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The Sevso treasure


The issue of unprovenanced antiquities (Part 2)
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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So the illicit traffic in antiquities panel was an interesting experience. I think it really made the, the relevant government departure, Department of Culture, Media and Sport think much more carefully than it had done and good marks to Alan Howarth for sort of realising that something needed to be done, and the Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences Act, it's not retrospective unfortunately - it was, became law in 2003 so it doesn't apply to anything that was found before 2003 and for that reason it hasn't had very much impact yet, but I think it will do as time goes on and a lot of the antiquities that appear will have been found after 2003. And it makes it illegal knowingly to deal in antiquities found after that time and illegally excavated in or exported from their country of origin. And this is very new because it isn't just protecting British antiquities. Most antiquities laws of most nations are quite good at protecting their own antiquities but they're not very good at protecting antiquities from elsewhere, and so this I think is quite a significant development. But of course the collectors don't like it. I appeared in a television debate with George Ortiz when I was very critical of The Royal Academy for showing a collection that was full, a high proportion of unprovenanced antiquities and very critical of George Ortiz. He had initially been basking in the glory of having this magnificent, and there were wonderful pieces, and he's very erudite. He wrote the catalogue himself. He did the lighting himself and so on, but I ended up by saying that I hope George Ortiz was the last of the great collectors, and he liked the sound of the great collectors so he smiled at that, but it wasn't intended as a, as a compliment. But the campaign goes ahead in the United States and elsewhere because there the situation is much more scandalous. Whereas the British Museum, when it really thought about the problem ten years ago, decided to have a, an acquisitions code, an ethical acquisitions code, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has declined to do so and articles have been written, criticising their position. Fortunately the Italian government has caught up with them and took them to court to get some antiquities back, including the Euphronios vase, the $1 million pot that they bought many years ago, by paying $1 million for it and it was clear then I think, certainly clear now that it was looted from Etruria but anyway the Italian government has to some extent caught up with them, as it has with the Getty Museum. And I was asked to give a lecture once at the Getty and I think I rather shocked them by pointing out they were buying all this stuff and they were thereby supporting the looting of antiquities, but they didn't want to be told that at that time and very sadly they went on buying unprovenanced antiquities so that Marion True, their curator of antiquities, was put on trial by the Italian government and I think there were others at the Getty, including the director, John Walsh and the chairman of trustees of the Getty who were very lucky not to be joining her in the dock because I think they shared responsibility for the purchases that were made. But the campaign is far from won in the United States and although the Archaeological Institute of America shortly after 1970 adopted a very ethical policy, and they won't publish unprovenanced antiquities in their journal, the American Journal of Archaeology, but the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe De Montebello goes on quite untroubled and pretends that everything is above board whereas it's clear that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been continuing to buy unprovenanced antiquities. There was one very clear episode, the Lydian Treasure, when the Turkish government took them to court, and they first of all tried to claim, the Metropolitan claimed that the Turkish government was out of time, but then the Turkish government pointed out that they, the Metropolitan Museum had concealed the circumstances, hadn't displayed the treasure and in the end the Metropolitan Museum had to give that back to the, back to the Turks. And we have many scandals. We have the scandal of the Sevso Treasure in this country, which was bought by the Marquess of Northampton on the advice of the then president of chairman of Sotheby’s, Peter Wilson, as an investment opportunity, a scandalous business. It's clear that it was looted and they tried to sell it at auction. They'd offered it to the Getty but the Getty had thought it was too hot to handle. The Getty had found that the export licences from the Lebanon, which had come with the treasure, were not genuine, and so they decided to put it on auction in Switzerland and they sent it on a sort of round the world tour to gather interest. They sent it to New York where the law is rather different from what it is in Britain and there they were sued by the governments of Hungary and then of Croatia and of the Lebanon, each claiming they wanted the treasure back. Unfortunately, I think that was too many governments and so the judge decided that she couldn't decide who owned it and therefore the Marquess of Northampton, as the holder of the treasure, should retain the treasure, didn't say that he had good title, but she didn't give good title to any other person and so his lawyers have been trying to sell it ever since, I think. They put it on display at Bonhams, the auctioneers and that caused rather, this is just a year or so ago. I wrote a letter to "The Times" saying I thought it was very bad they should be putting these unprovenanced antiquities in a position it looked as if they were for sale, so the matter is unresolved I think. But in this country I think there is less traffic in unprovenanced antiquities than there was, and I think the museums in this country are not in general buying unprovenanced antiquities now, nor do they get government support for doing so, nor will the Art Fund, the National Art Collections Fund give them money to do so but in - and in Germany there've been improvements and in, in Italy there've been improvements, but unfortunately in the United States, although there are strong forces for good like the Archaeological Institute of America and although the Getty has now I think, learned from experience and now has an acceptable acquisitions policy, there are other museums, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Chicago Institute, which I think are quite disgraceful and lead the world in purchasing antiquities without provenance, which means in effect, although indirectly, I don't want to be sued by them as I once was nearly sued by George Ortiz, in effect, indirectly, they're supporting and financing the destruction of the world's archaeological heritage. It's not that the antiquities are unprovenanced that matters. It's the fact that the archaeological record is destroyed and one loses all hope of finding any context for these, for these objects. So I hope that we can continue in parliamentary ways and in other ways to do something about that in this country. There's an all - party parliamentary archaeology group for archaeology, which was formed by Lord Redesdale mainly, of which I'm chairman and we try and keep an eye on things. I've recently been involved on a committee of enquiry about incantation bowls, another lot of illicit antiquities which University College of London found they had in one of their departments on loan from a Norwegian collector. That’s all got bogged down. The Norwegian collector has sued them. They've reached an out of court settlement with the collector not to publish our report, which indeed concluded that the antiquities must have come from Iraq, and come from Iraq after the beginning of the first Gulf War. So matters are really quite complicated. There's still quite hot issues, I think, but I'm hopeful this is a campaign, which we can win. I think we have begun to win it in this country but it certainly needs to be waged more vigorously in the United States.

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: 9 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009