Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Few News Items and an Announcement

The gist of this post is two part: A weekend "news dump" of relevant antiquities trading stories, and an announcement about the future direction of this blog.

1. The first article (here) concerns the seizure of 163 archaeological artifacts and antiques confiscated by the Jamshoro police department (Hyderabad, India) and evaluated by the Sindh Culture Department. These items include antique rifles, coins from several nations, Kashmiri papier mache artwork, swords, and shell statues. A rare "Ayuda Muddhra' statue of the Buddha (with provenance given only as "Far East"), as well as an "Italian" shell sculpture, were among the loot. Disturbingly, one of the suspects apprehended was known to have been a museum guard at the Ranikot Fort museum. The items seized have already been handed over to the Culture Department. Where to after that? Not sure....

2. The next article (here) also concerns artifact seizures in India, with the reported arrest of five individuals in connection with attempted smuggling of four rare "Panchaloha" idols (statues). The raid targeted Max New Bean Bag Shop in Jayanagar, Bangalore, and it is alleged that some of the statues weighed as much as 2.9k! Mobile phones and bikes were also seized. For some reason, only the youngest of the four suspects (a 20 year old man identified as Anand from Harohalli) charges are mentioned in the article. What happened to the other individuals?

3. The third and final piece (here) ventures more into the political/PR side of looting and heritage management. It came to my attention via Museum Security Network (as did those above), but was originally a blog post on the well written, but more contemporary art/antiques focused "artknows" blog (maintained by one Tom Flynn). An auction occurred in the town of Dorchester, UK, on the 19th May, run by the more provincial Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury and Duke's of Dorchester auction houses, to sell off 19th c. Qing Dynasty artifacts known to have been looted from the Summer Palace, Beijing, at that time. Controversy arose not only in regards to the exceptionally high prices some pieces fetched, but also that a number of high-profile buyers were Taiwanese, while at the same time, a contingent of Chinese dealers and delegates contested the sale of these cultural heritage items. A Taiwanese bidder (with clients) suggested that Taiwanese attempts to purchase this material was not "politically motivated," but rather "a chance to buy high quality material with an imperial provenance at very reasonable prices."

The article stresses that the sale of "Asian art" (likely including more ancient antiquities) in England is seemingly now more confined to these "provincial" auction houses, as opposed to high profile auctioneers and galleries in London, due to both the quality of the material and attestations by primarily Asian buyers that "real expertise" is now to be found in the sticks. What of concerns for provenance, collection history etc.? I get the sense that, as with Asian art sales in New York, and antiquities sales everywhere, when the historic/archaeological record becomes vague in regards to provenance, so does the concern of your average purchaser.

P.S. And Now for Something Completely Different: In the near future, dear readers, the tone of this blog will change. To date, I have focused more on gallery/dealer/high profile case exposes and reporting the gist, and my perspectives on, current news items concerning the Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade. However, I would like to go further, into explorations of what underpins the trade down here. Questions such as:

How does it differ from Northern Hemisphere (read Europe and the US) activities? How is collecting of "other people's treasure" justified? What further background on dealer's associations needs down here needs to be aired (i.e. the AAADA)? Local coverage of cases of overseas, and even local, prehistoric and historic period looting, and where it lacks? How autonomous is the Southern Hemisphere trade in Classical/European antiquities (e.g. some of the galleries I originally covered in my first posts)? What role do major Southern Hemisphere demand countries (i.e. Oz and NZ) play in the global trade? What is the market for fakes in the Southern Hemisphere, and what's being faked the most? Where are they produced (only China and Hong Kong, for example?). The misuses/uses of heritage and heritage objects (loosely defined) in mass media/popular culture in regional countries...on coins, stamps, phonecards etc? The list goes on and an (and, in the interest of disclosure, I thank my colleague Paul Barford for these suggestions).

With that said, you are more than free to help me on this quest. If you come across local news items, auctions, on-line sales, new galleries that make you suspicious etc., feel free to get in touch with me. As I'm only one person, I'd also be amenable to the possibility of guest bloggers once we discuss what you'd talk about. Thanks for your attention to date. Let's see what the future holds!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Another Repatriation Case

It appears there has been another successful thwarting of human remains smuggling from Southeast Asia to the West, according to an article that has come to my attention today (courtesy of Museum Security Network). Additional coverage is here. ICE and Homeland Security authorities in New York investigated the suspicious origins of a package shipped from Bali, Indonesia (declared customs value of $5!), found to contain five carved and decorated "head-hunting" trophy skulls, believed to ethnographically originate with one of the many Dayak tribes in Borneo (Kalimantan). The skulls are believed to have been collected sometime during the 18th-19th centuries, although it is highly unlikely that any specific written records would tie these particular skulls to a specific location or time period; instead, appraisers would be required to rely on decorative motif analysis.

Because the total price exceeded $20,000 after a local appraiser "evaluated" what are acknowledged by the authorities, rightly in my opinion, to be priceless human remains, Customs could stop shipment at port in New Jersey. Amidst the usual speeches by officials of both nations, consultants etc. when repatriations are made, I find it unfortunate that these specifically Dayak ethnological artifacts (read stolen ancestral remains/heirlooms) were glossed as the "heritage of the Indonesian people" in this article. I have yet to find any information on whether or not community officials or leaders from one or more Dayak villages (i.e. longhouses) were on hand to witness the repatriation or claim the remains? I suspect not... The article merely suggests that they will be conserved in Indonesia...somewhere.

No information is given on the original shipper or intended destination, so perhaps that is still under investigation as part of prosecutory efforts. From what I can gather, this has yet to receive any independent press in Indonesia itself (the skull returned on the 16th May). Unfortunately, gallery webpages like this (the source of the photo above left) strongly suggest that a market for human remains still exists, with or without the participation of "independent," individual below-boards dealers on e-commerce sites like eBay. At least the above represents one more apprehension and, hopefully, ensures the conservation of these skulls for both future study and perhaps even eventual return to the appropriate community(s).