It was a full house for the Icon Scotland Group’s Annual Plenderleith Lecture last month, this time in Glasgow. The event proved such a draw that some members travelled from as far afield as Bristol to attend, and the Icon Chair of the Board of Trustees, Siobhan Stevenson, had come over from Belfast.
The group gathered at the St Mungo Museum of Religious Art and Life to hear Dr Neil Brodie address a controversial and highly topical subject: the global trafficking of antiquities and other cultural objects.
Dr Brodie is a Senior Research Fellow working on Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Oxford. In just over an hour Dr Brodie explored some of the key issues at stake. We heard of the dubious provenance of some objects that have made their way around the international art market; of the challenges posed by the sale of artefacts excavated by treasure hunters, which have never been catalogued as part of any collection; and of the many challenges involved in monitoring platforms such as eBay for any looted artefacts that may appear on sale.
Dr Brodie went on to delve into some of the networks driving illegal antiquities trafficking, and to review some of the major successes of international policing in uncovering shipments and disrupting such networks.
Given that the audience was predominantly composed of conservation professionals, it was particularly interesting to hear of the role which conservators can play in the trafficking of art and antiquities. The traffickers may commission conservation work to stabilise or improve the appearance of an object, and a period in a conservator’s workshop also enhances the provenance history of an object, helping to make the object appear more legitimate. However, as stated by the Icon Code of Conduct, conservators have a professional obligation to establish ‘to the best of [their abilities] that [they] are not agreeing to work on stolen or illicitly traded cultural objects’, and Dr Brodie questioned whether this professional obligation is always adequately met.
The question and answer session were lively and thought-provoking – and naturally continued into more informal discussion during the wine reception. As ever, the Plenderleith highlighted the strength of conservation networks in Scotland and set an impressive standard for next year’s event.