Monday, November 06, 2017

Against "Displacement": A Thought about Hilgert's "Culture Matters"

In "Why Culture Matters," Markus Hilgert asserts that the importance of culture lies in its "fostering  identity through cultural heritage" (as the article's title after the colon puts it), and defines the key problems facing culture as those of the destruction and displacement of heritage. 

Culture, heritage, identity -- these terms are almost intolerably contaminated by received ideas and begged questions, so much so that any effort to say something intelligible about their relationship in a column is bound to fall short. But what I find more troubling in Hilgert's argument is his discussion of displacement. 
The term "displacement" is problematic, because as Hilgert uses it it obscures the distinction between the looting of archaeological sites and the illicit export of artifacts. Archaeological site looting destroys the archaeological context needed to study the past objectively and provide the facts grounding the historical truth about the past; illicit export of artifacts injures national pride (in ways that may, by the way, paradoxically strengthen a sense of aggrieved national identity, with consequences that the last century's history shows can be murderous).
While heritage and identity need to be cared for, we cannot care for them properly without a primary commitment to truth, rather than to heritage or identity per se. And that means that policies should pay at least as much attention to the need to secure archaeological sites from looting as they pay to iconoclasm, conservation and repatriation of displaced artifacts, and heritage development.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

100 antiquities police officers needed, 7 on the books

Laws against looting and smuggling are meaningless if the state doesn't enforce them. This simple truth is nearly always ignored by heritage protection advocates, or applied by them only to the demand end with calls for more seizures and prosecutions (calls that went unheeded until the trafficking of antiquities became linked to terrorism, which has had some salutary effect in directing more governmental attention and resources to bear). Seizures and prosecutions require funding and staffing of positions for officers and prosecutors.

Which makes this story about the Idol Wing of India's Tamil Nandu police particularly appalling:
The Idol Wing is severely understaffed and under-equipped. When it was newly formed, it was supposed to have 100 police officers. Now it has only seven officers listed on its website. Recently, the Madras High Court observed that of the 29 personnel sanctioned for the Idol Wing, 9 positions were vacant. “It is almost like a punishment post,” said Vijay Kumar. “It should be centralised and incentivised. Each of these cases take years to crack.” 
Recent events have hurt the Wing’s reputation and credibility. Two police officials who worked at the wing eight years ago have been accused of selling a set of panchaloha idols which they seized, to Deenadayalan for Rs 15 lakh. The incident was reported in January, but soon after, Inspector Kader Baccha, one of the accused, was promoted as the Deputy Superintendent of Police in another district. Subburaj, then the Head Constable of the Idol Wing, was promoted as Sub-Inspector at a city police station.
Last month, upon enquiry by the Madras High Court, both were arrested.

A due diligence checklist -- the starting point for a calibrated taxing system for antiquities or for a registration system

Matthew Bogdanos and Amr al-Azm provide a helpful list of due diligence red flag indicators for insurers, dealers, auction houses and collectors handling antiquities. 

This is an excellent starting point for a checklist that could be used for a registration system for antiquities and/or as the basis for assessing the tax rate for a given artifact (the more red flags, the higher the tax) under a Pigovian (corrective) tax system. I have laid out the Pigovian tax idea here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A possible second-best solution for orphaned antiquities?

This article in the New York Times describes how one art collector donated a work to the Prado, noting that 

he will be eligible for a tax deduction because the donation was made not to a foreign museum but to the American Friends of the Prado Museum, a United States-based charity.

The article also flags the difficulty of finding a museum willing to take "orphaned" antiquities:

Antiquities are particularly fraught, given patrimony laws that protect artifacts.

“You may have some great Egyptian artifacts and you’d love to have them in the museum when you die, because who else is going to take them?” Mr. Schindler said. “But if you don’t have good proof that they came out of the ground before 1970, good luck.”
This raises an interesting question about such artifacts. If collectors want them to go into a museum, should they be encouraged and permitted by countries of origin to donate their antiquities to a US nonprofit representing that country's national museum?

The downside, of course, is that donors will get a tax break for giving artifacts that might possibly have been looted. The upside is that the artifacts at least go back to the country of origin rather than back into the marketplace, and at far less cost in time and effort than would be necessary for restitution cases to be brought. In effect the American taxpayer would be underwriting the cost of returning artifacts to their original country -- though, it must be noted, never to their original find spot.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

U.S. Senators are pushing for Native American Artifact legislation -- but will it do any good?

