This morning, while browsing the web for current Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade news to blog about, I came across the webpage of a company/auction house that, to me, seems as brazen in their sale of unprovenanced and/or recently surfaced artifacts as the world’s largest wholesale auction houses. Indeed, they occasionally have their own auctions! This time I’m talking about Arte Mission (or artemission.com), based out of South Kensington, London, and specializing in “ancient art from Egypt, the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, in Islamic Art and Ancient Coins.” With apparently 40+ years in the business, and with “major galleries and museums” as both recipients and guest appraisers of artifacts, their website provides prospective buyers with everything from a Membership list, a searchable database, website translation into a number of different languages, a recommended reading list of books and articles at a “Reader’s corner,” two-day item reservation, and email contact.
If you’ll allow me a brief segue, there’s even a link to an online store called “Ancienne Ambiance,” with the express purpose of fostering one’s inner “antiquity sensibility.” In the words of company founder Adriana Carlucci, after “having helped customers step back in time through the use of fragrance, extensive customer feedback to the site indicated a strong interest in even more luxury consumer products reflecting an ancient theme.” She then teamed up with artemission.com and jewellery designer Claire van Holthe to offer jewellery “made using authentic beads, stones, amulets and pendants from different ancient civilizations and modern gold.” Ironically, some of the proceeds of these sales are given to the charity PACT (diligently fighting against child abduction), but the “abduction” and reuse of the world’s archaeological heritage is perfectly ok? As an archaeologist myself, I can assure readers that “antiquity” as I’ve experienced it (i.e. in graves, historic period privies, wells, ancient houses, research laboratories) certainly DOES NOT smell like lavender! In the end, the commercialization of products based on the smell of antiquitiy (whatever that is) is irrelevant, and there is honest disclosure that the use of the antiquities is to enhance the appeal of the jewellry, the end result is still the reuse of archaeological artifacts ripped from context so as to appease/enhance the status of the wealthy.
Returning to my original discussion of artemission.com itself, one can see that their catalog contains quite the diversity of artifacts within their stated geographic area of expertise. These range from cuneiform tablets, to Egyptian faience, shabtis, and scarabs, cylinder seals, numerous artifacts from various European cultures, plenty of jewellery, glass artifacts (primarily Roman), coins (Roman and Greek), weapons, manuscripts, and a separate category of “Under $400” miscellanea; “excellent to start or complement a collection, ideal as an interesting and unique gift.” Besides the usual promise to include a “certificate of authenticity” with each purchase, two other aspects of artemission.com’s “code of ethics;” namely, “we undertake to the best of our ability to make our purchases in good faith,” and “we undertake not to knowingly deal in any cultural objects that have left Iraq after 6/8/90, in compliance with The Iraq (U.N. Sanctions) Order 2003 (S.I. 2003/1519).”
“Good Faith” implies trust that the middlemen providing the dealers with antiquities (or the dealers providing the customers) have done their part to double check the veracity of what they purport to sell. However, it seems that in this case “good faith” applies merely to questions of authenticity, as very few examples of past-provenance information was observed attached to online catalog entries for any item, and those that did once again derived “from an old collection,” “private collection,” or a different auction house, frequently post 1980s. However, to be completely honest, I must point out that a few items, such as a few cuneiform tablets, provide the name of the individual person who assembled the collection the item came from, and suggested pre-1970s surfacing. The catalog overall, however, suggests that secure provenance is more or less irrelevant to the modern trade, especially online. In strange contrast to that, they swear to uphold the recent U.N. sanction on the trade in looted antiquities from Iraq, probably due to fear of bad press over perceived “war profiteering.” As this cylinder seal shows, for example, artemission.com readily acquired Iraqi (Mesopotamian) artifacts from the 1990s-present as long as they were said to have surfaced before then. To quote Dr. Chippindale from an earlier post of mine, “said by whom, to whom, under what circumstances, and with what intentions?” The separate coins webpage demonstrates that this dealer, like others, exhibits the cognitive dissonance required to not view ancient coins as “antiquities,” let alone artifacts that once had their own unique contexts.
Discussion of a short article by Peter A. Clayton, FSA (Founding Chairman of the Antiquities Dealer’s Association, 1982) is also relevant here; made available to all artemission.com potential customers in the “Reader’s corner,” for purposes of “education” and encouragement. It is important that this rhetoric be further exposed, as it is geared primarily towards those who might stumble onto their website (and into collecting) by accident, or with previous reticence to buy. The article primarily centers around the opinion that “it is often not realized that just because an object may be centuries, or even several thousand years old it does not have to be financially inaccessible;” stressing that recent very expensive auction sales only represent the “extreme end” of the market. If an amateur collector is willing to take on the “high degree of specialist approach” and “get to know dealers who stock items that interest them” (so that the dealer “can get to know his clients requirements and keep an eye on the market for available pieces”), then both parties can “enjoy and learn from the contact.” Clayton distills the entire purpose of the trade thusly: “The point about collecting antiquities is that they provide the opportunity to reach back across the centuries and actually handle the past to, if you like, feel a rapport with the original ancient owner.” Textbook summation of the “Connoisseur’s View,” is it not? To archaeologists and heritage professionals who monitor the trade, this is familiar rhetoric…but documents such as these in the hands of potential new buyers AND with a major catalog provided, is fuel for the fire.
What to do? I like to think of the multi-pronged response that S.A.F.E. and others are taking as the “Triple E” model: “Education, Exposure, Enforcement.” This corresponds to education at the local supply level, education and exposure BEFORE new “customers” make that first purchase, and enforcement intervening at the local in-country level whenever possible, but at the very least BEFORE the artifact enters the (online) market place, where dispersal becomes very easy. I know, I know…easier said than done…but the more that major dealers/smuggling rings are either shut down, or brought into compliance with ALL global heritage laws, the greater the repercussions down the entire supply line. Constant vigilance!