Saturday, June 26, 2010

China's Sorrow...and the World's

I bring to your attention two recent articles regarding the current uptick in tomb robbing occurring these days in China. The first was written by Dr. Magnus Fiskesjo, an anthropology professor at Cornell University (and former Director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm). It was published in the China Daily newspaper. The second is by Calum MacLeod, for USA Today. Both center around the recent discovery of the tomb of general Cao Cao, a famous historical figure who lived between AD 155-220, at the very beginning of the Three Kindgoms Period (AD 220-280).

Although the tomb was eventually excavated (read "salvaged") by archaeologists, according to one of the farmers turned collectors in Anyang province (in the vicinity of Cao Cao's tomb), quoted in MacLeod's article, "since 2007, five gangs have targeted the tomb, and the region's poverty is the main driver." Although many locals supplement their meager income with selling field finds (usually obtained by less drastic means than the combination of metal detecting, bulldozing, mobile phone photography, "feng shue" divination and "traditional archaeological techniques" increasingly favoured by the organized tomb raiding teams), the articles stress that at least a few small-scale local collectors who might otherwise wish to see museums built to curate their artifacts are increasingly afraid of draconian penalties.

Both articles stress what is lost in terms of context and more specialized archaeological knowledge when a tomb is ripped open in search of artifacts. Importantly, however, Dr. Fiskesjo stresses that the majority of the blame should not lie at the feet of local looters or even local middle-men (beyond devising more appropriate punishments to act as deterrents as much as possible...certainly not the death penalty). Rather, the urban dealers and private collectors in China and abroad are assigned most of the blame; rightfully so, in my and the author's opinions.

The articles bolster this sentiment by pointing out that urban dealers and collectors in China are encouraged to only accept "the real deal" by such pop-cultural phenomena as antique shopping shows and game shows with content and discussion of antiquities far removed from the on the ground realities of looting. Indeed, MacLeod's points out how just how much "antiques have become the new currency of bribery" amongst corrupt officials in China, notes collector Hu Wengao (as quoted in MacLeod's article). This goes hand in hand with the rise of numerous "antiques malls" in Beijing, increasing export of rare pieces (or retention by corrupt local officials) and a thriving fakes industry, especially out of Hong Kong.

Banned under Mao in 1949 as "too capitalist," the MacLeod article notes that since the 1980's the "hobby" has been making a come back. However, the ideas proposed by Feskijo to use pop-culture as a force for good; something to remove the "lime light" that looting and collecting have been given in the local Chinese media, and expose the messy side of the trade to international collectors who might only see cleaned-up pieces online. To quote Fiskesjo "Alongside the antique shopping shows on TV, there could be programs that highlight this destruction. One could make arrested robbers walk the sites with reporters, under experts' guidance, and explain the damage they have done and reveal the names of persons who payed them to do it. Similar tell-all shows could be conducted with dealers who knowingly sell recently stolen items. One could interview collectors and ask them to reflect on the sad consequences of their activity."

While these seem like intriguing ideas in principle, I think it'd be rather difficult to actually arrange informants to interview or display to the public. However, if participation in such a program was implemented as a legal "community service" option, perhaps in exchange for a reduced fine, jail time, or a stay of execution, especially for those poor rural residents who might only be engaged in "subsistence digging," more of those convicted might try to arrange for it. Indeed, Fiskesjo concludes by noting that the shame itself could be a powerful deterrent, at least for locals (even urbanites who have yet to purchase and are simply not aware of how that shiny bronze object actually got into that gallery's window display). Shaming foreign (primarily Western) middle-men, collectors and dealers into giving up their hobby is another thing entirely.

The future of Chinese prehistoric and historic archaeology appears to be at a cross-roads, and as local and international archaeologists continue to collaborate in their race against time, they key here (as in Southeast Asia and everywhere else looting is felt...i.e. pretty much everywhere), is changing public attitudes. Easier said than done, but in my view, factually-grounded outreach can only be a force for good.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

You call this "Archaeology," do you?

