x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Preserve artefacts as shared heritage

The free market in antiquities is itself very old; a new online version doesn't change much. In every era, each society and culture needs to protect these elements of history.

The online sale of antiquities, as reported in The National yesterday, is merely the new face of an old problem.

In fact, the global market in ancient objects of beauty or cultural significance may be almost as old as the objects themselves. Items on sale recently on uae.souq.com included a Persian cup said to date from around 500AD, as well as a terracotta animal figure dated at 2,500BC. Who can say who bought, stole or found such artefacts, or where they had been kept since they were made?

Of more concern as a matter of regional heritage are the objects categorised as Islamic art - made, that is, in and since the 7th century in lands with Muslim populations and rulers. (Despite the terminology, "Islamic art" sold on uae.souq.com is secular, the site's officials say; objects of religious significance are not accepted for sale.)

In the past 14 centuries, treasures and relics have been the spoils of war, targets of theft and victims of mishap. There is now a strong feeling in this region that such artefacts, and not only the most significant or spectacular of them, should remain here and that they should be treated as a common heritage - preserved as a matter of trust, and accessible to the public and to scholars.

This is a natural desire and a universal one: every culture, we dare say, wants to protect and preserve the physical heritage of its past.

In this region, city-states, caliphates and empires have been buried in history, but societies and cultures have been more enduring. Many antiquities testify to that continuity. Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with their prosperity and tourist trades, have been natural clearing houses for artefacts not only from the Arabian Peninsula but from Iran, Iraq and the whole region.

The antiquities of the Middle East-North Africa region have long attracted looters, ethical private collectors, museum buyers and scientists alike. The challenge is to determine which pieces on sale anywhere deserve protection from collectors and profiteers, and then to provide that protection. This last part will often involve the purchase, from government funds, of important items otherwise at risk of being taken outside the region. It should also involve prosecution of illegal trade.

Getting this right will not be cheap or easy. But after all these centuries, we have a duty to preserve the past, for the sake of our future.