Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gandhara Galleries: "Statue-ary Rape"

Another gallery has come to my attention as of two days ago, well deserving of more intense scrutiny. The word "unscrupulous" comes immediately to mind! Gandhara Galleries, based out of an undisclosed location in Australia, boasts on their website of 20 years experience in the acquisition, appraisal, and sale of stone, wood, and bronze statuary from "Gandhara," that is Afghanistan to China to Southeast Asia, with a stated specialty in, and strong representation of, pieces from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma). On their website, they take pride in the fact that they've "developed a client list, who return to buy from us again and again," and boast about their offering of pieces "at the same price as the dealers, galleries, museums, and auction houses," which "can of course amount to considerable savings."

Yet again, authenticity is emphasized above all else, and extensive description of the art historical background to Gandhara region sculpture is provided, with emphasis placed upon the uniqueness, and time-consuming manufacturing methods, of every piece offered. To whit: "All pieces are unique, individually hand-crafted by master sculptures using ancient techniques and driven by Buddhist religious ideology and merit, carved and sculptured for religious purposes. Bronzes were produced using the lost wax method, a highly innovative process requiring great skill, experience and patience." Despite the underlying truth that such sculptures (and indeed all artifacts traded as "antiquities," to one degree on another) would've been made with refined and well-practiced techniques, it is statements such as these that directly appeal to the "Connoisseur's View" guiding those who would repeatedly purchase antiquities on the global black market, especially something as bulky, difficult to smuggle, and expensive as complete statues.

Let's talk about the issues of authenticity and provenance as displayed (or not) on this site. First of all, I highlight the following: "Please note: all pieces for sale through Gandhara are in Australia at the time of advertising for sale, unless stated otherwise" (italics mine). The heyday of the wholesale looting and removal of temple frescoes and statuary (or just the heads from said statues), at least in Cambodia, occurred in the 1980s/early 1990s, although statuary looting incidents were known during French colonial days as early as 1924. With more stringent APSARA (local Cambodian Heritage police) and U.N. protection now in place around the major temple complexes, tourism has greatly increased, as have collaborations between Cambodian, regional, and Western authorities to implement new legal and educational measures. As a result, confiscations and apprehensions have begun to occur. Evidence from both Gandhara galleries and others, such as BC Galleries, suggests such apprehensions are nowhere near enough.

If the majority of the pieces left the country many years ago, even pre-1970s, and have been moving from legitimate owner to legitimate owner since then, then where's the evidence up front? Why no provenance history (even as suspicious as "private collection," "Old collection," or "Ex Christies or Sothebys") for all of them? It is readily apparent to anyone who views their website that what they offer for sale could never have 'surfaced' "accidentally" as a "field find." Regardless of when the destruction occurred, or if any actual digging was required to get the piece out of the ground, the mere fact that they had to be located, transported, packaged and shipped is proof positive that these artifacts are 'victims' of organized efforts. I point out again that their own website only puts them in business for 20 years!

Where were all these pieces hiding before that if they weren't instead taken out of their source countries recently? I found a scant few examples of artifacts with minimally stated provenance identifying it as part of a previous auction (e.g. this c. 12th century Naga balustrade), or this pre-Angkorian head of Vishnu, and these bronze statuettes (appraised, but purchased in the "late 1970s" From whom?). The catalog entries for many objects mention published sources to check and similar examples sold at auction elsewhere, yet even the robbery of monasteries as an act of looting to provide the market with, for example, these colossal Lao bronze Buddha statues, is unsurprisingly completely ignored. In countries currently experiencing warfare and ethnic strife, such as Afghanistan in this case, the antiquities trade can operate all the more openly.

Note how almost none of the objects have stated prices (except for a few small items, such as these coins), bur are rather "P.O.A." (price on application). At the same time, on the Guarantee page, they state "We are constantly offering quality Gandharan and Asian artifacts at extremely competitive prices, a fantastic opportunity for private collectors and people interested in ancient objects to acquire truly unique works of art, all of which are almost 2000 years old, only previously believed to be accessible to museums and art galleries." So why not state your prices upfront? On what basis do they determine the price of the priceless art/artifacts they sell?

