. It is not realistic for minor objects.

We have seen that it is pointless to naively insist on old pre-1970 documentation for the majority of low-value antiquities; most minor artefacts no longer have early receipts or other records and many were around long before export licences.

But equally it is clear that the status quo cannot go on. An increasing population with increased leisure time, aided by modern technology such as metal detectors and the internet market, is gobbling up artefacts and destroying the archaeological resource faster than anything our forefathers could have imagined.

As long as conservationists insist on an unrealistic and largely unworkable cut-off date and collectors insist on not coming up with an achievable alternative, we will have stalemate - an unsustainable impasse which will eventually doom collecting in public opinion. It is the merits of heritage conservation that will win public opinion, not the protests of a minority that selfishly ignores them.

There has to be action - and the initiative has to come from those who wish to carry on collecting. The only way to both discourage the destruction of the archaeological resource and preserve the undocumented 'orphaned' artefacts we already have (rather than throwing them out) is twofold:
1) to perform as much 'due diligence' as possible to determine if an item is likely to have licit origins, and in the absence of any documentation, to use informed judgement,
2) to properly record the item now as far back as possible.

By recording objects now, and then at some point insisting on acquiring only those objects which have been recorded by a certain date, collectors will help to eliminate a market for freshly excavated (and thus unrecorded) objects in the future. Voluntary recording is infinitely preferable - none of us would wish the potential alternative of recording forced by legislation - but it must be done if we care about both the archaeological resource and the heritage of orphaned objects. And the sooner the better.

The general public in the 39 years since 1970 has not been aware enough or dedicated enough to appreciate the reasoning behind the importance of recording artefacts - it's too late to change that - but a more conservation-aware present and future generation will have a less cavalier attitude. They will increasingly insist that any artefact they buy (or even respect) will have some kind of provenance to show at least that it has not contributed to recent destruction. The further back - even if only to 2005 or whatever - that provenance goes the better it will be.

People are becoming increasingly aware of heritage conservation and the day will certainly come when an artefact without even an attempt at documentation will be as shunned as ivory and fur. An irresponsible collection of unrecorded artefacts will have the same stigma (and the same worthlessness) as a collection of birds' eggs (another pasttime considered harmless until it was realised how much damage was being done).

A fascinating history of a hobby that became socially unacceptable.

Collectors have the opportunity to maintain the appeal and restore the respectability of artefact collecting - but that calls for an attitude which differs from the status quo: an attitude which clearly demonstrates that instead of traditionally turning a blind eye to the problem that threatens to make artefact collecting socially unacceptable, collectors are actively working to help eliminate that problem themselves.

Collectors can, and must, show that instead of working against conservation, they are working with it.



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