Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cultural Theft

Stemming a Tide of Cultural Theft


They have always been among the spoils of war, alluring in their beauty, tantalizing in their value to dealers, museums and collectors. And after a decade of turmoil, and a longer stretch of willful destruction, the world’s antiquities are in such jeopardy that preservationists are sounding a screeching alarm.

At a gathering in Berlin last week, 250 experts discussed ways to help Syria, Iraq and Egypt, as well as Afghanistan and other threatened regions, protect cultural property. ...

Many participants called for tightening laws to make it more difficult for the very wealthy to acquire tangible bits of world history. Or, as the German commissioner for culture, Monika Grütters, put it, while proposing far-reaching new German curbs on the murky antiquities market, “the cultural heritage of all humanity” is something everyone should help preserve. ...

Ms. Grütters outlined plans for a new law that would require documented provenance for any object entering or leaving Germany, long among the laxest of regulators of the art market. Among other measures, dealers would be required to show a valid export permit from the source of the piece’s origins when entering Germany.

Countries like Switzerland, and European Union members like France, Italy and Britain, have in recent years considerably tightened their rules, and are now re-examining them.

Vincent Geerling, chairman of the International Association of Dealers in ancient art, insisted that “we don’t need an extra German law.” Museums and serious collectors can police themselves, he suggested.

Yet the German proposal could be “a big step,” said Neil Brodie, an antiquities expert at the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. “In a way, the United States was the most advanced” in curbing illicit trade in cultural goods, through five-year, renewable agreements with about a dozen affected countries, he said. “But the Germans are now looking to go one step further,” he said. “You don’t just have to prove something is not guilty, but show that it is innocent.”

... many experts blame illicit cultural deals on the desire of wealthy people to have an ancient piece of culture to boast about.

“There is no business if there are no buyers,” said France Desmarais, a Canadian expert with the International Museum Conference in Paris, which has 33,000 members worldwide. “Don’t buy this stuff!” At a lecture, [Neil] Brodie took cases from Italy in the 1990s, India and New York from 2010 and Cambodia in 2009 to illustrate his charge that perhaps 95 percent of dealings in the international antiquities market are tainted by crime. One step needed to curtail such trade, he suggested, is to focus on experts who perhaps unwittingly lend their knowledge to serve what he called organized crime — defined by the United Nations as a structure of at least three people who band together to break the law.

“These experts are operating without any thought to being criminally involved,” he said. “I think this is a choke point. I think these people would be quite easy to deter.” He suggested that social media have helped in the case of Syria to sound immediate alarms, because people post evidence of looting on Facebook or Twitter almost as it occurs. But other experts suggested that the presence of foreigners can signal to cultural criminals where the treasures are.

Once European archaeologists leave a site in Afghanistan, for example, illicit dealers move in, alerted to the presence of potential treasure, said Christian Manhart, a veteran of Unesco, who has long experience with Afghanistan and is now based in Nepal, trying to stem a fresh flow of cultural theft. Mr. Manhart, addressing the Berlin conference, at one point showed a slide of Afghans at an antiquity site under a banner written in Dari and English — “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” “We should all meditate on that,” he said.


Indeed, we should all meditate on that -- archaeologists, collectors, "antiquities experts" such as Brodie, art dealers such as Geerling, coin dealers such as myself and Wayne Sayles, cultural property law experts such as Peter Tompa, culture commissioners such as Grütters, officials such as Manhart and reporters such as Alison Smale. 

We should meditate on the indisputable fact that this situation not only involves Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis and Egyptians -- it also involves Germans, Swiss, French, Italians, Britons, Canadians and Americans whose antiquarian interest in acquiring and studying ancient artifacts is resented, criticized and endangered by "preservationists" such as those meeting in Berlin, and their rigidly anticollecting views and actions.

The above article tellingly refers to "...  the desire of wealthy people to have an ancient piece of culture to boast about." Here is one flagrant example of pejorative, deceptive propaganda terminology being habitually used by "preservationists" who are ideologically opposed to the private ownership of antiquities (and for that matter, anything that can be described as an "archaeological artifact"). 

