As many of you out there can recall from your school days, not doing your homework, even just once or twice, would almost surely make you fall behind. Some might cheat to try to catch up, some might beg "the smart kid" for answers (but I'll be your best friend!), and some might accept their fate and be more diligent.
This metaphor perfectly sums up the moral of a story that has recently come to my attention. A figurative cry for help has reached me, in the form of a comment left on my VERY first blog entry for SAFE, way back in April, 2010. Who would've imagined anyone still read that far back?! Let's see what's going on.
As you can see if you click on the link above, on October 24th, someone simply going by the name Mo has commented. In it, he informs myself (and all of SAFE) that he'd recently bought five rings from BC Galleries (referred to as a Local Antique shop...does this mean he's in Melbourne)? He wants my personal help in ID'ing/authenticating, as he's "not good at Hellenic culture." Right...like I am?!
The story continues with the assertion that he's a "university accounting student also interested in Antique," but that he went ahead and spent $2,700 US (allegedly) on these rings...without getting anything independently verified first! If this is true, I'd also assume that he only found out about SAFE and my blog post after the fact. One would hope! He goes on to beg my help as, apparently, he could find no appropriate specialists in Australia (not even at the undisclosed "Local Museum"). No experts, he says? Perhaps it's merely that he's worried the experts won't help...because since when is it their responsibility? They have enough on their plates! I have thus become his "last hope."
So, seems like Mo wants me to "do his homework" for him, perhaps after the fact. Either he's clueless and got had, so now reaches out to whomever he can in the hope that someone can assuage his buyer's remorse with a vindication that he's purchased real items...and to hell with considerations such as import/export legality or whether he's holding "toxic antiquities."
On the other hand, would a Uni accounting student (!) with apparently some cash to blow (lucky him!) buy no-questions-asked online? Wouldn't you want to talk to the dealer in person first? Would any but the most gullible ever buy, say, a car from a used-car salesman (not known for their honesty, alas) without performing "due diligence" first?
If anything resembling a licit global market entirely separate and not fed by the illicit market is ever going to exist, if that's even possible, then everyone involved on the demand side has the utmost responsibility to perform due diligence not just afterwards when caught or investigated (or uneasy about one's purchases). When one tries to click on the links to each individual catalog item as offered in his original comment, "not found" messages appear.
Given the numerous evidence-based arguments put forth already that strongly suggest licit can't be separated from illicit in this case (see here and here), I have my doubts. If such a development can ever occur in any meaningful sense, it will be a celebration worthy public policy outcome of new research in this field welcomed by many I'm sure.
As this unexpected example shows, and as we in this scholarly/investigative field continually stress, everyone who voluntarily chooses to further this risky business via "ethical" participation at any level MUST "do their own homework" by asking all the right questions, not just the most pressing afterthoughts.
As those of you who follow this blog would know, Vietnam and its ancient past are near and dear to my heart. The need to better conserve its archaeological record and understand what threatens it remains important...but the degree to which it is threatened is less known than other countries in the region. Research begun by myself and a colleague with legal and criminological expertise in art crime will begin to remedy this.
As part of our overall goal, we have drafted a series of questions designed to produce qualitative data via elucidating Western and Vietnamese archaeologists' experiences and observations of looting and the antiquities trade on the ground. We have already posted a call for interview subjects on three key Southeast Asian archaeology forums. I announce it here as well so as to keep spreading the word. If you or your colleagues would like to contribute, let us know and we can send you the questionnaire and more information about the project and its goals. There's plenty of time, and a diversity of perspectives would be very informative! Anonymity will be preserved.
On November 14th, please make an effort to attend this one-day symposium, to be offered by the DePaul University College of Law Centre for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law. The symposium "will address the underlying legal, ethical and moral reasons and policies behind the return of cultural objects. Panels will discuss provenance research, museum acquisitions, the 1970 UNESCO Convention and historical appropriations, and the ethical issues that come into play when requests for repatriation are made." It is rare to see so many influential scholars on this topic in the same room at the same time, so this is truly an opportunity not to be missed (if you're not on an entirely different continent, as I am).
Topics will include "market and legal" perspectives on the need for more thorough provenance (ownership history) research, how museums can negotiate the acquisition of artifacts that lack a pre-1970 provenance (and should they?), legal and moral aspects of international calls for repatriation of artefacts lifted during the Colonial-era, and the oft-contentious issue of when museums and private dealers or collectors should and shouldn't heed calls for repatriation. All in all, it seems like quite the fascinating gathering...one that I wish I could attend! If any readers of this blog do attend, and would like to guest-blog about what they learned, they are more than welcome.
