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 At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?

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nordmann
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PostSubject: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 09:27

The theft on June the first of a medieval Christian artefact from a relatively small church in Ireland highlights a rather larger issue.

The bronze Shrine of St Manchan which, though slightly damaged before its eventual preservation as an object both of veneration and cultural significance, was in artistic terms a fine example of the hybrid Gaelic and Viking culture which developed in the early medieval period. As long ago as 1880 this dual significance was recognised enough to have merited that it go "on tour", the artefact being displayed in churches and museums in the UK and France. In recent times it acquired some extra protection in the form of an alarmed glass case and a video camera, though it seems to have been the relative isolation of Boher Church which prompted the thieves to ignore these measures - and at the moment of writing with apparent justification on their part, at least in mercenary terms. The artefact has as yet not been recovered.

This of course is by no means an isolated case of theft with a view to selling to private collectors (and I am surmising that this was the main motive), even of Christian venerational artefacts, and the practise in general even has an almost venerable history of its own, back to Cassius's infamous looting of Rhodes and beyond.

Whether St Manchan's Shrine is recovered or not (and one sincerely hopes that it is) the authorities - both ecclesiastical and state - who had organised the circumstances of its preservation will be forced (one also hopes) into reviewing the wisdom of entrusting items of such immense cultural and heritage value to establishments which are no longer in a position to protect them. As society has moved on in Ireland a decline in the previously adequate protection offered by religion-inspired respect for an artefact's safety as well as a huge increase in the prevalence in, sophistication of, and profit to be gained from such activity have led to a situation where some urgent reassessment of many such artefacts currently on public view in this way can continue for much longer.

The tipping point in deciding the current fate of this bronze shrine, as it has been for many artefacts in the past in all cultures, seems to have been when the monetary value exceeded in importance to those outside its value to the community which hitherto had protected it. Means and opportunity to deprive them of their artefact is then not long in being found. The solution has been to transfer custodianship from the community of the artefact's origin to authorities and facilities dedicated to preserving things for their historical worth. Everything we see in a museum had a significance and context once far removed from that which it has now. If St Manchan's Shrine is recovered then there is little doubt that this will be its fate too.

Which begs the question; at what point, if ever, should a pre-emptive policy of that sort be introduced? It would appear that waiting for a particular cultural significance and context to naturally diminish and die out is a guaranteed way of losing such artefacts completely and that without such a policy we therefore lose huge and important vestiges of our own heritage.

Or would such a policy be almost Stalinist in its approach as it would oblige communities to give up important symbols of their identity to another authority whose attitude towards that artefact must, by definition, be far removed from their own?
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 09:46

Another question is what sort of effect would losing such objects, whether by theft or to a centralised institution, have on the local economy.

PS, I hope it has not just been stolen for it's scrap value.
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 10:02

It can sometimes have significant impact of that nature, an aspect which highlights its monetary worth, though in this case a revenue derived from "having" the artefact within a particular context and location. This worth however can often be transferred to a broader cultural context - the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice being prime examples in Ireland of such transfer where they now play a major role in acquiring tourist revenues nationally. The Shrine of St Manchan would never be in that league. However it is also increasingly obvious that entrusting them to local protection, whatever local revenues they might generate, is no longer a guarantee of their safety.

In any case this is all increasingly irrelevant in mercenary terms to an artefact's worth in itself, even as a generator of local revenue, as its worth as stolen goods to be sold to the highest unscrupulous bidder. If it becomes more difficult and expensive to expropriate them (as it has done so in Ireland and many other countries over the years) then this simply pushes their value up on the international antiquities black market. Despite such measures the incidence and audacity of these thefts is currently growing exponentially.

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PS, I hope it has not just been stolen for it's scrap value.
PS: One hopes not - its value as a lump of bronze however is negligible. Though these days such inordinate (and often vicious) audacity on the part of thieves for such little return cannot be ruled out either.

There is also the fear that criminals find belatedly that they are operating out of their own league when dealing with such items and simply destroy them for scrap on that basis alone.


