Headlines, like those above, appeared in the mainstream media, fuelled by a wider backlash against the antiquities trade by archaeological hardliners and anti-trade groups. For those who legitimately buy and sell ancient artefacts, the unwarranted attention has been damaging.
Here, Joanna van der Lande, chairman of the Antiquities Dealers’ Association, discusses the trade’s reputation, why academics should be doing more to defend cultural property, the prospect of an antiquities amnesty and why it will take a lot more than Brexit to knock London off its perch as a key antiquities hub.
It’s been four months since the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill’s third and final reading in the House of Commons in February. What’s been happening since then?
The bill has not come into force yet because of the general election, and we have been told it won’t until September this year at the earliest.
Although we were broadly supportive of the bill, we made it abundantly clear we had issues with it. In particular, Clause 17, which deals with mens rea [standard common law test of criminal liability expressed in the Latin phrase actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, ‘the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty’], and the legal implications of some of the wording.
Those concerns have not changed, although we have been assured by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, the parliamentary under secretary of state who drove the bill, that it only applies to a very small and specific category of objects: namely those “of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people.”
As a result, she assured us they would only expect one or two prosecutions over a 30-year period. It is thanks to Victoria Borwick, president of the BADA and former Conservative MP, that we have that on record.
We have also been working with the Department for Culture, Media & Sport on guidance for the new law and they have been receptive to our concerns about making it clear for the trade. The DCMS have drawn up a list of guidelines, which is being published at the moment, and our hope is that it will come out before the law comes into force.
The relationship between the antiquities trade and academics has been fraught at times. What is being done in the trade and by ADA to strengthen ties?
We are ready more than ever to work constructively with academics, and wherever we can, we work collaboratively with museums. Plenty over the years have been happy to work with us.
But equally, there are others who think we are the devil incarnate and the cause of all the problems and so will simply not discuss the issues with us. Ultimately, the trade and academics need each other – that’s the bottom line. We have slightly different approaches but we all share a common interest in our love of the ancient world.
The sharing of information is beneficial to everybody in protecting vulnerable archaeological sites.
There is a lot of talk about databases [and the lack of access given to the trade to help with provenance checking], and we are trying to break the deadlock there.
I also think in order to move forward we should have an amnesty, where we draw a line under everything not proven to have been stolen, record it and allow it to circulate. To make this workable a realistic date would need to be accepted, perhaps the year 2000, as this is a date the auction world already works to.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges currently facing the antiquities trade and what should be done?
The biggest challenge is public image. We have to continue putting our fairly limited resources into counteracting the effects of the politicisation of cultural heritage and property.
The tragic events in Syria and Iraq have been used to attack the legitimate trade while the wider trade has come under attack over their defence of continuing to trade in antique worked ivory – some of which was worked thousands of years ago.
It is my strongly held opinion that museums and academics should stand up and shout a lot more from the rooftops about the importance of our cultural heritage. They should be more vocal in articulating why cultural heritage is so important and why we should have other cultures represented in our museums.
It is vital that we understand our past. It’s hard not to be in awe of what our ancestors made with the resources available to them. I don’t think enough is made of what a contribution our cultural heritage has had on our civilisation and society.
Not enough recognition is given to the part the trade has played in all of this, the private individuals, collectors and dealers who founded the museums of this country and how beneficial this relationship was and still is.
Could the trade be doing more to ensure looted antiquities are not sold on the open market?
We need to make sure the trade, including those not part of trade bodies, are fully aware of industry practices and expectations, and that there are serious implications if they don’t run a clean ship.
It just takes one dealer [to err] for the whole industry to be blackened even more, so we rely on each other and each other’s best practices.
We have more of an incentive to help prevent criminals looting and smuggling because, however unfairly, it is the legitimate trade that is in the firing line and whose reputation is damaged when this happens.
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Again, academics need to work with us, not against us. If we don’t have access to archives, how can we properly do our full due diligence?
It’s an uncertain time for UK businesses. Do you see the current political climate affecting the trade and London’s place as a key antiquities hub?
London is buzzing and I don’t see that changing. The UK has got the infrastructure, a great and longstanding tradition in collecting antiquities, excellent museums and academics, scientific expertise and wonderful restorers and conservators.
We know how to look after antiquities. Some European dealers after the Brexit referendum have made the decision to have a foothold in London, which is good for us.
Also, Sotheby’s holding successful antiquities auctions in the capital again helps create a positive atmosphere.
Joanna van der Lande CV
Appointed chairman of the Antiquities Dealers’ Association for a second time.
Appointed senior consultant at Bonhams
Self-employed antiquities consultant
Appointed company director of Bonhams New Bond Street
Becomes a member of the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Illicit Trade (ITAP)
Appointed chairman of the Antiquities Dealers’ Association for the first time
Founded the antiquities department at Bonhams, holding the first dedicated antiquities auction a year later
Joins London antiquities dealership Charles Ede as an assistant to James Ede