Ancient Manuscripts: Some Ethics Questions

1970_logo_wsIn an earlier post, I mentioned some of my concern about the tendency to orient provenance discussions in relation to the year 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Specifically, I described my own problems and hesitations in working with materials that were acquired before 1970. In that context, I commented, that “the 1970 date is a legal marker, not an ethical one.”

I’d like to expand a little bit on that point and offer an example. The 1970 convention stipulates, among other things, that signatories

“recognize that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country’s cultural property against all the dangers resulting therefrom. To this end, the States Parties undertake to oppose such practices with the means at their disposal, and particularly by removing their causes, putting a stop to current practices, and by helping to make the necessary reparations. The import, export or transfer of ownership of cultural property effected contrary to the provisions adopted under this Convention by the States Parties thereto, shall be illicit.”

So, it’s essentially an agreement among nations to enforce each other’s existing cultural property laws. But the “1970” date is not without complications. The convention first went into effect in 1972 (for the nations that had agreed to it by that time).  And many countries did not immediately sign on. The United States, for instance, did not officially accept the treaty until 1983, Australia not until 1989, the United Kingdom not until 2002. And countries continue to sign on even up to the present time (for a chronological list of states that are now party to the convention, see here). All of that to say that “1970” is not an entirely helpful shorthand. My impression of many present discussions of the antiquities trade is that there is a sharp divide between artifacts that appeared on the market after 1970 (generally agreed to be “illicit” or even “illegal”) and those that appeared on the market before 1970 (often assumed to be simply “ok” for collectors to trade and scholars to study). But this would seem to ignore local laws of individual countries that were in effect long before 1970. Do we find this acceptable?

And even though such laws were in force, British, European, and American individuals and institutions that acquired ancient manuscripts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries regularly violated both the spirit and the letter of these laws in ways that range from the subtle to the brazen. An example I would place at the brazen end of the spectrum would be something like the E. A. Wallis Budge’s acquisition of at least part of the famous papyrus of Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, which is now at the British Library (and which I discussed at length in my previous post). If what Budge claims is actually true, then he is essentially celebrating his successful illicit smuggling of this manuscript out of Egypt in 1890 (Budge, By Nile and Tigris, vol. 2, p. 150):

“. . . I took the fragment with me to Luxor. The next question was how to get it to London. It was quite hopeless to expect that the Service of Antiquities would allow it to leave the country, and I did not want to take it with me to Mesopotamia. At length I bought a set of Signor Beato’s wonderful Egyptian photographs, which could be used for exhibition in the Egyptian Galleries of the British Museum, and having cut the papyrus into sections, I placed these at intervals between the photographs, tied them up in some of Madame Beato’s gaudy paper wrappers, and sent the parcel to London by registered book-post. Before I left Egypt a telegram told me that the parcel had arrived safely, and that its contents were exactly what had been hoped for.”

While this export predates the U.K.’s acceptance of the UNESCO convention in 2002 by more than a century, it seems plainly unethical and in violation of local laws of the period. All of this to say that when it comes to the issue of unprovenanced archaeological artifacts, matters are considerably more complicated than simply saying “the object has a documented history outside the country of origin before 1970” and so it is somehow automatically “clean.”


This entry was posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, British Library Aristotle, British Museum, E. A. Wallis Budge. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ancient Manuscripts: Some Ethics Questions

  1. Timothy Joseph says:

    I also find the legal versus ethical argument hairy! Certainly, if it can be established that an artifact was removed from a country of origin in a dubious manner, then regardless of the timeframe involved, usually the artifact should be returned. The usually caveat is reserved for the few times that we can document that the current government/occupiers of the country of origin are committed to destroying such artifacts. The issue of financial expense, purchase price …, by the current institution is often raised as an objection, yet ownership is not ethically tied to possession or expense.
    It seems to me, hence just a thought, that often a working agreement between a current institution and the originating country could be worked out that would allow for display and study of the artifact in its current location with ownership being transferred to the country of origin.

    The ethical response of returning or working with the country of origin seems particularly pressing for institutions associated with the Christian Faith.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s