Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 42 - 59)



  Chairman: Gentlemen, I should like very much to welcome you here today. I think you were here and heard some of the previous discussion. I shall now call on Mr Fearn to continue it.

Mr Fearn

  42. You refer in your evidence to the looting of archaeological sites in this country. To what extent is the product of such looting traded on the international market?

  (Dr Davies) It is often hard to know because, notwithstanding what the Museums & Galleries Commission said, it really is the case that if you go to buy many categories of antique object from a dealer or an auction house, you simply cannot find out where it has come from. With paintings you can and with paintings there is often a clear provenance and indeed in auction catalogues often an ownership history is set out. If you were to go to a dealer here or in New York and ask about where the item had come from, the dealer is under no obligation to tell you. One of the main characteristics of the art trade is a kind of professional code of respecting the anonymity of sellers. You may find a British item on sale. You might not even know it is British if it is Roman. You might not know what country it has come from. It looks like an interesting item but the chances are, particularly if it is at an auction, a dealer may be more helpful, that you will not be able to find out where it has come from even in the past few months, let alone 10, 20, 30 years ago, if indeed it has been out of the ground for that long. The whole code of secrecy within which the art trade operates really makes it impossible almost to put figures on things. However, there are cases; we cite in our evidence the case of Wanborough. I am not an archaeologist but archaeologists say that certain things which come from Wanborough have been found on sale at coin fairs in Europe and in New York and in the States and some things have been recovered. Then there was the famous case of the Icklingham bronzes which were exported from this country, sold in New York and the land owner has tried tirelessly to recover them. However, in fact partly because Britain has not ratified the UNESCO Convention, the United States authorities were not willing to help recover those items to Britain. British material is clearly being exported and being sold overseas, but nobody has any idea how much.
  (Mr Taylor) This is a market. Our evidence shows extraordinary tales of clandestine lorries full of material and if people are prepared to go to those lengths then they are doing it because there is a market for it and the market is bound to be abroad. They would not make that effort and take those risks unless it was so. I am afraid market forces apply.
  (Mr Hebditch) There is some evidence that the programme of recording chance finds being carried on in a number of counties on an experimental basis, including my own in Dorset, has led to some improvement in the reporting of finds and therefore this may to some extent be ameliorating the situation in relation to small casual archaeological finds. There is some evidence that has led to an improvement as a result of the Treasure Act.

  43. You just mentioned that there seems to be a code of secrecy. How do we break that? What do we have to put in place to break that down?
  (Dr Davies) The art trade now says that it has in place voluntary self-regulation under things like the code of the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft and indeed there are all sorts of other things in the memoranda of evidence which you have received from the art trade which say that the art trade is recording information. Now it would be interesting to find out whether it is really recording information. That is the first point. There may well be a case that some of that information is legitimately confidential, although I am not sure. Mr Wyatt explained how when you buy a car or a house you do find out who the previous owners are. If you are a man who likes to buy lots of Rolls-Royces you cannot keep that quiet if you then sell them. If you are a person who likes to buy lots of antiquities perhaps you should not be able to keep that quiet either. Even so, I am not necessarily certain that the information is even recorded privately in dealers' own internal documents. I just do not know. You would need to ask the police really because occasionally there are criminal inquiries and then the police do have access to material. I think this happened with the Salisbury Hoard, which was something illegally dug up near Salisbury, broken up and sold through a chain of dealers. It has been very well documented in a book published by a British Museum Keeper. The police there could get hold of records and find out. One of the characteristics of the art trade is the incredible chains of ownership. Things change hands all the time, often increasing in value. With material looted overseas, it is quite shocking. The little bits of evidence people have been able to piece together show that something like one or two per cent of the final sale price of an item goes to the poor people who dig it out of the ground and all the rest is taken by chains of dealers and middle men along the way. It is a characteristic of the art trade that things do change hands an enormous amount. At the very least the art trade should be required to have proper documentation, even if it is kept confidential, unless it becomes a criminal matter so that the trails can then be followed through.

  44. How do you think museums should respond if they legally acquired works of art wrongfully through the Nazi period for instance?
  (Dr Davies) Museums at the moment are taking a very careful look at their collections and indeed are being pro-active in trying to identify items where there are gaps in the ownership history in the period 1935 to 1945. For example, the National Gallery and some of the other national museums have now published details of all items where there is a gap in the ownership history. The question then comes: if then somebody comes forward to claim those items what then happens to them? There is only one single item at the moment which is being claimed or being discussed which is a painting in the Tate Gallery. The situation at the moment, something you were discussing with the Museums & Galleries Commission, is that even if the Tate Gallery decided that it wanted to return that item, under the legislation which governs the national museums it would not be able to do so. We have not reached that situation yet and the Secretary of State for Culture has established an advisory group which will assess claims for Second World War material. There is quite a long way to go yet before we see what actually happens.