Yet another one... This time I direct you towards this and Trocadero affiliated dealer, simply called "Archaeology." Seriously. Operating out of Bendigo, Victoria, since 1996 (online since 2002), Mr. and Mrs. Munday claim to have, over their 12 years of operation, "formed fabulous relationships with dealers," primarily working with Licenced Antiquities Dealers in the Holyland (Israel). They boast that they have also received materials, of unstated provenance and collection history, from the former Museum of Biblical History in Columbus, Ohio (what, exactly, happened to it?). Indeed, through their "expertise" (primarily, it seems, in Classical World coins) they "hope to be able to help you with your collection, gift, or coffee table talking point" (italics mine). Coffee table talking point?!

There's nothing new about how they advertise their wares. Prices are usually offered, sometimes with discounts, sometimes noting what's been sold. No provenance, no collecting history, no mention of how these European and Middle Eastern coins made it to "a small country town" in Australia. However, what I want to highlight is the following statement: "We not only love our business, but also love ancient history and the fantastic feeling of connection with the past that antiquities and ancient coins provide the bearer. We hope to be able to share our passion and enthusiasm with you as we display our fantastic range of ancient history and art." If unsatisfied, items can be returned for a full refund, but if they come back damaged, don't worry...purchaser and supplier can just "talk about what went wrong." Really?!

The existence of stores like this represents, to me, the very fringes of the "no questions asked" antiquities trade. It is unfortunate to find them apparently alive and well in Australia, and using the same tired rhetoric used by dealerships/galleries big and small.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Angkorian Statuary Repatriation: What's Behind the Headlines?

The Seattle Post Intelligencer picked up an AP wire story dated June 17th, pertaining to the repatriation of seven pieces of c. 1000-1500AD Khmer statuary, including "two heads of the Buddha, a bas relief, and an engraved plinth" (photo at left). See here for the Phnom Penh Post's take. The statues were unloaded in port at Sihanoukeville on Thursday, after traveling aboard the USNS Mercy; bound to Cambodia on a "13-day mission to provide free medical care to Cambodians." The article makes some to-do about these pieces being recovered during a 2008 "raid" by US Immigrations and Customs (I.C.E.) agents, on the location they were being held at somewhere in Los Angeles, yet fails to report where this locations is, who possessed them, if they were recovered from private residences or institutions post-sale or were in some warehouse somewhere awaiting delivery. The article notes that, despite the M.O.U. (Memorandum of Understanding) signed between Cambodia and the US (and, I should note, the existence of an I.C.O.M. "Red List" for Cambodia since 2009), numerous artifacts large and small have ended up in private collections overseas. This is indeed true, and ongoing. What I question is whether there's more to this story than meets the eye.

What's missing completely from this article is any mention of this, the "seedier" side of the antiquities trade in Asian archaeological artifacts. A colleague of mine and I have been discussing the possibility that this repatriation came about as a result of the "Robert Olson" investigation, during which official warrant-mandated searches of his Los Angeles residence in 2008 directly led to the recovery of photographs, reference books, receipts, files, and "more than 2,000 bronze and terra cotta artifacts, mostly imported from Thailand, Vietnam, and other South Asian (sic) countries, from two storage lockers..."

The knock-on effect of this raid expanded to his son and daughter, four Southern California museums (including the high-profile L.A.C.M.A., or Los Angeles County Museum of Art), two LA art galleries, and a private collection in Chicago. Although he repeatedly tried to pass the buck and feign ignorance (the "I was just doing what THEY told me to do" routine), he was found guilty and had most of his property and asetts seized. Although 12th-15th century Angkorian sculptures are not mentioned in the list of seized materials, or photos/receipts documenting sold items, the very high profile nature of this return, the bulk and rarity of objects involved, and their recovery in/shipment from Los Angeles does make it seem possible that an unreported connection exists.

