Thursday, January 29, 2015

The market and looting: a Parliamentarian's view

Robert Jenrick, the Conservative MP for Newark, has decided to write a piece on the looting of antiquities in the Middle East for the Art Newspaper ("‘No one group has done more to put our heritage at risk than Islamic State’", 28 January 2015). He writes emotively about the sites that are being destroyed in Syria and Iraq:
this is a 21st-century crime being conducted purposefully, in full view and on social media.
Those of who attended the meeting at the British Academy on this topic earlier this month were given an informed position, both by those making presentations and through contributions from the audience. It is not made clear how Jenrick conducted his research or obtained the information to assert:
Through systematic looting, these works of art are funding the murderous activities of IS. Indeed, these activities are now believed to be their third largest source of revenue, after oil and robbing banks. A brave network of informants, today’s “Monuments Men”, give us shocking reports from the ground: IS employing contractors with bulldozers to harvest antiquities on an industrial scale; IS deploying militants to ensure their control sites and “supervise” digging; and licensing looting with a formal “tithe” of around 20%. The sums involved are difficult to gauge, but likely run into tens of millions of dollars of income for IS and other terrorist groups
Such statements need to be supported or there is a possibility that they could be misread. Dr Sam Hardy, one of the presenters at the British Academy, addressed many of these concerns last year ("Are ‘unheard of numbers’ of cultural goods from Syria and Iraq making their way into auction houses in the UK?").

So Jenrick asks what he could do as a parliamentarian:
So what can government do? The key to fighting the trade in illicit antiquities lies in co-operation. In the UK and the US we are asking for coordinators to be appointed who can establish forums to bring together law enforcement, museum representatives, government and representatives of the art trade.
He may be unaware that these dialogues are already taking place.

But in the article he does not state his past  and apparently continuing links with Christies (and see also the information provided through his constituency). He writes:
But above all, we need to promote and reward good market behaviour. And to the surprise of critics, there is much of it going on amongst major players in the industry. The decision of a number of auction houses to significantly increase their due diligence, principally by requiring evidence of provenance predating the conflicts of the early 21st century (using the year 2000 as an immovable date) is hugely welcome. If only objects with provenance of this kind can be sold, the market for illicit works will shrink. There is early evidence that this is changing the behaviour of buyers and sellers. If these standards could become common practice they will not only change the market, but ultimately feedback to those on the ground in Iraq, Syria and future conflict zones.
Readers of LM will know that I have touched on "due diligence" many times as a topic, and I am not convinced that all the major auction houses understand the issues when it comes to dealing with archaeological material. Moreover Jenrick's use of the (obsolete) term "provenance" (one held dear by the market) needs to be clarified. Is he wanting to establish the archaeological context from which an object was removed (e.g. a sanctuary area at Dura Europos) or who has handled the piece (i.e. the collecting history)? He then turns to concerns about restrictions on the market:
Those of us who oppose an outright ban on antiquities—believing it would be counter-productive, creating a black market in which both antiquities of licit and illicit origin were traded—or of further restrictive laws and treaties, welcome the voluntary actions of the industry and hope they quickly become common standards that protect the industry from the heavy hand of some law-makers.
Can I suggest that auction-houses could address well-founded concerns by presenting the full and authenticated collecting histories of objects when they are listed in the public catalogues? And transparency is what Jenrick wants to see:
Our transatlantic campaign seeks to recognise and support those in the art business who take a lead, by urging co-operation, sharing of information in relationships of trust and resourcing and prioritising law enforcement—backing good market behaviour; tackling the unethical and the criminal robustly.
I agree with his desire: to 'tackle' 'unethical' behaviour in the market. And that is why it is so important for auction houses to respond constructively to concerns when objects are identified from seized photographic images.

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