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The issue of unprovenanced antiquities (Part 2)


The issue of unprovenanced antiquities (Part 1)
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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When my book was published there was an American, Boston University archaeologist who was part of a campaign in the United States already, against the looting of antiquities which of course is a big problem in the Americas and he published a, a, a, the phrase – “collectors are the real looters”, which in a rather abrupt way summed up the responsibilities. And as I thought about it, I could see that was correct, and that the legal position in Greece was a rather anomalous one and that I'd perhaps been wrong, although I was completely working within the spirit as well as the letter of Greek law, in studying these things and in publishing them. Perhaps it would have been wiser if the Greeks had adopted a different strategy and had not encouraged Mrs Goulandris to make her collection. And so I came round to that point of view. I'd always been concerned about the looting, but I came round to the point of view that perhaps it is necessary to, to take a more purist position and be critical of collectors who form private collections even if sometimes with good intentions as I believe was the case of Mrs Goulandris. She wasn't planning to sell them on or anything. And so I began to see that as important and it began to be very much a matter of concern in Britain in the general case, not about Cycladic antiquities particularly, but there were very large auction sales taking place at Christies and Sotheby's with Greek vases and Italian vases, and it was clear there was a whole trade going on producing vast amounts of antiquities for public sale in auction and it really was clear that so much stuff was coming through that it must have been - and being sold, that the sales must have been encouraging the digging. In other words there was a complete cycle and if you bought from a sale, your money was going indirectly to fund the next phase of the looting. And so I became interested in that topic and wrote a short book on it, gave a lecture and then wrote a short book, and Neil Brodie at that time was my research assistant in Jesus College and when my tenure as Master came to an end in 1997, Neil then became a Fellow of the McDonald Institute. And that was really the beginning of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre and we produced a magazine called "Culture Without Context" and very soon it grew and we were able to recruit a very dynamic lady, Jenny Doole who became the assistant editor, the production editor effectively of "Culture Without Context" and we began to try to record and publish those cases where looting was taking place and we developed this into a campaign, and there were lots of things to be worried about, certainly in the United States, but quite a few in this country. There was a very large private collection with a very high proportion of unprovenanced antiquities by a man called George Ortiz, very rich man called George Ortiz, and his exhibition was put on display at the Royal Academy of Arts. And when one says unprovenanced antiquities, that means you have no record of where it came from, which in many cases means it was an illicit antiquity that had appeared on the market without provenance because it was looted. But there is usually the catch 22 that if you are the archaeologist or if you're the policeman, if you're the critic, you have this antiquity, you don't know where it comes from and you ask a collector and you say I bought it from a very reputable dealer and it came from the attic of somebody or other's grandmother who'd had it for a hundred years and so on, very difficult to pin these things down because the catch 22 is that you don't know where the antiquity came from, therefore you can't show that it was looted. And it became clear to a number of us really the boot should be on the other foot, that a dealer should be able to show you where he or she acquired the antiquity and where it came from legally and if the dealer couldn't show you that, then the presumption was that it was an unprovenanced antiquity that should not be acquired by a museum. Well, I was by that time, a trustee of the British Museum. I'd become a trustee of the British Museum about 1994 or 5 I think and the British Museum was just discussing such questions, and so the trustees of the British Museum developed a resolution that they would not allow the museum to acquire unprovenanced antiquities and they'd take as a dividing line the year 1970, which was the year of the UNESCO convention on the illicit traffic of antiquities. And it's recognised that if something emerged from Italy a hundred years ago or something, that's rather water under the bridge and the aim was not restitution questions but was to stop the looting now. So 1970 was a good dividing line, so the trustees said that they wouldn't buy antiquities that had first appeared, become known after 1970 unless their origin could be documented and traced back before 1970 and that was the first time that there was a sufficiently strong rule, that it was up to the dealer or the vendor to show where the thing had come from and so that was quite a strong rule. And then there was a great scandal. Partly the European Union had been passing legislation to try and restrict the export of antiquities and required export licences from one part of the European Union to another or generally. It was countering the, the, the free traffic of national treasures and there was a great scandal at Sotheby’s. A very good investigative journalist called Peter Watson had documented how Sotheby's was selling antiquities and in one particular case, a painting from Italy, unprovenanced antiquities and paintings which under Italian law should not have left the country without a licence and was selling these, and in this particular case, knew the story and in that sense was conniving in the sale of illicit cultural goods. And he published his book "Inside Sotheby’s", which took the lid off this really, and so there was a select committee, parliamentary select committee, that was getting interested mainly I think originally in Holocaust art, a different story, art that had been misappropriated by the Nazis during those years. But that opened up the whole question of the misappropriation of cultural property and this whole business of unprovenanced antiquities. So I and one or two of us from the Society of Antiquaries, Peter Addyman was one, appeared before this committee and said what a disgrace this was and something should be done about it, and Alan Howarth, who was the minister at the time, then announced that he would set up a panel on the illicit traffic in antiquities. And this was set up under the chairmanship of Norman Palmer and produced a report which not only suggested that Britain should adopt the 1970 UNESCO convention, which it hadn't previously done but also that there should be some new legislation, and that is what in the end happened, The Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences Act.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 8 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009