Saturday, February 25, 2012

"We have to support better policing of the sites", says the new Getty Museum Director. What does he have in mind?

Lee Rosenbaum has a disturbingly revealing Q and A with Timothy Potts on the new Getty Museum director's views on antiquities collecting policy. I happen to agree with Potts that even with the 1970 rule now being adhered to by American museums, "there is still a huge amount of ongoing looting and this issue is not being addressed." I also agree that

The only way to address it is on the ground in the source countries. We have to support better policing of the sites, better understanding by the local communities of the importance of the archaeological heritage, particularly to them. And it's only through these programs that we're really going to tackle the core problem, which is the illicit excavation that's still going on and the huge urban projects, dam building, and so on.

What would it mean to "support better policing of the sites"? One thing it might mean is that the Getty would urge new policies here in the US that would generate funding to help poor countries pay for better policing. For example, the Getty might join forces with some of the most wealthy collectors, dealers, and other major museums with deep-pocketed boards, to establish an endowment for site protection; or the Getty might spearhead an effort along with collectors to expand the Getty Conservation Institute's important new Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, by subsidizing the creation of local volunteer site monitoring groups to feed realtime information about looting into it; or the Getty might push for the licit antiquities trade in the US to be regulated and purchases by Americans whether here or abroad taxed to provide funding that would support better policing of the sites.

Unfortunately, the concluding sentence of Potts' answer makes clear that what he has in mind is none of these things. Instead, the burden is placed on the citizens and governments of countries being looted. It is ultimately, for Potts, a matter of educating the benighted: "The educational process has to happen not only with the local community but also with the government and ministers." That is an extraordinarily impolitic attitude, one likely to enrage governments and ministers struggling to stem the tide of looting in the midst of massive cuts in their budgets. The Italians and Greeks, certainly, are hardly ignorant about their country's archaeological heritage. What they need is not education but material support for more and better monitoring, site police, and the like.

If Potts' position on what the Getty could do to "support better policing of the sites" is disappointingly weak-kneed, his position on the clean-hands policy that the Getty and other museums now follow is downright retrograde. As Rosenbaum reminds him (and us), Potts had supported a rolling 10-year statute of limitations on the ban on buying unprovenanced antiquities. That position was rejected for the quite obvious reason that it would give thieves an easy way to loot with impunity: simply warehouse your finds for a decade. But Potts has not taken the point:

ROSENBAUM: Do you still think the "rolling 10-year rule," which you supported, was a good idea or have you revised your thinking on that?

POTTS: Has my thinking evolved? No. I think the same issues are still there. The difference between the policies is the extent to which they prioritize the question of what happens to the material that, through no fault of its own, is discovered through development, through road-building, through accidental discoveries of all different kinds. And that is the majority of the category we're talking about. [There is no data to support that claim, of course, and in any case, whether discovered accidentally or not, antiquities ought not to be removed from their contexts without previous site documentation by archaeologists.]
The 10-year rule was an attempt to find a way of putting enough distance between the excavation of the object---by someone who shouldn't have been doing it, in some cases---and the acquisition, but to still provide a mechanism where it could be properly documented, recorded, published and therefore could make its contribution to the understanding of the culture.

The later policy clearly took the view that this was less of a priority than the clarity of a single line and date of 1970. There's no inconsistency between those policies. They're just weighing those two different considerations slightly differently.

ROSENBAUM: I think the first policy was seen as essentially giving an opportunity for object-laundering: You hold it for long enough time, and then it becomes clean. That's what the critique of that policy was.

POTTS: Both policies say that if they've been held long enough, it is okay to buy them. They're just drawing that line at different points: One's a fixed line and one's a moving line.

Potts' geometry is incoherent, reflecting the incoherence of his claim that there is no real difference between the moving ten-year limit and the line drawn at 1970.

This is not to say that the 1970 rule cannot be criticized. It does create "orphan" antiquities, and it does not do a great deal to disincentivize looting, since even with the Getty out of the game (and there can be no doubt that the Getty's buying spree back in the day did incentivize looting) there are still many millionaires around the world willing to pay enough to keep the illicit antiquities industry going. The world does need to go further to support better policing of sites, though, not backward, and it needs the Getty to provide policy leadership to get that done. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Tim Potts is ready yet to do that. As Rosenbaum notes, he did not think it necessary to familiarize himself with the details of the Getty's acquisitions policy before taking the job, despite the sensitivity of the Getty's position and Cuno's signaling that the Getty will continue to buy aggressively. Let's hope that Potts and Cuno will recognize that they have an opportunity to move the policy ball forward, and push for new and better solutions, rather than merely paying lip service to the need to do something to stop the looting-driven destruction of archaeological sites.

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