Last edited by nordmann on Sat 02 Jun 2012, 10:28; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 10:26

Are you not rehearsing the Elgin Marbles argument here? The question of secure preservation as against retention in context applies to just about everything, from a building to a small and portable artefact, that relies largely on its setting for its significance to be enhanced and appreciated. The danger of theft for monetary value is not that different, as a risk, to the possibility of damage from environmental conditions or from physical contact with the public and the decisions made will always be contentious. It is taken to the extreme in archaeological excavation where the fundamental principle is preservation by record.
Personally, I veer towards the opinion that where the thing, whatever it is, derives much of its significance from its context then the risk is worth taking, technology allows us to such superb recording techniques now, rather than it being isolated and decontextualised elsewhere; an historical robin in a cage.
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 10:39

Well, it depends on the artefact. What we are talking about now are items whose handy size and lack of adequate protection means they can be easily stolen, not quite the looting of artefacts on the scale once inflicted on, for example, Egypt and Greece in the 19th century, when even entire structures were moved at great expense and under a dubious legality decided by imperial powers. Furthermore many of these artefacts, though ending up in private hands, swiftly found themselves as donations to national collections as the politics and economy of acquisition changed.

At this moment there is no such reprieve foreseeable for smaller artefacts with increasingly huge saleable values, as appears to be the case with St Manchan's Shrine. It is how these should be protected in the context of a world where realising their saleable value as illegally traded goods is becoming easier which is at the brunt of my question.
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 11:02

Yes but what, realistically, are the possibilities?
Take them into public ownership, pay compensation and then store the majority in a back room out of sight somewhere? Financially this doesn't look feasible so will they be compulsorily removed without full recompense? you might get away with that with religious artefacts in the hands of a state sponsored church but those in the hands of private and influential but not necessarily wealthy individuals? Provide replicas for display in their original setting? Provide official security measures? Treat these items as ivory is now meant to be treated and place an embargo on the sale of artefacts and stoke up the black market?
Certainly some items do not require to remain in context to be appreciated and understood but some become orphaned when out of place and move from being significant and meaningful historical objects to just (just!) works of art.
I don't deny the problem but I fear that, like the Art market in general, we're seeing the results of capitalism red in tooth and claw.
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 11:14

I tend to agree with all of this - and it is indeed very gloomy. Investment in regional museums, heritage centres and heritage education in general would go a long way towards encouraging voluntary donation of such artefacts to establishments which could exhibit them with some retention of their contextual importance. In the case of artefacts already owned by the state in Ireland part of this process has already become more commonplace. Though I have many reservations about the haphazard way in which it has developed and been implemented it has undoubtedly protected many of these pieces already. However in the case of privately owned artefacts - and especially those in church care - there is no great indication that voluntary donation has increased from levels before this particular type of crime became commonplace. In fact I believe the level is much lower than a hundred years ago when bequeathments to the state often included such items acquired during British imperial times.
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 11:48

Another problem is, even the best museums and collections are being increasingly raided too. You may have heard about the number of thefts of Chinese artefacts in the UK, particularly those from the Fitzwilliam and from Durham University recently. These cannot be divorced from the soaring market in the Far East for these kinds of items, there was an interesting TV prog. about this a little while ago: eyewatering amounts of money are available and when allied to a resurgence of interest in national identity and heritage, it's a free for all.

It's all too depressing especially in the present financial climate. When the aristocracy or the plutocracy can hold the country to ransom by threatening to sell off their treasures and extract many millions that way, one almost has sympathy for the honest thief.
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sat 02 Jun 2012, 16:26

The theft of religious artifacts and icons from churches and monasteries for the foreign and local black markets has been a problem in Greece for decades. In some cases even a few of the clergy have been known to be involved, the church has lost much credibility and respect over it, in particular for their shady and unscrupulous antics in Jerusalem.

Even so, I do agree with ferval, an artifact should still remain in it's own context and where it has the most value (not necessarily monetary) and significance.
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sun 03 Jun 2012, 08:48

@nordmann wrote:
Which begs the question; at what point, if ever, should a pre-emptive policy of that sort be introduced? It would appear that waiting for a particular cultural significance and context to naturally diminish and die out is a guaranteed way of losing such artefacts completely and that without such a policy we therefore lose huge and important vestiges of our own heritage.

Could it also be argued that the theft of an artifact is also a part of its history and that of the community to which it belongs?
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sun 03 Jun 2012, 10:38

Of course, and history is replete with cultures whose heritage has been destroyed or forgotten, the few artefacts remaining from them (often due to looting as part of that process) now so long out of context and missing any frames of reference for deducing their actual historical meaning that they are solely graphic representations of how such activity adds to our reservoir of ignorance, not knowledge.