Yet another historic shipwreck has been discovered and heavily plundered off the coast of Vietnam (Quang Ngai Province), the third since 1998. Thanh Nien News reports that towards the end of June, about 30 boats full of "treasure hunters" rushed over to plunder the shallow wreck; unfortunately discovered no more than 100 meters from the coast and 1.5m deep (more news here).
The seabed around the clusters of likely c. 16th-17th century blue-on-white ceramics discovered has also been dredged and disturbed in the hunt for more artifacts, thereby revealing some of the wreck itself, but also destroying vital archaeological context regarding site formation and taphonomy. There is even testimony to the effect that axes and crowbars were used to free individual artifacts from the wreck as quickly as possible, smashing other pieces in the process!
Fortunately, police have allegedly been on patrol since last Friday morning and a southern Vietnamese "salvage" company was contracted out to conduct an excavation of what remained (see photo above left). The trajectory of discovery, looting, patrol, and "salvage" that occurred for this wreck is very similar to that which occurred for another c. 13th-14th century wreck in the area.
The merits of approaching a salvage company (headed by a known antiquities collector...), as opposed to an organization devoted to maritime archaeology such as the Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project Centre (full disclosure: colleagues of mine), is open to debate. I'd assume it's just a question of time and money, as always.
Here's hoping that authorities will have better luck recovering looted items this time around, but how many are destined for international markets as opposed to local collections is anyone's guess. Vietnamese heritage law would theoretically prevent their export (search for Vietnam here), but enforcement and detection is another matter. With the likely upcoming expansion of Dung Quat port, time is running out to decide what to do with these wreck; remove it or preserve it in-situ as a tourist attraction? Given that other wrecks from different time periods remain unexcavated (but already looted?), how authorities deal with this situation will set important precedent. Stay tuned...
This excellent article by Tom Mashberg of the New York Times deserves further dissemination, so I am happy to help spread it through the cultural heritage "blogosphere." It quite clearly emphasises the varying rates of success in repatriation claims by non-Western countries to Western (demand nation) museums, depending on the degree to which a claimant nation's government is willing to 'cooperate' with museum compromises or requests for replacement exhibits/loans. These considerations beyond mere cut-and-dry "evidence" are too-often overlooked.
Most importantly to me is the call, yet again, for "universal standards" that can guide ALL Western museums greatly hampers efforts to organize and carry out repatriations in best accordance with all available evidence. As it stands, this lack of standards provides, in my opinion, another loophole that irresponsible or lazy individuals can exploit to avoid thorough due diligence/provenance checking, even when, as suggested in the article, research can only reveal that at one point an object passed through the hands of a dealer with "a history" of illicit dealings, requiring a judgement call to be made in the end.
Fortunately, the article highlights examples of museums (such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) that are being increasingly proactive in balancing evidence and moral/ethical concerns and cooperating with investigations before things get out of hand. Victoria Reed, the museum's curator for provenance, is quoted as saying "As we strive for greater diligence today, these past acquisition mistakes provide our greatest learning tool." This really demonstrates to me that some cultural institutions that acquire and display antiquities truly get it by now. It's about time that everyone gets on the same page... Concerned citizens and professional scholars alike who watch the dramas unfold are willing to give those behind the curve time to draft and publicize new acquisition's policies, but if you fail to enforce them, be prepared to accept the PR consequences.
In other news, you can now follow me and this blog on Twitter: @DamienHuffer
New revelations have surfaced, reported in The Australian (related, older news here), that the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra does indeed possess one of the most high profile artifacts of those known to have been purchased from extradited antiquities dealer Subash Kapoor; a "dancing Shiva" statue worth approximately US $2 million on the open market (photo at left). It is suggested that this item was in fact stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu state in 2008 and immediately snapped up by Kapoor before being bought apparently no questions asked by the gallery.
The other 20 items purchased from Kapoor that remain in the NGA's collections are alleged to have had sufficient due diligence and ownership history documentation provided demonstrating their exportation pre-1970...and yet an "investigative committee" has been established, the items remain unidentified to the public, and the gallery's director stated in a Senate hearing that they "were cooperating with authorities" and "needed to be as careful as possible." This stance is commendable and understandable, especially given direct evidence for previous high-profile oversights. All eyes are now upon them to see how this compliance plays out and what further investigation turns up.
