Saturday, 23 September 2017

To a Collector

I was contacted by a collector who also dabbles as a small-time dealer about some artefacts he had bought, he sent me photos and asked for an opinion. Whoah. Obviously slippery ground. He had stressed how 'responsible' he tries to be in buying, and for a number of reasons, I decided to answer him despite my misgivings, requesting that he does not use my opinion in any sales spiel. I am not going to post up my whole reply as I do not want to give the game away on what I think of the actual artefacts he showed me - primarily because I see nothing wrong with him selling them as almost all look from the photos to be fakes. I do not see anything particularly wrong with him selling them, because if I can see from his photos that they are fakes, a buyer who knows what he's looking at will too. The rest should just keep well away from the antiquities market. 'Caveat emptor and if he cannot properly caveat, he should buzz off because he'll only do damage' is my position. Anyway, here's part of my longer reply:
I am really sorry it has taken so much time to reply to your enquiry [...] Thanks for showing me these pieces. It’s an interesting challenge to say something about such items just from the photos, and of course in such cases I can only offer what is really a subjective opinion. Please do not quote my opinion in any sales offers.
You sent me seven photos asking for an opinion:[....] 
 [...]You tell me that [...] were sold by tarb2011. This seller seems to be offline at the moment, but has sold other objects which are ‘not-as-described’. But that does not mean everything he sells is fake, the middlemen who supply dealers mix fakes with authentic items. The purchase of antiquities on today’s market is very risky for a number of reasons. Take your [...] (if that is what it is). Bought from an online seller based in Dubai who has now disappeared (accountability?) who said it was found in Jordan. Now, while Dubai has rather lax laws about import and export of antiquities, Jordan has very strict ones. I bet Tarb2011 did not give you a photocopy of any export documents from Jordan, did he? And what if the object had been smuggled out of Egypt (after having been illegally excavated or removed from a museum store) by a Jordanian lorry driver taking agricultural produce across the border? On the other hand, if it is a fake, into whose money is Tarb2011 putting money? And so on. Even where the legalities are clear (and they often are not), the ethical issues are extremely foggy.
 One thing about beads, unless they have been excavated (legally or otherwise) from a grave, they are pretty difficult to find under normal conditions in Egypt. If they were excavated from a grave in the period after partition of excavation finds stopped (1920s) then they cannot be legally on the market (see below). I think we have to imagine how loose beads arrive on the market. Finding a small bead in the dust of the Egyptian western desert using the naked eye is actually quite difficult, the dust tends to cling to small objects. When it rains they are visible (but rain is very rare in the desert). Finding them in the agricultural soil of the Nile valley and delta is equally difficult. How, then, do we imagine hundreds of thousands of them are on the market?  A peasant may find four or five, a middleman may buy them and make up larger groups. That’s not a very good way of making money from something that is sold on to you for a few dollars… it could take him a few weeks or months to find enough to make up a batch big enough to attempt to smuggle out of Egypt (risks involved, bribes to be paid). Far more economical would be to find somebody (a local potter for example) who can make good copies of these minor antiquities, beads, amulets, shabtis and mix them in with some genuine artefacts and convince a dealer to buy the lot. Somehow those fakes will surface onto the market alongside the genuine ones…. Then there is the ‘old collection’ argument. We are told by all dealers that the items they sell are legal because they came from ‘an old collection’ made in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. But they will never give you documentation of that claim. A few moments thinking about it will show what a nonsense that is. I do not know how many antiquities collectors there are in the middle classes of the world’s richer countries (that is something for somebody to work out), but (a) collecting is easier now since the internet, and thus becoming more popular, (b) that middle class is expanding [...], and (c) the world population is expanding exponentially. So if today in Europe there are – let us say – 80 000 collectors or antiquities, and in the USA the same number, it is quite obvious that these collection cannot be supplied from artefacts coming from those collections made when there were many fewer collectors in the nineteenth century or even earlier twentieth century:  we must also remember that part of the material from those earlier private collections disappeared due to war, simple neglect, and also donations to public collections. There is also a problem authenticating objects by comparing them with others (most easily online). Most of the objects online are being sold by dealers (who will all claim to be respectable/reputable) and know what they are selling (because of many years ‘experience’). So you would in many case be comparing objects being sold by one dealer with objects sold by another. But there are many fakes on the market, some are really obvious even to a novice. Some are pretty good fakes (and as such, collectable in their own right), but the disturbing thing is that there are an unknown number of fakes out there that are undetectable and will remain undetected. There is an interesting book you should know about if you do not already (I would suggest borrow/ read online rather than buy as it is the thesis that is important rather than the cases that ‘support’ it). This is Oscar Muscarella’s ‘The Lie became Great. The Forgery of AncientNear Eastern Cultures’ (2000). On a similar theme are several papers by my colleague David Gill and Christopher Chippindale: ‘Material and Intellectual Consequences of Esteem for Cycladic Figures’  American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 97, No. 4 (Oct., 1993), pp. 601-659 .  Both of these texts point out that the antiquities market, by paying no attention to documenting where items come from and how they arrive on the market, allow fakes to contaminate the available data so that we can no longer tell what is what. The same goes for museums, many of which created collections from what private collectors donated (or sold) them. Those collectors obtained the material from a number of (now unknown) sources and fake items enter even esteemed public collections. In the same way a dealer may have sold you an object as authentic even though another opinion will tell you on the basis of their knowledge and experience is not (in their opinion) authentic. A dealer tends to have experience of what is on the market – and some of the objects he is handling are fakes. So it is not important that he thinks a piece ‘looks right’, if he is comparing it with other items that ‘looked right’ even though some of them (though sold to him as authentic) were made in 1983 or 2012 in a garage in Beirut. The coin dealer who sold you those beads may have been cheating you, more likely he over-estimated his own ability to tell real from fake. 
The result of this is that we should be very aware that the market today, in order not to shrink, but instead continue expanding, therefore MUST contain very many objects which have ‘surfaced’ much more recently, either because they are freshly looted and smuggled, or have been newly-made to look old. There is no other way today’s market could exist. Paul Barford

