Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Art Loss Register at the Basel Ancient Art Fair

The Art Loss Register (ALR) is listed as one of the participants at next month's (November) Basel Ancient Art Fair (BAAF). The Fair is described as:
"BAAF attracts leading specialists from all over the world, making it not only the largest, but also the most important fair of its kind under one roof. All participants are members of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) and follow a strict code of ethics concerning the authenticity and provenance of the objects they sell."
It is good to see the IADAA stressing their "strict code of ethics".

But I am interested in the presence of the Art Loss Register. Why are they present?

Let me speculate (though I would invite additions to this list):
a. To gain customers from among the private collectors who will be buying antiquities at the Fair. After all, one of the main strengths of the ALR is the registering of objects in case of theft.

b. To gain customers from among the dealers who will be able to check that the objects they sell are not stolen property. Again, this is a sensible move.
I have expressed concerns elsewhere about the limitations of the ALR and I present a brief list here.
1. The ALR does not appear to be able to identify recently surfaced --- and potentially recently looted --- antiquities.

2. The ALR is not in a position to identify objects which have been stolen (or looted) but which have not been placed on the database. James Ede (who is exhibiting in Basel) has made exactly this point when giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee.

3. Some dealers --- though the one I have discussed is not a member of the IADAA --- seem to suggest that searching the ALR database provides proof of due diligence. Does this give a sense of false security to potential buyers?
The staff of the ALR need to make the most of their participation in the Basel Ancient Art Fair.

So here is a little homework for them. They will have the opportunity to meet the dealers, talk to buyers, and reflect on the market in general.

First, they need to show that they are serious about trying to identify recently surfaced objects. Do they need to "flag up" objects which have no documented history prior to 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention?

Second, do they advise potential clients about the limitations of their database?

Third, have they in their own minds made a differentiation between "stolen" and "illicit" antiquities.

If the individuals responsbile for cultural property at ALR can start to engage with the key issues surrounding the trade in antiquities then these comments will have been a positive nudge in the right direction.

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