Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Some scholars' opinions" collated by antiquities dealers

The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art has added a new page collating "some scholars' opinions" about matters such as the importance of archaeological context (answer: not at all important) and the right of archaeologists to "show off" as guardians of the cultural heritage of mankind (none, apparently, insofar as they fail to publish their findings in a timely way).

This collection of quotations is most helpful in clarifying the logical weakness, not to say intellectual bankruptcy, of the arguments IADAA takes to be slamdunks. Take, for instance, the straw-man claim reiterated again and again by Cuno and de Montebello that archaeologists believe that antiquities have no meaning outside their archaeological context. Perhaps there are a few, but the vast majority of archaeologists recognize the obvious fact that artifacts can be studied by art historians for their aesthetic and iconographic value, or (if they bear writing) by epigraphers. The archaeologists' position, rather, is that archaeological context supplies meanings which aesthetic, iconographic, or epigraphic analysis often cannot supply, and that the contextual information supplied by archaeologists can and does serve as a control and check on the hypotheses of art historians and textual scholars.

If the archaeologist who says "no meaning without context" is a straw man, the museum director who says "context has no meaning" is all too real, however. Such claims -- or the pseudo-stastical "only 2% of what we know comes from context" -- are as silly as the ones purportedly made by archaeologists. It is a strange argument that does exactly what it accuses its opponent of doing.

Even where there is an argument to be made that the legal structures designed to protect cultural heritage have failed, the experts quoted by the IADAA overplay their hand. Take the sad story of how Afghan antiquities in the Kabul Museum were left to the hammers of Taliban iconoclasts because UNESCO refused to authorize their export to Switzerland. Why did UNESCO refuse? Appiah thinks it is because UNESCO acts on the basis of nationalist ideology enshrined in its convention, an ideology that says art properly belongs in the state whose cultural patrimony it is -- even when the state disagrees that the art in question is a part of its heritage, and wants to destroy it. That is a radical oversimplification of the situation faced by UNESCO at the time, and it begs the question of whether UNESCO could have been certain in 1999 that the Taliban would actually destroy the artifacts under its control. Moreover, it is difficult to see how it is that the case of the Taliban -- surely an exceptional one -- discredits an entire international system that puts the primary responsibility upon states to care for cultural heritage within their boundaries. The response should be to close the policy loophole, as UNESCO has done in the wake of the bitter lesson of Afghanistan, not to give up on the nation-state as a means to the end of protecting cultural heritage.

Appiah himself does not go so far as to suggest that "the nation state has lost its implicitness [sic] as a political paradigm," as Luca Giuliani is approvingly quoted by the IADAA. Nor does the philosopher, one presumes, share John Boardman's bizarre apologia for the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, also quoted approvingly by the IADAA:

And who are we to blame them for this rather extreme exercise of their deeply felt faith? The major loss in this case is probably to the tourist trade... The act of the Taliban was exactly that of Moses with the Golden Calf made by the idolatrous Aaron, which he “burnt with fire, and ground to powder and scattered upon the water.” No doubt the calf might have been judged a distinguished example of animal sculpture for its day, but we do not question Moses’s motivation or deed.
Boardman does at least raise one interesting analogy worth pursuing -- though like the other argumentative moves made by the IADAA's scholars, it doesn't achieve the argumentative aim it intends. Boardman:

The argument holds that since robbing cannot be controlled at its source, it must be controlled, blindly, at its eventual home in a collection, public or private, and indiscriminately so, regardless of evidence. But this is topsy-turvy. Surely (and the example is the international trade of illegal drugs) it is more appropriate and more effective to target the sources of criminal activity, and especially those middlemen who handle the material long before it arrives in the pockets of street dealers. In terms of the antiquities trade this suggests the need for a far more serious approach by source countries, often with the policing of their own officials, and a far more determined international effort to bring to justice the middlemen and anyone who sponsors such activities, something quite beyond the imagination of UNESCO.

Yes, both drugs and antiquities are being dealt on an international market, and yes, it is important to target not just the dealers but the middlemen and, a fortiori, the looters who supply the illicit good. But the analogy breaks down when Boardman equates street dealers with antiquities dealers. The demand for antiquities is not driven by hundreds of thousands of daily users paying small sums to poor gang members; it is driven by a relatively small number of very wealthy collectors paying tens of thousands of dollars for their artifacts. In the drug trade, the big money is made by the drug lords; in the antiquities trade, by the dealers and middlemen, as the Medici Conspiracy made clear. And, of course, the antiquities trade, unlike the drug trade, operates both legally and illicitly, complicating enforcement efforts enormously.

On the other hand, Boardman is right to suggest that more could be done to target the source of illicit antiquities. We know that Italy has dramatically improved its anti-looting efforts by increasing its budget substantially. The problem is how to help source countries less well-off than Italy do what Boardman wants them to do. And here neither Boardman nor the IADAA have any constructive suggestions. The answer, however, is not hard to see -- if one shifts one's analogy. Antiquities, even illicit ones, are more like oil than like drugs: they are goods that do us good, but producing them causes harm (in the form of permanently lost knowledge of our human past). The antiquities trade, one might say, generates a kind of pollution.

The rational way to regulate markets that generate externalities is to internalize the costs. Make the polluters pay, and use the funds generated by taxing their trade to mitigate the harm. You want to sell or buy antiquities? Fine, but we want you to pay into a fund that will pay for more site guards, more antiquities police, more INTERPOL agents, and the like.

Is that a policy position that IADAA is likely to get behind? Don't hold your breath.

1 comment:

David Gill said...

Sir John Boardman, quoted so warmly on the IADAA website, was also a supporter of what can only be described as the disastrous sale of the Geddes collection of antiquities at Bonham's (London) in the autumn of 2008.
See here.
Best wishes