I will keep monitoring this situation to see if any more news is released post-repatriation. The welcomed occurrence of these repatriations, however, does not mean that other recently surfaced artifacts, even large statues, are not even now on display in international museums or being arranged for transport. While the deliberate or undeliberate selling of fakes to "satisfy" a private collector would mean one more genuine artifact might remain in situ, or at least in-country where it can be recovered and/or curated, galleries such as Gandhara Galleries (reported about here), should still be closely watched.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Annam Antiques and Gifts: From Bangkok With "Love"

As I, and others, have discussed numerous times before, Bangkok and Singapore have long served as major transit points for Southeast Asian antiquities to reach online markets far and wide. Yet, encountering examples of galleries based in either of these cities with active online sales is rather difficult, as many do not have active websites, but instead rely on walk-in traffic, telephone calls, or private email orders...spread by word of mouth on online dealer/collector forums, such as the Yahoo "Dong Son" forum. As a counter-example, I will discuss Annam Antiques and Gifts, a stark example of the "middle" step in the regional antiquities trade.

Located in Bangkok, in the Silom Galleria, and run by "Tom Chicago" (which certainly sounds like a pseudonym to me), they appear to have been in business since 2007, and are registered members of Trocadero; known hosts for several other online antiquities dealers. Very little about the organization or its history is made available, nor is a biographical statement about the owner/dealer. We are able to glean that they are self-proclaimed "specialists in Southeast Asian art with an emphasis on artifacts from Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam." They also offer Chinese ceramics, and one can email privately to request more information about the "Extremely RARE and absolutely Magnificant Champa artifacts in our collection!" When you're dealing in the illicit, it's best to shy away from public scrutiny as much as possible...

While the company's catalog mentions a few examples of contemporary and recent historic art and antiques (paintings, ceramics, sculpture etc.), the focus appears to be on the prehistoric/ancient historic...mostly metal and ceramic artifacts. Within that category, distinctions are made between Dong Son pieces (especially drums) originating in Vietnam, and those claimed to have come into their hands from "excavations" in Cambodia...undoubtedly coming from a site just like Prohear, or even Prohear itself. Some catalog entries, like this "assortment of Dong Son axes," are marketed for later resale by other dealers (with a bonus bracelet included)! Artifacts such as these are quite frequently encountered in antiques or 'souvenir' shops throughout Vietnam, and can usually be bought in bulk. Several different examples of Dong Son drums can be purchased (with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Yunnan "provenance"), as can bells, classic Dong Son orange wear ceramics,Cham earrings, Khmer influenced ladles etc. They're even hawking ceramics from the Hoi An Hoard, which suffered some illicet "salvaging" until divers could get to it. Annam helpfully warns buyers that it's now or never for these purchases.

I'm not surprised anymore that no information is given for any of these objects pertaining to previous ownership, and that many prices are only available through email contact. Indeed, chances are that not only would the seller and Mr. Chicago have no clear idea where the objects are deriving from (beyond "Cambodia" or "Vietnam"), but wouldn't care. As purchases at village level by middle men are done with cash in person, Annam Antiquities would then likely be the first point of sale from which a paper trail would begin, assuming these artifacts end up in Western markets....and if any subsequent dealers or collectors would care to follow up. As has been demonstrated, chances are slim that due diligence is performed.

To close, I highlight this brazen example of the flagrant dismissal of ethics in regards to where Annam Gifts gets its loot from. The only piece clearly from Thailand in this Thai gallery, it is stated to have been assembled after many days or weeks of burial looting around central and northeast Thailand. The 72 pieces strung on this necklace represents an unknown number of burials destroyed to "recreate" this item...and they've even had to offer it at a discount! What's worse is that they admit that these beads come from burials, and even provide a page from a book (this textbook) on prehistoric Thai archaeology to demonstrate this fact. Perhaps this "gruesome" origin will keep it unsold?

The take home lesson is that much of the small, easily portable loot stemming from Southeast Asia will first pass through galleries like this one. If it doesn't stay in-country (a growing possibility as Southeast Asia's middle class rises and gains more disposable income), then more often than not, artifacts will then end up in Australia, or New Zealand, the US, Europe...on into the shadowy world of online trading networks. It is important for monitors and responsible collectors (should any actually collect Southeast Asian materials...) to realise that fraudulent statements of provenance for a prehistoric Southeast Asian object in the catalog of any major online gallery will be covering up residence in a gallery like this one where, as far as prehistory is concerned, it's apparently anything goes.