UPDATE: According to my esteemed colleagues over at Chasing Aphrodite, the NGA seems likely to soon have alot more explaining to do...
UPDATE #2: New reporting in The Australian has revealed that $5.1 million was paid for this statue by the NGA, not $2 million, making this one of the most expensive art or antiquities deal done in Australia. A victim of fraud? Hmmmm...
UPDATE #3: The latest article in The Australian details how continuing revelations of high profile Australian museums and art galleries active and knowing participation in the South Asian antiquities trade via Kapoor have finally caused the Chair of the Australian Association of Art Museum Directors (one Mr. Tony Ellwood) to "place this issue on our next agenda." Let us hope this is carried out and that new accession guidelines for antiquities will be drawn up on par with those in the US and, importantly, made public and actually enforced!
I am quoted in the article and I stand behind my statements, but in retrospect, credit must always be given to investigators of the Tamil Nadu police department's Idol Wing for first alerting the world of some of these thefts. As well, I would more appropriately refer to Kapoor as the "Medici of South Asia" or just "Asia." All in all, these are minor points. All of us now eagerly await more revelations. I will continue to help uncover this "iceberg" as much as possible.
An interesting and thought provoking piece has come to my attention recently. It specifically posits the question of what, and to what extent, an established but deeply indebted museum (using Chicago's Field Museum as an example) can sell off previously held collections on the open market. Using the example of the sale of several paintings by Catlin in order to raise proceeds to pay curatorial staff who originally tended the collections, the question of how respectable museums can adapt to times of budgetary stress in an ethical manner comes to mind.
Some have argued for the legal release and sale of artifacts or pieces of artifacts (such as ceramic sherds) in which numerous allegedly identical examples might be found in any one excavation. I would respond by saying that just because two or more objects LOOK the same stylistically does not mean future scientific analysis won't reveal different manufacturing centres, raw material types, or adhering residues that could explain differences in archaeological context. Within the academy, the fields of archaeology and physical anthropology are becoming increasingly focused on methodological advances in "archaeological science" (archaeometry) to breathe new life into old collections or previously curated remains...revealing increasingly minute details of human life history or artifact manufacture, exchange, and use.
Carrying out new excavations successfully (for research purposes) is not only tied to the availability of funds (and thus national, state and local fluctuations in the economy), but also requires a certain degree of luck to find in-tact and well preserved sites before the global antiquities trade claims them. The role of museums and secondary collections in the continuation of global archaeological and anthropological research is therefore not to be underestimated. Selling off already curated items (even with paperwork attached) should therefore be avoided at all costs as, even if this trade would arguably be more "licit," it would still be detrimental to overall scholarly efforts to truly understand and share the past, not just aesthetically "appreciate" it.
Another issue raised is the concept of "donor security" being shaken if it became known that high-profile institutions are being forced to sell or auction off collections. Apparently, if donors get jittery that items they have consigned to museums for long-term safe keeping will now be sold off, and possibly not even returned to them, they will be less likely to donate in the first place. Even in Western countries, where storage space, proper curatorial technique, and security tends to be less of an issue, good intentions will never entirely buffer against ill economic winds.
If the items in questions (e.g. antiquities or fossils) have known or suspected illicit origins, it would seem likely that the economic hardship affecting many of the world's museums would only increase the likelihood of unscrupulous dealers or collectors continuing to do wrong by humanity's past by choosing the "free market" of the no-questions-asked antiquities trade as the final destination for items they no longer want the burden of holding on to. What can be done about this, in relation to the antiquities and fossil trade especially?
It's a tough question, but one that needs practical solutions, barring the sudden generation of revenue from thin air. Will previously free museums have to begin charging entrance fees or levy taxes on acquisitions from private donors? Making "gifts" and "bequests" no longer able to receive tax write-offs could be a start (and would, in my opinion, perhaps make donors more prone to double checking ownership history and documentation). I don't pretend to have a solution readily at hand, but I would love to discuss this topic further. How do YOU think cash-strapped museums can raise revenue without sacrificing too many employees, their ability to provide documented collections for new research, or indirectly fueling the antiquities trade?
Currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sydney's Institute of Criminology. Research interests include Southeast Asian archaeology, bioarchaeology, human osteology, quantifying the antiquities trade, and the use of new-media methods as educational tools about complex issues.