COMMENT: A perceived lack of regulation, the rise of art as an alternative asset class and conflict in the Middle East present a triple whammy for an unprepared art market. What has happened to the market? And what must happen now?
The international trade in antiquities has been the focus of sustained criticism over the past few years as a result of the wars in Syria and Iraq. Anti-trade campaigners – academics, archaeologists, politicians and others – who have been trying to shut down the legitimate trade for years, have seized this opportunity to lobby hard for new regulation, ever-tighter restrictions on trade and more draconian punishments for even slight infringements. There have been calls for the private ownership of antiquities to be made socially unacceptable.
The dissemination of biased or badly conducted research and questionable relationships with the media, much of which appears complicit, or at least complacent, has not helped. This is part of the widely recognised ‘fake news’ issue, as 24-hour rolling reporting combined with declining resources within the media – particularly in the press – rob journalists of the opportunity to investigate in any depth or check facts. This makes them increasingly vulnerable to unscrupulous interests that want to present propaganda as news. Outlandish figures relating to the size of the problem of looted material coming out of Syria, for instance, have been widely accepted as utterly unfounded by all sides in the debate for some time now, yet continue to be peddled by a number of quite prominent sources.
This has led to criticism from anti-trade campaigners themselves. Dr Neil Brodie’s article for the European Union National Institutes for Culture, says the propagandists exaggerate the problem to attract government attention and more funding. This leads to inappropriate policy, which in turn damages the very nations and cultural heritage institutions they seek to protect.
Even government research and publications, in the US, Germany and elsewhere fall short of the standards that should be expected. Recently, Homeland Security Today, the news and views website for the eponymous US department, published my critique of Homeland Security’s report last October, Cash to Chaos, dismantling ISIS’ financial infrastructure.
The report’s small section on antiquities was riddled with inaccuracies, the footnotes quoting out-of-date and long-discredited media articles as primary sources of evidence to support the claims. In some cases, the reports mentioned in the footnotes did not contain any of the evidence referred to at all. If this can happen with Homeland Security, whose report was leapt on by campaigners as further proof of the antiquities problem, who else can be trusted?
Many of those who want to see an end to any trade, legitimate or not, dedicate most of their working lives to this cause. They tend to be very well funded and organised, and have the ear of governments, law enforcement and NGOs, which do not appear to appreciate the distinction between those who trade lawfully and those who do not.
The effectiveness of these campaigners is not to be underestimated, especially as the antiquities sector in particular and the art market in general have been woefully unprepared to tackle such unrelenting criticism.
All of this is not helped by the perception that the wider art market is fairly lawless. True, it is not directly regulated in the way that finance, health, insurance and the law are, but there is direct regulation, and plenty of it (see the British Art Market Federation’s list of regulation. A dealer’s liability under the new Cultural Property [Armed Conflicts] Bill is a case in point: potentially, they can be jailed for up to seven years for even unintentionally breaking the law.
How it all changed in 2008
What the art market has failed to understand until quite recently is that everything changed in 2008. When the markets crashed and pulled the rug out from under gilts and bonds, those traditional safe havens of wealth, the relative risk of art as a store of value diminished, making it much more attractive as an alternative asset class. The banks and wealth managers started to advise clients to diversify their portfolios.
Where money heads, attention follows – and not just from investors. Regulators, governments and criminals also turned their gaze on the art market as a significant influx of cash created the potential for money laundering, market manipulation and other undesirable activities. Transparency became the buzzword of any discussion about the market, but transparency is just the outward manifestation of the real problem: lack of trust.
The market generally was unused to such scrutiny and ill equipped for what it would mean: media attacks, tighter controls, new laws and wider attempts at regulation. Many continue bury their heads in the sand, but others have realised they must act now to build confidence with the authorities and public before it is too late.
Despite this, most have still not accepted that such a programme requires a significant investment of money and time, the sort of commitment on which the other side in the debate has long been able to rely.
Against this background, and the emerging Syrian conflict, the antiquities trade found itself in the front line. What makes life even harder for the trade is the role antiquities now play in international diplomacy. Nation states are using cultural property or heritage as a political tool in negotiations, to curry favour with other countries or to burnish their credentials as virtuous campaigners for the greater good.
The trade fights back
Around two years ago, the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in the UK and then the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) recognised that they needed to fight back. As such, they realised they must revisit their own codes of conduct and improve procedures and methods of communication, whether via their websites, direct mail, PR and media opportunities or their relationships with the various authorities.
They have been very effective in doing so, leading the way in raising wider art market standards – as parliament has recognised – and shaping debate with lawmakers, law enforcement and the media at national and international levels.
Their success can be attributed in part to their thorough research and presentation of arguments supported by independently verifiable evidence, in part to the dedication of their representatives, and in part to the fact that the anti-trade campaigners have not been used to having their propaganda challenged and so are sometimes inattentive when it comes to detail.
Nonetheless, rich and powerful anti-trade interests – supported by countries such as Egypt that wish to reclaim their cultural property, regardless of whether it now rightly belongs to others – have persuaded governments to introduce major changes in the law in Germany, the UK and the United States, laws introduced as a result of mistaken views of where problems lie.
The rather less well-funded antiquities trade is fighting an effective rear-guard action, but very much against the odds. What the trade does have is a network of knowledgeable experts, a sophisticated strategy and a wealth of evidence and data to support its case; it is also getting better organised, with disparate groups in the USA coming together to fight for better understanding and a fairer deal. It needs better financial and strategic support as the trade improves its own relationships with decision-makers further and continues to fight for recognition in national and international debate.
Trade organisations have already tried to engage with their fiercest critics, but the signs so far are that campaigners have no intention of giving any ground. I can understand this: they have had unrivalled success so far and can’t see any reason to compromise. It is clear that many simply believe that any trade whatsoever means providing cover for the crooks. What may surprise them is that legitimate trade is the arch-enemy of the crooks, as criminal activity damages the reputation of those who trade lawfully.
The wider art market needs to wake up fully to its challenges, as demonstrated so clearly already in the microcosm of the antiquities market. That means better self-in the form of codes of conduct, ethical behaviour and transparency, as well as a more effective public charm offensive, with the trade associations taking a prominent role.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of the RICS property Journal