Guest Post: Straight Talk About Crooked Deals

It is my enormous honour today to be host to a brilliant scholar. She has done extensive work in the field of Draconean literature, and is presently engaged in the greatest challenge of her career. You may have heard of her illustrious grandmama, but I assure you – you want to be acquainted with the latest scion of the house of Trent. Dear readers, I give you: Audrey Camherst!

Straight Talk About Crooked Deals

We’ve all heard of the “black market.” Many people envision an actual marketplace, patronized at night, when shadow cloaks the illicit deals that go on there. In their imagination, the people who patronize such a venue are the same kinds of brutes who smash in windows to steal Grandmama’s pearls.

The truth is that you may have bought something on the black market, without ever realizing it.

Here’s what it really is: the buying and selling of things that should never have been available for purchase in the first place. Lots of things get traded by these routes, but since my interest is in antiquities — Draconean antiquities most especially — that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Many countries these days have laws protecting their antiquities. Gone are the days when Scirling or Thiessois tourists could get away with waltzing in and pocketing anything that wasn’t nailed down; there are laws prohibiting unlicensed excavations and the export of artifacts of particular types or from particular periods. You need documentation proving how you got the artifact, and granting permission for it to be taken out of the country. On the receiving end, some countries — Scirland among them — have also imposed laws saying things without that documentation can’t be brought in.

With these kinds of safeguards in place, the naive might think all is well. But any time there’s money to be made, somebody will find a way around those pesky laws that might restrict their profits.

They conduct excavations in out of the way areas, or at night — or, if they’re more of the window-smashing burglar type, they let somebody else do the hard work of digging things up, then purloin the results. They produce shipping manifests that claim crates full of antiquities are something innocuous like dishware, or even hide artifacts inside other objects to fool inspectors. And then when those things arrive at their destination, the receiver forges a provenance — the paper that documents the chain of ownership, ideally all the way back to the object’s discovery — and sells it to you, the innocent buyer.

Except that a lot of the people who buy these things aren’t innocent. They know perfectly well that the provenances are forged and don’t care, so long as the papers are good enough to pass muster. All that matters to them is having an antiquity of their own — or more commonly a hoard of them, big enough to shame a dragon. And believe it or not, museums can be some of the worst offenders! Big exhibits mean big crowds to see them, which means big money for the museum that lets them acquire more things in turn. If a provenance seems a little whiffy . . . shhhh, don’t ask so many questions.

Sometimes they justify this by saying that if they didn’t buy the antiquities, somebody else would. At least the museum can take proper care of them and put them out where the public can enjoy them, rather than locking everything away in some rich person’s private collection.

But that disregards the damage the black market does to our understanding of the past. Looters don’t work carefully like archaeologists do, one painstaking step at a time and documenting everything as they go; they smash through a site grabbing anything that looks valuable and destroying everything else in their path. Even the artifacts that survive are robbed of their context: not provenance but provenience, the specific details of where they lay when found. That context tells us a great deal about what these things are and how they were used, or how a whole site fit together back in ancient times. We lose not just objects but knowledge when looters ransack a site.

And the whole reason they conduct illegal excavations in the first place is because they know somebody will pay for it. If the demand dried up, nobody would bother supplying. It’s no use blaming the looters themselves; many of them are desperately poor, and are willing to sacrifice our understanding of the past in order to feed their families. The ones getting rich are the middlemen, feeding our hunger for treasure. We can arrest them — sometimes, if there’s enough evidence — but others will step into the gap; the only solution is for us to stop being so hungry we won’t ask where our meal came from.

So if you’re looking ahead to the upcoming Falchester Congress and thinking it would be lovely to have a Draconean vase or pendant or clay tablet to show to your friends at dinner, please stop and think before you buy. Is it being sold in a shop in a Southfield alley, or a bazaar in Qurrat? Don’t trust it. There are legitimately-traded artifacts for sale; you will find them at reputable auction houses like Emmerson’s. But even then, be a smart customer. Did that bronze sword belong to a private collector in Gillae for the last forty years? Back away quickly; Gillae is a notorious “laundry” for cleansing illicit artifacts of their dirty past.

Or content yourself with visiting a museum like the Tomphries, which has pledged not to acquire any more looted antiquities, and has even repatriated a few pieces known to be stolen. Such a choice is the true mark of the respectful connoisseur.

Return to Scirling and get to know Audrey in TURNING DARKNESS INTO LIGHT by Marie Brennan, out now from Titan Books. 

Check out the rest of the Turning Darkness into Light blog tour:

Many thanks to Marie Brennan and Titan Books!