Saturday, May 30, 2009

'Ancient' artifacts, cyber scams - Los Angeles Times

An interesting new article on Charles Stanish's argument that Ebay has reduced looting by making it more profitable for looters to switch to making fakes for gullible, uninformed buyers, and poisoning the legitimate market. Antiquities dealer Jerome Eisenberg disagrees, noting that his annual sales are in the tens of millions of dollars, including an Internet trade that has "increased exponentially" over the past few years. Eisenberg believes that news about forgeries -- and one might add, the Internet's spreading of the news that it is possible to buy antiquities -- only succeeds in making the market grow. 

Eisenberg, of course, may simply be trying to reassure his clientele, and we do not know whether his sales revenues have increased, even if his internet trade has increased. But the fact that this reputable dealer is able to increase his sales on the internet tells us something that Stanish -- and even Steve Levitt -- do not adequately address. The basic economics of "lemons" teaches that warrantied used cars fetch a higher price than unwarrantied ones, and it would be odd if this were not also true of authenticated antiquities. The Guennol Lioness suggests the price for authenticated antiquities may be going way up. (There's an interesting economic question buried here, which is about the difference between a good that is not as good as it appears, i.e., a lemon, and a good that is no good at all if it is not as it appears, i.e., a fake.)

If that is the case, what does it mean for looting? One thing it might mean is that collectors -- even eBay ones -- will learn to distrust unauthenticated antiquities, and that might lead to declines in sales of both fakes and looted artifacts, assuming some archaeological body of experts could be created to vet artifacts. And since the costs of authentication will raise the price dealers need to charge, some buyers will be driven out of the market.

But if some buyers are driven out, many more will have been enticed in by the news stories and by eBay's seductive ease of perusal. Some among these new buyers will surely become cognoscenti, and bring additional money into the system. The more scrupulous will demand authentication from a recognized body, or put their trust in reputable dealers; there are sure, however, to be some less scrupulous who will be willing to pay a lot for artifacts that have been looted, if the middleman can show that the piece has come from the ground. That, after all, was what Giacomo Medici was doing with his Polaroids of dirt-encrusted vases. The Internet has made that technology quaint: a looter nowadays can snap and send a cellphone photo direct from site to buyer. Looting might well continue under these circumstances, not decline.

'Ancient' artifacts, cyber scams - Los Angeles Times

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Interview on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight"

I was interviewed last night on the public television station's daily news show.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

David Gill blogs smartly as usual on the new online site launched by the Aboutaams. His post makes clear why we need some alternative to the porous Art Loss Register -- a new registration system specifically designed provide a real vetting of archaeological material to leave no doubt about whether provenance passes muster. To be credible to the archaeological community, archaeologists appointed by major archaeological associations would be officially in charge of a registering commission. Dealers would have to pay for the costs of the commission's work -- and one could tack on an additional charge (or if the commission were legally sanctioned, a tax) to raise money to help pay for site guards in countries where antiquities are being looted.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Deep Thought about Brandeis' Attempt to Sell Off its Art Collection

Brandeis' trustees have apparently decided to slow-walk the university's Rose Museum into oblivion, in the hope that the furor will die down eventually and they will then be able to go ahead with the sale. But the way the art market is going now, by the time Brandeis pulls the trigger it may no longer be worth it to try to sell.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Iraqi Archaeologists Studying in Chicago

An interesting TV segment, with some footage of looting at the museums and some very old footage of digging on sites that I have never seen before. (Charles Jones kindly informs me that the old footage is from the Field Museum's long-ago expedition to Kish.) Bringing Iraqi archaeologists here to update their skills is heartwarming and the State Department is to be applauded for supporting this effort. But watch the story and you will see how this program is being promoted as a response to the looting, when in fact it does not do one thing (so far as I can tell from the coverage) to make the Iraqis better able to protect their sites. 

My colleagues are in a difficult position, and Gil Stein does an excellent job in this story of highlighting the immense losses that have occurred as a result of site looting. Unless it is made clearer, though, that while we all welcome the chance to assist Iraqi archaeologists other programs also need to be established to help cut down on looting, the archaeologists we train may have less and less to excavate.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Archaeologists Ignored Again as Babylon Re-Opens after US Turnover

The NY Times has an interesting article about the reopening of Babylon to tourist visitors. The writer makes clear that Iraq's archaeological heritage is no longer controlled by the professional archaeologists in the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, but by the Ministry of Tourism and Prime Minister Maliki, and that any concerns about the security of sites, whether from looting or development, are being superseded by the desire for tourist dollars and the wish to present a bella figura to the world.


The State Department will of course say that this is a purely internal matter for the sovereign government of Iraq to determine for itself. But as the article makes clear along the way, the Iraqi government would not be in control of the sites if the US had not agreed to turn over that control as part of the Status of Forces agreement reached with the Iraqi government. 


Here are the relevant clauses from the agreement:


5.  Upon the discovery of any historical or cultural site or finding any strategic resource in agreed facilities and areas, all works of construction, upgrading, or modification shall cease immediately and the Iraqi representatives at the Joint Committee shall be notified to determine appropriate steps in that regard.  

 6.  The United States shall return agreed facilities and areas and any non-relocatable structures and assemblies on them that it had built, installed, or established during the term of this Agreement, according to mechanisms and priorities set forth by the Joint Committee.  Such facilities and areas shall be handed over to the Government of Iraq free of any debts and financial burdens.  

 7.  The United States Forces shall return to the Government of Iraq the agreed facilities and areas that have heritage, moral, and political significance and any non-relocatable structures and assemblies on them that it had built, installed, or established, according to mechanisms, priorities, and a time period as mutually agreed by the Joint Committee, free of any debts or financial burdens.   

That the Iraqi government should wish to reassume responsibility for its country's heritage is both completely understandable and honorable, and that the US should be willing to turn them over is perfectly fine.  In fact, given the pathetic record of the military and the State Department in protecting Iraq’s archaeological sites, they may well be in better hands now, even if the government is disregarding the concerns of its own archaeologists. It is a shame, though, that the SOFA did not also include some provisions for assistance to the Iraq government for protecting sites. It would be interesting to know what kinds of conversations took place about this issue. The author of the Times piece suggests that it was at the insistence of the Iraqis that the sites were turned over. But what did we say? Were we surprised? Were there any negotiations about the issue?

Friday, May 01, 2009

Iraq War's cultural costs as seen through a Chicago prism

Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller interviewed me about Rape of Mesopotamia.