Thursday, 6 September 2007

"There is good self-regulation in most countries"

Sir John Boardman (in Who Owns Objects?) has posed the question,
"Should we not simply admit the impossibility of controlling the antiques trade, and indeed the undesirability of so doing except where proven stolen goods are involved, as in any other trade?"
I have discussed elsewhere the issue of what is "demonstrably stolen". My view is in keeping with the position of the UK Museums Association:
"In general many parts of the trade seems to prefer to assume items are all licit, "innocent until proven guilty". It would be safer—and more realistic—to regard certain categories of material as likely to be illicit unless proven otherwise. Objects without a known recent history should not normally be traded or collected."
But I digress.

Boardman continues, "By now there is good self-regulation in most countries" and cites two bodies:
a. The Antiquities Dealers Association
b. An (sic.?) Art Loss Register

Ashton Hawkins and Judith Church have written about "A tale of two innocents: the rights of former owners and good-faith purchasers of stolen art" (in Kate Fitz Gibbon (ed.),Who Owns the Past? (2005), 62-63). They draw attention to the replacement of the International Foundation for Art Research, Inc. (IFAR) by "a British not-for-profit corporation formed by IFAR, Sotheby's, Christie's, London-based insurance brokers, and other British and American companies called the International Art and Antique Loss Register, Ltd. (ALR)".

They expand, "This registry [sc. ALR] has emerged as the leading international clearinghouse for information on stolen art".

One could be led to believe that the looting of antiquities is minor. Kate Fitz Gibbon, editor of Who Owns the Past?, drew on "information published by the Art Loss Register" to comment, "thefts of antiquities represent only 3 percent of total art thefts" ("Editor's note: The Illicit Trade - Fact or Fiction?", 179).

Perhaps this deserves a few words.

There is a difference between the theft of a Roman portrait head from a stately home or London apartment, and the deliberate digging up of an archaeological context to remove an Etruscan bronze mirror. Note that the Art Loss Register observes, "the majority of the items registered are objects stolen from private homes".

Take my first example. The Roman portrait head will have been inherited or purchased at a gallery, there will be documentation, and the circumstances of the theft will have been recorded by the police.

But take the second. The Etruscan tomb was opened secretly at night away from public gaze. The last person to see the bronze mirror was a member of the grieving family some 2400 years earlier. The tomb was unknown to archaeology. Its contents were unrecorded. There was nothing to go on the register.

So imagine a sale. The dealer checks with a register.

The Roman head pops up in the database: stolen from Slappleby Hall, Northamptonshire on November 12, 2002. (This is an imaginary theft before you scrabble for your computers. Even Google does not list such a residence ...)

The Etruscan mirror is clear: there is nothing in the database. Indeed a potential buyer can be told that a register has been checked.

Does the lack of presence on a register mean that the mirror has not been ripped from its archaeological context? No.

So should you be reassured, as Boardman would have us believe, when you buy from a member of the Association of Antiquities Dealers?

Their "Code of Conduct" states:
"It is a condition of membership that all goods acquired at the purchase price of £2,000 or more be checked with the Art Loss Register, or any other comparable stolen art database, unless they have already been so checked."
Indeed to help sellers, "Full members receive a number of free searches at the Art Loss Register."

The Code for the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art says much the same:
"All members undertake to check objects with a purchase value of Euro 3000 or over (or local currency equivalent) with the Art Loss Register unless the item has already been checked."
Do I feel reassured by all this? Not really.

But perhaps I should take comfort from a memorandum (dated October 2003) submitted by the Art Loss Register to the House of Commons (Committee for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport):
"Many stolen antiquities have been identified by the ALR and recently the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) maintains a protocol whereby all potential purchases by their members above a value of £10,000 must be checked against the database. An audit trial of all checks of the database is maintained. The ALR has been involved in advising parties in relation to major archaeological losses. In one case involving a dispute in excess of £20 million the company developed the concept of an international trust financed by a major museum, which would have the items on display. The terms of the trust would require the items to be exhibited in those countries which had a reasonable claim and eventually repatriated to the country should complete proof be obtained of their original excavation. The ALR has assisted in the recovery of items from Iraq and Iran which have resulted in arrests."
Are the "many stolen antiquities" from private residences, museums or previously unrecorded archaeological sites? The memorandum did not make it clear.

And am I saying anything new? Let me finish with some words from the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre in Cambridge published in 2000:
"In any event, at the risk of boring our more informed readers, the Art Loss Register cannot (and does not claim to) contain details of antiquities which have been excavated without record and smuggled without trace. Data bases are invaluable in the fight against art theft, but as a defence against the circulation of illicit antiquities they are of only limited use — a necessary but not sufficient check."
How can the Art Loss Register be strengthened to reduce the number of newly surfaced antiquities appearing on the market?

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