Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Orphan" Antiquities Study

The Cultural Policy Research Institute, a think tank formed last year "to build a viable legal framework for the protection of world historical remains", has issued its first research study. It focuses on "orphan" artifacts: archaeological material or ancient art in private hands that the AAMD's recently-adopted guidelines exclude from being acquired by Member museums because these artifacts lack clear provenance showing they were outside their country of probable modern discovery before 1970 (or were exported legally after 1970). This first pilot study limited itself to Greek, Roman, and associated material, coins excluded, with a value of $1000 or more. CPRI researchers -- unnamed in the report -- interviewed museum staffers, major US dealers, private collectors, and scholars. The interviewing methodology is not described, and sources remain anonymous, so there is no way to evaluate the accuracy of the results. We have no way of knowing how those interviewed determined that provenances were inadequate, but it seems obvious that dealers and collectors have a vested interest in exaggerating the number, so these figures need to be taken with a big grain of salt.

The study estimates that 67,500-111,900 classical artifacts with inadequate provenance are being held by collectors or dealers. It would be very interesting to know what percentage is in the hands of dealers rather than collectors, and even more interesting to know how many total artifacts, well-provenanced as well as "orphaned", worth $1000 or more are now in private hands. One thing at least is deducible: the market for only inadequately provenanced Roman/Greek/related antiquities involves capital to the tune of at least $67,500,000-111,900,000 (since all the artifacts reported are supposedly worth at least $1000 each).

The CPRI could do a major service to all students of the antiquities markets if it could ascertain how many of these "orphans" change hands annually, at what prices, and in what country.

But the aim of the CPRI is not to throw light on the operations of the antiquities market. Rather, it is to call attention to the existence of these objects, which supposedly are endangered by being held in private hands:

objects excluded from acquisition by Member museums cannot have the benefit of professional museum exhibition, publication, or conservation. ... Such objects can have no permanent parentage or protection (many run the risk, over time, of deterioration, damage or destruction).

The problem with this line of argument is that even if the objects in question were not excluded from acquisition most of them would not be acquired. And the notion that dealers and collectors would be negligent towards objects worth thousands of dollars seems very questionable.

The hope seems to be to persuade AAMD to rescind its guidelines. But those guidelines were created in response to a recognition that the antiquities market is being fed by looters. One has no way of knowing how many of the 67,500 "orphaned" artifacts were orphaned from their contexts by Bulgarian, Cypriot, or Turkish looters, but we do know that site looting of these countries' Greek and Roman sites is ongoing.

That does not mean that the guidelines in themselves will have much if any effect on this ongoing looting, at least not in the short run. The market will continue to function, and "orphaned" antiquities will continue to flow into it. But at least the guidelines lay down a challenge to dealers and collectors: figure out some way for your industry to play a progressive role in
reducing looting and clean up its act by establishing a strictly licit market. Come up with a plan like that and maybe bringing in the orphans can be part of the final deal.


Wayne G. Sayles said...

Dr. Rothfield;

I found the gauntlet thrown down at the end of your post quite interesting. It's ironic, though not surprising, that the largest group of orphans, ancient coins, were excluded from this CPRI study except for a brief mention of their existence. Among the strongest opponents within the United States these days to cultural property import restrictions on classical objects are coin collectors and the associated trade. However, the relatively low value of coins, as compared to other artifacts in the art market, often gives coins a lesser voice in the debate. But, really, how much political involvement is seen these days from the sellers of what are commonly thought of as "major" antiquities? The reason for the acquiescence, capitulation, accommodation (you choose the word) among them in recent years is fairly easy, I think, to understand. Provenance (legitimate or not) is much easier to establish among expensive and individually notable objects. It is, consequently, much easier for the trade in ancient pots or sculpture, et cetera, to accept and work within controls that are provenance based. For coin collectors, the situation is far different. Laws that are designed to protect major objects typically are applied with equal force to coins or other utilitarian objects. The number of ancient coins extant probably exceeds even the numbers suggested in the study. Most of them have no provenance whatever. That does not make them illicit, as confirmed by copious reports of really huge private collections dating back to the 16th century - virtually all of which have been dispersed in the trade and none of which can now be traced today through provenance records.

