Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Impact of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Antiquities Trade: Not Much Now, Not Much Likely Later

Souren Melikian offers a rosy-tinted view of the impact the 1970 UNESCO Convention is having on the antiquities trade. There is no doubt that the visible market is being impacted to some extent, though Melikian's evidence is purely anecdotal, and as Nord Wennerstrom points out, a glance at the auction catalogues shows that there are still a great number of unprovenanced pieces going up on the block. Mackenzie and Brodie's crew is likely to weigh in soon with authoritative statistics making clear that we have a long way to go before the auction houses have clean hands.

But even if we were to reach a point at which auction houses sold only adequately provenanced antiquities, it is far from clear that this would have all that much effect on looting, because:

a) a lot of the trade in antiquities is done privately, so that it seems very likely that as the trade cleans up its public image the more dodgy pieces will simply not be brought to auction or advertised but will continue to be bought and sold in the back rooms (as, for instance, Dr Arnold Peter Weiss attempted to do recently at the national coin convention with coins he thought were stolen);
b) Melikian's claim that "dealers are paying attention" is so weak that even Melikian offers no evidence beyond the fact that Jerome Eisenberg returned illicitly excavated antiquities (not so surprisingly, Melikian omits to add that Eisenberg only returned the pieces after being pointedly requested to do so by Italian authorities);
c) not all collectors plan to sell what they collect or to give it to a museum, at least not during their lifetimes, and such collectors are therefore unlikely to give a damn whether or not the auction house or museum is unwilling to handle the pieces they love; 
d) there are many deep-pocketed collectors in other countries where there is little concern about the Convention, and as the number of millionaires in non-Western countries skyrockets they will almost certainly take up any slack created by the reduction in demand for unprovenanced antiquities by Western collectors; 
e) as ethical collectors increasingly are willing to pay a premium for kosher antiquities, the higher prices commanded for high-end antiquities with pristine provenance will provide powerful signals to looters that similar pieces will almost certainly be worth digging up even if not quite as much as the kosher pieces (if one figurine is worth $57 million on the licit market, surely a similar illicit one will be worth at least hundreds of thousands).

The point I am trying to make is two-fold: the licit market is far, far from being sealed off from the illicit one, and even if it   could be the illicit market would continue to exist. That does not mean we should give up on the 1970 UNESCO Convention and say, "provenance be damned." It means that we need to go beyond just establishing a strictly licit market to begin thinking about how the power of that market could be used to pay for the policing needed not just to keep it licit but to crush the black market and secure archaeological sites around the world.

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