Thursday, November 20, 2008

Manuscript Machinations II

To the viewers one of the most surprising revelations of the NRK program probably was the extent of scholarly involvement there is in the trade. The point was made that when scholars and academic institutions enter into different forms of collaboration with collectors, and start to research and publish unprovenanced objects, in effect, they legitimize them. Therefore the program questioned why respectable scholars, such as Jens Braarvig, Mark Geller, Dan Levene, Shaul Shaked and others, would publish objects in the Schøyen collection despite their questionable origin.
One of the most interesting parts of the program dealt with how Buddhist manuscripts came into vogue among the collectors, and it was implied that in this respect too scholars had become pawns in the games of the market-makers. The investigators managed to interview a London-based smuggler, who said that when the manuscripts started to come on to the market in 1993 and 1994, there was hardly any demand for them. The situation changed when the British Library acquired a number of manuscripts. When announcing the acquisition, the manuscripts were hailed as a sensational discovery and comparable in significance to the Dead Sea scrolls. The program interviewed Graham Shaw, who is responsible for the Asian collections at the British Library, and who said that the manuscripts were first brought to the Library ‘for advice on conservation’. This sounds like an innocent motive for bringing texts to a library, but in the program it was suggested that the real reason for making this material known to the British Library was more sinister. It may have been a marketing strategy, based on the calculation that an acquisition by such a prestigious institution would stimulate the market. Regardless of whether the British Library was deliberately manipulated or not, the news of its acquisition aroused the interest of collectors. Among the collectors who were now eager to acquire this kind of material was Martin Schøyen, who in 1996 made his first purchase of Buddhist manuscript fragments from Sam Fogg. By 1998 he had bought 10,000 manuscript fragments. When the NRK interviewer suggested to Shaw on screen that the British Library, by its act of acquisition, had stimulated the market and started off a looting campaign, Shaw did not seem very happy. He said he refused to answer such a ‘totally unfair question’, stood up, took off the microphone, and walked off. The program did not give further details on how the manuscripts were acquired by the British Library, but an article in The Art Newspaper reported that '…the scrolls had been sold by Robert Senior, a coin dealer who is currently based in Somerset. The purchase price has never been disclosed, but it has been suggested that the texts were purchased and donated to the library by Neil Kreitman, a specialist in Gandharan art and son of the late Hyman Kreitman, chairman of Tesco supermarkets.' According to this article, the manuscripts are believed to have been looted near Hadda in Afghanistan in 1992. Another article reports that the purchase price was ‘a five-figure sum’. The British Library defended its acquisition by arguing that the manuscripts were in need of urgent conservation work and that the Library wanted to make them ‘available to the international scholarly community’. Clearly there is a moral dilemma when material of great scholarly value but with uncertain provenance is offered on the market. Any scholar may instinctively feel an urge to rescue the material by acquiring it, especially if it comes from a war-torn country where there are no functioning institutions able to take care of it. Yet, in the case of the manuscripts acquired by the British Library, the alleged price throws some doubt on the notion that the British Library saved them. Does not the five-figure price suggest that there were other prospective saviours available and that the Library was in competition with them? Why did the British Library have to compete with them? Which collector, willing to pay a five-figure sum, would have refused to make the material available to scholars? Collectors do not hide away their collections. Collectors want their collections to be studied as it enhances their own social status, as well the collection’s economic value.
Looting will only come to a halt when collectors refuse to purchase unprovenanced material. Of course, even without a market, chance finds would still be made, and it could be argued that if the objects appearing this way were devoid of monetary value they would be destroyed. A case in point would be the above-mentioned Zargaraan manuscripts which started to blow over the countryside after a landslide. Still, any acquisitions of material of great scholarly importance from another country should only be made by, or on behalf of, an internationally-recognized body, with the purpose of keeping the material in trust until conditions permit its return to the country of origin. The only acceptable forms of acquisition are by donation or, if purchase is absolutely necessary, by payment of modest sums that will not spur further looting. Public information about acquisitions has to be worded so as not to stimulate commercial interest in the type of material in question. Acquisitions should not be made by public or private collectors who confuse a desire to enrich their own collections with protecting the world’s cultural heritage, and who directly or indirectly inject large sums of money into the trade.
This truly shocking and excellently produced program made an impact in Norway and abroad. Two days after the broadcast of the first part of the program, Oslo University decided to put a halt to research on the manuscripts. The same day, the Pakistani ambassador to Norway demanded the return of the Gilgit manuscripts to Pakistan. Schøyen, apparently taken aback by the media attention, quickly replied that he agreed to repatriate them, and in March 2005 they were handed over to the Pakistani embassy. He also offered to return the manuscript fragments stolen from the Kabul Museum. However, what he intends to do with the remaining Afghani manuscripts in his possession is uncertain. Afghanistan’s Minister of Culture, Sayyed Raheen, had already in 2003 made a claim for restitution. Schøyen refused to give them back at the time and there is no indication that he has changed his mind since. In view of Schøyen’s indifference to the Afghan request, it might be worth quoting the words of Sayyed Raheen, who was interviewed in the program. Raheen recalled the calamities which had befallen Afghanistan, with 1.5 million dead during 23 years of conflict, and said: ‘I hope everyone will think about the moral duty they have regarding the people of Afghanistan, and I am sure no man with clear mind and heart will take advantage of our disastrous situation.’ As a result of the program, the Afghan government have now also requested the return of the scrolls in the British Library. A spokesman for the British Library has said that ‘the library would be willing to consider a claim’, but the outcome of this consideration is not yet known. UCL has launched an enquiry into the provenance of the magic bowls, though it has not yet reached any conclusions. In March 2005 Braarvig declared he would resign from his position as coordinator of research and publication of the material in the Schøyen collection. In April 2005 the program was awarded a prize for excellence in investigative journalism by the Norwegian Foundation for Investigative Journalism. From the internet. The picture shows an ancient Buddhist carving in Gilgit recently defaced.

As unscrupulous as they can be, without dealers and buyers all these manuscripts would have been used to boil water for tea. My feeling is that it was a mistake returning these priceless Buddhist treasures to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both countries have consistently shown themselves unable and even uninterested in preserving their pre-Islamic heritage.


Anandajoti said...

Dear Venerable,

Although you mention it at the end I don't think you have made it clear that the report over the past two days is not written by you, and perhaps does not represent your own opinion. The original report can be seen here:

Although there are definite moral issues involved and the unregulated trade in antiquities is morally repugnant and can even be damaging to the interest of further research, nevertheless when faced with the ongoing destructive forces in Islam something has to be done to protect our history and culture.

At the end you write, surprisingly mildly: "... Both [Pakistan and Afghanistan] have consistently shown themselves unable and even uninterested in preserving their pre-Islamic heritage." The reality is that the Taliban have shown themselves very willing to destroy every vestige of what they see as paganism, and every effort must be made to preserve the antiquities from their zeal.

Unknown said...

Dear Bhante,

"As unscrupulous as they can be, without dealers and buyers all these manuscripts would have been used to boil water for tea."

Hate to say it, but I have to totally agree with you on this. Let the Nagas have it until the people are ready (if they ever will be) !

With metta