Here's a news story on the proposed legislation. Two pieces, count-'em two! Well, one is just a resolution. The other, STOP, stands for the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act. So far as I can tell, the main things the legislation does are two: to double the jailtime it is possible to get on conviction for a second offense, and require the Comptroller General to submit a report estimating number of artifacts trafficked and number of prosecutions, "after collecting information from the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Secretary of State, and meeting, as appropriate, with Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations". 

Unfortunately, none of those entities, so far as I know, has the capacity or interest or wherewithal to provide estimates of the extent of the illicit market. As to the doubling of penalties, the theory of deterrence requires that the risk of actually being prosecuted be factored into the deterrent effect. Saddam introduced the death penalty for looting when he lost control, with no discernible impact. So long as the risk of prosecution remains low -- which it will absent some increased incentives to prosecute, increased provision of financial resources to prosecutors, requirements to expand prosecutions, or changes in the burden of proof to make prosecutions cheaper and easier -- there's not likely to be much impact. Nice acronym, though.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Libya: Cultural Racketeering by the Actual Mafia and What it Tells Us about How It Should Be Fought

Informative piece on Libya's struggle to protect its archaeological sites in the absence of a strong centralized government. Several points to note:

  • international trafficking of antiquities is, as Deborah Lehr and the Antiquities Coalition have emphasized, racketeering in which the smugglers are mafia-like organizations -- or in this instance, the actual Mafia!
  • high-end artifacts are being proffered, not just cheap pots.  It may well be the case that there are distinct smuggling channels, with the more violent ones operating at the higher end where the profit margin is the highest. This is at least a hypothesis to be tested.
  • Given the cost of weapons, and the apparently direct trade of weapons to terrorists in exchange for antiquities to the mafia, it makes sense for higher-end artifacts to be favored currency.
  • securing sites in the absence of central authority requires not SPI-style economic development projects aimed at gaining local buy-in, valuable as such projects are in peacetime situations in countries at peace, but rather the arming of local groups backed by rebel authorities.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Parcak's Peru Project: What about the looters?

First things first. Sarah Parcak's project is awesome. So is Larry Coben's Sustainable Preservation Initiative. And the possibilities for Peru laid out in this TED talk are fantastic.

That said, I am still anxious about how the discovery of myriad previously unidentified unexcavated sites is going to be handled in a way that doesn't lead to massive looting. Statements like this one, meant to be reassuring, instead give me pause:
So many sites in Peru are threatened, but the great part is that all of this data is going to be shared with archaeologists on the front lines of protecting these sites. 
Okay, but how are archaeologists on the front lines going to deal with looters absent much more robust sustained funding to pay for all the site guards that are going to be needed to guard these sites as they are being excavated? I can see how once they are excavated SPI might take over, to some extent, winning hearts and minds of locals by giving them an economic incentive to protect sites, or at least those sites that generate tourist revenue. But that's going to happen later if at all. The major danger lies in the period after the discovery is made, before and during excavations, especially on massive sites where archaeologists will perforce be digging only on a tiny fraction.  

The "front lines" is not just a metaphor. Guys with guns are going to come, following the archaeologists (or perhaps hacking the crowd-sourced data, though I have been assured this is not going to be doable). Archaeologists doing the digging on the front lines are going to need help from people who know how to guard sites. How is the Peruvian government going to find the money to pay for guards and police to stop them? Does the TED prize provide funding for that? National Geographic? The archaeologists being given the data? Is the money going to be raised from the thousands of volunteers helping GlobalExplorer?

Financing of site security and archaeological policing is the missing piece of the puzzle. Without it, I worry that this project may end up inadvertently causing the destruction of much of what it discovers.

Friday, December 25, 2015

If Florence can lease its piazzas, why can't museums lease antiquities to raise $ to protect sites?

Florence is leasing the Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza d'Ognisannti, the Belvedere... the list goes on and on. A lot of desperately needed money is being raised, although the inconvenience to residents (and presumably, also to visitors barred from these public spaces for the duration of the lease) is real and not inconsequential, unless the lease is during hours when the building or bridge would not be in use or normally closed.

The temporary privatizing of cultural space is not a new phenomenon. As I learned while researching the Brooklyn Museum controversy over the Chris Ofili Madonna (see my intro to the edited volume Unsettling 'Sensation' here), museums have been renting out their great halls for corporate and individual soirĂ©es -- not just gala fundraisers for the museum, but private functions -- for decades now.

Which raises the question: If Florence can lease its piazzas and museums their exhibition spaces to raise money needed to preserve their heritage, why can't museums lease antiquities from their storerooms to raise money needed to preserve archaeological sites?