Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


Is anybody now confident about the ethics of the antiquity trade? If cultural heritage is the property of descendant communities, then they presumably have the right to destroy it. But if it belongs to all of us, then where should the objects be displayed and cared for? In the country of discovery, obviously--or is it so obvious? There are advantages for the home country in promoting monuments as national icons and tourist attractions; but there is every advantage too in spreading home-produced objects around the world to raise curiosity and teach people to appreciate cultural difference: showing Chinese artefacts to English children and vice versa. If archaeological finds are the ambassadors of culture, who will decide where to send them? If the market is the accepted democratic method of redistribution (which seems to be the way things are going) then the rich, and the rich countries, will buy all the antiquities. We commercial democrats will have no justification in using restrictive legislation to "keep treasures in Britain" (especially if they were not "ours" in the first place).

As an alternative, we might create something like a "global organisation for the origination and distribution of cultural property" (GOODCUP). This would decide where something "came from", what it is worth and who should have it, who should pay and who need not--a market system, but a regulated and authenticated one, which might achieve security, fair distribution and descendant rights. It is true that a successful market might develop an appetite which can only be fed by digging more objects up, and this would raise a dragon that was famously flouted by Mortimer Wheeler when he sold Iron Age slingshots at Maiden Castle. But at least the onus would then be on controlling access to sites rather than the sprawling international antiquities trade. If the regulation was good enough, all digging would be controlled by licence, and an artifact without a context card would become impossible to sell. We look forward to hearing reader's views on this key element of the new world order: should the trade in antiquities be forbidden, regulated or permitted to flourish?

Meanwhile, the miraculous reappearance of the Bactrian Hoard beneath the Presidential Palace compound in Kabul is worth the attention of Indiana Jones. The treasure was sealed in 1989 in a concrete bunker behind a steel door secured with seven locks whose keys were held by seven different people since dispersed around the world. Successive regimes, including that of the Taliban, had tried and failed to get in. With the expectation of retrieving a mass of bullion, entry was achieved in August 2003 with the aid of German specialists. As well as the Bactrian gold, the vault is now thought to contain trunks of objects from the Kabul Museum, also put away for safe keeping by President Najibullah in 1989. The 20 000 gold objects of the Bactrian Hoard, excavated in 1978 in northern Afghanistan, have been seen only once in the last 25 years (in 1982) by Viktor Sarianidi, the archaeologist who discovered them. All the artefacts which had remained in the museum were battered into dust by the Taliban in February 2001, and the following month they notoriously dynamited the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Many of the lost objects belonged to the hybrid east-west Gandhara art of the Kushan kingdom (first-sixth century AD), objects which have a strong attraction for collectors. The Art Newspaper's correspondent Elspeth Moncrieff has pointed out that the western interest in Gandhara art, which developed in the 1880s, contributed to collections in London and Paris and that these survived when those in Kabul were destroyed. However in 2003 the market remained a bit flat. "The problem is that there is very little good quality material around (although there is a lot of minor), and if anything has come out of Afghanistan, it has certainly not made its way onto the legitimate art market. Provenance has become even more essential in this market, and wealthy collectors are now being very circumspect. …

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