Thursday, April 18, 2013

Chasing “Chasing Aphrodite” For Answers

Turnabout is fair play. Chasing Aphrodite was kind enough to post my views on coins and cultural patrimony issues in a question and answer format and I’m doing the same here, though, of course, Chasing Aphrodite’s interests are far broader. I’ll let Jason’s answers speak for themselves, but I would reiterate my view that the gulf that exists between rhetoric and reality concerning archaeologists’ own preservation of context strongly suggests that the concept is being misused by some to justify governmental controls.

1. You’re an award winning investigative journalist, but also an advocate for archaeologists and source countries. Do you see any contradictions between those two roles?

I reject the premise, Peter. I’m a journalist, not an advocate. The conclusions I have come to are based on several years of reporting on the illicit antiquities trade, not any affiliation with a certain group or country. If I’m an advocate, it’s for truth, transparency and rule of law.

2. Do you truly believe that unprovenanced objects are illegitimate? If so, please say how you come to this conclusion, and whether you would apply it to ancient material of whatever culture, or more broadly to objects that do not meet the definition of ancient.

I don’t know what you mean by “illegitimate,” but I suspect you mean looted. There is good reason to suspect that antiquities with unclear ownership histories are the product of illicit excavations and illegal export from their countries of origin. This is not just the conclusion of archaeologists and source countries and investigative reporters, but of Harvard-trained museum curators like our mutual friend Arthur Houghton. In 1984, when he was a curator at the Getty, he warned his bosses that 95% of antiquities on the market had been "found" (i.e. looted) within the last three years. His successor Marion True gave museum directors a similar warning in June 2000: “Most museums have long preferred to consider objects innocent until proven guilty…But experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely – if not certain – that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.”

This reality has not meaningfully changed since 1984 or 2000, and it is not unique to the trade in Classical antiquities. Yet auction houses, collectors, dealers and museums both in the United States and abroad continue to operate on the “innocent until proven guilty” standard. That's why I continue to write about them.

3. Do you think the same rules should apply to the $1 million dollar vase as to the $10 ancient coin?

It depends what “rules” you’re referring to. If by "rules" you mean the law, the answer is often no -- in some cases, for example, US law only applies if the objects are worth more than $5,000. If by “rules” you mean ethics or morality, it is more complicated. Clearly some ancient objects – amphora, vase fragments or some coins – were mass produced are are common today. From the art market's point of view, they aren’t particularly beautiful and don’t hold much value. But these are not just pieces of art, they are also artifacts that hold historical meaning. A old Chinese coin may be worthless on the market, but would be invaluable to archaeologists and numismatists alike if it were carefully excavated in an undisturbed Roman tomb. If knowledge of that findspot were lost, it would become a worthless old Chinese coin again. For these reasons and others, an object’s “value” shouldn’t be reduced to what it can be sold for on today’s market.

4. The State Department has been criticized by both academics and former CPAC members for a lack of transparency in its decision-making concerning import controls on cultural goods. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?

I haven’t covered CPAC, but have read about concerns about the process. Government, like the art market, festers in darkness. Sunlight should be let in. Some government processes legitimately require confidentiality, but many don’t and should be carried out transparently.

5. During a Chasing Aphrodite lecture I attended, I was surprised to hear Gary Vikan, the Walters’ then Director, say that it is “none of our business” what happens to artifacts that are repatriated. Do you agree or disagree and why?

I'm of two minds on this. Obviously, there is a shared interest in protecting the world's cultural heritage, including objects that have been repatriated. We are rightfully outraged to see the golden hippocamp from the Lydian Hoard, which the Met returned to Turkey, stolen from a local museum and replaced with a fake (and recently recovered in Germany, I should note.) At the same time, cultural property is property under the law, and we have no legal ability to dictate terms to its owner. I think Gary’s point was that we can’t have it both ways -- if we return a looted object, we also give up the right to dictate terms of its display, conservation and, yes, protection. But that doesn't mean we have to cease caring about it and advocating for its safekeeping.

6. Greece, Cyprus and to a lesser extent Italy are suffering from an economic meltdown that by necessity will impact these countries ability to fund preservation efforts. Do you believe that this budget crisis calls into question the “state control over everything old” model advocated by the archaeological community?

I think it was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the others we have tried. The same could be said for treating archaeological finds as the property of the state in which they're found. It doesn't make much sense that Berlusconi's government has control over Caesar's remains, but "state control" is the system they've adopted and I don't see it changing soon, economic crisis or not. By the way, is not the model of the "archaeological community" as you suggest but the legal regime selected by the majority of world governments. Yes, I'm aware of the exceptions and intrigued by the Japanese designation approach, juyo bunkazai, and Britain's portable antiquities scheme, though I'm not convinced they would work in the Mediterranean. The economic crisis should inspire similarly creative thinking among those who care about preserving knowledge about the ancient world. For example, I wonder how many years of site protection and careful excavation the Getty Museum could have paid for with $18 million, the amount it spent on a single statue looted from Morgantina, Sicily. Should museums fund excavations in return for loans, a modern version of partage?

7. Your WikiLoot proposal has been criticized for promoting “vigilante justice.” Please explain the concept, where the proposal stands, and respond to that criticism.

The idea of WikiLoot is simple: seek the public's help collecting and analyzing information about the illicit antiquities trade with the goal of building an authoritative database that would help academics, journalists, auction houses, collectors and museums understand the scope of the problem and steer clear of trouble. I think of it as a collective public service, much like Wikipedia. If it sounds like vigilante justice, perhaps you have something to hide. Now, creating a web platform to organize the work -- and handle quality control questions -- is rather tricky, and I've been researching successful crowdsourcing projects to see what works and what doesn't. We're building a prototype database right now while we seek funding and partnerships for the broader effort. I'm doing this in my spare time with a handful of interested parties, so it will likely take a while.

8. Italian authorities have been criticized for playing “gotcha” with auction houses and collectors when Medici material comes up for sale. What do you think of these tactics? Should the Medici archive (and other archives of likely looted material) be made available to the public in some fashion so collectors and auction houses can be informed about what material they should avoid?

In recent years, law enforcement officials in several countries have gathered a wealth of information about the illicit trade in Classical antiquities. Once the judicial process has run its course, I think authorities should make this information publicly available so it can be studied and analyzed by others. I've made my case, and there are certain legal limitations on what can be released, as well as strategic considerations. In the absence of that cooperation, I've relied on leaks from sources in and outside of government. Meanwhile, auction houses and collectors can be informed about what to avoid by following the advice of Houghton and True -- steer clear of antiquities that are missing a documented ownership history.

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