Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) has a very professional looking website http://www.savingantiquities.org/ known for it provocative coverage of museums, collectors and dealers in historical artifacts.
Recently, SAFE has decided to take on the coin trade and collectors of ancient coins. In particular, it has spent much time and effort critiquing the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), a group with which I am affiliated. That, naturally, has prompted me to think more about SAFE and what it really represents.
While the name "Saving Antiquities for Everyone" may suggest a broad based effort, a look at its membership suggests otherwise. The vast number of members are young academics in the fields of archaeology or anthropology. For more see: http://www.savingantiquities.org/aboutusmembers.php Certainly, its advisers are virtually all senior members of the archaeological establishment, many of whom are well known for their "hardline" positions against collecting. See: http://www.savingantiquities.org/aboutusadvisors.php
SAFE has claimed ACCG's efforts are motivated solely by profit, a proposition with which I disagree. In any event, that claim begs the question about SAFE's own motivations. Certainly, while SAFE is highly critical of collectors, dealers and museums, particularly concerning the collection of unprovenanced antiquities, SAFE is strangely silent about state sanctioned collecting practices in source countries and, indeed, poor source country stewardship of archaeological resources in general.
Why? Is this a mere oversight? Or, could it possibly be that SAFE is wary of offending the very same countries that control access to sites for archaeological research? What else could explain SAFE's failure to criticise the collecting habits of "connected" private museums like the Poly Art Museum in Beijing or the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation? And what about a SAFE members' kudos for China's treatment of Tibet's cultural heritage at the CPAC hearing on the Chinese request for import restrictions? Or, just recently, how else can one explain the unwavering support on the SafeCorner blog for Iraqi Government control over Jewish holy books, even though successive Iraqi governments have campaigned to destroy all vestiges of that country's ancient Jewish culture?
There may be another factor at work, one mentioned to me by another academic. Let's face it. Getting a job in academia is very difficult. Under the circumstances, what better way to become "noticed" than to become an "activist." Don't get me wrong. I don't doubt the sincerity of the views of SAFE members. I just wonder sometimes if they go too far to make a point, because the need to "stand out" is on their minds.
SAFE's modus operandi raises some other questions. The first relates to finances. SAFE has criticised ACCG because coin dealers are major contributors. But where exactly does SAFE get its funding from? It would certainly be interesting to learn about SAFE funding sources. One would particularly like to learn the extent to which SAFE has received government funding or in-kind assistance or if SAFE has received any any funding or in-kind assistance from abroad.
Finally, given the provocative nature of SAFE's website along with its links to the archaeological establishment through its advisers, one cannot help but think SAFE in effect acts as a "cat's paw" for "hardline" elements within the AIA. Certainly, I suspect many in the AIA would be uncomfortable with the tone and content of much of what is on the SAFE website. However, both groups do share common goals.
In sum, SAFE may paint itself as a "grassroots advocacy group," but I have come to consider it as little more than an "AstroTurf" or phony grassroots organization that operates as the "cat's paw" of hardline elements within the archaeological establishment.