Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Days After ISIS Publicly Destroys Artifacts, the Archaeological Lobby Debates Destroying Undocumented Artifacts to Remove Them from the Market

Only days after ISIS publicly sledgehammered Palmyrene busts of the sort it is allegedly selling to fund terrorism into dust, some well-connected archaeological bloggers -- citing the public destruction of (modern) ivory at Times Square in NYC as a precedent-- are using twitter to debate the question, "Would we consider destroying undocumented artifacts to remove them from the market?"

Are they serious?

Given the AIA's and ASOR's view that "undocumented archaeological objects" --like the Palmyrene busts ISIS just destroyed--should not be granted any waiver to give them "safe harbor" from Syria's civil war, perhaps so.

Of course, all this just again raises fundamental questions:  Is it about conservation or control?  And  preservation or repatriation?


Wayne G. Sayles said...

Now be careful Peter, you know what kind of furor my comment about similarities between AIA and ISIS caused. Truth is not a big enough shield when you have an ideologue by the tail.

Cultural Property Observer said...

They are not the same. ISIS is driven by religious fanaticism to destroy artifacts so they cannot be "worshiped." Some in the archaeological community are so driven by fanatical views about the importance of "context" that they consider destroying undocumented artifacts so they cannot be purchased by collectors or museums. And just so we are clear, no one is saying that archaeologists are "terrorists." However, this "debate" is certainly an odd one for such self-described "preservationists" to have.

Dave Welsh said...

Nothing is a big enough shield when you have an ideologue by the tail!

In the traditional Maasai warrior culture, it was viewed as a great honor to hold a lion by the tail and induce it to turn on one brave individual while the others cut it to pieces with their spears. OTOH the tail-holder often did not survive the experience.

I agree with Peter that the cry to destroy undocumented artifacts reveals radical archaeologists to be hypocrites of the highest degree in claiming to be "stewards of mankind's heritage." They are only interested in furthering the selfish interests of archaeology, whatever rationalizations they may profess (and perhaps even believe).

Barford is not even close to being the worst: Michael Mueller-Karpe is absolutely on his own planet (Mongo?) in this respect.

Cultural Property Observer said...

I was surprised that the even the usually more reasonable Derek Fincham seems to be on board with the idea, perhaps with a limited "out" if the "object merits saving."

Paul Barford said...

>>[Paul] Barford is not even close to being the worst [...] in this respect.<<

I cannot think what you have in mind, I have not advocated destroying
artefacts, but have discussed John Hooker's repeated anecdote about it and
consider it spurious.

However it seems to me there is one aspect you are not mentioning here which is
notable for a group of dealers and their lobbyist.

The Times Square ivories were destroyed because they were mostly modern
artefacts - of limited artistic value - posing as antiques.

We all know that among the ungrounded (undocumented) artefact on the
antiquities market as a whole are a considerable number of fakes. Modern
artefacts posing as antique ones. This is the observation of - among
others - Charles Stanish and Oscar Muscarella, more recently Elizabeth
Marlowe and experiences of antiquities buyers (eg. on the Yahoo list).

What would the dealers reading CPO consider the US State Department should
do with fake objects seized from the stockrooms of dodgy US antiquities
dealers? Should they "repatriate" them, and if so to whom and as what? Or
would your dealer readers suggest that they should be quietly given back to
the seller to be slipped back onto the US market? Or should they be, as they are by French law, destroyed?

At the moment, the US returns them all willy-nilly, which makes everyone
concerned simply look silly.

[Paul Barford, Poland, "basis for interest": mentioned in comment above and
passionately interested in history and concerned about keeping the
international antiquities market clean].

Cultural Property Observer said...

Okay Mr. Barford, I'm once again extending you the courtesy to comment on this blog-- this time because David Welch mentioned your name in passing-- this despite your continuing nasty statements about me on your own blog. (Odd you feel a need to want to comment at all given the low regard you apparently seem to have for CPO and the readers of this blog.)

In any event, your efforts at misdirection fail. The ivories were destroyed at Times Square not because they were modern artifacts, posing as you say as antiques, but because they were made of ivory. The Twitter "debate" cited asked whether undocumented ancient artifacts should be destroyed, because they were "undocumented." The issue of "fakes" had nothing to do with the discussion. (And I dispute linking undocumented artifacts to "fakes" as well as "stolen" artifacts.)

