Dealers: Trade, Traffic and the Consequences of Demonisation
A recent decision by an American institution to sell a tomb group prompted the following press release:
‘Any attempt by museums or archaeological societies to profit from sales of antiquities provides incentives for global criminal activity that can lead directly to the loss of the art they claim to value. Egypt’s archaeological heritage is already under immense pressure from illegal art smuggling, much of which is entangled in other illegal trades, such as drugs and arms. Local, petty looting is often in the news, but the global networks start and end in the galleries of London, Brussels, New York, Paris, Zurich and elsewhere.’
So here we are. Although the logic of the first sentence is highly questionable (how can a sale by a museum possibly be seen as an incentive for global criminal activity?), the case for the prosecution has been eloquently put. People loot antiquities, particularly in times of strife. People sell and collect antiquities. Ergo, the first is caused by the second. And it gets better. The looters are in war zones. They are our enemies. They are using weapons against each other and against us. Weapons cost money. Antiquities sell for money. Ergo, the weaponry is being funded by the antiquities trade. Pictures of holes in the ground are produced as incontrovertible evidence of this truth. Syrian policemen go on television to say that ISIS is funded by the trade. This traffic is worth 6-8 billion dollars annually. And the very existence of the market is entirely to blame, entangled as it is with arms and drugs traffic. As an antiquities dealer I have become a backer of terrorism, an international hate-figure.
No hard evidence has been produced to back up this hypothesis.
We need to look at some facts.
First and foremost let’s look at the size of the trade. In an off-the-cuff comment, Colin Renfrew once said he thought the total trade including traffic was worth about £3 billion per year. This figure was seized on and has been endlessly recycled by commentators who are too lazy to do their own research. Latest estimates are at $6-8 billion as I mentioned above. That would be 25% of the total global Art Market, including all contemporary art. This is beyond belief. We have done some research on the open trade. By analysing the publicly quoted figures of the auction houses and dealers worldwide and rounding the figures up quite dramatically we have arrived at a figure of €150-200 million per annum, i.e. around £150m. This does admittedly exclude one-off sales such as the Guennol lioness and the Old Kingdom statue from Northampton but these are rare. This figure of £150m is verifiable. It sounds quite a lot of money, until you put it next to the estimates above. In order for the gigantic figures bandied about to be true, there would need to be an illegitimate business out there in Greek Roman and Pre-classical antiquities which is between 20 and 90 times the size of the open market: where and what is all this material? It would have to be all over the place. Dr. No style hoarders would need several underground missile sites on tropical islands to accommodate such riches. Unlikely, to say the least. There is a legitimate trade, and there is illegitimate traffic. Please can we also differentiate between the two? Stolen objects are not good for the trade. We avoid them wherever we can. You have only to look at the disparity in values between objects with provable provenance and those without- even when those have long collection history which cannot be proved – to see how much store the trade now sets by legitimacy. It was not always so, and I freely acknowledge that it was criticism from our detractors which has helped to drive this change. I must say that this process, while gradual, has been going on for a long time.
IADAA (International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art) was formed in the early 90s because we could see the need to give identity to dealers who understood their responsibilities as well as their rights. Members who fail to maintain standards have and will be expelled.
Of course it is true that people, especially poor people in war-ravaged countries, loot antiquities when they can. As dealers we cannot control this, nor should we be expected to. The best way to stop this is to have stable, incorrupt government in the countries concerned. Everyone agrees that Saddam, for all his faults (to put it mildly) stamped out looting very effectively. Before the invasion of Iraq, I foresaw what would happen and wrote to Tony Blair asking him to put a tank in front of the Baghdad Museum. I received no reply. Only after the museum had been ransacked did I hear from the Minister of Culture. She asked what my trade association was going to do to stop these looted pieces reaching the market. I am afraid my reply was unprintable.
Perhaps if we stopped meddling in these countries they’d have a chance of settling back into some semblance of normal life.
The looting and wanton destruction, often for supposedly religious reasons, continue. Some of these objects will make it on to the legitimate market, which is not the same as saying that they are there because of the market. Documentation can be forged, and in any event huge numbers of legitimate objects have no provable provenance. Before we get hot under the collar about this, I invite you to think about any antiques you may have in your own home. For how many of those could you produce paperwork stating when and where you bought them?
The Egypt Exploration Society has no record of the pieces which it sold in the 1960s when it moved to Doughty Mews. Even the British Museum itself admitted that it had no proof for the date or source of acquisition for the majority of its collections: ‘…the provenances of the [British Museum’s] vast collection of three-dimensional objects…[is] much more difficult to establish. Purchase invoices have rarely been kept, and correspondence concerning acquisitions has only survived in exceptional circumstances.’ I say this not as a criticism but as a reminder of L.P. Hartley’s famous phrase ‘The past is a foreign country- they do things differently there’. So when an American institution puts up some pieces at auction and there are howls of outrage, I smile slightly. One academic friend was furious at the estimated price, because he felt (rightly in my view) that the pieces belonged in a museum, but that they were overestimated. I have to point out that this huge rise in prices is because people now value incontrovertible provenance so highly. You can’t have it all ways.
So, how do we further reduce the amount of illicit material making its way on to the market? The best way is by openness; by sharing information and not hoarding it for selfish reputational reasons.
