Friday, May 28, 2010

The AAADA, Ethics, and Justifications...

The AAADA (Australian Antique and Art Dealer's Association) represents the largest professional network of on and off-line dealers in Australia. Although they have been mentioned before on this blog in association with the highly-suspect dealings of two affiliated galleries specializing in antiquities (BC Galleries and The Unique Things Store), nearly every medium to large scale online dealer of antiques or antiquities (from contemporary pieces to ancient artifacts) are registered members. Founded in 1992, and now boasting "more than 130 national members," the AAADA is "your brand for quality," where "your purchase is guaranteed and your transaction professional." This from the official online "Message" of President Warwick Oakman, who himself has a gallery dealing in recent antiques.

To further bolster the confidence of a gallery's clients who might investigate just who the AAADA is, upon finding out their favourite gallery is a member affiliate, the President's "Message," and web-site in general, advertises dozens of specialized service providers (conservators to customs and insurance agents to interior designers) to make sure that clients "get the most" out of their purchases. Since 2001, the AAADA has even offered an annual showcase of dealers and their wares, "the only event of its type fully vetted for quality and description." Underlying the Association's function is a "Code of Practice," to which all prospective members must, apparently, swear to uphold. As will be discussed in more detail, it appears that oversight of these standards is minimal, at least where antiquities are concerned.

While I must again emphasize that the vast majority of dealers affiliated with AAADA appear to offer only recent/contemporary antiques (entirely different from antiquities with former archaeological contexts), the points I will highlight from the "Code of Practice" are supposed to apply to everyone. So, for example, Rule #1b requires that all dealers list the price, manufacturing date, material, maker's mark (if relevant), and restorations for each item offered, and to state upfront if something is a reproduction or not. What about provenance or collecting history? Apparently not... Rule #2 requires that "the member shall not attempt to confuse or mislead the customer or falsely describe any of the goods he/she offers for sale or seeks to purchase." Is this another barrier against the selling of forgeries? Rule #4 requires that "members shall accept responsibility for descriptions of items given to members of the public by their staff." This rule seems to have been added to make sure no dealer can pass the buck onto their "underlings" if caught selling forgeries....but what about selling recent dug-ups?

Rule #5: "Members shall not make unsolicited visits to private domestic premises" struck me as strange. Does this actually happen? Is this to mitigate against shady back-room dealing? Rules #7 and 8 seem to absolve the Association of responsibility if a member dealer or gallery gets into trouble, while rule #10 requires that "members cooperate to the best of their ability with consumer protection agencies (e.g. the police, trading standards authorities). At the end of the list, the webpage states that, although the AAADA can not act on any wronged parties legal behalf, they do offer Conciliation Services to mitigate disputes. Why go through all this trouble if everything is above board to begin with? Furthermore, if the AAADA is so concerned with being Australia's foremost representative body for the licit sale of antiques, why allow any galleries in the much more risky/controversial antiquities trade to join? For that matter, why is the President's own gallery listed an an antiquities dealer?

Under the section of the webpage entitled "Our Services," something else suspicious came to my attention. When discussing how viewers of the website can "collect antiques with confidence" when purchasing from an AAADA affiliated gallery, the requirements that "members seek to advance the professional reputation of the Association," and "build long term relationships with their clients" are stressed. However, this point is also offered: "Clients wishing to form collections are able to do this discreetly and with complete confidence." Huh?! What need is discretion when only above-board, recent or contemporary antiques are being purchased? Does this imply that some member dealers are known to be less-legitimate than they let on, even with supposed adherence to the Code of Practice? that addendum merely to shield those who look for AAADA affiliation when they purchase antiquities off the black market? I feel this is a question needing answering.

In regards to the AAADA's stated international affiliations, I must highlight a further point. As Australia (and New Zealand, and all Southern Hemisphere markets for that matter) are still somewhat off-mainstream in terms of the global antiquities markets, it only makes sense that major dealer networks representing Southern Hemisphere countries would themselves be affiliated with larger networks. In this case, AAADA is a member of C.I.N.O.A. (as highlighted on my first post about BC Galleries). CINOA, out of Brussels, is Europe's largest art/antiquities dealing association, with most international/online dealers under its umbrella-and located in a country which even today is known as a major world centre for the trade.

I highlight the following sentence: "Through its membership of C.I.N.O.A., the international trade Association, it takes part in decisions of international and environmental heritage importance. These decisions can also affect your rights and ability to continue to enjoy collecting antiques for private use." Paul Barford has done an excellent job of demonstrating just how convoluted the "collector's rights" arguments have become, and the less-than-stellar responses to open questions that proponents of the no-questions-asked trade perpetually give. Leaving aside a potential scenario of the purchase of, say, a 19th century clock made using wood from a now endangered tree species, or the shipment of objects needing biological quarantine (which would run up against relevant environmental legislation and be subject to severe import restrictions, coming into Australia at least), it seems to me that a proviso such as this would only apply to the antiquities trade.

I'll now provide a couple of examples, from two different member galleries, to illustrate that, at least as far as antiquities are concerned, AAADA membership seems to be little more than a front, with the Code of Practice not being visibly adhered to. The first comes from Moorabool Antique Galleries, out of Geelong, Victoria. While specializing primarily in historic to recent period ceramics, they also deal in "glass, silver, artworks, and tribal & antiquities." As of today, there are 90 artifacts offered under antiquities, but only a few have pictures available and almost none have any stated collecting history (outside of the occasional previous sale at Christies or Bonhams, or the break-up of some c. 1980s private museum). See this Neolithic Thai ceramic pot and this Iranian buffware zoomorphic vessel for good examples! Look for a more detailed blog post on this specific gallery soon. These two antiquities (here and here), for sale via the Peter Lane Gallery out of Adelaide, have even less information attached to them. So, where's the oversight? What assurance can AAADA membership provide to a prospective honest collector that they're not being cheated if some affiliated galleries don't even offer the prices they're selling their antiquities for, let alone any pertinent background?

To close, while the AAADA might be a good idea in principle, and be able to quite capably handle its ethical and legal oversight responsibilities in representation of Australian dealers on the international stage when it comes to recent antiques, it seems that it has some explaining to do in regards to what it lets antiquities dealers get away with. Constant vigilance!


  1. Hi Damien,
    Great blog! This reminds me of another very loosely worded Code of Ethics. This one belongs to the ACCG (Ancient Coin Collectors Guild). It says in part:

    "Coin Collectors and Sellers will not knowingly purchase coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites or stolen from museum or personal collections, and will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country."

    It's easy enough to not "knowingly purchase items removed from scheduled sites or stolen", you simply don't ask that question. The old "Don't ask-Don't Tell" policy. And what about items that are found in previously unknown sites? They're fair game too.

    The part about complying with the laws of their own country also leaves them free to sell items that were dug up illegally and smuggled out of their country of origin as long as it's not illegal to own here in the US.

    Incidentally, they don't follow that one very well either. Their whole "Baltimore test case" centers around Chinese/Cypriot coins that they tried to import without proper documentation.

    So much for Codes of Ethics, huh?

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Thanks Robyn! I'm glad you're getting something out of the site and perhaps learning from it. Yeah,"don't ask, don't tell" never works, regardless of context! Let's keep pushing for serious reform and control, eh?