Thursday, July 12, 2012

The New York Times is asking all the wrong questions.

David Dewey with his
unsellable Yuan dynasty
Today the New York Times published a very telling article on the various problems that collectors, museums, and auction houses are facing now that guidelines for provenance are much stricter than in decades past. It does a fairly good job of outlining the various sides of the argument and quoting some of the best known voices for each (Kate Fitz Gibbon, Ricardo J. Elia, Neil Brodie, Arthur Houghton, Lawrence Rothfield, and Julian Raby, among others), but as an article, it very solidly reflects the perspective of object-centric collectors.

The big argument going on is that there are a lot of artifacts in the hands of private collectors that can’t be donated or sold because they don’t have a valid trail of paperwork documenting their every owner. Recent scandals over museums accepting donations of looted objects from collectors, whether they knew they were looted or not, has encouraged museums to stand more firmly by the no-objects-looted-after-1970 date set by the UNESCO convention, and discouraged collectors from even trying to donate or sell objects they bought 15 or 20 years ago.

This is indeed a problem. No one can quite agree on what to do with all these artifacts that have limited or no provenance, won’t be accepted by most academics or museums, and can’t be sold through the major auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Exhibiting them is often seen as condoning the trade, or at least demonstrating to looters and dealers that even though the deed is demonized, the exhibition justifies their actions. Not exhibiting them or letting them be sold, potentially to collectors that won’t share them with the public, also leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the concerned.

But even though this is a valid issue that does need to be considered, the better question that the New York Times should be asking is how the demand for the illicit antiquities trade should be approached and reevaluated. How do we get collectors to divert their money from the big, often illegal market to funding preservation, conservation, archaeology, and education instead? How do we replace the economic incentive for looting at the ground level with the economic incentive of building local museums, funding local archaeology, and finding sustainable ways to capitalize on local and regional heritage? How do we write and rewrite international and national policies so that they more effectively convict, punish, and prevent the white-collar criminals moving the trade in looted artifacts? This entire field is not so much an issue as it is a conflict, and as such the journalism reporting on this conflict has the responsibility to not just ask the post-war questions that affect only the pampered Western party. In my view, there are more important questions that need to be asked and answered before we begin to tackle the post-conflict issue of what to do with the “victim” artifacts.

Derek Fincham also has a great commentary on this article that points out the lack of emphasis on the major tax deductions that collectors get for donating to museums.

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