JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 49 to 58)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 49 to 58)




It should be pointed out that for the purposes of this discussion the term “treatment” is used in its broadest sense, to encompass all activities or work that a conservator may undertake on an artifact. Thus it includes not only active treatment, such as cleaning, desalination, consolidation, and restoration but also technical studies and authentication.

Any work undertaken by a conservator can alter an artifact in ways that can have serious implications for the antiquities trade. Elia (1995, 249) refers to conservation work as being “the final stage in the laundering process which transforms looted antiquities into art commodities: objects go in dirty, corroded, and broken, and come out clean, shiny, and whole.” In this way, conservation work can clearly enhance the value of an artifact. Even the simplest of conservation techniques, such as mechanical cleaning, can easily alter its appearance. Although they may be unsightly, dirt and other accretions can contain important scientific evidence, such as how an artifact was made or used. They can also contain vital information for identifying or proving or disproving its provenance (Monastersky 1990; O'Keefe 1995). Thus cleaning—the removal of this evidence— can aid the market by making artifacts virtually untraceable. More complicated conservation procedures, such as chemical cleaning, repatination, and restoration, can so totally change an artifact in appearance, structure, and composition as to make its identification impossible.

This is not to suggest that conservators are necessarily willfully trying to alter or obfuscate the archaeological record when treating unprovenanced material. While most would be appalled to think that their work might contribute in any way to the wanton destruction of sites, they simply may not understand or think through the repercussions of their actions. Nonetheless, the fact remains that they are contributing to the illicit trade of antiquities, albeit inadvertently, and the net result is the same; the damage has been done and cannot be reversed.

Authentication and technical studies can present particularly sticky situations. In many instances, scientific and technical studies have come to be regarded by many as valid substitutes for established provenance. The Djenné terracotta figurines from the Niger Delta of Mali provide an excellent example. Over the past 20 years, vast numbers of figurines have been illicitly excavated and exported. The more that have come onto the market, the greater the demand for them has become. As supply failed to meet demand, forgeries appeared. To distinguish fakes from authentic objects, the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford University undertook thermoluminescence dating on figurines on a no-questions-asked basis. As part of this service, the laboratory provided certificates of authenticity for figurines that passed the tests. As expected, these certificates had a significant effect on the market price of figurines. In 1988, figurines without certificates at Christie's had an average presale estimate of £175. The previous year at Sotheby's, however, similar figurines with certificates had estimates averaging £1,200 (Chippindale 1991). The value of these certificates to looters is patently obvious, as testing can vindicate months of extreme risk and in so doing vastly increase the profits of looting. Age, like other attributes, has become a valuable commodity.

As archaeologists and art historians receive much of their scientific and technical information and analysis from conservators, conservation reports, especially those involving technical analysis, could also come to be regarded as substitutes for an established provenance, “cloaking the shady practices of the antiquities trade in a mantle of academic and scientific legitimacy” (Elia 1995, 245). It is easy to see how such reports and test results could allay any doubts of authenticity. In addition, the very fact that an artifact was treated by a conservator could be taken as an indication of authenticity by someone, for why would anyone go to the trouble and expense of having a fake conserved?

Copyright © 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works