COMMENT: I have serious concerns about the new report published by the University of Portsmouth’s School of Law on the UK’s antique trade in ivory.
The Elephant in the Sale Room, as it is titled, is an exercise in futility. The real ‘Elephant in the Room’ here is the study’s vast shortcomings, rendering any solid conclusions at best misguided, at worst dangerous.
First, let’s take the statistics. There are two measures to consider here: margin of error and confidence in accurate results.
Statistically, to be 95% confident that the answers were an accurate reflection of the whole population – in this case the UK art and antiques market – while allowing for a margin of error of plus or minus 4% in the spread of answers – the standard for such studies – the sample size for a population of 20,000 should be just under 600, or 3% of the population.
The sample size given here – 80 – is approximately 0.4% of the estimated population. Taken as a percentage of the Antiques Trade Gazette readership of 35,000, which I would see as a more accurate reading of the size of the market, that falls to 0.23% of the population, or just 7.5% of the minimum sample size needed to be confident of reasonably accurate results within a reasonable margin of error.
The sample size used in this case leaves a margin of error that allows you to drive two London buses through side by side.
Now add the fact that only around half of the sample actually answered a number of important questions and it gets worse.
For example, question 13 asked: How many of the following goods, either containing or made entirely from ivory, did you sell in 2015? This garnered a total of 39 replies, or 0.19% of the estimated population, rendering the response all but meaningless.
Questions 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 21 met a similar level of response.
The researchers are struck by the fact that “none of the organisations that we researched had any specific advice on their websites regarding the laws and regulations on the sale of ivory”. The implication of this is that they are complacent or incompetent. However, at this point the report fails to acknowledge that the Government had removed its own advice from the internet because it was so confusing and misleading. If the Government can’t give accurate advice, how are the associations expected to?
The report does finally acknowledge the problem on page 42, where one of the 12 interviews supplementing the survey notes how “confusing” and “unhelpful” DEFRA’s website is on this.
Additional efforts, such as the 2016 CITES panel at the Art Business Conference, and Antiques Trade Gazette’s recent conference, which could have been added as a late footnote, are ignored entirely.
Perhaps most surprising and disturbing was the assumption made on page 25 of the report that the low response rate to the survey pointed to dishonesty among the trade, with dealers being “sometimes secretive regarding [their] commercial activities”, followed by a reference to Stuart Henry’s The Hidden Economy and “illegality” taking place in settings “which (on the surface) seem completely legal and this, in turn, makes participants disinclined to be open about their activities”.
This is staggering in its arrogance and complacency, blaming the failure of this poorly composed exercise on the “dodgy” trade, rather than looking to its own structure, methodology and execution for the true shortcomings.
How is anyone supposed to trust the authors as dispassionate and unbiased in this light?
At least, on the same page, the report goes on to admit: “with such a small sample it is difficult to make strong assumptions about the universe of the antiques trade”. Nevertheless, the report does just that, and unhelpfully too.
Turn to the next page, for instance, and immediately we are told: “The survey results show that some respondents failed to answer all of the survey questions [a huge understatement] suggesting that some questions were maybe too sensitive…”.
Page 32 makes the ‘astonishing’ discovery that auctioneers tend to sell more pieces than dealers, but this is hardly true of just ivory. If even a small-time auctioneer with only a monthly sale of 500 items and a 70% sell-through rate turns over 4200 lots a year, how many dealers could match that?
So does the report meet its three stated objectives?
- To evaluate types of ivory objects being sold in the UK, their source and the buyer’s demographic? (A: To a degree, no and no).
- To understand how traders appraise an item before sale to satisfy themselves whether or not it complies with the law (A: Partially, although until the conclusion on page 52, the report utterly ignores the crucial matter of the costs and time delay of carbon dating tests – recently estimated in parliament as averaging between £500 and £1000 per item).
- To evaluate the effect a total ban on the sale of ivory would have on the British antiques trade (A: Not even close, based on the sample size, response level and demonstrable lack of understanding of key considerations).
The report does make some sound recommendations – not least those to DEFRA – but none that has not already been mooted by the industry without having to resort to the time and expense of this exercise.
It at least acknowledges its own limitations under the first concluding recommendation: “The study highlighted the difficulties in obtaining information from the antiques trade about the nature of their practices regarding the sale of ivory. We would therefore recommend further research…”
Again the trade is blamed, whereas, in my view, the pointlessness of this study as executed is the real cause for complaint. How much did it cost? How could the money have been better spent?
Too much unsubstantiated propaganda is clouding the issue of looted antiquities and ISIL and diverting attention away from the real problems in Syria and Iraq
I have recently agreed to become a policy and media adviser to the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) and have been conducting a similar role with the Antiquities Dealers Association in the UK over the past few months.
I am very interested in antiquities and admire the dedication and scholarship of the wider professional community that surrounds them, from dealers and curators to academics.
However, my chief reason for taking on these roles has been to see what I can do to counter the frankly appalling and inflammatory journalism surrounding antiquities that has arisen out of the Syria and Iraq crisis.
A number of pressure groups have sprung up, seemingly from nowhere, that appear to be well funded and run by people of intelligence. However, it also appears that their main purpose is to blacken the name of the legitimate trade in antiquities in a bid to have the entire global trade shut down.
If that is the case, then they are effectively exploiting the Syrian and Iraqi tragedy in the most cynical and disgraceful manner.
Many media outlets have been complicit in this trend, not just giving over column inches and airtime to what is little more than propaganda, but also happily promoting statistics referring to the value of looted antiquities without once checking their source or validity.
