Objects of great historical, cultural and financial value are being looted from sites of conflict and sold to finance wars and regional conflicts. These so-called ‘blood antiquities’ are being sold in the great centres of antiquities trading in Europe and around the world, but are they making it as far as Australia? And what ethical and legal obligations does an Australian conservator have if she should suspect she is dealing with an illegally looted object? I asked Professor Robyn Sloggett of the Grimwade Centre for the Conservation of Cultural Materials for her expert opinion on the issue.
How important is it for conservators to know the full provenance of an object before they begin working on it and are there any red flags to look for?
Every time a work enters a legitimate space (state gallery, reputable auction house, conservation laboratory) it receives documentation that adds to its provenance. I think it is important therefore to be clear about the extent of original provenance where it is possible to do so. Provenance provided through acquisition into reputable organisations serves to legitimize the object by association. Having said that, few objects travel with their provenance intact or clearly defined, and in my experience it is objects with the most provenance, but with other issues, that often turn out to be the most problematic. So perversely too much provenance is often a red flag, but more importantly, too much provenance that is unverifiable should be treated the same as having no provenance, and the legitimacy of the work should be tested in other ways.
Many objects with primarily personal or very local significance may have very little discovererable provenance for a conservator to rely upon. In such cases, where does the responsibility to establish provenance end and it become acceptable to trust the testimony and reliability of a client?
Conservators have a confidential relationship with the client so it is not possible, unless you have their permission, to check provenance in any public way. I don’t think it is practical for conservators to establish provenance, so many works have no verifiable provenance, and this is not the skill base of conservators, but rather art historians or archaeologists or anthropologists and so on, who deal with the historical and geographical context. Therefore it is necessary for conservators to acknowledge the client’s testimony, but that is different to trusting it. The best way to be clear is to write this in the condition report e.g. ‘From Nimrod (according to owner—provenance not provided)’ or similar.
The Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 governs the import and export of objects of historical cultural and heritage values, but conservators may be understandably wary of invoking the act and getting authorities involved in the early stages of dealing with a suspect object. Do you have any suggestions for where a conservator might turn if they have doubts about an object’s provenance but aren’t get ready to get the law involved?
The first thing is to alert the owner and check whether they aware that there might be a problem. Given client confidentiality it is difficult to do more. However, the staff in the Office for the Arts who deal with the Act are very helpful and could provide practical advice to general questions. If it is a serious crime such as artefacts from Palmyra or the Kuwait Museum, or Khabul Museum and so on, then authorities should be alerted as this is a crime. It is unsatisfactory for conservators to be part of a chain of supply, even if only by providing legitimacy from working on these objects while knowing that they are actively in the market. In my opinion, and with the proviso that this is not legal opinion, it is best to seek advice from the police or the Office for the Arts.
The Guardian recently published a story about so called ‘blood antiquities’, looted from sites and institutions in areas of unrest, being commonly available for sale in London. Do you believe similar ‘blood antiquities’ are surfacing in the Australian marketplace?
Yes there are bound to be, but the antiquities market in Australia is much less active than in the UK, Europe and North America. In actual fact it could be argued that most of the trade in antiquities that does not have a clear provenance or at least a chronology of acquisition is likely to be from sites and institutions in areas of unrest. And of course unrest also includes socio-economic instability, predominantly through poverty. The major issue of looting from sites in South America is definitely in this category. The issue rests with the chain of trade and conservators are on the end of this trade so it is difficult, and probably beyond individuals in the profession to unpick this. But complicity in the trade is highly problematic and potentially criminal. There are some good texts on this issue, Neil Brodie, for example, has written extensively on this and Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino’s book Chasing Aphrodite provides some good context as does Roger Atwood’s Stealing History.
Any final advice for Australian conservators and heritage professionals for navigating the difficult waters between professional and ethical discretion, legal obligations and clients’ wishes?
- Make sure you are familiar with the relevant Acts.
- Make sure you know how you need to operate to comply with these and who can provide advice.
- If you think that criminal activity is involved you need to alert the relevant authorities (for example if something is for sale on eBay or in an auction).
- You need to maintain client confidentiality, so the client should be alerted first, and advised about the relevant Acts and potential issues.
- I also suggest keeping client files clearly marked as problematic if you think an issue has arisen, so that if you become aware of any patterns with regard to problematic objects you can take appropriate action with clear information.
- It is worthwhile for the AICCM to think about this in some detail and examine models that the profession feels it could support. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme for Diamonds provides one such model for trade, and as documentation is the key to provenance then having clear and rigorous guidelines for documentation relating to identifying or recording source and provenance seems to make sense. This is a team effort however, requiring the cooperation of a range of other disciplines and professionals.
- It is important for conservators working privately and employed in institutions to understand the acquisition process and to have an active position. The links between crime, destruction of cultural sites, ideology, poverty and the trade in antiquities is well-documented. There is a significant moral position that needs to be acknowledged and being ill-informed does align very easily to complicity.