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About-Face on Antiquities Marketing

February 25, 2017.  In a stunning philosophical and public-policy reversal, Antiquities Coalition founder and chairperson Deborah Lehr (in her private capacity as an international business consultant) has penned an article advocating that China open up its art and antiquities market to include Western auction firms in order to better China’s position as a player in the global art market.

Ms. Lehr’s February 25, 2017 article in The Diplomat, entitled, “China’s Art Market is Booming – But Not for Foreigners,” is a refreshing and realistic acknowledgement of the benefits of a freer global market, through which private collectors have increased public access to art through museum-building in China. Ms. Lehr notes, correctly, that the Chinese government uses art as a cultural ambassador and that it already encourages its auction houses to establish overseas offices not only to source Chinese art for the domestic market, but also to serve overseas clientele.

Ms. Lehr suggests that China should be open to entry of foreign auction houses since they have the business acumen and marketing skills to help take China’s art market to another level. She criticizes the Chinese government’s reluctance to allow Western auction houses to sell Chinese and Western antiquities in mainland China:

While these two houses [Sotheby’s and Christie’s] have been granted some degree of access to the Chinese market, they are still banned from selling “cultural relics” meaning any artwork created before 1949, the year of the founding of the People’s Republic. It is no coincidence that “cultural relics” are the most profitable sales in China today.”

Yet Ms. Lehr’s apparent about-face regarding the benefits of the art market is a little bewildering.

Under her direction, the Antiquities Coalition has spent years and invested heavily in media and public outreach to become the dominant US advocate against the art trade, which it blames for inciting looters to loot, for costing Egypt billions in tourist revenue and (without providing evidence) for funding terrorist activities in the Middle East.

Isn’t there a contradiction between promoting a free market in art and antiquities in China and discouraging one in Egypt? Shouldn’t the China-based principles apply to other nations that already have domestic markets in antiquities? Could other nations such as Egypt benefit through a controlled, limited market, incentivizing government regulated action instead of stockpiling moribund art assets in state warehouses?

Hitherto, the Antiquities Coalition has argued for retention of art and artifacts through exclusive art-source-nation control of virtually all cultural property – at international conferences, and through its website, video, twitter, and through massive media outreach. The Antiquities Coalition’s latest policy brief, written for its new think tank by Lawrence Rothfield, states that legitimate art sales are inherently, stomach-churningly harmful to society. Dr. Rothfield advocates that dealers should compensate by paying a “pollution tax” on legitimate sales of international and Native American antiques in order to create a sort of toxic-superfund that would pay for customs interdiction and discourage art collecting.

Cultural policy matters are complex. Suffice it that it is good to see a pragmatic approach set forth by Ms. Lehr, one that recognizes the positive aspects of a freer global art market as well its undeniable challenges. Ms. Lehr concludes: “Opening up markets is never easy. But just as China has dramatically benefited from liberalizing its currency and financial markets in recent years, it would do well to show that same courage in opening its art and antiquities market.

Image: Christie’s Hong Kong, by Sunbeamprowce, May 2012, Wikimedia Commons



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