Sunday, November 17, 2013

Destroying Artifacts to Save Endangered Species-- Are There Any Parallels for Antiquities Collectors?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has destroyed its large stockpiles of seized ivory claiming that the move will help save endangered elephants.   Does this move have any relevance for antiquities collectors?

Some in the archaeological community see direct parallels between endangered elephants and "endangered" artifacts, but the differences should be obvious.  Elephants are live beings; artifacts are not. Harvesting ivory kills elephants; removing artifacts from the ground may deprive them of "context," but it may also save them from deterioration and development. And is anyone seriously maintaining seized artifacts should be destroyed?  Let's hope not, though one wonders if repatriating them to underfunded cultural bureaucracies abroad pretty much guarantees they will be lost through neglect or worse as time goes on.

And what of the economics of the government's actions?  Some have suggested selling off ivory stocks would be far more effective in depressing prices and ultimately lessening demand.  Government spokesmen instead claim that such sales would instead stimulate demand and help others disguise poached ivory.

And is this of any relevance to antiquity collecting?  Probably not.  First, "post-1970" antiquities remain legal to own so I'm not sure how sales of seized antiquities would help disguise "poached" ones.  Second, underfunded cultural bureaucracies abroad could really use the money generated from such sales.  Finally, stimulating demand for antiquities may not be such a bad thing, particularly where it leads to further study and appreciation of the ancient cultures that made them.  So, despite any effort to link ivory to antiquities, any parallels in the  end seem quite limited.


Ed Snible said...

Ivory, coins, and diamonds all share the characteristic that older examples can be freely traded while new examples fall under strict regulations, but techniques to tell the two apart don't exist or are too difficult to implement.

It's interesting that some scholars feel destroying ivory lowers the demand for it but other scholars feel destroying ivory increases the demand. How can rational regulations be designs if there is no agreement of the policies on the behavior we wish to influence?

I feel a lot of sympathy for cultural bureaucracies; and continue to believe solutions that benefit both the bureaucracies and independent collectors can exist, but it will be hard to find them if incentives work the opposite of what we expect.

Paul Barford said...

Nir Hasson 'Antiquities battle pits Old City merchants against inspectors' Haaretz 14th November 2013 writes about Israeli dealers smashing finds.

I am surprised given your interest in all things Jewish, that a blog called Cultural Property Observer is not covering in detail the struggles of the Israeli dealers to fight government interference and 'burdensome' documentation. It seems an exact analogy to your own efforts. Maybe you or the ACCG could step in and offer some kind of help?

Why are you not covering this? Coins are involved.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Thanks Ed, and for putting me onto this story. For Mr. Barford, I think I've covered the Israeli situation before, but may get to this if I have time.

As for destruction of artifacts, that seems wrong whoever does it. I've actually heard that archaeologists have done it too when they run out of storage room-- just awful.

As for Jewish artifacts, the most important story now is the return of the Iraqi Jewish archive. Perhaps you can give us your perspective on that. Thank you.l

Paul Barford said...

Jewish archive: I have indeed given my perspective several times over the past month or so, not very "observant" of you...

No, I do not believe you have "covered" the current Israeli situation before. In particular you have not mentioned (correct me if I am wrong) the computerisation of the database, the activities of your counterpart Moti Arad, and Robert Deutsch.

Cultural Property Observer said...

I did a search on your blog for "Jewish Archive." Other than praising the deal to return them in general, not much. Some comments you made in response to those of usual ally David Knell suggests that you claim the archives are only "about Iraqi Jews." Really? That's not what I saw on display at the National Archives. Rather, I saw a display of religious documents TAKEN from Iraqi Jews as well as documents of a personal nature. Do you see any differences between the different type of documents in the archive?