In addition, a multitude of claims that recently looted material from Syria and Iraq is on the open market in London gain credence from being promoted as fact in these articles, when the detail shows far less certainty.
How many arrests so far?
I would like to know exactly how much material has been seized in London and shown to be unequivocally recently looted from ISIL controlled areas. I would also like to know how many arrests have been made in connection with this, especially where they have resulted in charges being brought.
So far I have heard of none and do not know anyone else who has been able to quote a single instance.
One recent BBC article, for instance, referred to “a recent container that was seized here in the UK with a great deal of Syrian looted objects on it”. Further investigation has now revealed that no antiquities were present at all, but the story is out there and the damage done.
In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry offered a $5m reward on September 29 for information that led to the disruption in ISIL’s sale of oil and antiquities.
That was more than two months ago. If the presence of looted antiquities is as widespread in the US as some have argued, why has this reward not been claimed? If it has been, they are keeping the fact quiet.
I have already pointed out, in my earlier blog post, Less box ticking, more research – the survey and statistics crisis, how the bogus $3 billion figure, given as the value of the global trade in looted antiquities, came to prominence.
Articles continue to quote it, while none provides a source for it.
At least one person I have spoken to who is well versed in what has been going on told me that campaigners quote this figure not because they believe it to be true but because it attracts more funding for them if the problem appears bigger than it is.
Exactly who is writing these articles?
Where, it strikes me, media outlets have been equally irresponsible, has been in the lack of clarity surrounding the identity of who is behind many of these articles.
Independent journalists certainly write some of them, but a significant number are the work of campaigners who are self-avowed anti trade.
However, their bylines are presented in the same manner as staff reporters, and while they may add the name of the organisation they work for, I have yet to see a single article that explains what those organisations do.
Because of this, what is effectively the view of a biased pressure group is presented as independent reporting, reinforcing what is often no more than disingenuous propaganda.
Why does all this matter?
Because it diverts attention away from the real problems.
Let’s be clear about this. ISIL/Daesh is a menace and needs to be dealt with. Anyone trading in recently looted antiquities from areas controlled by them or by the Assad regime needs to be stopped and punished.
Let’s be clear, too, that this is also the view of the legitimate trade in London and overseas, none of whom want to be tainted by association with crooks.
The ADA are spending a huge amount of time and effort upgrading not just their code of conduct, but all of their procedures to ensure all members abide by truly robust due diligence and co-operate with the authorities as required. They are playing a very active role in a number of initiatives from Government level down to tackle the crisis, and are also strengthening ties with the hugely under-resourced Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Squad to see how they can support it.
The IADAA have also embarked on a programme of improvements and proactive protection against wrongdoing.
Both associations recognise the seriousness of the threat not just to the legitimate trade globally, but also to world peace. And both have acted immediately, unprompted.
All-Party Parliamentary Group aims to tackle ISIL/antiquities issue
A new All-Party Parliamentary Group to tackle the ISIL/antiquities issue will be chaired by Lord Renfrew, the pre-eminent anti trade campaigner in the UK over the past two decades and more. He will be joined by Lord Inglewood, the President of the British Art Market Federation, and Victoria Borwick, formerly Fairs Director at Olympia and Deputy Mayor of London, and currently Kensington MP, President of the British Antique Dealers Association and self-proclaimed Westminster champion for the art and antiques industry. It seems a fair balance.
Others from the world of curating and academe will also take part in various roles.
This opportunity for co-operation is a real tonic and one that should not be wasted, and neither should a similar initiative just announced for London by its Mayor, Boris Johnson, which will also involve the legitimate trade.
Another longstanding opponent of the trade in antiquities has been Neil Brodie, now a Senior Research Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow.
To say that leading members of the legitimate trade have been critics of much of what he has had to say over the years would be putting it mildly.
However, he has just published an article, which, to my mind, is the most measured assessment of the ISIL looted antiquities issue I have read. At last we have someone who takes a cold hard look at the real figures and comes to some surprising conclusions.
It is a must-read.
The wider importance of the trade
To round off, I think it is important for people to understand why having a healthy legitimate antiquities trade is important.
William G Pearlstein puts the case eloquently with regard to the United States in his 2013 White Paper: A proposal to reform US law and policy relating to the International exchange of cultural property. His arguments are equally applicable to the United Kingdom and Europe, and shed light on why Germany will be all the poorer for the ill-advised Cultural Property Protection Act it has just passed. This is what he has to say:
“The stakes are high for U.S. museums, private collectors and the art trade as a whole. The United States has thousands of museums and cultural institutions dedicated to research, conservation, and exhibition of art to the public. Almost all U.S. museums depend on donations of artwork by private individuals and institutions to enrich their collections and make their educational mission possible.
“This object-based philanthropy is made possible only by the existence of a private market.
“Overwhelmingly, the ultimate destination of U.S. private collections is public institutions, which receive these collections through charitable donations or bequests. Under the U.S. system in which private donations are the primary source of funding and accession for public institutions, museums cannot perform their obligations to research, conserve, and exhibit artworks without a vigorous art market.
“This public-private partnership has given the United States the finest museum system in the world; this system is at risk from the hostile U.S. legal environment governing the antiquities trade.
“Also at risk are the characteristically American values on which the CPIA was premised: that global access to art, art preservation and uncensored learning and study about art are in the public interest; that these are facilitated by the lawful international exchange of art and antiquities; that museums, scholars, archaeologists, private collectors, dealers, auction houses, and the general public benefit from cultural policies that facilitate the lawful transfer of art and antiquities; and that U.S. cultural life is harmed by laws and policies that do not.”