Further adding to my sense of an underlying "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) attitude is that, for all the emphasis they place on statements of authenticity (highlighting soil accretion, weathering, damage, and a few T.L. dated objects), a disclaimer is provided stating that a customer can return the object within five days (in its original packaging) if it's not found to match the description. "After this initial five day period any goods you wish to return must be accompanied by a written evaluation from an internationally recognized dealer of Asian Antiques stating that the item(s) purchased are not authentic pieces as described within our description." Why offer this service at all? Have they themselves been fleeced by in-country middle-men before? Just who would be acceptable to provide the second opinion and appraisal needed? That segment of the professional academic archaeological/art historical community with the relevant specialization for pieces such as these isn't exactly large... All things considered, I fear that in this respect at least, they're doing 'honest business.'

I will close this expose post with description of what might be Gandhara gallery's most galling affront to heritage laws and humanity's shared past of any I came across; namely the advertised sale of fragments of the original Bamiyan Buddhas! As discussed on their "Talaban destruction of ancient Buddhist Art in Afghanistan" page, they first 'set the scene' by describing the role of central Afghanistan as a major cross-roads (when once the Kingdom of Kushan), with "one of the world's greatest archaeological treasures;" namely, the Bamiyan Buddhas, at its heart. Lamenting a few previous attempts by Muslim individuals (the "fanatical trader Yaqoub") and groups (the Hezb-i-Whadat and Taliban political parties) to destroy these and other related statues both during antiquity, and during the recent/ongoing wars. The description closes with the final destruction of the Bamiyans, to the horror of the international community.

The very last sentence in the text shocked me. "In the days that followed we were offered a number of pieces mainly stucco, in order to preserve these rare historical artifacts we now offer them for sale on our website in Gandhara Afghan galleries." Although nothing on offer in the relevant galleries is specifically identified as formerly part of the Bamiyan Buddhas, what the above makes clear is that the Afghan pieces for sale would almost certainly have left the country after the Taliban resurgence c. 2001! Although no antiquities related M.O.U. exists between Afghanistan and major demand countries yet, an IUCN Redbook has since 2006...yet, here these artifacts are...languishing in some undisclosed warehouse somewhere, rotated on and off line until they're bought, forgotten about, or perhaps, someday, returned to where they belong. Constant vigilance!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is it really just "Old Money"?

Much has been written, both academically and on blogs, regarding the logistics, ethics, complexities, and archaeological significance of the trade in ancient coins world wide, but particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. For example, the Archaeology and Numismatics blog frequently provides new information concerning the deleterious effect that the wholesale removal and trade in ancient coins can have to the larger archaeological record of those locations and time periods in which coins routinely surface during excavation; primarily within Mediterranean countries. In short, it is becoming increasingly well documented that coins, even commonly minted coins, out of context, are as "adrift" as any other category of artifact. Furthermore, the ongoing blogging by another colleague of mine, Mr. Paul Barford (Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues), has been consistently monitoring and responding to the sometimes voracious and vociferous extents that the majority of the pro-collecting lobbies and "activists" in the Northern Hemisphere, primarily England and the USA, can go to in order to keep the trade in illicit recently-surfaced 'dugups' going, while branding all opposition as baseless propaganda by "cultural heritage nationalist" radicals. As usual, the Southern Hemisphere is still widely overlooked in this discussion. This blog post will report my observations and thoughts about one such dealer; namely "Walter Holt's Old Money" ("In proud association with M.R. Roberts' Wynyard Coin Centre").

Based out of Sydney, the Wynyard Centre maintains its own newsgroup (with all subscribing members receiving a free copy of NUM$NEWS ("Numis News"), the official newsletter of Walter Holt's Old Money), although no separate webpage or online order forms could be located for this gallery specifically. Mr. Holt began collecting at 14, he has spent the intervening years amassing a large collection while traveling, meeting people, and seeing "scores of wonderful places," all of which have helped him "gather substantial knowledge about ancient coins and the places from which they come." Nothing mentioned about how they arrive on the market, or when, or from whom...? Initial efforts to emphasize the antiquity and authenticity of the coins for sale was first encountered on the "Old Money" homepage itself, on which Mr. Holt clearly advises potential customers that "if you have a 1915 Sovereign or a 1952 Australian Penny then DO NOT call me - it's not ancient, I can't help you. Ok! Basically, if it isn't well over a thousand years old, I may not be able to help you unless it is a British hammered coin. Thanks!" The seeming exasperation noted in the above quote suggests to me that Mr. Holt has encountered this problem before, and only the rare will suffice for sale.

