Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Apulian pots and the missing memorandum

One of the most important studies of the scale of looting in Southern Italy has been conducted by Professor Ricardo Elia of Boston University ("Analysis of the looting, selling, and collecting of Apulian red-figure vases: a quantitative approach." In Trade in illicit antiquities: the destruction of the world's archaeological heritage, edited by N. Brodie, J. Doole, and C. Renfrew, pp. 145-53. Cambridge: McDonald Institute, 2001). Elia quantified the recent surfacing of Apulian pottery and suggested that perhaps as little as 5.5% of the corpus had come from scientific excavations. (Compare this with the figure for Cycladic marble figures where some 85% of the funerary record of the Early Bronze Age has been lost, i.e. only 15% either came from scientific excavations or had been provided with some sort of reported find-spot.)

Elia's study was cited as the first of three case studies --- the other two were on Cycladic figures and hoards of Greek coins --- in the final report of The Illicit Trade Advisory Panel. This panel, chaired by Professor Norman Palmer, reported to the UK Government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Its role was 'to advise on how the UK can prevent and prohibit the illicit trade in cultural objects'.

In the report the conclusions of Prof Elia were 'contested' by a named British archaeologist 'in written comments circulated to the Panel'. Such comments may have influenced the Panel to think Elia's comments were too high (though they are in keeping with the figures emerging from our own research) - and they certainly gave encouragement to the collector George Ortiz. In the published version of his 2004 Oxford lecture, Ortiz ("Overview and assessment after fifty years of collecting in a changing world." In Who owns objects? The ethics and politics of collecting cultural artefacts, edited by E. Robson, L. Treadwell, and L. Gosden, pp. 15-32. Oxford: Oxbow, 2006) notes with approval the dissenting voice and comments,
'A difference of opinion is one thing but, with respect to archaeology, there is total cleavage, with the successful attempt of the few to mobilise public opinion resulting in the present legislation'.

It would be interesting to read this refutation of Elia's sensible and careful research. A request to see this document met with a blank: the committee had apparently failed to keep a copy and one was not available from the secretariat of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The museum curator had unfortunately replaced his computer. So there is, reportedly, no copy.

Neil Brodie, who had separately tried to secure a copy of the document, has recently (in Who owns objects? The ethics and politics of collecting cultural artefacts, edited by E. Robson, L. Treadwell, and L. Gosden) made the forceful comment:
'if there is information that potentially refutes Elia’s work, normal academic protocol would suggest that it should either be released into the public domain for critical review or else excluded from consideration'.

Was the Panel keen to play down looting in Apulia?

I hope that there were no conflicts of interest. I note that on the gallery website of one of the Panel members is an Apulian red-figured dish, attributed to 'the Lampas painter', which had resided in a 'Private Collection, Switzerland'; it came to public attention as a loan to Le Musee d'Art et Histoire in Geneva (April-August 1986). It has now been sold.

And if anybody has a copy of the missing memorandum ...

For further comments on these issues:
D.W.J. Gill, review of Robson, E., L. Treadwell, and L. Gosden. Editors. 2006. Who owns objects? The ethics and politics of collecting cultural artefacts. Oxford: Oxbow; and Brodie, N., M. M. Kersel, C. Luke, and K. W. Tubb. Editors. 2006. Archaeology, cultural heritage, and the antiquities trade. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. In Journal of Field Archaeology 32.1 (2007) 103-06.


NelsonBenson said...

I agree with you that all excavations have to be legal and supervised, I like both history and archeolgoy and art.

But say all the artifacts in private collections were to be returned, a few millions all together, where would you put them?

Serious question - no sarcasm

David Gill said...

The issue is that the archaeological contexts for 94.5% - yes, 94.5% - of known Apulian pots have been lost. Returning pots to Italy from public and private collections will not restore those contexts. However the threat of legal action would probably make you think twice about acquiring an Apulian pot that had no recorded history prior to 1970 (i.e. the UNESCO Convention).

Is Italy seeking the return of 'millions' of pots? I doubt it. Indeed the returns from specific museums have been selective - and could even be seen as symbolic.


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