Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Documents and Looting

Attention to the illicit trade in stolen antiquities has been growing, partly stimulated by the looting of the Iraqi museums and the efforts to make amends for the artwork and other collections taken from Holocaust victims by the Nazis during the Second World War. Many of the recent accounts of the state of this trade revolve around documentation maintained by both the criminals trafficking in the trade and some museums knowingly acquiring objects of questionable value. A recent example is the book, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), ISBN-13:978-1-58648-402-6, by Peter Watson, an investigative journalist, and Cecilia Todeschini, a media researcher and translator, focused on the illegal trade of art and archeological treasures from Italy.

Throughout this book are references to documents generated by those dealing in artifacts stolen from archaeological sites or somehow illicitly acquired via thefts from museums or the holdings of individual collectors. The dealers and thieves (sometimes one and the same) chronicled in this book were meticulous in their own documentation, producing photographs of the items they were dealing, sometimes taken on the archaeological sites or revealing dirt and debris suggesting their recent, often hurried, removal from the site. While the files could never be compared to the records maintained by museum curators, there was often the same effort to capture detail of provenance (ironically, the critical piece of evidence the museums often would ignore or fudge), costs, locations, and other similar facts. Even the investigators, on the trail of the looters, are depicted as having “obsessive” personalities, ones that providing the “exacting attention to detail required to trace the hidden links among letters, invoices, and photographs. . .” (p. 66).

This is a book suggesting a commonly revealed fact, that people or institutions involved in great deception or heinous activities often leave immense documentary traces of these activities. Auction galleries and museum staffs now include specialists dedicated to investigating gaps in provenance associated with art and artifacts, and they are often busy with their assignments. Watson and his co-author still place blame on many of the leading museums, what he calls “rogue museums,” for inspiring the circumstances firing up the factors inspiring the looting: “It is the demand for ancient objects that begins with them [the museums willing to look the other way or to associate with suspicious agents], that induces collectors to acquire objects they can subsequently donate to museums, either for social advancement or for tax breaks” (p. 325).

Such studies as this provide two lessons for professionals like archivists. First, they demonstrate the importance of documents. Thieves and nefarious dealers and curators often maintain records for their own devious purposes, forge them when it suits their purposes, or ignore legitimate documentary materials if they work against their aims. Second, this account suggests the power of money and the collecting impulse that needs to be studied in the international trade in archival documents. There has been little scholarship here, except with the recent upswing in the history of forgery, and there has been little evidence of real interest by archivists, manuscript curators, and others associated with these professionals to study the ethical and legal implications of the marketplace on their acquisitions.