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.