  45. You mentioned Mr Wyatt's comparison in the previous evidence session with the purchase of a car. I mentioned the possibility of certificates of provenance or the counterpart of a logbook for a car. I suppose that one problem is that you have control to a very considerable degree over car transactions because of the fact that motor vehicles have to be licensed, whereas you have a myriad of transactions here, some of them private, some of them clandestine. Would any attempt to introduce a logbook or institute a logbook have a deleterious effect on the art trade or would it cause them to raise their standards?
  (Dr Davies) The key point Mr Taylor made was that the material which is being illegally dug up or stolen, all the material which is being illicitly obtained, is being bought by somebody. It is a market and markets are stimulated by people at the end of the chain purchasing stuff. If nobody bought things which did not have a clear provenance, then no-one would dig it up. It is a simple relation really. There would be a time lag, but if it became clear out in Peru that if something is looted out of the ground there is no market for it, people would soon stop digging it up because financially it would have no value. Something like a logbook, the idea of the logbook, is absolutely what is needed. There are practical issues and objections would be raised about confidentiality around private ownership which might cloud the issue a bit. In a sense museums now try not to buy anything which has been illicitly traded; even though quite legally they could do so they try not to. Often they cannot get the information. There are three categories really. There are museums which are not careful enough and do end up acquiring something they should not have. There was a case with the British Museum acquiring I think the Icklingham bronzes[2] from Lord McAlpine which turned out to have been ... I get all these muddled up. One of the British Museum's acquisitions they then had to return. Sometimes museums are not careful enough, sometimes museums obviously make mistakes and simply cannot find out and also we found evidence of museums actually turning down acquisitions because they simply could not reassure themselves. Something has gone from Burma to Thailand and it is on the London market and there is an export licence from Thailand but they just cannot pin down the documentation which gives it permission to leave Burma in the first place. Even though it would be perfectly legal for a museum or a private collector to purchase that item, there is something suspicious about it; it does not feel quite right so museums then turn it down. There is definitely a need for more information in some form.

  (Mr Taylor) There is definitely a case that logbooks—to use the shorthand—may be perhaps a little over the top. I do not want to push the comparison between dodgy car dealers and the art trade too much; perhaps a little but not too much. If we did not have logbooks then I imagine that the car dealers would be saying there would be much too much administration and so much paperwork and they could not do it. That is roughly what the art trade would say as well. They have their reasons.

  46. That is a very good point you make, a very important point. Protests from the trade are not necessarily convincing.
  (Dr Davies) The other point is that the trade claims that it is putting in place proper self-regulation. If it is, then it is already gathering the information it would need to put in the logbook, so it would be no extra burden at all because they already have the information.
  (Mr Hebditch) What causes some concern is that a year or two ago a survey done by the Getty Foundation in California of dealers and dealers' organisations showed that only about 40 per cent of them, or less than 40 per cent, considered that issues of provenance, by which we particularly mean ultimate place from which this came in the case of archaeological material, only a very small proportion seemed to consider that important to the understanding or the appreciation of the object. We find that very, very difficult to come to terms with. Your point that some pressure may need to be brought to bear is an important one.

Mr Maxton

  47. The point is that large quantities of objects in museums which have been there for even 100 years were looted, were they not?
  (Mr Hebditch) Yes.

  48. There is nothing you can do about that? You just have to accept that is the case?
  (Mr Hebditch) There is possibly something you can do. I have to be quite careful whether I am actually giving a Museums Association opinion or a personal one at this point and I shall try to give the Museums Association's still. I think that any decisions to acquire, and most big museums have 150 years of existence, have been the consequence of a whole series of decisions, legal, intellectual, which related to why do we want it, how do we display it and also moral decisions. Some of those things change through time, that is the legal and moral positions do actually change, they are slightly contingent. So decisions taken a long time ago were taken in a different environment and a different set of circumstances. My point in making that is the issue about whether there is a moral or in some cases a legal claim on an item in a museum to go somewhere else, whether it is within the United Kingdom or abroad, you have to unpick all those decisions through its past history, which is why, like the Museums & Galleries Commission, we claim every case should be considered on its merits individually. Secondly, you also then have to form a view as to what is the best outcome for that object in the future which is the future decision. I hope that at least within the European Union, say, we are saying that there is a common heritage in all our museums—to go back to the point about the Louvre which was made in the earlier one—and therefore we can perhaps best manage this collectively within the European Union now and not look too narrowly at either national or regional boundaries. That is approximately the museums' position.
  (Mr Taylor) It is also worth saying that stopping the illicit trade now is stopping repatriation claims later on. It is prevention we are talking about here.

