We have talked today a lot about looting and have seen many illustrations, but it is clear that the greatest crisis currently facing world heritage is the destruction taking place in Syria and Iraq. The major causes of the destruction are two-fold: war with indiscriminate shelling and bombing and deliberate destruction of monuments by fanatics in the name of their religion.
Looting comes a poor third. Recent lurid headlines have suggested that the funding of ISIS through the sale of illicitly excavated antiquities is the foremost problem. Clearly it is not. Wild speculation that tens of millions, even sometimes billions of pounds worth of antiquities are entering the market from Syria is common. No-one with any knowledge of the market could give a moment’s credence to such ideas.
Although we have no doubt that amidst the destruction there is a lot of clandestine excavation taking place, there is no evidence to date of any significant material surfacing on the market. In any event, the licit market is small and the vast majority of antiquities have relatively modest value. Best estimates show that the global annual turnover for all classical and pre-classical antiquities is less than €200m per annum. The proportion of that consisting of objects from Syria is a small fraction, probably less than 10%. The illicit market must necessarily be smaller than that. As an ex-soldier I can attest that these sums of money don’t buy many arms.
At this point I need to emphasise the difference between the licit trade and illegal traffic. The licit antiquities trade has no interest in the illegal traffic in stolen antiquities. The preservation of our ancient heritage is as vital to us as it is to anyone else here. The fact that we come from a different perspective does not mean that our reverence for world cultural heritage is any less real than yours. Indeed, at its best, the trade is a positive force, devoting large resources to conservation and research. The earliest roots of archaeology start with collectors; the first museum were founded by collectors. It is the job of museums to collect and conserve for the benefit of the public. This is impossible without a trade.
The trade has not always had a good record in the past in dealing with smuggled material, but things have changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years and continue to do so. Our trade associations have actively collaborated with Government in this country to address these issues. I also acknowledge that much of this change has been driven by our critics. Yet they should also acknowledge that in recent years we have made huge strides; no other area of the art market now prizes provenance more than we do. The proof of this lies in the high price at auction fetched by those objects with fine demonstrable ownership history. But we too rely on information and this is rarely forthcoming from source countries, sometimes through a misplaced sense of pride, sometimes because of corruption, sometimes because of lassitude. Even close to home we are deliberately denied access to information – the so-called Becchina archive (named after a man who has not even been convicted) is jealously guarded, and morsels of information drip fed. How on earth are we supposed to conduct our necessary due diligence in the face of this attitude?
The present question for all of us is ‘how much can be salvaged from these wars and by what means?’
What is needed is not breast-beating and demonisation of the trade, but new and accurate data that provides better grounds for answering these questions. It is for governments and international organisations to source this information and to pass it on to those on the ground, including law enforcement, museums and the trade. But this information must be based on facts and not speculation. Only then can we halt or reduce smuggling on the borders of these countries. Perhaps the attention should be targeted on the countries directly bordering the conflict zones.
So how can we in the trade help?
There is no doubt that amidst the destruction, illicit material is being squirrelled away. This really worries us as this material will necessarily surface on the open market sooner or later. This could be some years from now. The challenge therefore is to identify it and, where possible, to return it when it is safe to do so. It is clear that the help of the trade is going to be vital in confronting this problem and it will require a long-term collaboration. Those critics of the trade who find themselves unable to work with us should perhaps ask themselves if this attitude is really in the greater interest. It should be clear to you following recent events who your enemy really is; it isn’t us.
The key to the problem lies in information. The technology now exists to record objects cheaply, and we would suggest that UNESCO should provide the support to allow vulnerable museums, and in particular off-site storage facilities, to photograph all their holdings. Once an object is recorded, the chances of recovery improve to an enormous extent. The same applies to above-ground archaeological sites. This is of course no help in the case of clandestine excavation, but it is a start.
This issue can also be tackled from another direction. My trade Association is working on a project which is intended to record objects which are on the market, in perpetuity. This is intended to build up a database of those objects which can be legally traded while providing an opportunity for potential claimants to identify those which are stolen. This is a huge demonstration of good faith. It will also make life much more difficult for those who deal illegally.
We are prepared and willing to play our part. It is a vital one. If you want to suppress the black market, support the white.
Finally, I have to say that the best way of curtailing this mayhem would be by returning the region to peace. At least we dealers cannot be blamed for the war: that is something our governments have to think about.
When I think of Nimrud, I feel like weeping. I have never been there and now never will. I have saved the last 15 seconds of my allotted time for a moment of silence. RIP Nimrud.
Speech at the Culture In Crisis Conference