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The “illicit” antiquities trade

By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting Blog

clutural_nationalismFor the past five years I have read a nauseating stream of blog posts, news articles, discussion list comments and convention presentation reports that condemn the “illicit” trade in antiquities. The fact that anyone might condemn illicit activity is not in itself nauseating, but the ringing of the same bell 24/7 until the brain fogs over in biological rejection is not only nauseating but obnoxious. It reminds me of the parent in a grocery story who repeatedly harps (in the most irritating shrill cacaphony) “Johnny, don’t touch that!” over and over and over until you wish they would take little Johnny and paddle his behind (even though that is certainly not PC these days.) Really, it’s not little Johnny that needs paddling, it is the parent for not approaching the problem with a reasonable and effective solution.

When do the harpies of cultural property nationalism ever talk about the “licit” antiquities trade? From the ratio of ink spilled, one would presume that there is not even a legitimate trade in existence. Never mind that there are laws in Britain and the United States that protect private collectors and the legitimate trade in antiquities. Never mind that countries like Greece, Italy and Israel (among others) have state licensed and regulated antiquities dealers. Never mind that EC rules prohibit restrictions on the legitimate exchange of antiquities between private citizens and businesses within the European Union. Is there a legitimate trade? Of course there is, only an idiot would suggest that there isn’t. But is there any attempt among cultural property nationalists to work with the legitimate trade and private collectors to reduce incidents of archaeological looting? Very little if any, and none that I am personally aware of. In fact, as Executive Director of the ACCG, it has been my observation that the door is not and has not been open to any such collaboration for well more than a decade—and, in fact, the ACCG has tried.

The obsession among cultural property nationalists (especially those archaeologists who blog about the subject) has been to label everything without a documented provenance as illicit. Because much of the trade in antiquities does not require documented provenance, and because provenance is not especially valued by collectors of minor objects, it often does not exist. Consequently, the entire trade is painted with a broad brush as illicit. Excuse me, but that’s an asinine position and one that is a non-starter for any serious discussion. No legal system, short of autocratic government, recognizes a premise where something is illegal unto proven legal. In fact, attempts to create this sort of legal environment have led to several major upheavals in global society. A common coin or a clay pot, that is literally one of millions of surviving specimens, is treated by hardline nationalists in the same light as the Rosetta Stone. They can rave on about context and priceless information, but really, one doesn’t have to think very hard to see through that.

The UNESCO resolution, and laws that stem from it, are based on a sliding threshold. Every year, the detritus of another year of civilization is added to the heap. In the year 2109, virtually everything made by the 6.95 billion (and counting) people on Earth today will become “cultural property” and will technically fall within the controls established by this resolution and set of laws. Look at the room around you, at your desk, at your garage, and multiply this times several billion. Is it important that every item be preserved to tell some future scholar how we lived? Now look backward in time 100 years. We are talking about 1909. There are countless objects among us at this moment that were made in 1909. There are garages that have not been cleaned out since 1909 and sometimes I think mine is one of them. Is all this “stuff” now “illicit” if it doesn’t have a recorded provenance? NO. It is not and any attempt to say it is merely highlights the absurdity of the philosophy.

The problem of archaeological sites being looted is real and deserves a concerted response. It is a concern to collectors and the trade as well as to archaeologists and nationalists. The approach of some, to characterize private collecting and the associated trade as “evil” or “illicit”, and as the “root cause” of looting, is simply not going to solve the problem. There are far too many people in the world who know better and that lie is simply not going to win the day. Instead, it hinders any real progress toward a rational response to the problem. The situation is not going to improve until the rhetoric changes and the legitimacy of any given view is accepted as a function of law, not of philosophy, dogma or desire. There are more than enough laws in place today to protect and control cultural property. When the existing laws are enforced, as legislated and intended, activists on both sides of the issue can go back to doing something constructive in the quest for broadened cultural awareness and interaction.

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