Your suggestion to create a "totally licit" market is actually quite noble and acceptable in my view, it is these millions of orphan coins, that cannot possibly be identified on a global basis, that cause me great concern. The constant calls that I hear for provenance as a measure of legitimacy seem disingenuous to me — at least as far as coins are concerned. When someone comes up with a viable way to protect the rights of present owners, known and unknown, we will be well on our way to a resolution of the differences that presently divide collectors, dealers and museums from those that would probably call themselves "preservationists" — of course the legitimacy of that term is a whole debate in itself.


Wayne G. Sayles
Executive Director
Ancient Coin Collectors Guild

Larry Rothfield said...

A couple of responses:
1. Although it is true that it is easier to establish provenance among expensive and individually notable objects, the CPRI study purports to show that there are many such objects that nonetheless cannot be provenanced adequately.
2. The trade is not working within controls that are provenance-based -- it is working around them, since these controls only apply to museum acquisitions. All the artifacts identified in the CPRI study are, I would imagine, saleable on the market, as are ancient coins, yes?

And a couple of questions about the claim that it is impossible to identify coins: Is there no economically-affordable technical means for labelling coins (i.e., radioisotopes)? Even if there isn't, could one not imagine a system in which collectors and dealers would be given an amnesty period during which they could bring there coins in to be registered, with the proviso that sales must be reported so that the coins could then be tracked? Just because coins are more nondescript and larger in number does not mean they are in principle untrackable, does it?

In any case, I await the picking up of my gauntlet by coin collectors. What would you propose be done to help countries being looted to protect their sites?

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Contrary to your view, I believe the antiquities trade is quite visibly affected by the provenance-based controls that affect their trade. But, that is not an issue that should be debated here and now. I'll try to answer your questions as briefly and directly as possible.

"Is there no economically-affordable technical means for labelling coins (i.e., radioisotopes)?"

In a word, no. A quick perusal of offerings at will show that ancient coins are often sold in groups of a few to several hundred coins with average prices below $5 per coin. It is impractical to individually photograph, process and ship such coins, much less to label and record each coin in such a group economically, no matter how inexpensive the technology might be. The labor alone is prohibitive. But that is not the primary concern. Any registration/marking scheme would of necessity require that all coins be included. Trying to mark only coins above a certain monetary threshold would create chaos at customs entry points and would surely not satisfy those who seek controls as a deterrent to site looting. Yes, one could in essence tax the consumer by adding a registration cost to every coin sold, but even if that were done it would not solve the basic problem of orphans that I have explained in my previous post. We simply do not know where all of these coins are and cannot merely call them in to be registered or marked as "licit". Lacking provenance or registration, these "orphans" would by default become "illicit" and could not be traded in the future. This is not a trivial matter.

"Just because coins are more nondescript and larger in number does not mean they are in principle untrackable, does it?"

No they are not in principle untrackable. Their tracking is simply impractical. It would be an extremely cumbersome, ineffective and I must say naive, approach to addressing the problem of site looting. For all of the money that Turkey and Italy have spent recovering artifacts, they could have protected far more of their cultural property through enhanced law enforcement and education. It is not a lack of capability or resources that these and other countries face, it is lack of national will.

The British Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme has had considerable success in reducing site looting and coordinating the efforts of private and academically-affiliated parties. Those results have been presented publicly by Dr. Roger Bland of the British Museum in presentations organized and co-hosted by ACCG at the Capitol in Washington and at the Field Museum in Chicago. That system is far more effective and fair than the repressive laws of nationalist countries or the import restrictions imposed by the U.S. State Department.

Arthur said...

