Sunday, March 20, 2016

Asia Week 2016


I wish I could do one of my posts on highlights seen during Asia Week, but this year the event has been destroyed by the actions of the US government misguided war on culture.

I came to go to Asia Week to see the different exhibitions on Wednesday, and one of my first stops was to Gallery Vallois at 67th and Madison, where Dalton Somare was exhibiting.  He is a dealer I featured last year because of the extraordinary pieces he showed. This year, I found the doors shut and locked and we were not allowed in, the owner answered the door to say they were rearranging and to come back another day. I at first thought it a thin pretext to keep people away while he had an important client in and I thought it was rude and strange behavior for a public event such as Asia Week. Only at the end of the day did I learn that instead, the gallery had been raided by US marshals who confiscated a major sculpture they claim had been smuggled from Afghanistan. 


Homeland Security officers removing a sculpture from a New York Gallery 

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/18/arts/design/law-enforcement-focuses-on-asia-week-in-inquiry-of-antiquities-smuggling.html?emc=eta1

 Above is a link the the article in the New York Times about the raid. Homeland Security also raided Christie's, taking two sculptures from their sale, and also raided another dealer, Nancy Wiener, from whom they took several items.

While in theory the idea of looted antiquities is abhorrent, in the age of Islamic extremism and civil wars, in which cultural destruction has become a regular event, we need to rethink our approach to the antiquities trade.  During the cultural cleansing of Tibet when China was destroying the Buddhist monasteries, the Dalai Lama declared that we should see the objects smuggled out of Tibet as "refugees".  I think we should view objects from the conflict torn regions of the world as rescues facing probably destruction.  Ideally, we should not encourage looting, but we do not live in an ideal world, and Islamic fundamentalists are intent in erasing the culture and artifacts of the regions in their control.  We should have learned something from the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and now we have ISIS blowing up Nimrud, and Palmyra.  But we have learned nothing.  Rather the US government has taken an extreme position against the antiquities trade.  I wonder if it is to compensate for their ineptitude and impotence in stopping the violence and destruction where it is taking place.  We have completely screwed up, through our invasions, Iraq, and now Syria as collateral damage, and Afghanistan.

I cannot speak to the history of the sculpture being carted from Dalton Somare, where it came from and how it got to the market.  It is of a type I'm not familiar with, it is quite exceptional. I can tell you however with certainty that it is a great work of art, whose future is quite insecure if it goes back to Afghanistan.  I can also tell you that the dealer who owned it did not loot it himself, and I am sure bought it on good faith for the great work of art that it is.  Now, it is likely to be returned to the war torn country from where it came, to be lost to scholarship and humanity and likely destroyed.  And apparently, that suits the extremists at Homeland Security just fine.

For those who love art and the history that it teaches us about our common humanity, something must be done to stop the US government and change it's approach.  This heavy handed manner will only drive the market underground, where it cannot be monitored, and does nothing to discourage destruction.  Rather we as a nation should be focused on stopping the violence and the extremists that are responsible for the looting and cultural destruction taking place in the countries where it is taking place, not here.  Instead the US is prosecuting law abiding art dealers which does nothing to further the stated aim of preserving cultural heritage.



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