Thursday, November 12, 2009

New report on private collectors in North America: where is the data?

In August I commented on the impact that the AAMD decision on handling recently surfaced antiquities was having on private collectors. The Cultural Property Research Institute (CPRI) published their first research study, "Project on Unprovenanced Ancient Objects in Private US Hands", earlier this week (November 10, 2009).

The CPRI "project" raises several questions:
a. Who is the author / are the authors of this "project"?
b. Data. The stated aim of the "project" was to "provid[e] the factual basis for policy-making and consideration". Where can we find the data for this study?
c. Sources of information. "This study is the product of a team approach". Who was consulted? Which private collectors? Which museum curators? Which scholars? Which "members of the trade"? How many people? It is not enought to state: "To preserve the confidentiality of the sources of information, specific individuals or institutions are not discussed in this study."
d. Peer review. "The study has been closely reviewed by individuals familiar with US antiquities law and museum policies". Who? The Board of Directors for the CPRI? William Pearlstein? Peter Tompa? Kate Fitz Gibbon?

There is also a concern about when the material surfaced. The "project" states:
The absence of clear provenance histories or records for most material in private collections, including those objects that have been held long before 1970, thus makes it certain that some large number of objects purchased by US collectors even before that year will be excluded from acquisition by AAMD Member museums.
Imagine a private collector started collecting in 1969 (i.e. before the UNESCO Convention) when they were 25. That would make them 65 now. How many of the collectors consulted for the "project" formed their collections prior to 1970? Or indeed how many continued to form collections in spite of the publicity surrounding the 1973 Archaeological Institute of America resolution? (See earlier discussion.) The "project" should have made this clear.

Without the data the "project"  summary is relatively worthless. But let us apply some research findings to the figures that have been presented. If my work with Christopher Chippindale is right, then 93% of the items from private collections will have no indication of find-spots. This means that over 104,000 objects (or at least theoretical objects because the figures are only estimates) in the study (taking the upper figure) will have been deprived of their archaeological contexts. In other words does this report highlight the destruction of over 104,00 contexts to provide "significant material" for private collectors to "own"?

I hope that this self-styled "research institute" will put together a report that will contribute to the research rather than the rhetoric.

I will refrain from awarding a grade.

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