Walking an ethics tightrope: The business of collecting antiquities

The slack protection of cultural artefacts makes it hard for museums to protect themselves from fraud

I once held a 10,000-year-old pot in my hands. After the initial terror that I'd drop it - never mind the fact that it was reconstructed from shards anyway - there was an ineffable moment of awe and humility.

Some human, long dead, buried and turned to dust, had shaped this object. Other humans had touched it, used it, discarded it. And it had weathered the centuries to finally be carefully retrieved from the earth and lovingly reconstructed in a museum.

The pot was a relic of the Jomon civilisation (10,000 BC - 300 BC), an ancient culture that once thrived in Japan's Aomori province. I had the privilege of a close encounter when I visited the museum and was given an impromptu tour of the laboratory where technicians assembled pottery shards like clay Lego.

The trigger for my memory of the pottery encounter was the recent news about Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum returning a stolen 11th-century bronze sculpture of the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari to India.

The museum had bought the sculpture from New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor's Art Of The Past gallery in 2007 for US$650,000. He was arrested in 2011 and is awaiting trial in India for smuggling looted antiquities worth more than US$100 million (S$139 million).

The Asian Civilisations Museum is not the only one that was taken in by Kapoor's forged provenance papers. The Art Newspaper listed a slew of recent restitutions by museums that had bought items from him and they included Stuttgart's Linden Museum, the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Toledo Museum of Art as well as the National Gallery of Australia.

This scandal has highlighted once more the fraught business of antiquities collecting.

Museums are institutions of learning and preservation. In their role as the bastions of cultural knowledge, they are also held to higher ethical standards of behaviour.

But it is a tricky tightrope to walk - the preservation of cultural heritage, not just for the country, but the whole of humanity, versus the ethics of acquisition.

Iraq's Sulaymaniyah Museum, for example, implemented a no questions asked, buy from smugglers policy in the wake of the 2003 invasion of the country that led to widespread looting of its cultural riches.

One might argue that if you buy from smugglers, you encourage looting. Turn off the money tap and you shut off the impetus for stealing.

But Sulaymaniyah Museum's policy has paid off spectacularly. News broke earlier this month that the museum had bought a clay tablet, part of a US$800 haul from a smuggler, that added 20 new lines to The Epic Of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest narratives in the world, composed in the time of the Babylonian empire.

You can watch a video of curator Hazha Jalal with the tablet on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=tl1zlHJnpKc) and read about the find at the History Blog (www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/215/09/jcunestd.660069_w-footer.pdf).

I am not, I hasten to add, advocating the purchase of illegally obtained objects. But the Sulaymaniyah Museum's policy highlights the untenable position of museums as the sole defenders of cultural heritage in an anarchic world.

In a perfect scenario, the Sulaymaniyah Museum and its experts would have all the time in the world to carefully excavate, annotate and preserve archaeological remains.

But in a war zone where relics are seen as booty and just another source of income, the museum's policy of buying from smugglers is simply a practical, last-resort response to keeping artefacts in the country

for study rather than see them disappearing across borders into the hands of private collectors who may not understand their true value, or share them with the world.

But this case is an extreme example of how the preservation of cultural heritage is not just the responsibility of a few hallowed, underfunded, overworked academic institutions. Countries too need to take responsibility for protecting their cultural artefacts and monuments. By the time they have to hound buyers to return stolen pieces, it is already too late, in my book.

In the case of the Uma statue, the Asian Civilisations Museum is to be lauded for returning it despite spending money to acquire it. It is as much a victim of Kapoor's fraud as the state of India is a victim of looting.

The scale of Kapoor's operation and the impunity with which he has conducted his illegal business for so long is indicative of the lack of enforcement at the source.

India is rich with heritage, but poverty and lack of dedicated enforcement and protection resources mean that its cultural treasures are easy pickings for unscrupulous thieves, or simply poverty-stricken villagers.

In a famous incident in 2000, three women from a small village in Uttar Pradesh stumbled onto an urn filled with gold and jewels from the Harappan civilisation. Before the authorities got there, the site had been looted by villagers who were reportedly fighting over gold pieces.

India is not the only country to suffer from looting in peacetime because of the slack protection of cultural monuments.

This issue especially plagues Third World countries where governments, struggling to deal with more urgent issues, have no resources or the will to tackle the looting of art and history.

In South-east Asia, for example, Cambodia's Khmer archaeological sites have long been the target of thieves. In Indonesia, the magnificent Hindu-Buddhist temples of Java have had sculptural heads and entire figures chipped out and smuggled out of the country. Thailand's north-east region, home to the Ban Chiang culture, the earliest known Bronze Age culture in South-east Asia, has also suffered from looting.

There is no short-term cure for this problem. And the long-term solutions have to be multipronged - from governmental intervention in the form of proper legislation and enforcement to grassroots- level action in terms of educating people about heritage and history.

This brings me back, in a roundabout way, to that Jomon pot I held.

In that moment, I appreciated, in the most visceral way, the magnetic appeal of ancient artefacts. To hold history in one's hands is an inexpressibly moving experience, one that connects a person in the most concrete way to another person in the long history of human striving. And that connection is worth every effort at preservation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Walking an ethics tightrope'. Print Edition | Subscribe