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Can there be a "licit" trade in antiquities?

Derek Fincham has responded to my comments on due diligence.

Essentially we are both reacting to John Henry Merryman's essay, "A Licit International Trade in Cultural Objects" (2005; originally published in 2004).

Can there be a licit trade?

Where are the objects with secure histories?

Here are some possible sources:

a. De-accessioned material from museums. Take, for example, the Apulian column-krater attributed to the Laterza painter that was given to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by Thomas G. Appleton in 1876 (Acc. no. 76.66 = Padgett, no. 35). This was sold at Sotheby's New York on December 11, 2002 (lot 62) for US$10,158.

b. Documented old collections. The Sotheby's New York December 9, 2004 sale included several Apulian pots from the William Randolph Hearst collection; some could be traced back to the collection "owned" by the Chapter of Durham Cathedral (England).

c. Excavated material that has left the country of origin through partage. Part of Sir Henry Wellcome's collection of Egyptian antiquities was formed in this way. (See D.W.J. Gill, "From Wellcome Museum to Egypt Centre: displaying Egyptology in Swansea," Göttinger Miszellen 205 (2005) 47-54.) The Middle Kingdom blue faience hippopotamus in the George Ortiz collection was excavated in 1907 from tomb 416 at Abydos. It had then passed into the collection of the Revd William MacGregor.

For a "licit" trade to work there needs to be:

a. Authenticated documentation. The material that will be returned to Italy from the Getty includes items that are said to come from named "old" collections - but that information appears to have been falsified (presumably by one of the vendors in the chain). (This will be discussed by Gill and Chippindale in the next number of IJCP which is now in press.) [UPDATE: Gill, D. W. J., and C. Chippindale. 2007. "From Malibu to Rome: further developments on the return of antiquities." International Journal of Cultural Property 14: 205-40.]

b. Integrity. Can we trust the word of the dealer? I am sure there are decent dealers out there but the honest ones have to recognise that some of their colleagues have not been helping to enhance their image. Why did Sotheby's stop selling antiquities in London? See Peter Watson's Sotheby's, the Inside Story (London: Bloomsbury, 1997) for some of the possible reasons.

But is there a pool of antiquities out there?

My study of 1300 lots of Egyptian antiquities sold at auction at Sotheby's New York over the last 10 years suggests that perhaps only some 30% of the objects are documented before 1973 (i.e. before the Archaeological Institute of America's resolution that brought the problem of looting to the attention of a wider public).

And what are the sources for the other 70% of Egyptian antiquities? Can we be sure that they have surfaced on the market by "licit" means? Can responsible public institutions buy Egyptian antiquities which they cannot be certain were known before the 1970 UNESCO Convention? And "due diligence" only works when you can trust the documentation that is provided by the vendor - and that is where thorough research steps in.

What about long-term loans?

Finally, Finch raises the idea of long-term loans. Kevin Butcher and I mentioned this as an idea in our review article of the first few numbers of Minerva: K. Butcher and D. W. J. Gill, "Mischievous pastime or historical science?" Antiquity 64 (1990) 946-50. Our model at the time was the impressive Emory University exhibition programme that included material from Syracuse. But loans are different to "a licit international trade".


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