Archaeologists claim so, at least in Jasper Copping’s article in the Sunday Telegraph. They claim the practice, called “nighthawking”, is destroying context in a number of protected sites. These detectors then sell the works on the internet or eBay. These claims of antiquities transactions on the internet are thrown about a great deal, but I’m aware of no concrete study or even much in the way of supporting evidence of this claim, though there are sometimes anecdotal claims which are thrown about.
It seems that English Heritage and the British Museum have commissioned a £100,000 study into the scope of the activity, which might lead to new legislation to deal with offenders.
There certainly are problems with the Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences (Act), which makes it difficult to establish wrongdoing when purchasers do not inquire into an object’s provenance. If new legislation is forthcoming, to be truly effective it needs to pinpoint the difficulty in regulating good faith purchasers, and raise the bar for the inquiry which must go into their decision to buy.
The nighthawking problem does reveal why protecting rural and historic sites can be so difficult. The Treasure Act has problems to be sure, but I have argued that it is a good and pragmatic compromise between archaeologists and antiquities collectors. When qualifying treasure is found under the Treasure Act (which applies only to England and Wales), finders are required by law to report the finds, and are rewarded for doing so. The forthcoming study will be interesting, and the actions by these unscrupulous detectors may run the risk of destroying the delicate compromise which the Treasure Act has created.
NPR’s All Things Considered had an interesting story on Odyssey Marine yesterday. It’s a good chance to hear both sides of the debate.
One of the founders of the publicly traded company, Greg Stemm said, “The only thing we’re saying right now is that we’ve really recovered about a half-million coins, and a number of artifacts that are from the colonial period … that were in the Atlantic Ocean.”
But the attorney representing Spain, Jim Goold says “The U.S. has a lot of Navy and other ships that have sunk around the world… The idea that … anyone can take U.S. government property just by looking around in the water and pulling it up without authorization … just doesn’t work. And that’s not what the courts say.”
It will be interesting to see how this case unfolds. It strikes me there is a tremendous tension between studying the wreck scientifically and commercially excavating it. The UNESCO Underwater Heritage Convention precludes commercial exploitation of wrecks. Finding a workable compromise between commerce and archaeology is particularly difficult with underwater heritage. This massive half a billion recovery from the still unidentified wreck underlines the problem.
Elisabetta Povoledo has an article in today’s NY Times on the Morgantina Aphrodite currently on display in the Getty Villa. I’ve written about this particular dispute many times, most recently in relation to the Getty’s Francavilla Marittima project which brought together experts to try and determine where precisely the statue originated.
Here’s an excerpt:
In the Aidone Archaeological Museum, which houses artifacts from a nearby dig at an ancient Greek settlement called Morgantina, visitors settle for a large poster at the entrance depicting the statue and announcing a national campaign to bring it back.
“This is her rightful place,” said Nicola Leanza, the culture minister for Sicily, who, like many others, argues that the goddess was illegally excavated from Morgantina.
The Getty, which bought the statue in 1988 for $18 million, isn’t so sure.
For nearly two decades it fended off the Italian government’s sporadic claims to the sculpture. But as the demands grew more pressing, the Getty acknowledged that there might be “problems” attached to the acquisition. In November it announced that it would study the object and reach a decision on whether to hand it over within a year.
“We are on target to achieve that objective,” Ron Hartwig, a Getty spokesman, said in an e-mail message. (The museum has already offered to transfer title to the statue.)
Yet the people of Aidone are tired of waiting. For this town the statue has become a blazing symbol of Italy’s legal and moral battle against foreign museums and private collectors that bought archaeological artifacts with hazy backgrounds, plundering the nation of its heritage.
It’s an interesting article which summarizes Italy’s position, and why repatriating antiquities means so much to individual communities both because of the cultural wealth, but also in terms of new visitors. That may also indicate why the institutions currently holding them are loathe to return them even though they may have been acquired without enough due diligence of checking into their provenance.
Last week a man was sentenced to five years in prison for the theft of this Benvenuto Cellini salt-cellar. The 500 year-old work may be worth as much as $50 million. Robert Mang stole the gold an enamel sculpture from Vienna’s Fine Arts Museum in 2003, easily skirting the security cameras and alarm systems.
He knew of course that there was no legitimate market for the object, so instead hid the salt-cellar under his bed and then buried it in a forest. He sent a number of ransom notes to the museum’s insurance company threatening to melt the work down if he wasn’t paid €10-million. A number of thieves attempt to ransom their ill-gotten gains back to the insurance companies or original owners, and its unclear how often a ransom is paid. In this case certainly, the owners and insurers made the rigt decision, but it must have been a difficult one in the face of the potential destruction of the work.