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Antiquities & Archaeology

Souren Melikian on collectors coming to the rescue in preservation crisis: The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art's London Conference

The scholar of Iranian culture and International Herald Tribune art journalist says dealers could be the solution to recent archaeological disasters

I would like to stress the contradictory nature of, to me, two equally cogent necessities. One is the importance of collecting and the other is the importance of preserving the buried treasure of history in its unwritten form — the history that precedes the texts of early civilisations, and even history at the time when the great ancient civilisations started to write it down.

We all know that in order to know a work of art, one has to live with it. If you walk into a museum, as we all have done — as I did from the age of ten — and gaze at a bronze deferentially, you raise your hat to it or you broaden your store of information, visual and historical, but you do not really get to know it even in visual terms — perhaps above all in visual terms. For that you need the right mood; you need different lights; you need to handle the work.

I would further suggest that the hunt for an object develops reactions, encourages a liberty of judgement as well as a promptness in searching and comparing that often gives the collecting and dealing world such a tremendous edge over a academe when it comes to seeing.

May I add as a footnote that museums can be incredibly destructive. I have been in many museum stores, and I have seen even the most famous museums damage, sometimes destroy objects. The private collector is often more protective of his pieces.

Having said all these nice things about collecting, we must now consider the other side of the coin, which is a degree of destruction in certain areas of the world that even the most informed antiquity dealers and collectors do not always consider.

I would like to stress that the nature and the intensity of the problems vary enormously depending on which part of the world is involved. In the Iranian world, mainly Afghanistan, the extent of the destruction caused by plunder exceeds even what was witnessed in China between the two world wars. Take the example of Luristan bronzes, bronzes excavated in the western province of Iran that borders on Iraq.

It was more than forty years before the first bronzes were found in Luristan in controlled excavations.

As a result of the extraordinary havoc wrought there and of the very limited excavations that took place, fundamental questions of cultural history that are of concern to everyone, not just those who busy themselves with the history of Iran, cannot be answered. Who were the early bronze masters of the third millennium BC in Luristan? We now know that the introductory period was spread over a very considerable period of time. Who were the bronze makers of the intermediary period, probably in the second half of the second millennium BC or the first two centuries of the first millennium? We are not quite sure. How does this art relate to the clandestine finds further north, the so-called "Ziwiye hoard", a confused mix of objects, some of which may have been found together, but only some, not all? And how does this art eventually merge into the Iranian flow as it comes closer and closer to the Achaemenid period?

A great deal more would be clear if we had had some decent excavations, but above all if there had not been that gigantic plundering which probably projected onto the Western market some 60,000 to 80,000 unprovenanced pieces. That was a disaster.

There have been many more. Some fifteen years ago a huge shrine-temple complex was destroyed in the province of Gilan and about fifty silver and silver-gilt rhyta (as animal-shaped pouring vessels and drinking horns are called in the West, using the Greek word to describe an Iranian reality, the name and meaning of which I have recently shown using early Persian sources) probably of the Parthian period — we have to qualify every statement we make — were discovered. I happen to have seen several of them in a place in the West that I will not disclose while they were on their way to New World museums, where some are now described as "Hellenistic". Here we have the complete absurdity of this very un-Greek item being presented as "Hellenistic" because superficial elements of Greek decoration appear, albeit in modified form; by that standard, Dürer becomes an Italian artist.

We have lost virtually everything except for the objects themselves. I happen to know about the find, not in a way that I could prove in a court of law, but all of us, dealers, collectors and art historians, know that there are certain things we cannot ignore even though we could not prove them and therefore publish them. The site was deliberately blown up.

One last catastrophe, a very recent one. A huge rock cave was identified on the border of Iraq and Iran within the last decade. I will not specify the date for all kinds of reasons. It could only be reached by using mountaineering techniques. Before the team that had been sent by the government from Tehran could arrive at Kalaman Gharre, that also was blown up and perhaps as many as 200 vessels of silver which hold the key to the emergence of Achaemenid art in the southern part of the Iranian world came to light. Several are inscribed with the names of kings (and, no, they are not forgeries). Many have been knocking about here in London. Others crossed the Atlantic. They are now in well known collections and eventually will be donated to this or that museum that will find it completely respectable.

The havoc, far from decreasing, grows. Technological developments over the last ten years coupled with the systematic exploitation of peasants who are poor, sometimes half starved, by corrupt governments or officials, mean that the world heritage is threatened as never before. There is all the difference between the Italian village that exploits a site by digging up a few pieces now and then, and metal-detecting groups of forty individuals arriving in an area, then blowing up everything for speed and sweeping up the debris.

What can we do to reconcile this with the necessity I mentioned earlier for collecting to be possible?

The great paradox is that if the world's antiquities were being dug up slowly under the supervision of archaeologists, all the museums in the world would not be big enough to hold one twentieth of what would emerge. Those of you who have never seen a site destroyed by plunderers have no idea of the amount that gets destroyed. I would say roughly that what comes out of a commercial dig is between five and ten per cent of what was to be found, without even considering the destruction of the documentation, which is, of course, a catastrophe.

Can it be stopped? I am a great cynic when it comes to international organisations. I do not believe that with the best will and the best planning any international organisation can ever be prompt enough and efficient enough. It seems to me that the most urgent thing is for the international community to agree publicly to a few basic guidelines that could then favour or prompt bilateral agreements between States. It should, for example, be understood that objects known throughout the dealing community to have come out of a site destroyed by dynamite or bulldozers should on no account be considered legitimate. There is a line to be drawn and I cannot believe that dealers or collectors would disagree that objects must not be destroyed.

Let us agree that institutions should undertake not to buy, not to accept as donations, not to accept as bequests, objects which cannot be proved to have been in private possession outside their country of origin before the date of the international agreement, whether such an agreement gets signed this year, or the year after or in 2000.

Let us agree also that as poverty is a fundamental element in the plunder of antiquities, an international fund should be provided, perhaps run by dealers, perhaps run by some sort of board that would include dealers, collectors, a couple of art market analysts; in any case, a board consisting of people who actually know what they are talking about, not people who are holding forth from some pedestal without actually knowing the reality of the market. This board should act as a court of arbitration on whether goods of obvious importance are of legitimate or illegitimate provenance.

One last thing. I do believe strongly that any objects that can be proved to have been removed from places of worship, whether they be Hindu bronzes taken from temples, or Islamic Kashan tiles from an Iranian mosque, or a tomb effigy from an English church, should not be traded. Wherever they are now, it should be possible for the institutions (churches, mosques, temples) to request the arbitration of an international court to help them negotiate the return of the items. Financial compensation would be fully provided for bona fide buyers or private owners. But the return of religious objects must be possible and that of architectural fragments, whether stone, wooden doors, or tile revetments should be guaranteed. There are few insults to another culture and another faith more coldly arrogant than the ripping up of their monuments or symbols of worship.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A degree of destruction unprecedented in the history of the world - and yet I support collecting'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 52 October 1995