Saturday, 22 September 2007

Saving antiquities: the "elephant ivory" model

Ben Macintyre ("Elephants: the way to beat looters", The Times, September 22, 2007) has considered "how to stop the ransacking of our treasures". His starting point is the issue of Iraq.

Macintyre writes:

"Numerous attempts have been made to stamp out the trade in stolen artefacts, and a number of prominent curators and dealers have recently been prosecuted for handling stolen goods. But still the market for looted antiquities expands, fed by a growing demand from the Middle East, Japan and China. Where once a rich man might adorn his palace with tiger skins and the heads of rare rhino, collectors now bag shards of Sumerian pottery and Buddhist carvings, trophy art to demonstrate wealth and sophistication."

So what is the solution?

Macintyre suggests:

"The comparison between big game hunting and the hunt for smuggled artefacts is apt, for archaeologists are turning to the lessons of wildlife conservation in their efforts to protect the world’s most threatened sites. The answer to the plague of looting may lie with the endangered elephant.

Looters of ancient sites are operating in precisely the same way as poachers hunting elephant, rhino or apes: ivory, rhino horn and bush meat attain their value by a combination of illegality and rarity. One solution may be to treat ancient sites as, in effect, protected wildlife preserves, which visitors pay to visit just as they pay to see rare animals in their natural surroundings."

What Macintyre has failed to observe is that fragments of the infamous Keros haul from the Greek islands were auctioned at Sotheby's in London in order to benefit the Save the Elephant Campaign.

The issue is as much with the collectors as the looters. And what do we make of Manhattan collectors who adorn their apartments with archaeological "trophies" - whether from Turkey, Italy or Suffolk - and then expect to be celebrated by cultural institutions?

1 comment:

Nathan Elkins said...

I agree that this is a most useful model and I've used the analogy myself before:

"Although ancient coin collecting has a long historical precedent, not all practices accepted in humanity’s past are still considered ‘ethical’ today. For example, the ivory trade, which also had millennia of precedence, once flourished until the African elephant became increasingly endangered; only after laws were passed to protect the elephants did it become widely accepted that the ivory trade was unethical. Like the African elephant, our common cultural heritage is an endangered species." This is from my new article, "Why Coins Matter..." on the SAFE website, I think the concerns and plight of environmentalists are also similar to those of archaeologists and others who advocate for the protection of archaeological sites and materials. The people who most vehemently attempt to discredit them and argue against them have a strong financial interest (for example, Exxon has been a vocal adversary of environmentalists which has also attempted to paint itself as environmentally friendly while paying for ads on YouTube that attempt discredit Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth").

If we accept this "elephant ivory" model, should we aslo accept that there never really was a good 'unity' between the academic/archaeological world and the those that work in the market? If we accept the "elephant ivory" model, would the other side be considered "poachers?"

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