Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects

On Thursday and Friday, I was in Virginia–specifically at Washington and Lee University in Lexington–to attend a conference on the Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects.

It all started on Thursday evening with a keynote lecture delivered by Neil Brodie, archaeology professor at Oxford whose research concentrates on  the illicit antiquities trade. In his talk, Dr. Brodie mentioned that the network and system of laundering antiquities has changed significantly in the last 10-20 years. The old system, which comprised rare and spectacular objects, suave art dealers, famous auctions houses, wealthy collectors and large museums, is dying out. The heart of the new system continues to be stolen antiquities, but these are much smaller, portable and easily concealed (which makes them easy to miss by authorities). Promotion of these illicit objects is made via social media and traffic occurs on the websites of small, unscrupulous  merchants  or via eBay.  Prices are much lower, but the quantity of available artefact is much greater. Unlike big auction houses whose reputation is at stake in looted antiquities claims, smaller merchants simply reinvent themselves after paying a piddly sum if caught, and continue their illicit business under another name! (Seriously, something needs to be done about this!)  What a fascinating lecture that was!

Friday’s programme offered several lectures by specialists in various fields such as archaeology, anthropology, art history as well as economics and criminal justice.  The focus was primarily the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, the prey of various types of looters and terrorists. I would have liked to see more presentations concerning unprovenanced objects that have been in museum collections for more than 30-40 years, acquired when lack of provenance was not an issue. These objects are the ones that conservators of my generation have to contend with on a daily basis. These objects bought on the art market are found in most museums, especially those that have never conducted archaeological excavations in the late 19th or early 20th century and benefited from partage (the division of finds between the host country and the excavators).  Only the presentation by James Cuno mentioned the merits of partage (which he believes should be reinstate with various modifications and for a variety of reasons); he also talked about the continued role of the museum in the protection cultural heritage.

Working away from work is always fun, especially when participating in great discussions of relevance to today’s chaotic world.

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2 thoughts on “Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects

  1. Pingback: Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects | Ritaroberts's Blog

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