Dear Prof. Rothfield:

I am writing to thank you for your comments on the Greek and Roman “Orphans Study” posted November 10 by the Cultural Policy Research Institute and to respond to a few of the points you make.

The CPRI study is a “pilot”, foreshadowing others to come in other areas. It is the first of its kind to propose reasonable estimates, by culture and category, of the likely number of significant ancient objects in private US hands. The study was generated by the AAMD guidelines on acquisitions by member museums, to help determine the numbers of privately held objects that can no longer have the benefit of professional museum conservation, study, or public explanation. The AAMD reached its decisions without reference to such data, and is said to have had little if any significant discussion of the consequence of their guidelines. In the event, the CPRI believed it would be useful to examine the facts and make these known.

You raise several points that deserve a response. One involves sources and methodology.
Given the fact that there are no encyclopedic private collections of ancient material, the CPRI took considerable pains to obtain the views of individuals who are acknowledged specialists in each area that we studied and who, among others, became valuable source of information on particular areas of interest. Museum curators and members of the trade – dealers, in a word – also helped. So did a number of scholars who have built their reputations on knowing their fields of special concern.

To obtain the necessary data, the CPRI had to give absolute assurances of privacy. In some cases security concerns were at issue. In other cases -- those involving some specialist scholars, for example, there was a concern about being exposed to sanctions from fellow academics for conveying to us what they knew. CPRI believes that the assurances of confidentiality given to the study’s contributors were understandable, the right thing to do, and worthy of respect. We also believe that any individual or organization that sought the same data would have to do the same.

You suggest the estimates may be exaggerated. To this, it can only be said that virtually all our sources (collectors, museums, dealers, scholars) believe the estimates given are probably low – emphasis here – category for category. If the $1000 value exclusion threshold were removed, in fact, the estimates would likely change upward by as much as an order of magnitude.

It should be emphasized that CPRI has no intention of asserting that the estimates are more than what they are – reasoned judgments by specialists who know their fields. Others may have better data, and we invite them join the discussion and suggest what the proper estimates should be, and let us know something about their methodology as well. When and as better data can be made available, CPRI will certainly want to revisit the current study and amend the results. “Well, the numbers must be exaggerated” is not just good enough for reasonable people.

As a final point, you suggest some motivation to the study other than what it purports to be – the exposure of data that exists nowhere else. To be sure, the CPRI makes no statement of policy, and has no policy views to promote or advocate. We are a research organization that seeks to make data and appropriate studies available as they appear to be warranted. If such studies and data cause discomfort, we can only suggest that other interested individuals and organizations offer reasoned and reasonable alternatives.

This is a good subject for more light and less heat.

With best regards,.

Arthur Houghton
for the Cultural Policy Research Institute

David Gill said...

I have also commented on this report and the lack of information. Who was the author? The CPRI researchers seems to be unaware of the published work on private collectors by Gill and Chippindale.

Cultural Property Observer said...

As Arthur Houghton noted, the numbers in the study are best estimates based on polling experts in the field. Others are welcome to suggest different numbers. As to the study David mentions, my recollection was that its purpose was not so much to estimate numbers of unprovenanced artifacts, but to assert that those artifacts were likely recently looted. Perhaps, that study can be posted somewhere that is easily accessible.


Peter Tompa

Larry Rothfield said...

The Gill and Chippindale article David is alluding to is, I believe, this one:

David Gill said...

The Chippindale and Gill article on contemporary classical collecting can be found on JSTOR. (The paper has online tables to support the research.)
Peter Tompa claims in his comment that we "assert that those artifacts were likely recently looted". In fact several pieces from two of the North American private collections have been returned to Italy and Greece.
It is significant that the CPRI has yet to disclose the authors of its paper - or the names of the people who were interviewed - or the institutions that had an input.
I find it interesting that messrs Houghton, Sayles, Tompa have yet to respond to my comments on the CPRI paper.
Best wishes