In any event, the comments on Twitter were indeed revealing. God love Kyri, our Greek Cypriot collector friend. He was the only one to state unequivocally undocumented artifacts deserve protection.

The others comments seem far more equivocal. The authors either leave the impression they think it might be a good idea, think only some artifacts with special artistic or historical merit should be saved, like you think it’s really the decision of the source country or advise against talking about the idea, not because it's wrong to destroy undocumented artifacts, but apparently only because the optics look bad.

This is more than just another meaningless academic debate because the idea that the safety of the artifact itself is far less important than “protecting context” or “promoting repatriation” is embedded in HR 1493 which was apparently drafted with help from the AIA, ASOR and related groups. It authorizes repatriations back to a war zone. Moreover, its supposed “safe harbor” provision does not protect undocumented artifacts like the statuary heads ISIS just smashed.

This is what the AIA and ASOR (a State Department contractor) say about the provision (link in text above):

"In addition, it is important to note that in order for a waiver to be granted, the President must certify to Congress that granting the waiver 'will not contribute to illegal trafficking in cultural property or financing of criminal or terrorist activities.' This means that no one will be granted a waiver unless s/he can prove that the object was not purchased or obtained in any way through looting, which in turn means that all undocumented archaeological objects are absolutely prohibited from being granted a waiver."

Obviously, CPO along with Kyri and every other collector I know think undocumented artifacts deserve protection.

Paul Barford said...

Mr Tompa, it is what we call "discussion", and it gave us a chance to learn more of your views, which is what a blog - surely - is for.

So you are saying that if the stolen Nimrud Ivories were to turn up in a New York dealer's back room, they'd be ground into powder "because they were made of ivory" (but any other artefacts found with them would be repatriated as cultural property), but if they'd turned up in Canada or Mexico, they'd survive for future generations? How can US collectors claim to be 'saving' objects if their possession in the USA brings objects like these under such illogical - not to say brutal - legislation?

[Paul Barford, Poland, "basis for interest": mentioned in comment above and
passionately interested in history and concerned about keeping the
international antiquities market clean

Cultural Property Observer said...

I'm also concerned about the fate of antique ivory if brought here under current US laws. The BM was recently precluded from sending in Byzantine panels for an exhibit. Your friend Rick St. Hilaire expressed concern about old mucisians' instruments used by Police Bands containing ivory as well. I'm also for saving wildlife, but as with the issues of undocumented artifacts, when activists with media attention get involved, common sense all too often goes out the window.

I'm glad you are for saving undocumented artifacts from destruction, but you seemed to qualify that by saying they belong to the souce country so it is not our decision. Would you oppose a source country destroying undocumented artifacts? I would and I believe most other collectors would as well.

Paul Barford said...

With reference to your question, certainly the US finding some stolen Nimrud ivories in a New York dealer's stockroom would be guilty not only of cultural vandalism in putting them through a wood chipper "because they were made of ivory" and that is what [you insisted above] the law says but would be wantonly destroying property which does not belong to them, as you say. This would be a form of cultural terrorism just as regrettable as the Taliban or ISIL who are following the laws they institute for the territory they command. Like the CPIA, this law was imperfectly drafted to do the job it was supposed to do. Both clearly require rewriting and to be made more precise.

As for the destruction of artefacts, as an archaeologist, I wonder if you are not fetishising them unduly? An artefact is an artefact, we destroy things we've made on a daily basis in every city in the world, otherwise we'd be buried in mounds of our own cultural products. I've answered your question and Ms Fitz Gibbon's comments in more detail here: http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2015/07/artefact-fetishism-from-us-committee.html

[Paul Barford, Poland, "basis for interest": questioned in comment above].

Cultural Property Observer said...

I'd rather fetishize artifacts as you say rather than "context" which appears to be the obsession of the archaeological community. Of course, context has some value, but preserving the artifact is much more important in my opinion. Human activity has already destroyed the vast majority of ancient artifacts so what's left from ancient times should as a general rule be protected it possible in my opinion.