"Old Money" is a direct subsidiary, for sales purposes, of the world-wide online clearing house "," and also maintains links to "A.S.A.N." (Australian Society of Ancient Numismatics), provides many related books or identification guides for perusal or purchase, as well as detailed guidelines for customers to learn how to correctly interpret coin quality, description, and mint of origin (in antiquity) information when browsing. Consistently absent from all catalog entries and supporting information is clear indication of provenance for any artifacts offered for sale. Most lack any indication of a collection, museum, or archaeological site of origin, or the year or decade of acquisition by Old Money. In short, it seems that this Southern Hemisphere dealer is borrowing liberally from the play book of Northern Hemisphere colleagues. A "free-market" antiquities trade, no questions asked.

Ancient coins are not the only antiquities traded in by Old Money. A link is also provided to a separate webpage offering a small selection of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts. As readers and potential customers can see, much information on artifact condition, hieroglyphic text translation, and academic background is provided up front, along with age and price. Perhaps information about date and place of 'surfacing,' and pre-1970 collection/auction history is provided with purchase...perhaps not. I strongly suspect that, like the coins, no one knows for sure. Perhaps Old Money feels that they make up for this dubiousness by suggesting the services of an on-call hieroglyphics specialist?! Authenticity above legality?

This is certainly not the only such coin dealer in the Southern Hemisphere, especially located as it is within a major 'importing' nation like Australia. The fact that Old Money is well connected to, and that they advertise international shipping, indicates that although their operations are small, they are not overly isolated from new "merchandise." This does not appear to be merely the gradual sale of a single, large deaccessioned private collection. Indeed, Mr. Holt has boasted about his past and current travels. Although the mere act of purchasing is legal, the sale of small, "common" objects such as coins is still antiquities trading. As this article documenting the various uses for coins in Medieval Italy, and this image showing a Late Romano-British grave good assemblage for an adult male indicate, coins have diverse contexts in their own right! It is now up to all concerned citizens, ethical archaeological, historical and numismatic professionals, and investigative authorities to keep monitoring operations such as these, and to not purchase from such organizations without upfront and verifiable proof that, at the very least, the coin in question did not just recently 'surface Down Under.'

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

New Zealand joins the club: Antiquarius

I can now report that there is at least one well-established source for illicit antiquities in the country of New Zealand, a country that is generally seen as being even more "off-radar" on the world scene than the major galleries of Australia. This time I'm specifically referring to "Antiquarius," a dealer with an online presence since 1980. Robert and Jenny Loosely, according to their website, both received their start in the antiquities business under the watch of Seaby Limited, the London based numismatists in operation since 1969, founding Antiquarius in 1980. This would explain, then, why the very same "About Antiquarius" page of their website makes it clear that their specialty is "ancient coins and classical antiquities," with a market of "predominately Australasian clients." As expected, this implies that they regularly face something of an isolation by distance problem when it comes to getting access to new "merchandise," requiring regular travel to Europe and the US. Of course, the "authenticity" of all purchases is stressed up front, with certificates provided, and FREE shipping and insurance.

What really surprised me, however, was the statement that "Antiquarius is New Zealand's only official valuer for the Commonwealth of Australia..." Really? The "expert appraisers" over at BC Galleries weren't available? This 'outsourcing' by the antiquities trading community in Australia suggests to me a closer connection between operations in the two countries than suspected. The contacts page directs you to Mr. Loosely's P.O. Box in Auckland (suggesting it is this city that operations are based out of), but, for a limited time only, the Mark Hutchins Gallery, a contemporary art gallery out of Wellington, will host an exhibition of choice Classical World artifacts juxtaposed with locally produced modern art; for example, this South Italian pelike (from an "old English collection." Really? Which one? Whose? Where and when acquired?). From the website, it does not appear that these artifacts are available for on-the-spot purchasing, thus it seems to me that exposure is the goal.