In reality there are a few wealthy people who collect antiquities, and a great many ordinary people who also collect antiquities -- in their case not fine-art statues and Greek vases, such as would be treasured by museums, but instead minor antiquities such as coins, amulets, seals, oil lamps, weapons and the like. Very few of the minor antiquities collected by such people would be put on display by any museum, if donated. They are individually important only to their owners after they have been discovered and after entry into the international antiquities market. Such artifacts would in very few cases be considered as being significant enough for "nations of origin" in "threatened regions" to want to go to the trouble of seeking their return. 

What is really at stake here is not pursuit and return of a few valuable (or otherwise important) antiquities "looted" from Syria, Iraq, Egypt or Afghanistan. It is the concept that “You don’t just have to prove something is not guilty, but show that it is innocent.” In other words, you have to prove a negative. That is notoriously difficult to do, and in a great many situations the eventual outcome of legal proceedings is practically determined by which side bears the burden of proof.

It has long been a fundamental principle of English common law and its descendants (which govern the legal affairs of the English-speaking world) that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof rests upon the accuser. The concept is simple (although details of its implementation are not). "Innocent until proven guilty" means that a person must be considered innocent of an offence, until the offence has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

This principle contrasts sharply with legal practice in many European nations, which have adopted an investigatory legal system originating in the Napoleonic code [itself derived from the Roman Corpus Juris Civilis and the Codex Justinianus]. These nations formally declare that individuals are innocent until proven guilty, however once it is decided that an individual shall be investigated, the actual practices followed may (and often do) display many attributes of de facto presumption of guilt.

A very clear example occurred in Germany, when Sylvio Müller was investigated by the Kriminaldirektion Gießen for purchasing ancient coins to clean them, and sell them on eBay afterwards. The inquiries of the police prompted 347 preliminary investigations against everyone who had bought coins on eBay from Müller. Like Müller, they were all accused of receiving stolen property. Alexander Krombach was one of them. 

On December 4th, 2008 Krombach's home was searched by the Kriminaldirektion Gießen. His entire coin collection, comprising 821 coins valued at Euros 8.000 to 13.000, was seized as evidence. The search report stated that the owner could not furnish “proof of origin”. However, certain objects were recorded as being accompanied by notes of the firms they were acquired from, e.g. well-known coin dealers (Künker, Lanz, Ritter et al.). 

Alexander Krombach was then subjected to a bureaucratic and legal ordeal lasting a year and a half, during which he was first required to prove his innocence of any intentional misconduct.Next he refused to accept a proposed settlement involving confiscation of his collection and a fine of 1000 Euros. He hired a lawyer, and then sued in administrative court for the return of his collection -- ultimately prevailing in May 2010. All this was detailed in this blog:

Alexander Krombach is by no means a "wealthy person who desires to have an ancient piece of culture to boast about." He is instead an ordinary individual, ruthlessly mistreated by the German cultural bureaucracy and its doctrinaire archaeologists and officials, whose ideological aversion to private collecting of "archaeological artifacts" caused them to act in a manner contrary to common sense, contrary to anything remotely resembling fairness, and ultimately contrary to German law.

These archaeologists and officials are the same sort of "preservationists" who met in Berlin to "sound the alarm" and called for tightening laws to "make it more difficult for the very wealthy to acquire tangible bits of world history." Or, as culture  commissioner Monika Grütters put it (in proposing far-reaching new German curbs on the antiquities market) to save “the cultural heritage of all humanity.”

High-sounding words, those. The reality behind these idealistic words is however not in any way likely to be compatible with the lofty vision of protecting human heritage they seek to convey. That reality will not be noble cultural watchdogs heroically foiling illicit art-market tycoons seeking to sell fabulous stolen artifacts to rich and unscrupulous collectors. That reality will instead be poor old Alexander Krombach's ordeal, repeated again and again as ordinary collectors (and the businesses supplying them) are abused and tormented by a preservationist bureaucracy run amok.

