Sunday 23 May 2010

Reaching out?

I very briefly submitted a blog post about the polarised camps in the debate on looting back in February 2009. I removed it and stored it as a draft only a few hours later because I realised I would be too busy on other projects at that time to reply to any comments. I now have a little more time and I have re-posted it:

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

In the few hours it was originally posted the post had a comment by Peter Tompa, a member of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a lobby group for American coin dealers).

I have now posted his comment and my reply to it below since the original post is rather old:

Cultural Property Observer said...

Your blog is interesting, but I think you are being a bit naive. I can say quite forthrightly that collectors and dealers groups have attempted to reach out to the main archaeological groups to discuss the issues, but without any success or even much interest. Unfortunately, the AIA, the main archaeological group in the US, demands provenance information back to 1970. You don't have it and you are said to encourage looting. The current AIA administration is quite a bit more polite than its predecessor, but the message has not changed. The AAMD was basically bullied into accepting the 1970 date and I see no move to suggest anything otherwise for private collectors. One of the truly sad things is that archaeologists that do want to continue good relations with collectors and reach some accomodation have been intimidated from pursing the issue openly. A number of archaeologists I know refer to their bretheren as "radicals" themselves. You may not agree with some or all of the positions of groups like the ACCG, but the ACCG and coin dealers have no power to blackball collectors who disagree. "Hardline" archaeologists do. The prospect of having one's excavation license pulled by a source country based on complaints that an archaeologist is "soft on looting" by being "soft on collecting" has been enough to keep the silent majority in the archaeological community silent indeed about reaching an accomodation with collectors.

19 February 2009 02:34

Thank you for your comments, Peter.

The publicity of the carnage of archaeological sites such as Ratiaria sickens everyone, not only academics but the wider public. It is very clear to the general public that the ultimate cause of the destruction is a demand for artefacts by collectors. Since most people are not collectors themselves, they will endorse the only solutions presented to them - including those presented by the more extreme elements in the archaeological profession. Present another solution.
"collectors and dealers groups have attempted to reach out to the main archaeological groups to discuss the issues ..."

But they haven't 'reached out' with anything even remotely worth seriously considering have they?

Proposals to stiffen policing thousands of sites in poorer countries with very limited budgets and far more pressing priorities aren't very serious. It also strikes me as rather like the classic burglar's excuse to a householder: 'don't blame the thief; you deserve to have your things stolen if you are not able to afford better locks'.

Neither are proposals to implement a PAS system in such poorer countries to be taken lightly. The scheme is extremely expensive to operate in a country with comparatively minor finds such as England; the cost in major-artefact-rich countries such as Egypt or Greece would be astronomic. And actively encouraging people to dig up as many artefacts as they can as fast as they can is hardly in the best interests of archaeological conservation.

Equally unrealistic are proposals for museums to sell off their 'surplus' holdings. The collections are held on behalf of the public. Such holdings are required for potential research in the future and even though the items may number in the thousands, they are finite and would provide only a very temporary source of income anyway.

Nor are proposals that the initiative (and funding) for implementing a registry system should come from the preservationists themselves (archaeologists and the general tax-paying public) going to go down very well. Dealers and collectors are the ultimate cause of much of the looting; the preservationists are merely pointing it out.

Small wonder then that such feeble proposals have not met with "any success or even much interest". To put it bluntly, they ain't going to fly. But perhaps you knew that (see my post on the ACCG)?

Several factors can contribute to looting - and it may well be encouraged by such things as the short-sighted policy of some governments in implementing a blanket state ownership of all artefacts with little or no compensation to the finder regardless of the circumstances in which they were found. But the most obvious and visible cause is the market demand for antiquities. And it is the general public (not just archaeologists - 'hardline' or otherwise) who are increasingly demanding a solution. Give them one.

The 1970 watershed advocated by the AIA is indeed unrealistic for minor artefacts but so far the ACCG has offered no alternative and no compromise. That is not my idea of 'reaching out'. Until the ACCG genuinely endorses a sensible proposal to distinguish between artefacts from old collections and those from fresh looting, and thus eliminate or at least reduce the antisocial stigma that antiquities collecting has acquired, responsible collectors will have no option but to remain in the middle ground.

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