In recent years, the auction houses have been blasted with monotonous regularity. The existence of an archive of material which went through the hands of a convicted smuggler in Italy, and certainly the majority of which is illicit, is well known. This man, Becchina, was active between c. 1975 and the mid 90s. His crimes are 20 years or more old. Many pieces he introduced into the market are still there, and they are tainted. So when one or two turn up at auction there is a well- orchestrated furore. Articles in the Times, the full works. But the auction houses are denied access to this archive, so how on earth are they expected to know that they are taking on a problem? This is pure Kafka and should stop forthwith. It is absurd to demand that dealers and auctioneers carry out due diligence (a hard enough task as it is) and then deny them the tools with which to do so. I suppose the idea is that if the database is made available the goods will never surface.
If that’s the reasoning then I fail to understand why the identification of the pieces should be accompanied by a witch-hunt against those organisations which have enabled such identification to be possible in the first place. When, through the agency of a close academic friend here in Manchester, I found that I had a Greek bronze stolen in the war and sent it home, the Greeks didn’t pillory me – rather the opposite, which is the sensible approach.
Here however we are merely denigrated. Whatever we do to try and improve standards of due diligence it will never be enough for some people. They hold the view which says that because to a greater or lesser extent illicit material will always find its way onto the market, the answer is to close the market down altogether. After all, surely if there are no dealers and no auctions there will be no point in looting?
This is such flawed thinking. Buried treasure will always attract treasure hunters; if the treasure has no intrinsic value, they will destroy it. I once owned a magnificent gold ring with the cartouche of the Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, which had been in a collection since the 1780s. I only had half as it had been hacked in two by the tomb robbers who found it, in the days when its only value to them was as bullion. That would never happen now, but might if there were no market. The really extreme view says that it is better for unprovenanced antiquities to be destroyed than to be conserved, studied and published by academics. Colin Renfrew went so far as to say to me that he sympathised with the destroyers of the Bamiyan Buddhas, as it was their way of attacking the market, rather than just iconoclasm which many of us believe to be the true motive.
I am bewildered by such views. Those remains did not belong to whoever happened to be in power at the time. They belonged to all of us. Organizations like SAFE- Saving Antiquities For Everyone- make no comment when zealots destroy ancient remains, preferring to attack private ownership of antiquities. They made no complaint when the US military built a huge dump encroaching on ancient Babylon. They made no complaint when the Turkish government buried the hugely important Roman site of Zeugma under billions of tons of water. Who then are the biggest destroyers of the archaeological record?
It is at this point that I sadly come to the conclusion that it is we dealers and collectors who care for the remains of the past more than our most vociferous detractors. We are not perfect, but no-one can say that we are not passionate about what we do. It is our desire, as well as in our interest, to safeguard the pieces we own. Our motives may be largely commercial, but money is not the only thing that drives us. In the past there was a very valuable relationship between dealers, collectors and academics. That was in the days when museum curators believed that the objects themselves held valuable information; they didn’t feel that context was the beginning and end of everything. We need to rekindle that relationship and rediscover some trust. I hate looting; if someone made off in the night with Stonehenge I would be outraged. At the same time I absolutely refuse to accept that what I do is dishonest. On the contrary is an essential part of the mechanism which allows all of us to study and enjoy the remains of our ancient past. If the academic world chooses to cut itself of from us, both sides will be the loser. And although many antiquities were originally cult objects for arcane religions, they are no longer. Archaeologists are not high priests. Wide ownership is positively desirable: it is unfashionable to say so, but the comparison of those marbles from the Parthenon in the British Museum with the dreadful condition of those which remained in Athens graphically proves the point. And not all objects need to be in museums, any more than all 18th century English oil paintings need to be in art galleries in the UK. In any event, experience shows that the best will gravitate over to public collections in time. And here is a conundrum: private collecting is condemned in part because it removes objects from the field of study. I agree. Private collectors should be encouraged to publish and show their collections. Yet the howls of rage when the late George Ortiz showed his collection at the Royal Academy mean that such an exhibition is unlikely to happen again. Do you want openness or not? If you do, you will have to accept that the objects themselves do not carry any guilt. They are still worthy of study no matter if they appeared on the market illicitly. Forcing this material underground is no answer and is bad for scholarship.
And what of new museums? Will the emerging economies of the east not want to have collections of Western art in due course? We are alright Jack. Why should they be denied what we take for granted? The past cannot be set in aspic. We should use all means to discourage looting., and one of the most effective is to encourage the open market. This means granting export licences for legitimately owned objects (which many so-called source countries do not do) and allowing controlled trade. A country like Egypt, which has far more material than it knows what to do with, could benefit from an export tax on antiquities it doesn’t need. The export of the Mustaki collection in 1947 did not harm Egypt’s cultural heritage. There were 10,000 relatively minor objects and I handled the dispersal of the collection over 20 years. Most of the more important are now in museums. It is time that the export of similar collections was allowed again. Only this time round, could the licence itemize the goods and not read ‘Twenty crates of antiques’?
There is constant flux, and where there is flux there is a market. Where there is a market there are dealers. We are needed. Don’t demonize us too much.
 Statement on the Loss of Antiquities from Public collections released by Alice Stevenson (UCL, Petrie Museum) and Chris Naunton (Director of the Egypt Exploration Society) in occasion of the sale of the so-called Harageh treasure by the Archaeological Institute of America St. Louis’s Society, available on line (http://www.ees.ac.uk/news/index/279.html).
 G. Bartrum, ‘Research into Wartime Provenance at the British Museum,’ British Museum Magazine 37 (2000), 13-15.