The art trade has faced increasing scrutiny in recent years. This has focused largely on the subject of ethics, and in particular the standards used by the trade when acquiring objects for which no firm provenance is available. Whilst this scrutiny has applied to the whole art market, the antiquities trade in particular has faced a barrage of criticism, some of it deserved, but for the most part based on prejudice, ill-will or simply ignorance. It has been particularly galling for scrupulous dealers to see the way in which misinformation quickly becomes accepted as fact; for example Lord Renfrew made an off-the-cuff pronouncement some years ago stating that the trade in illicitly excavated material amounted to some £3,000,000,000 per annum, and was second only to the trade in drugs. This is clearly nonsense, as even he now admits, but journalists have seized on this figure and so the myth is perpetuated. A recent article in the Guardian applied this figure of three billion pounds to annual thefts from Saqqara, a single site in Egypt! This would be laughable, were the implications of such attack not so serious; for what is at stake here is the whole foundation on which the art trade is based, namely that the private ownership of art and the connoisseurship which collecting inspires, are desirable in a cultured society. This tenet has been held by almost everyone for the last five hundred years. It has had an enormously important effect on the way in which the great museums of the world have developed, and this in turn has lead to a much wider appreciation of world cultural heritage. Dealers in antiquities are genuinely shocked therefore to find some academics so bitterly opposed to this process.
The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) was formed in 1993 and from the outset it was clear that one of our most urgent tasks was to address this apparent conundrum. We believe one of our prime functions as dealers is to participate actively in the preservation of the remains of man’s ancient past. For this reason we have decided to take as dispassionate a view as possible of the way things are, with a view to making sensible contributions towards improving the situation. This necessarily includes understanding our opponents’ position. In brief, some archaeologists (and it is important to stress the strong divergence of opinion within the academic community) regard a trade in antiquities as being wholly undesirable, since they believe that the vast majority of objects on the market have been illicitly excavated in recent times with a concomitant destruction of archaeological evidence. Furthermore, many of them believe that an object outside its context is valueless for the purposes of scholarship. The last point is not open to reasoned argument because one either accepts the importance of antiquities from an art historical perspective or not, but the first point is based on ignorance of the true situation, and therefore must be addressed.
Antiquities have been collected for thousands of years – for example the Romans were avid collectors of Greek sculpture – and in this time, the number of pieces coming on to the market ran to millions. Unfortunately their perceived importance has fluctuated down the ages (for example the Arab inhabitants of Egypt routinely used ancient wood sculptures to light fires) and for this reason provenance’s for the vast majority of these works have been lost. War, migration, economic development and sheer indifference have all taken their toll as well. The provenance of large numbers of objects has been discovered by chance, long after they have been sold. It is therefore unacceptable to suggest that lack of provenance means that a particular object has recently been stolen. Very often the source of pieces is deliberately obscured for perfectly legitimate reasons, where, for example, the inheritor of an object does not wish his family to know that he is selling. All these issues serve to muddy the water and to create an environment in which it is possible for those opposed to the trade to maintain the pretence that the majority of objects are on the market illicitly. For these reasons those on the inside know that this is not the case, but it would also be disingenuous of us to suggest that there is not a problem with illicitly excavated or exported material. In fact, these are two separate problems, and in order to address them, we need to understand the historical context.
Most source countries have some form of control over the export of archaeological material; these range from the pragmatic (the U.K, Germany, the Netherlands) to the draconian (Greece, Turkey, Egypt). The fiercest laws were passed at very different times, but are essentially chauvinistic, and it is interesting to note that in almost all cases they have been enacted at a time of nationalistic revival (in Italy under Mussolini, in Greece following the War of Independence from Turkey, in Egypt under Nasser). These laws have been designed to foster a belief in outside cultural imperialism, and are both a symptom and a source of a deep emotional feeling. Unfortunately emotion is a bad basis for legislation, and though these laws have proved remarkably ineffective, their emotional basis makes it very difficult for the relevant authorities to adjust them in a way which might make them work. These laws are also by no means uniform; for whereas some countries (Egypt, Turkey) have taken the drastic step of ‘nationalising’ all antiquities (even when privately owned for generations), others have allowed private ownership, and dealing, to continue. The latter case usually involves a strict embargo on export, and this has served to produce a false, two-tiered market. IADAA believes that ‘nationalisation’ of legitimately held objects amounts to State theft, and that the second case is also indefensible, especially in the context of the European Union: if Europe is to have any meaning as a single entity, surely its cultural heritage must be regarded as common property? Given that such privately owned objects were removed from their context years ago, and we have already seen that anti-trade academics regard such objects as worthless, there is no archaeological argument in favour of them being rigidly chained to their country of origin, any more than all Georgian candlesticks should remain within the United Kingdom. By encouraging smuggling, such laws are having a diametrically opposed effect to that which was intended. Adjustment to encourage the legitimate trade would go a long way towards restricting the smuggling routes on which illicit trade depends, and we hold that free trade need not only apply to privately owned pieces. Government storehouses and museums are bulging with objects which have no recorded provenance and which are extremely poorly conserved due to lack of funds. Surely many of these pieces could also be released to the market, since they are believed to have no archaeological value?
A third area, which deserves consideration, is the problem of chance finds. It is inevitable that a large proportion of excavated material will be found during the course of normal agricultural and economic activity. Draconian laws result in the destruction of the archaeological record unless a proper system of reward exists, since the finder will usually channel such objects into an illicit market. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the penalties for doing so are now so severe that finders are deliberately destroying pieces rather than run the risk of being caught with them. This is an absurd situation. In this respect the laws of the U.K, whilst far from perfect, offer a solution. There a finder has an inducement to declare his discovery. Either the state takes ownership and pays a reward equivalent to the market value, or, if the piece is not of particular importance, ownership is granted to the finder. Either way, the archaeological information is preserved, although it would be even better to formulate a system whereby the reward was greater for finds left in situ whilst the report was made.
One further point needs to be made perfectly clear: IADAA firmly believes that every country has a right (and indeed a duty) to preserve in public ownership the most important cultural objects, and should have a pre-emptive right over new finds. What we are referring to above are the vast majority of antiquities which have no particular importance and which are already more than amply represented in public collections.
There can and should be no doubt that a market for antiquities will continue to exist – man’s interest in his own past, not to mention the legitimate impulse to collect beautiful objects, will see to that – but there is a choice to be made. Either legitimate dealers may be driven out of business by a process of increasing red tape, in which case the illicit trade will flourish, or the legitimate trade may be allowed to exist in a controlled context which would help to strangle the illegitimate traffic. This is a choice, which can only be made by sovereign governments, and it will take immense courage and foresight to arrive at the correct solution, but it must be faced. IADAA is ready and willing to help in any way possible.