So yes - theft can be a part of their history - both of the artefact and of the community which created it, but at the expense of understanding their earlier history. The more that is forcibly removed from its context without due regard to understanding that context first the more history is lost to us.
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sun 03 Jun 2012, 11:57

On the other hand though, there are ways in which that biography of an artefact, the hands it has passed through and the way it has been regarded and reinvented over time, can be almost more important to our understanding of history as a process than the artefact itself.
The, say, Greek statue in its original setting is a wonderful thing but if it has arrived in a western museum after an eventful life, it says so much about the values, politics, power relations and social organisation of those different people and societies who have had custody of it. We may mourn, I certainly do, the melting down of all that Inca gold but perhaps its ultimate significance lies more in its economic impact in Europe than its in its ability to elucidate Inca culture. History can't be 'good' or 'bad', it just is History.
Of course, if the artefact ends up in the underground vault of the archetypal mad collector then this is hardly a good thing nor of benefit to scholarship but at least it's safe and will probably reemerge at some time.

There's an interesting book called 'The Secret Life of Buildings' and the final paragraph of the chapter on the Parthenon struck me as thought provoking.
Quote :
One day, all that will be left of the Parthenon will be fragments imprisoned in museums; copies by the banks of the Mississippi, the Kelaniya, the Forth or the Danube; the drawings of Stuart and Revett; millions of fading photographs and hundreds of written eulogies, from Thucydides's to this one.
Then, liberated from physical being, the Parthenon will have become nothing but an idea, and at last it will be perfect.

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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sun 03 Jun 2012, 12:16

The Parthenon was lucky. Only chunks of it could be stolen, and even then such removals were recorded sufficiently for provenance to be pretty much held intact for the entire structure. If, in the end, it achieves perfection as an idea having at last been divested of its physical being, then we are still left with a very detailed history of the entire process.

But compare that to, say, individual contemporary Greek statuary which was removed in antiquity - principally by Romans, who were rather remiss about saying where they came from or even what they represented when in context (or crucially, what they changed when they copied them). This leaves us with glaring gaps in our knowledge filled with educated guesswork when we attempt to assess the true original context of many of these relics, despite the fact that thousands of such relics exist today, and some only because they were looted in their history. From them we learn much more about Roman history than Greek, at least through evidential deduction.

When all relics are unprotected, and therefore as prone as Greek statuary once was to be removed from original context, then history of their origin is obfuscated, not enhanced, even though their subsequent history might well be colourful and informative about the looters' culture. If we are in a position to protect them when in that original context, should we not?
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sun 03 Jun 2012, 12:44

Of course we should, and current legislation is sometimes going that way, not just with individual artefacts and sites but with wider landscapes which are possibly even more important, but as always there's a nexus of values, politics and financial implications impacting on these decisions. There's the truism, that is actually true, that archaeology and history are always political and I'm afraid that, until those of us who care about these things and do so beyond simple tourism value and insidious national identity promotion, have a voice that is influential, nothing will be achieved.

I'm currently interested in the decisions that have been made here with regard to the preservation and promotion of archaeological remains, in particular to the establishment of the Central Scotland Forest which lies across the central belt and encompasses the heartland of the 18, 19, 20th c. industrial belt. It is striking that, in the North, the deserted townships of the Clearances are preserved, often scheduled and presented as icons of Scotland and its past: those in the centre have been largely ploughed over and planted in the name of environmental improvement despite being far more relevant to the history of the population today. What exactly is going on here?
I'd be interested in folks' thoughts about the situation where they are. I've read a little about Ireland, o'Sullivan, Ronayne and Cooney for example, but those articles are about 10 years old now, and since it's clearly an ongoing issue there, I'd appreciate any pointers to good up to date stuff - that's aimed at you of course Nordy baby!
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sun 03 Jun 2012, 16:31

I'm not sure what to make of this one;

http://now.msn.com/living/0601-holocaust-survivor-tablet
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PostSubject: Re: At what point does historical worth exceed monetary worth?   Sun 03 Jun 2012, 16:55

I can think of no good reason why a legal precedent should be established whereby the estate of the receiver of stolen goods be allowed hold on to those goods as the receiver had acquired them when undergoing a traumatically difficult experience.

In the case of very ancient artefacts stolen from a public museum it is even more imperative that they be returned to their last legal owner, as this returns them into a system whereby they are available for future research - not to mention displayable to the public in a manner which best translates their true historical value.

In this particular case I would think the best course of action is for the museum in Berlin to turn a blind eye to whatever illegality might have occurred in the past - especially that past - and find a way to display public gratitude to Herr Flamenbaum for having obviously looked after the artefact so well over the years. The story of the artefact's more recent years is worthy of historical commemoration too.

If the family are now simply trying to profit financially from it however then let the law take its full course.
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