Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Strategy for Responses and Proactive Offense on Issues of Cultural Patrimony:


We are losing the PR war on issues relating to Cultural Patrimony. We have neither a cohesive response nor strategy that properly and pro-actively states our side of the story. The government, media, archeological groups, and others believe or may eventually believe that all dealers, collectors, and institutions that buy, sell, and own tribal art or other cultural objects are basically criminals, “trafficking” (a term that already denotes illegal activity) in illegally obtained artifacts.

Those opposed to our activities are trying to characterize individuals that market artifacts legally obtained from private lands, acquired directly from the lawful owners (including families or villages), or acquired prior to current laws restricting this trade in the same category with individuals that market artifacts and human remains dug up illegally on Federal land and other protected sites worldwide, or items clearly stolen from others. This also applies to those items traditionally adorned with animal parts in antiquity by the original native peoples with items using newly acquired animal parts.

Most often, when I read articles on this subject, I rarely hear a direct response that clearly separates one group from the other or makes any point about the costs to the public of investigating and persecuting individuals engaged in legal activity.

We need to take a page from the conservative political playbook and go on the offensive. When they have an issue they want to bring to the public, they create and disperse a few very simple buzzwords or phrases that are repeated (in lock-step) over and over again, until the message sticks.

I believe that we need to use the same methods to get our message across to the general public, as well as ill-informed legislators, who at this point have no reason to disagree with the government and media versions of our business activity. Generally the public and most legislative bodies really do not understand the full extent of the issue. They automatically assume that the negative version of events is likely true and therefore would side with law enforcement when they open investigations, harass individuals, search museums, galleries and residences, confiscate goods, and make arrests.

What I propose is a clear set of prepared responses and eventually a more direct offensive on the forces that oppose our activities. We have to keep statements simple, to the point and include a mention of costs, so the general public and undecided legislators realize they do have a potentially negative financial stake in this debate.

Prepared responses should include statements, such as these listed below:

As individuals interested in cultural material, we strongly oppose those who violate laws relating to illegal removal of artifacts from government or tribal lands.

We do not purchase stolen artifacts and agree with the rights of individuals and native cultures to use and protect their own property.

When buying cultural property directly from indigenous sources, we only buy material legally obtained from individuals, families, and villages that willing agree to sell these artifacts.

That these sources are often people who no longer use these artifacts, because of changes to their traditional lifestyle (perhaps due to conversion to a “modern” religion, entering the cash economy from a barter system, radical environmental changes to traditional lands, restrictions or interference from local governments, or other influences from outside the local culture.

That these sellers directly benefit from the sale of artifacts, generally no longer in use, because they use the funds to purchase medicine, food, clothing, home repairs, farm improvements, or pay for educational and other work opportunities.

Those artifacts purchased from non-indigenous sources, such as other dealers, collectors, or institutions, were also legally obtained with full title or acquired prior to any recent changes in the law.

That the buying and selling of cultural objects benefits the public through the payment of sales and income taxes as well as providing materials for the education and understanding of these formally traditional societies and cultures.

That the persecutions of the dealers, collectors, and institutions, the vast majority who buy, sell, and own legal artifacts costs the public millions in wasted tax dollars.

Other important points:

1) It is patronizing to indigenous peoples when claiming they need western governments to protect them from willingly selling their own cultural property. I hear this argument all too often, along the lines of “unscrupulous western dealers take advantage of simple village folk when negotiating prices for artifacts”. It is unfair to state that tribal peoples, who have been trading, bartering, and selling for generations, are not capable of making a fair deal that satisfies their needs. I have always found that the people I am doing business with overseas are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and making clear decisions.

On another angle, does an artist in New York have more rights to sell his art to a foreign buyer, than does a villager in Africa? Further, do this artist’s heirs have more rights to sell their art to a foreign buyer than the villager’s heirs?

The second part of the argument is the gap in prices paid in third world countries to the prices realized in first world countries. The counter argument to this is the cost of living is equal to or more than that price gap. For example, in an extreme hypothetical situation where a western dealer might pay $100 for an object that is resold in the West for $5000, one must keep in mind that the indigenous person probably has an average monthly cost of living of $100 while a westerner has a monthly cost of living of $5000 or more.

*A side note on this subject: the average sale of a cultural object often comes from decendants of the original owner. The seller in fact exerted no labor or expense in the creation of the object, normally something that was handed down through the generations. In a sense any money realized is a gift, exactly like wealth handed down from to heirs in our own country.

2) This argument has been used before, but worth stating again and that not all source countries are in control politically to protect their own cultural property. The example of the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues is a point to be emphasized. The fact that many artifacts were sold into the world marketplace is what protected many objects that otherwise would have been destroyed.

It makes more sense, in any event, to have wider distribution of cultural property around the globe, thus preventing total destruction due to political upheavals, environment damage, and natural disasters.

It is important to note, that many artifacts would have been discarded and eventually lost to the elements, if no art market existed. The fact that buyers are willing to pay money for artifacts is what has kept many of these pieces intact and appreciated. It also puts money directly into the hands of others, especially the villagers, who otherwise would not have benefited financially for these discarded or abandoned objects.

3) Who really owns world culture? For example, do the Italians own everything found within their current political boundaries? What about Greek artifacts found in Italy? Are they Greek or Italian? Are the decendants of former cultures, now dominated by new cultures the true owners or are the decendants of the current culture. Another example: who owns Moche artifacts in Peru, their decendants or the Spanish decendants that conquered them? The changing of boundaries over time and the coming and goings of cultures blur this line.

Or objects found in International waters (ex: Italy demanding the return of Getty bronze statue, found outside of Italy. This bronze statue was originally stolen from the Greeks by Roman soldiers and was not from Italy).

Which leads to the point of how far does repatriating cultural property go? Should ALL American art, including Native American artifacts, 19th century folk art, 20th century modernist paintings, and so on be brought back to the USA, never to be seen or appreciated outside our borders? Should ALL French impressionist paintings be returned to France?

*I say we draw the line at keeping all indigenous earth art on our planet and leave it at that.


Hoyawolf said...

Excellent piece with which I agree entirely. It is hard to separate emotion from business in these instances but quite frankly I find that most people truly pushing to keep indigenous art local have a vested interest in somehow profiting off such works to their own ends.

Hoyawolf said...

Excellent piece with which I agree entirely. It is hard to separate emotion from business in these instances but quite frankly I find that most people truly pushing to keep indigenous art local have a vested interest in somehow profiting off such works to their own ends.