Unfrozen cave man curator

Remember that Saturday Night Live sketch where Phil Hartman played a cave man found frozen by scientists, thawed out and became a lawyer? His shtick worked like a charm with juries.

It’s not so cute, though, when it’s the director of a museum raided for buying stolen goods doing the fuzzy appeal to ignorance.

Although the museum has extensive collections of Ban Chiang artifacts, Mr. Keller said, “We honestly did not know this material was illegal.” He added that his researchers had been unable to find evidence of the Thai antiquity law forbidding their export, passed in 1961, in the databases they regularly consulted.

[…]The agent was also said to have mailed Mr. Keller a copy of the Thai antiquity law that month. “I don’t recall ever seeing that correspondence,” Mr. Keller said.

The museum has never required proof that artifacts it accepts have been obtained legally, Mr. Keller said. Donors are required to sign a statement saying that they are the rightful owners of an artifact and that it is in the United States legally, he said, but they are not asked to provide documentation.

Mr. Keller said it was a “very difficult thing to prove” where an artifact has come from or how long it has been in the United States. “I don’t know how you prove it,” he said.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m just a museum director. Your world frightens and confuses me! Sometimes, the searching of your Google or the flipping through your library card catalogs looking for well-established 40-year-old laws or doing any other elementary due diligence to ensure I’m not supporting a dirty illegal trade endemic in my industry make me want to jam my fingers in my ears and say “lalalalala”.

What’s a curator to do?

In the comments on yesterday’s entry about the museum raids, I noted that it was virtually impossible for a substantial collection in the United States to be built quickly out of provenanced antiquities because the demand far outstrips legitimate supply. Clutch asked:

So, are all the graduates of curating/gallery studies/museum studies doomed to careers of self-deception or outright fraud? Do you think anything can be done? If the legal/moral supply really is too small, and the demand is large, it strikes me that a “War on Drugs” approach of occasional prosecutions will work no better than… well, the War on Drugs. Do you see a practical course of action that could help?

Assuming the curator wants to work in the North America, there are two approaches I can think of which could help de-loot the system: 1) buy local, and 2) pursue long-term loans and travelling exhibits.

The lust for classical or exotic fureign antiquities seems to me a vestige of the Gilded Age parvenue attitude that prestige and class can be bought. Nowadays, there are all kinds of museums with a more narrow focus on local history.

There’s still a huge traffic in looted local antiquities, mind you, especially Native American and Civil War, but it would be easier to trace the provenance on such pieces and most importantly, to team up with legitimate archaeological excavations and arrange the display of their finds.

The money, though, is in long-term loans and travelling exhibits. This would work both with local antiquities under the control of government agencies (national parks, for instance) and tribal governments, and with other countries’ antiquities.

There are already established loan mechanisms between museums, and many countries with a surfeit of antiquities would doubtless be glad to negotiate long-term loans of stuff they have in storage or can ill-afford to preserve.

First there needs to be a serious culture shift, however. As things stand, curators and the collector class who populate museum boards have been more than content to rationalize their wallowing in the loot trade sty. The froo-froo talk about antiquities “belonging to the world” or worse, the patronizing “we can take care of it better than they can” excuses for trafficking in goods stolen at massive cost in site destruction and even human life, have to stop.

More on yesterday’s museum raids

The New York Times has more details on the busts: Four California Museums Are Raided.

At the center of the investigation are the owners of the Silk Roads Gallery, Jonathan Markell and his wife, Cari Markell, and Robert Olson, who is said in the search warrants to have smuggled looted antiquities out of Thailand, Myanmar and China.[…]

In more than 120 pages of search warrants and affidavits, the authorities described one typical transaction as follows:

The Markells would acquire an object from Mr. Olson and then offer it for sale to the undercover agent for about $1,500. They would provide an appraisal valuing the object at close to $4,990, an amount calculated to get around tax regulations requiring more documentation for bigger donations. The appraisals sometimes falsely stated that the estimated values were prepared at the Southeast Asian Museum in Bangkok. The Markells would then arrange for the donation of an object to a museum.

This is a typical scam. The dealer sells his stolen wares to collectors who then donate them to a museum. The dealer makes bank, the collector gets a fat tax break, and the museum gets goods they can hastily provenance as “donated from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. Smythe, Esq”.

In this case, there was a nice tax fraud element too — when will people learn the lessons of Al Capone? — but even without the inflated estimates, this process often serves to obscure theft. It’s an antiquities laundering operation, basically, and everyone in the ring benefits.

Four museums in CA raided in looting bust

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego were served with search warrants this morning, the result of a five year undercover investigation on the purchase of looted goods.

The warrants are based on an undercover investigation by an unnamed agent with the National Park Service, who presented himself as an eager new collector to Olson and Markell. Both men allegedly admitted their illegal activities to the agent and sold him recently looted objects.

The warrants claim the men also introduced the agent to museum officials who, in dozens of secretly tape-recorded meetings, accepted donations of looted art with values inflated to help the sellers obtain tax write-offs.

In the case of the Bowers and the Pacific Asia museums, the warrants clearly suggest that museum officials were aware that the objects were looted and overvalued and accepted them anyway.

Toldya they were in on it. And now, enjoy the sight of federal agents raiding those looters at the Pacific Asia Museum:

Poverty Map of London

The London School of Economics has digitized the full archive of Charles Booth’s late 19th c. Inquiry into Life and Labour in London.

Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London, undertaken between 1886 and 1903 was one of several surveys of working class life carried out in the 19th century. It is the only survey for which the original notes and data have survived and therefore provides a unique insight into the development of the philosophy and methodology of social investigation in the United Kingdom.

It’s a wonderland of social history, with a particularly engaging map of the city color-coded by income level.

Click here to explore the Poverty Map of London along with a current map to help you get your bearings.