It isn't only art-market tycoons and rich, unscrupulous collectors who are affected by new regulations and prohibitions advocated by preservationists seeking to strangle the art and antiquities markets. Nearly all of the burden will instead be felt by ordinary individuals interested in collecting, and small businesses supplying art objects and minor antiquities.

New restrictive regulations making it difficult (if not impossible) to import any antiquity into, or export it from Germany would entail the prospective ruin of long established and respected German businesses supplying antiquities and ancient coins to collectors. That ruin will include loss of German jobs and lessening of the quality of life for many Germans.

Perhaps the tocsin of this Berlin conference will lead to renewed efforts to inflict such consequences not only upon Germans, but on people of other European nations who share an investigatory legal system with Germany. I am very glad that this does not include Britons, or the rest of the English-speaking world whose legal heritage is common law.

"Culture Heritage" is a phrase with a narrow meaning to "preservationists," who apparently view it as extending only to artifacts. However, the cultural heritage of humanity unquestionably extends far beyond artifacts themselves. It necessarily also includes the development of individual interest in the origins of humanity and its history; universal museums where those interested in human culture can find its relics and products assembled in an organized manner that instructively recounts the story of humanity; and it also includes ethical collecting and personal study of artifacts and history by many individual persons intensely interested in aspects of human culture, whose interest is more extensive and focused than occasional visits to local museums can possibly satisfy.

"Cultural Heritage" is indeed endangered by criminals -- looters of artifacts (those who actually dig them up in a manner contrary to law), and local middlemen and smugglers who buy looted artifacts to profit from their entry into antiquities and art markets. Such criminals are enemies of archaeologists and cultural officials, and they are also the deadly enemies of ethical and responsible collectors, dealers and auction houses -- who are honestly endeavoring (to the best of their ability) to pursue their activities in a constructive manner, duly respecting heritage and the archaeological record.

It is this observer's opinion that cultural heritage is also endangered by overzealous and narrowly focused preservationists who do not take a sufficiently broad and liberal view of what cultural heritage includes.

The "antiquities market" and the "art market" -- so often criticized by archaeologists and cultural officials in scathing terms -- are on the whole better, more honestly and more diligently managed than critics would have their audience believe. There are admittedly a few collectors and dealers whose conduct transgresses against ethics -- and even against the law. There are similarly errant individuals in every field of human endeavor, not excepting archaeology.

When automobile salesmen employ unethical tactics to sell vehicles, and a few auto dealers acquire and "launder" stolen vehicles, shall we abolish the market in automobiles because we cannot completely suppress such behavior?

When liquor stores fail to scrupulously check ID documents and sell alcoholic beverages to minors, or when alcoholic beverages are illicitly distilled and sold evading taxation, should we abolish the market in alcohol because we cannot completely suppress such behavior?

When electronic devices, software and branded luxury merchandise are counterfeited and illicitly marketed, should we abolish the market in these items because we cannot completely suppress such behavior?

It must be recognized that healthy and properly functioning antiquities markets and art markets are themselves important parts of mankind's cultural heritage. They should be policed, just as automobile sales, liquor sales and commerce in electronic devices, software and branded luxury merchandise are monitored and policed.

In the monitoring and policing of antiquities markets and art markets, it is essential to realize that standards of verification must be both reasonable to apply and feasible to implement. They must not become so doctrinaire and rigid as to prevent the market from functioning. Common sense must supersede ideological purity.

De facto presumption of guilt, and a standard that “you don’t just have to prove something is not guilty, but show that it is innocent” do not conform to that principle, being neither reasonable to apply nor feasible to implement. They are instead impractical concepts proposed by narrow-minded idealists concerned only with one area of heritage preservation, who are seemingly uninterested in collateral damage which their proposals would inflict upon others honestly and laudably pursuing a better understanding and appreciation of mankind's cultural heritage.


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