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Archaeologist Layla Salih

An extended piece about archaeologist Layla Salih from the Smithsonian Magazine by Joshua Hammer, Photographs by Alice Martins  'The Salvation of Mosul An Iraqi archaeologist braved ISIS snipers and booby-trapped ruins to rescue cultural treasures in the city and nearby legendary Nineveh and Nimrud'.
Dodging sniper fire and mortar blasts in a three-minute sprint down rubbled streets, she clambered through a hole that the terrorists had blasted into the Mosul Museum [...] Salih, a curator at the museum for a decade before the invasion, methodically documented the damage they had inflicted before fleeing. [...] The terrorists had cleaned out the Hatra Gallery, once filled with Greco-Roman-influenced marble statuary from Hatra, a pre-Islamic trading city on the major trading routes between the Roman Empire in the west and the Parthians in the east. They had also stolen 200 smaller objects—priceless remnants of the Assyrian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Persian and Roman empires—from a storage room. “I had had an idea about the destruction, but I didn’t think that it was this kind of scale,” said Salih, who had inventoried many of the artifacts herself over the years and knew precisely what had been stolen.  [...] This past January, Iraqi troops discovered a trove of 3,000-year-old Assyrian pottery stashed in a house in Mosul occupied by the Islamic State. Salih rushed into this combat zone after midnight to retrieve 17 boxes of stolen artifacts, including some of the world’s earliest examples of glazed earthenware, and arranged their shipment to Baghdad for safekeeping. “She is a very active person,” Muzahim Mahmoud Hussein, Iraq’s most famous archaeologist, who worked closely with Salih while serving as head of museums in Nineveh province before the Islamic State invasion, told me. “She has always been like that.” Maj. Mortada Khazal, who led the unit that recovered the pottery, said that “Layla is fearless.”
Were the Jonah's Tomb tunnels dug to loot or for military purposes?

Monday, 18 September 2017

Caretaker Searches Employer's Property

Google earth
A primary school caretaker with a metal detector discovered a hoard of 128 silver Medieval-era coins, which were buried underneath the playground at the Warkworth Church of England Primary School in Warkworth, England The  silver coins of  the 15th and early 16th centuries include groat and half-groat coins of  Edward IV and Henry VII, plus nine coins from the 1460s associated with Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (Kirstin Fawcett, 'English School Caretaker Discovers Medieval Coin Hoard Buried in Playground Mental Floss 14th Sept 2017).
As the ChronicleLive reports, the caretaker of a primary school in Northumberland, England used his own electronic device to find a stash of Medieval-era silver coins buried underneath the school's playground. [...] The school sits near a well-preserved medieval castle, which was once owned by the House of Percy, a powerful noble family. [...]  "The collection was found in the playground by the caretaker who had asked to metal detect and was granted permission," Fred Wyrley-Birch, director of Newcastle auctioneers Anderson and Garland, who will auction off some of the coins, told Mental Floss. "The hoard was then declared a treasure trove, and was valued and authenticated by The British Museum." [...] Together, they're worth £11,000 (nearly $15,000 US).  [...] The British Museum didn't opt to purchase the silver currency, so the primary school caretaker and the landowner, the Diocese of Newcastle, agreed to split the buried treasure. On Wednesday, September 13, Anderson and Garland will sell 66 coins at auction, all of which belong to the Diocese.
and the schoolkids all got a lesson in selfish greed. What about the other finds the caretaker made? Were they made when the man was being employed to look after the property? What has happened to them? What kind of 'care' is it when somebody 'looks after' a property by walking over it with a spade looking to see what can be taken from it?  Does this metal seeker sell off bits of copper wire from defunct electrical systems too?

