Thursday, July 10, 2008

Northwest BC Sculpted Stone Club, dating back to the 1800 BC could be lost to international buyer

"potentially a very important piece and we should be doing our bit to keep it in the country."-- Susan Marsden, curator of the Museum of Northern B.C., expressing her thoughts on a stone club dating back to 1800 BC discovered in Northwestern BC in the 1960's and now up for sale on the international market..

A club discovered in Hazleton near the Skeena River and potentially valued at 225,000 dollars is at the centre of bureaucratic process designed to give Canadian museums and public institutions the opportunity to keep Canadian artifacts in the nation.

The stone club which measures roughly 25 centimetres in length, was created between 1800 BC and AD 500 was discovered in the Hazelton’s area back in 1960’s, it has been held by his family ever since and recently they made attempts to sell it to the Royal Museum of British Columbia.

The only problem it seems is that according to their Victoria based representative, the Museum it seems offered what the family considered a rather lowball offer to buy the club (reported as 1,500 dollars) and in fact suggested that instead they donate the artifact.

As it turns out, there is rather sizeable value attached to the club, a piece of stone which has attracted the interest of one international collector (suspected to be an American) ready to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to own it.

With the clock apparently ticking now on the prospective sale, the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board agreed to a six-month delay on the export of the rare sculptured club and has sought out Canadian institutions to express interest to purchase the item.

If no Canadian institution, collection of like minded groups, makes an offer to buy the club by December 20th, then an export permit will be granted and the club will be sold to the collector.

The Globe and Mail posted a story to its website today outlining the trail of the ancient club and the last ditch attempts to try and keep it in Canadian hands.

Export of ancient club blocked
Globe and Mail
July 10, 2008

A stone club from British Columbia dating to possibly 1800 BC could be leaving the country by the end of the year if a Canadian institution doesn't buy it.

Late last month, after reviewing a report from an expert examiner, the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board agreed to a six-month delay on the export of the rare sculptured club to who is presumed to be an American buyer. The delay is to give a Canadian museum, gallery or "public authority" time to prepare a cash offer. It could be expensive: The club's value, as indicated on the application for an export permit made this year, is $250,000 (U.S.).

The board, meeting in Toronto, agreed that the club, discovered in the 1960s by a man living in the Hazelton-Skeena River region of British Columbia's northern interior (one story has it that he uncovered it while grading a road) and held by his family ever since, is of sufficient national importance and cultural significance to order it held in the country until Dec. 20.

The export review board estimates that the club, roughly 25 centimetres in length, was created between 1800 BC and AD 500 - significantly older, in short, than two similar clubs from the same region housed by the British Museum in London (those two are estimated to have been made between AD 1 and AD 500).

If an offer is made by a Canadian institution between now and Nov. 20 to buy the club and the offer isn't accepted by the would-be owner, the board can be asked to determine "a fair cash offer" for its purchase. If the buyer refuses an offer that's equal to or greater than the fair cash offer, the club will stay in Canada for the next two years. Once that period has expired, the owner can apply anew for an export permit whereupon the review process begins again.

However, all this rigmarole could prove moot: If no Canadian institution, or consortium of institutions, has made an offer to buy by Dec. 20, an export permit will be granted and the club will go to the collector who has indicated that he is prepared to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to own it.

Victoria art dealer Howard Roloff is acting as the liaison in the attempted sale and export of the club. In an interview, he said the B.C. owners took the club to the provincial museum in the 1960s with the intention of selling it. However, when the museum suggested that the owners either donate the artifact or receive $1,500 for it, they decided to keep it instead.

The artifact is similar to 35 stone clubs discovered by a Tsimshian chief in 1898 while he was digging holes for house posts near Hagwilget Canyon in B.C.'s northern interior. (At least one expert thinks this club "warrants consideration as part of [the 1898] cache.") The clubs were given to A.W. Vowell, B.C.'s superintendent for Indian affairs who was visiting the Hazelton region at the time. Vowell kept them in his own collection for many years, allowing Charles Frederick Newcombe, an ethnographic researcher with B.C.'s Provincial Museum (now the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria) to photograph them and make notes. Eventually, Vowell gave one of the clubs to Newcombe, whose family, it's believed, donated it to B.C.'s provincial museum after his death in 1924. Six others are reportedly in museums in the United States, including four in the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, while the remainder are largely unaccounted for.

There has been debate over just what purpose these often phallus-shaped clubs served. (An animal, fish or bird form often makes up the other half of such a club.) Some ethnographers claim they were for digging and excavation, others say they were used to "dispatch slaves at potlatch ceremonies" (hence their nickname "slave killers"). Wilson Duff, in his 1975 book Images Stone: B.C. - Thirty Centuries of Northwest Coast Indian Sculpture, argued they weren't so much functional weapons as "images of weapons ... emblems." Ordinary weapons were commonly made of antler and bone whereas stone was significant as "a medium for metaphoric messages," he writes.

Canadian public institutions historically have had modest or non-existent acquisition budgets and have tended to rely on the kindness of wealthy benefactors to purchase artifacts. These benefactors, in turn, donate these artifacts to the institutions and, as compensation, are allowed to apply the cash value of their gift as a deduction on their taxable income.

A cultural institution that wants an artifact that is being restrained from export do have access to an assist-to-purchase grant administered by the Movable Cultural Property Directorate of Canadian Heritage. In recent years, the directorate has encouraged institutions to "collaborate and submit a joint application" for a grant. The pool of money available in that program this year is just over $1.16-million. But the program is authorized to spend up to $3-million, should additional funds be available for reallocation with Canadian Heritage. At the same, the institution "is expected to raise 50 per cent or more of the purchase price" from other sources before its eligible for Moveable Cultural Property assistance.

Roloff declined to identify the club's prospective offshore purchaser or purchasers. (The Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board keeps a tight lid on such information as well.) However, he indicated "the person who expressed an interest in buying it" doesn't seem keen on a protracted process. "They said if [the club] receives a cultural property export permit, they would buy it. If it doesn't, they won't."

In the meantime, he said he has been contacted by "a couple of institutions that are pursuing [the club] and, y'know, it's happened with a couple of other pieces I've had in the past - they have remained in Canada in the end."

Possible institutions that might like to have the club are the Museum of Northern B.C. in Prince Rupert, the Royal B.C. Museum and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, all of whom have substantial and valuable collections of West Coast aboriginal artifacts.

Susan Marsden, curator of the Museum of Northern B.C., this week called the club "potentially a very important piece and we should be doing our bit to keep it in the country."

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