Sunday, January 4, 2009

Brodie's Analysis of the Market in Iraqi Antiquities

Neil Brodie, formerly of the now defunct Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge, has found a new home at Stanford at its "Archaeology Center." See:

Stanford is also the home of the celebrated legal scholar, John Merryman, though I suspect Merryman and Brodie "travel in different circles."

In any event, Brodie has written a paper entitled "The Market in Iraqi Antiquities 1980-2008." See:

The paper is "a work in progress." If so, hopefully Brodie will address a few issues that become readily apparent even after a rather cursory reading:

1. Brodie should do more to acknowledge the large numbers of Iraqi antiquities on the open market before 1980. Jerome Eisenberg of Royal Athena Galleries has stated that large numbers of cuneiform tablets were sold in department stores around the United States during the early years of the last century. Presumably, many of these tablets have lost their provenance by now. If Iraqi antiquities were widely available before 1980, doesn't that undercut Brodie's central thesis that unprovenanced Iraqi antiquities "must be recently looted?"

2. Brodie appears to be one of those willing to overlook Saddam Hussein's crimes just because he spent lavishly on archaeology (though with the primary purpose of aggrandizing his regime through a pseudo-association with early Mesopotamian civilizations). Brodie should at least acknowledge the involvement of Baath party officials in selling off Iraqi artifacts. This involvement has been detailed in several published sources.

3. There has been considerable recent press suggesting that tales of looting of Iraqi sites post 2003 have been greatly exaggerated. Brodie should acknowledge as much.

4. In figures 1 and 2, there appears to be a spike in the number of unprovenanced cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets in Christie's auctions in 2001 and in Sotheby's auctions in 1999. If this spike is due to increased looting as Brodie suggests, shouldn't we see that spike in the same year? Isn't it possible that all this means is that Christie's was more successful in winning collections of such items to bring to auction in 2001 while 1999 was a better year for Sotheby's?

5. Figures 3-7 and Tables 1-3 and 6 are interesting as they detail the limited number of lots available for sale (which stands in stark contrast to the oft heard claim that the Western markets have been "awash" in looted Iraqi antiquities) and their generally modest value (at least compared to other art). Does this support or detract from the archaeological establishment's claim that Western collectors have "driven looting" of Iraqi archaeological sites?

6. Brodie acknowledges that the glare of adverse publicity may have convinced auctioneers to stop auctioning unprovenanced Iraqi antiquites in 2003, but then states, "The fact that unprovenanced Iraqi artifacts suddenly disappeared from the market after the adoption of the resolution [of the UN asking member states to clamp down on exports from Iraq] is an important one as it suggests that before 2003 a large part of the unprovenanced material on the market really had been illegally exported. Otherwise it could have been sold quite openly after that date without contravening UNSCR 1483." I am not sure this follows logically. The resolution in question asked UN member states to clamp down on Iraqi artifacts illicitly removed from Iraq after 1991. In the climate of the times and as Brodie himself suggests, many dealers were scared to sell any Iraqi antiquity provenanced or not.

7. Brodie states that there are more Iraqi cultural antiquities available on the Internet in 2008 than in 2006, but couldn't that just reflect the increased popularity of the Internet as a sales tool?

I suspect a specialist in the field may have more thoughts about Brodie's research. It would be interesting to hear more reactions to Brodie's efforts.

1 comment:

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Neil Brodie, and others of his persuasion, are quick to toss out statements of "fact" without specific background. Shotgun analysis and the assembling of "evidence" to support a preconceived notion are pretty much the repertoire of these learned individuals. I always have found this peculiar, in as much as academia prides itself on citation of reliable and accessible sources. It also seems peculiar to me that they escape the criticism of their peers for this unprofessional tactic when the academic peer review system would make hash of similar unsupported statements made in any other arena. A rise in legitimate market sales of any or all artifacts, in and of itself, is hardly evidence of looting. A more rational observation is that the worldwide rise in prosecution of "cultural property looters" (widely publicized in the media) provides a compelling argument that source nations are getting a handle on law enforcement. Misdirected polemics against the legitimate trade and private collectors are not only ineffective and unfair but also unnecessary.