An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 192

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 1, 2022 - Issue 192

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

I thought it might be interesting to write about something newsworthy for a change. This is a small introduction to what a few of us at CINOA (this is a French acronym for our antiques federation of world wide art and antiques groups) are trying to do to keep our industry from being burdened with paperwork and regulations that are written by politicians who are usually reacting to those people who have a vested interest in creating regulations. I wish I could say that it was their constituents that cared about these regulations, but I don't believe that is true particularly when you look at the people who are advocating for tougher laws that can affect the antique and art worlds. I suspect that the squeaky wheels are those people that have a vested interest in being anti-trade. This isn't paranoia--I only wish it was--but, yes, people want to limit the trade in arts and antiques--sometimes because they think it is a public service, but more often they have an ulterior motive. 

For example, the banning of the trade in ivory (other things besides ivory are also banned) of any sort was promoted by a number of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) who were and are rightly concerned about the plight of the elephant. I think that concern extremely important and were I on the board of, for example, the World Wildlife Fund, I would have asked why elephants are losing the battle for survival? The logic of this question is clear and, as it happens, so is the answer. The elephant in Africa, as well as in Asia, is losing territory. In short, elephants need a minimum amount of space in which to survive. Take a game preserve, halve it in size and you will likely lose half of the elephants in the preserve, as well as half of all the other animals. Is this overly simplistic? Yes, I am simplifying the essential problem, but the answer of banning the trade in antique ivory is not just simplistic, but illogical. But there are other causes for elephants dying such as climate change altering habitats and the continued thirst for ivory among Asian nations who have a tradition of ivory carving. The legislators in their wisdom feel that the West should set a good example and foreswear all ivory. Yes, and George Washington's inability to tell a lie has certainly kept all American presidents in line ever since. 

Anti-money laundering legislation (AML) is another of the topics that we talk about extensively. The press at large likes to talk about the "unregulated art market", something that is rather mystifying. I am not certain what is meant when it is said that we are unregulated--if it is to do with money, dealers use banks who have laws regarding bank secrecy. But the reason we are fighting AML is because the vast majority of dealers are made up of 2-4 people and the value of what they sell mostly runs between $100 to $20-25,000. Are there criminals working in the art business--as dealers, I would suggest that there are very few and if they are, they are likely to be unaffiliated--not a member of any trade group. But AML is a complicated issue and the laws for it need to be written extremely carefully. Unfortunately, that has not been happening as dealers are by in large thought of as wealthy, buying for X and selling for who knows how many multiples of X--two, ten, fifty. That can happen, but rarely--about as often as you win a billion dollar lottery. 

Cultural repatriation is the final issue that is always on the agenda. Antiquities and tribal art are the primary focus of most of these laws as cultural chauvinism establishes itself as the patriotic issue of the day. This is all well and good, there has been extensive looting, pillaging, theft, etc., over the history of mankind and that is well understood. However, the righting of those wrongs is another thing altogether. Anti-trade groups align themselves with third world countries to repatriate art in order to gain favor in those countries. How these favors play out is varied, special business deals or military cooperation and more, but there is extensive manipulation of data used to get this agenda noticed by legislators. This scamming doesn't help anyone--it just adds to the knot that is already complex. 

In any case, this is what we discuss and work on--Sisyphus had it easy is all I can say.