Google Earth
 Meanwhile, from Google earth we see that the grounds of the school are a bit of a tip. Maybe a shool caretaker should take a bit more care of the surroundings in which Warkworth's kids learn rather than spending time on the property filling his own pockets with the town's history.

Too far Away to be of Concern?

World leaders need to step up to help the Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar and get the violence stopped: 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Ancient Gold will end up in Collectors hands or Not?

Mark Hambleton and Joe Kania (StaffordshireCounty Council)

Now we see why artefact collectors think the British Treasure act is such a 'good thing' (for them). If the nation does not cough up the money for what is already theirs (heritage, innit?), then collectors can get their hands on them:

A council is campaigning to raise £325,000 to stop the "oldest" Iron Age gold found in Britain being sold to private bidders. The gold jewellery, believed to be about 2,500 years old, was discovered by friends Mark Hambleton and Joe Kania on Staffordshire Moorlands farmland. Stoke-on-Trent City Council has been given three months to buy the three necklaces and bracelet by the Crown. If its bid is successful, the gold will go on public display. The council has until 5 December to meet the valuation price, set by the Treasure Valuation Committee. Council leader Dave Conway said: "It is going to take [a] big fundraising effort to ensure we can save these stunning finds." The council said that if it failed to meet the target, the artefacts could be split up and sold to private bidders. It hopes the gold can be displayed at the city's Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. The torcs were found separately, about one metre (3ft) apart, buried near the surface in Leekfrith last December. Experts believe they date back to 400BC. They are thought to be from the continent and would have been worn by important women in society.
Kania is a Polish name, it means a type of fungus.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

BM Dumbdown

In the 'encyclopaedic museum': British Museum careful not to use too many 'confusing' Asian names Twitter #AskACurator 13th September 2017

... We aim to be understandable by 16 year olds.
 So the British public is fobbed off with information about foreign cultures represented by objects in this 'universal' collection usable only to the level of a sixteen-year old. The rest of us, with reading abilities above that of a teenager, are short-changed - as are the cultures thus represented.

I think those of us (the ones with reading level above a fourth form kid) who are grateful to those of our teachers who achieved (and thus gave to us) a lot are well aware that these were generally the one who made high demands on us and our abilities, not the jobsworths who did not encourage us to push ourselves.  Dumbdown is not education.  Stick a QR text box on the label for the slow-of-reading to pick up a superficial soundbite on their phones. Give the rest of us information.

Vignette: Jane "Keeper of Asia"

Why the Secrecy? No Shame in Collecting Antiquities, Surely?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has acquired the gilded lid of a first-century Egyptian coffin [...]  Since 1971, the coffin has been owned by a private collector (whose name is not disclosed on the Met’s website or in the release about the work). It had been sold to the collector by the heirs to the holdings of Habib Tawadrus, an antiquities dealer, and made its way to Europe—with an export license—in 1977.  Alex Greenberger. 'Metropolitan Museum of Art Acquires First-Century Egyptian Coffin', Art News Sept 12th 2017.
 The export licence no doubt accompanies the object, but why not the collector's name? The latter would have claimed he or she was altruistically 'preserving the object for future generations', so why are they so ashamed to admit who they are? If this is considered to be the common heritage of us all, then why should some of the information about how it cam legitimately onto the market be withheld from us all? If the collecting history is indeed kosher, publish all of it. If you get involved in the antiquities trade as a private collector, why should you do so secretly and clandestinely - unless the objects you acquire and your dealings in them do not stand up to proper scrutiny? Collectors, come out of the closet.

Vignette: the coffin is inscribed for Nedjemankh, a priest to the god Heryshef.

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