  49. That is across international boundaries of course, but there is looting within. I am not quite sure where you draw the line between looting and me walking across a field on the Isle of Arran and kicking out a piece of flint which I think is interesting and putting it in my pocket, when in fact it is actually a spearhead or something like that which I do not know about. I do not know where you draw the line and it is sometimes difficult. There is that going on in this country as well, is there? There is actually looting of actual sites?
  (Dr Davies) Yes. Wanborough was looted. I live in St Albans and the local paper is full of stories of metal "detectorists" arriving at a newly ploughed field by night and it is a scheduled ancient monument and metal "detectorists" are buzzing over there at the moment taking things. It is interesting because in Britain there is a relatively liberal regime; if you kick over a piece of flint in Scotland it is different. In Scotland I think it would belong to the Crown but in England it would belong to the land owner unless it were treasure, which is defined. With the land owner's permission you would be able to keep it and there is a voluntary recording scheme which is growing in its success and impact, where you would be encouraged to take that flint to the right place to have it recorded. Then you could keep it. What is interesting, in spite of there being a kind of liberal regime in the United Kingdom, is that there is still looting. There is still stuff going missing. A lot of people say the reason material is looted from other countries is because they have such draconian laws on ownership so that everything under the ground belongs to the state. Clearly, even in countries like Britain and in the United States, where there are no laws at all about it except, I think, on federal land and state owned land, there is still looting. There are all sorts of different estimates of the size of the market but it is clear that there is a big market. At one end of the scale you will have the chance find and certainly the dealers would like us all to think it is all coming from chance finds. I think Angkor was attacked by rocket wielding bandits to steal sculptures. There was a Channel Four TV programme which we mention in the context of Peter Watson's investigation of Sotheby's and diggers were filmed with infra-red cameras, JCBs digging up tombs and looting stuff. There is full-scale organised destruction going on in order to feed the market.

  50. I am trying to remember exactly what this was but I remember on the Antonine Wall they discovered a hoard of Roman nails. I think there were millions of them. It was obviously a store for the building work. Nobody wanted them and in fact if I remember rightly you could actually go along to the local museum and buy them.
  (Mr Hebditch) It was the Roman fort at Inchtuthill in fact. I have four, acquired by legitimate means I hasten to add. Yes, there are circumstances in which things come onto the market. If I may draw from my past experience, I was Director of the Museum of London until three years ago and we had a scheme in conjunction with the Port of London Authority which licensed people to search on the foreshore. That was similar to the sort of recording schemes which have gone into place and that certainly meant that material came in and was identified and equally we were in a position to say that we did not want this material because another six of X only adds to the thousand we already have. There was a perfectly legitimate way for things to come onto the market. That does not mean though that anyone taking that item out of the country did not need an export licence because it was archaeological material from the ground with a report from the Museum of London which actually said that. Certainly we know that items turned down by the Museum of London were seen in auction catalogues in Australia and various places. There was no need to seek to recover them, but they certainly went out technically illegally.
  (Mr Taylor) I should say do not forget we are not just talking about some interesting examples of Roman social history. In some of the looting and pillaging which goes on in Africa and South East Asia we are talking about sacred sites. We are talking about icons. We have brought along, which you can have later on, books produced by ICOM about missing objects from various holy sites round the country, just appalling, hacking the heads off things. They have much more significance than simply just education.