Their catalogue is divided into the following categories: "Antiquities" (with Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Cypriot, Near Eastern, Far Eastern, Jewelry, and "Under $200" subcategories), "Coins" (Greek and Roman),"New Items," "New Coins," and three somewhat odd sounding subcategories under the heading of "Themes" ("Wine," "Animals," and "Cults & Religion"). One may search the website, or invent a username and password to receive updates and browse more freely. The vast majority of artifacts proffered as catalog entries merely list their price and a brief description of form, function and/or chronology, with a zoom-able photograph available. For examples, see this pair of "Late Dynastic Period c. 600BC" gold earrings, or this rare "Old Babylonian cylinder seal c. 1850-1650BC). No supporting documentation or information provided up front. For all intents and purposes, it is arguable that they have just 'surfaced'! While some larger, more bulky items are for sale, such as this Han Dynasty horse sculpture from China (which would have required much more preparatory work to smuggle into the country, even if the purchase that exports it again is well-documented), the majority of the rather modest collection viewable online is of small, easily transportable items, such as coins, or this "pleasing"(!) Roman North African sherd decorated with a goat motif.

Two other aspects of this antiquities dealership, as self-advertised via their website, surprised me. The first is the near-complete lack of Asian (let alone Southeast Asian) artifacts on offer. While the web-site does imply that Antiquarius seeks to be affiliated first and foremost with the Classical antiquities trade (in which the Loosely's received their start), bypassing the much closer source of antiquities emanating from Southeast Asia, countries with substantially looser borders in this regards, seems to me unusual. Perhaps they realize that other galleries, in Australia and elsewhere, have the market cornered? Of course, it might be that numerous Southeast Asian artifacts are waiting in their storerooms to be eventually rotated into the online catalog, but it seems doubtful. The second is an even more troubling thought. As their website states, they are "Advisers to Australasian museums and universities" as well. This begs the question: What otherwise reputable academic and professional institutions are they connected to? Perhaps, as claimed, they merely share their acquired "appraising" expertise. If, however, artifacts are loaned for display, teaching purposes, or are bought and sold between countries, what does this say about the complacency behind the modern-day antiquities trade, globally and in the Southern Hemisphere?

New Zealand, like Australia, is a signatory of both the Antiquities Act of 1975 and the UNESCO and UNIDROIT Conventions, which allow New Zealand to reclaim "protected objects" greater than 50 years old from other countries, AND all other signatory countries to do that same if their cultural property is currently being illegally held in New Zealand. The open sale of extra-local antiquities with no clear or stated original provenance, or supporting documentation, provided on the catalog, flies in the face of these conventions, and requires much greater attention from all concerned.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Getting up to speed...

While I start the hunt for the first major new events or stories to detail on my blog (and simultaneously deal with all the 1,001 other things that seem to crop up during the course of a graduate student's day), I figured I'd dedicate my 2nd post to bringing nascent readers up to speed on the blogging I've been doing since joining SAFE (as activist, resources/webpage editor, blogger, and all around fan).

My first post for them concerned my most recent research trip to Vietnam (November 2009-January 2010), and specifically, observations and photographic documentation that I was able to collect of the innumerable small, portable, prehistoric and early historic period artifacts available for sale in many general antique and "souvenir" shops, in not only Hanoi and Hoi An (where I personally observed these transactions), but all points in between. Overall, Vietnam has not been considered a major Southeast Asian source country for the recent antiquities trade (compared to Thailand and Cambodia), but I'm worried this is changing. News and updates as events warrant. The original post is here.

I then wrote about the fanfare that surrounded the release of the latest I.C.O.M. "Red List" series of guidebooks meant to help customs agents thwart the antiquities trade at points of transit. This time, Cambodia was the focus. Although I did my best to weigh both the pros and cons of this new edition to the fight, my review and analysis left me feeling that, unless it can be used in the context of wider (ongoing) outreach efforts to stop new looting before it starts, then it won't do much good. However, please do read the post and judge for yourselves. Discussion appreciated!

On February 17th, 2010, Dr. Christopher Chippindale, of Cambridge University, came to ANU to give a guest lecture on what the antiquities trade has done (and is doing) to the world of Classical Archaeology. In the end, it all boiled down to a fundamental clash between the "Archaeologist's view," and the "Connoisseur's view." One recognizes aesthetic qualities inherent in an artifact, but elevates the importance of context, while the other idolizes aesthetics to the near-total ignoring of context. Guess which one's which... The numerous case studies from Dr. Chippindale's (and colleagues) own work made it that much more of an informative lecture. My original post is here.

