Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Racism Inherent in the International Trade Lobby

Michael D. Press ('Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Looters', Textual Cultures, Material Cultures Friday, August 4, 2017) draws attention to a rarely discussed issue, the disparity between treatment of looters and treatment of others involved in antiquities trafficking.
The antiquities trade involves looters, dealers, and collectors, along with various middlemen. Of the three main groups, almost all of the burden of punishment falls on looters. This is both unfair, and unsurprising, because looters have by far the least power of the groups involved in the trade. Dealers and collectors are generally richer, and often located outside the source countries that tightly regulate (or outlaw) trade in antiquities – and so are beyond their reach. 
He then discusses at some length the case from 2004-5, involving the Bar-Ilan University scholar scholar Hanan Eshel who bought some ancient documents found by Bedouin looters on the West Bank, they were investigated for handling stolen artefacts but not charged, but the looters were. he concludes:
I’ve come to believe that many people, including many scholars, while they may pay lip service to the evils of looting, prefer to see looted objects on the market – because it means more goodies for them to study and publish than could ever be found in controlled excavation. Condemning looters (while protecting scholars) is a convenient way to use the least powerful players in the antiquities trade as a scapegoat and avoid meaningful change. The case of James Charlesworth (a prominent professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary) is exceptional but illuminating: the questions and answers  section of a lecture first highlighted by Årstein Justnes (of the University of Agder, Norway), Charlesworth expresses excitement at the poor Palestinian economy, because (as he claims) Arabs are now digging under their houses and selling him their finds more cheaply. Shanks’s piece (whether it was argued in good faith or not) draws attention to how vastly different such scholars are treated from looters – but then appears to embrace an idiosyncratic conclusion (let’s honor the looters!). Instead we can take other approaches, such as holding accountable those with the real power in the antiquities trade who break laws and ethical codes.
Of course it is the lobbyists and supporters of the dealers that are among those clamouring most loudly for the problem of looting and pillaging of archaeological sites to be dealt with 'in situ' 'in the art-source countries'. Once again the dealers' lobby is perfectly complacent about racist campaigns to discriminate against the brown-skinned folk while leaving their own interests alone. If white collectors and dealers really want the brown skinned looters to suffer for involvement in the illicit trade, all it needs is for them to stop buying its products. But I rather think what they are contemplating is using a campaign for the arrest of looters as a smokescreen for the continued no-questions-asked purchase from those potentially supplied by looters and middlemen who are not behind bars.

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