  51. I do appreciate that and, as you will know from previous questions, it is a concern. That is not what I intended asking you about, because I think we have been through it. There is this whole question of value in this. When does an antique become an antique? Presumably it is when somebody decides that it actually has a higher value than it had when it was first made or bought. Is that not right? We have all watched Lovejoy and I suppose Lovejoy and the Antiques Roadshow have managed to ensure that most people now get at least something for those objects which they have but they are objects. Previously they were just an everyday part of your life, like the mug which our Chairman acquired.
  (Mr Hebditch) The intellectual value upon so many antiques has actually been put there by museums. In other words, they were the people who said these things were actually interesting. That applies to archaeology. In most instances, that value, which is an intellectual value, has been established as a result of some form of scientific or historical inquiry, through excavation or through the study of a particular cultural society. That is actually a value of this, but not the monetary value. What has happened of course is that is then translated into monetary values so that what in my youth were called junk shops are now antique stores and it is almost entirely a consequence of museums saying that the study of the social history of the last 100 years, from flat irons through to standard pots and all the rest of it, is actually worthwhile. That has been translated into monetary value. A great deal of the trading, particularly in antiquities or to some extent scientific specimens, is because museums have actually said these are valuable, that has been picked up by the trade, converted into monetary value which then becomes the driver for the looting of antiquities in other parts of the world and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom. For administrative purposes you may need to put certain dates on, like 50 years old or whatever it might be, or when it has been dug up, in terms of your internal operations. In terms of concept there can actually be no strict date attached although administratively you may have to do it.

  52. If you go to York museum—I think it is called the City Museum—there are large numbers of objects there, washing machines and so on which we used to have in our house. May I switch to a slightly more serious area? I cannot disappoint the Chairman by not raising computers at least once. Now we have this modern technology, websites, Internet and all the rest of it, does where a particular object is matter? I accept the religious cultural point of view but for other objects does it matter, when any student from anywhere in the world can study it if people are prepared to spend some time putting it on the website?
  (Mr Taylor) Yes.

  53. It still matters.
  (Mr Taylor) Absolutely it matters. Of course the Internet and such things offer huge potential for bringing information and enlightenment to people who could not go to see the object, but there is nothing quite as good as seeing and feeling the objects yourself. It is what museums do and people get an enormous amount from seeing the real objects, otherwise there would never be cultural tourism and they could probably look at some glorified animated version and never go to these places.

  Chairman: That was the answer to your question in the libraries inquiry last week when you asked the people of the British Library whether we need books when we can read it all on the Internet. So you have been squashed twice.

Mr Maxton

  54. I would accept that but within certain limitations. It certainly would not be true of the domestic objects which are displayed for instance in the York Museum that you actually have to go to see them in order to get the best from them. You can see those just as well—
  (Mr Taylor) You do to get the best. To get the best you have to go to see it.
  (Dr Davies) We have always had reproductions of objects, ever since popular prints in the nineteenth century. We have always had books of the paintings in the National Gallery but numbers visiting the National Gallery to see the real things go up and up and the demands for repatriation seem to me to indicate that to a lot of people the physical location of an object really does matter. People would not put all that energy and personal time and commitment into making repatriation claims if they did not really think it was important that the object did move. To a lot of people it obviously does matter.

  55. For things like the Elgin Marbles returning them to their original situation is different. Where there is a clear religious or cultural desire, because in many cases it is part of rebuilding their identity, that is important. Other objects? To be honest, if I go round a museum, the explanations of a particular object are not necessarily particularly full. I am on my feet and I am walking therefore I do not want to spend a long time standing at one particular object reading what it says, even if it is a full explanation. If I look at it on the website I get much more information, I can go round it, I can look at other objects which are linked to it. I suppose it comes down to the question of whether a museum is there to conserve the past or a museum is there to educate people in the present about the past.
  (Mr Taylor) With respect, it is quite easy for you to say you could have access on the Internet to those very interesting pieces from Nigeria, but perhaps the people in Nigeria have first call on them and they have less access to the Internet.

  56. That is what I am saying in a sense. Why can we not return them and ensure that we have the same ability to look at them because we can see them.
  (Mr Taylor) In some cases we can, providing we approach it in a logical and orderly manner. That is possible in some cases.

  57. Therefore should we not at least be spending a fair amount of money developing our information about all the objects we hold in museums?
  (Dr Davies) Absolutely.
  (Mr Taylor) Yes.
  (Mr Hebditch) Yes.

  58. Lottery funding for that?
  (Dr Davies) There is some, some New Opportunities Fund money. We have not really yet seen a kind of completely coherent strategy but that is what the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council has been created for, to make sure that happens; that is the one thing it has to do.

  59. What about our older museums, for instance the regimental museums presumably must hold large amounts of objects which have been looted from around the world during the period of imperialism? Are they part of your association?
  (Dr Davies) Yes.

2   Note by Witness: It is in fact the Salisbury Hoard. Back

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