Finally, I most recently wrote two related posts (here and here) centered around two galleries based in Australia who have recently, due to public pressure, removed from their online catalogs (or eBay store in the case of the smaller of the two galleries), late Iron Age "Dong Son" culture bronze coiled bangles and 'armlets' (gauntlets) with human bones still inside. For an example of what this looked like while on display for purchase, see the photo accompanying my first post on this blog. The former director of one of the galleries (BC Galleries), was recently arrested in Thailand for smuggling artifacts from Egypt back to Australia....yet it's business as usual at BC Galleries. Even a cursory glance will reveal hundreds of items with little to know stated provenance, and that's just a fraction of what's admittedly in storage. The two incidents detailed in these posts, personal observations in the field, and a growing sense of unease over the degree to which the "antipodes" are overlooked, form the impetus for this blog.

Further searching of the BC Galleries website has, just this moment, revealed that they are still trying to sell artifacts containing human bones (above left). More on this as it develops.

By Way of Introduction....

So, where to begin? How can one blog written by one person help the world to better get a handle on the scope of the global antiquities trade today, the trickery and outright greed that keep it going, and the urgency and necessity of keeping up the fight?

Not sure yet....but this blog will represent my best efforts to join with others by presenting a forum for keeping tabs on at least one half of it; that overlooked portion of the trade that increasingly flows through galleries, warehouses, auction houses, and private hands throughout the Southern Hemisphere.

Although the gist of my blogging will pertain to galleries operating out of, news stories emanating from, and general facts and opinions about, dealing and dealers from Australia and New Zealand, eventually I can see this blog covering the entire breadth of the hemisphere, in which, in my opinion (and much discussion and, I hope, debate to follow), the wealthy "first-world" countries have been long overlooked as destinations for illicit loot, while specific regions, like Southeast Asia and South America, remain active sources. Yet even with the "bad-old-days" of, say, the wholesale dismantling of an entire Angkorian temple wall in Cambodia largely curtailed due to at least somewhat increased UNESCO monitoring, local law enforcement, the gradual bolstering of museums, and ongoing local public outreach, the antiquities trade (in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia) has shifted focus to survive, and unfortunately remains as active as ever. Indeed, my Heritage Watch colleagues continue to rightly state that looting in Cambodia "has reached epic proportions." All evidence points to a similarly active trade in South America...and the situation in Africa (outside of Egypt and Roman North Africa) is even more sparsely reported on!

This blog will also seek to touch on that oft-discussed meme of "Who owns heritage?," as it uniquely applies to relationships between richer and poorer countries of this region. What does having a predominantly wealthy, "European" derived population, these days becoming increasingly multi-ethnic (and with much of that ethnic diversity coming from Asia), with "exotic" Southeast Asia "in its back yard" imply for the continued fueling of the Southern Hemisphere trade? Why is evidence for the looting and sale of Pacific Island prehistoric artifacts so infrequently encountered? Is the sale of Australian Aboriginal or Maori prehistoric artifacts (and the deliberate looting or surface collection on private property that implies) as severe (or high profile) as that affecting Native American sites in North America? And again...outside of Egypt and Mali...what's going on in Africa? Especially Southern Africa, with its more entrenched European-derived population and a more lingering legacy of colonialism.

Finally, I hope to include one other aspect (feature, if you will) of this blog. Where the situation warrants, I will do my best to provide examples of exactly what kinds of information and data have been lost to provide the market with a looted artifact (to borrow Paul Barford's term, a "dugup"). Sure, we in the archaeological/heritage preservation community always talk about "context" (and our detractors use their overall misunderstanding of the term, and what we archaeologists mean when we say it, to perpetually deride us), but to me it seems that understanding of this concept for most people, especially those who are still indecisive about whether to purchase antiquities or not, is still rather abstract. I'm convinced that a blog is an appropriate multi-media enabling format to convey the deeper meanings of what context can tell an archaeologist, or a bioarchaeologist. To take one very recent and gruesome example, the photo above left is one of two catalog entries recently on sale by BC Galleries, out of Melbourne. As you can see, a late Iron Age (c. 500AD or so) bronze bangle with grave fill and human bones still inside was on offer for $650AUD! It was recently taken down....but where has it gone?

If you arrive at this blog because you have previously read my posts for SAFECorner, then great! Rest assured, I will remain active in my roles with SAFE as well.

So there you have it, future readers! I do hope you'll check back regularly as I get the blog up and rolling. I'll leave it to you to let me know if I'm doing my job, and feel free to send blog-worthy content my way. Constant vigilance!