Sometime in the next few days, I will visit the most famous pawn shop in the world. The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop on South Las Vegas Boulevard is the site of Pawn Stars, one of the most popular reality television shows in the United States, and a programme I watched regularly when the History channel began screening it in India a few years ago.
If I had my way, I’d make at least one season of Pawn Stars required viewing for all bureaucrats involved in India’s culture sector. Narendra Modi might profit from watching it as well. He is in the United States yet again, and yet again making uninformed remarks about India’s past. During a ceremonial repatriation of smuggled antiquities, Modi backdated the Konark temple by some 1,250 years. Perhaps it was because the temple was built in an era defined by Hindutvavadi history as one of Hindu enslavement (since when did slaves build grand shrines?). Or perhaps it was down to the Hindu right’s love of making everything Hindu older than it actually is.
Before explaining Pawn Stars’s relevance to India’s heritage and antiquities, let me briefly introduce the show. It features a shop run by Rick Harrison, his father the Old Man, his son Big Hoss, and a sidekick named Chumlee. The names say a lot about the protagonists, who often seem like stereotypical macho Americans – obese, loud, in love with cars, bikes and guns, the kind who would never step inside an art museum. They are set apart because they buy and sell items far beyond the traditional pawnshop staples of jewellery, gold and silver. They deal in stamps, paintings, antique machines, sports memorabilia, rare coins and banknotes, playing cards, gas masks, in fact almost anything anybody could dream of buying or selling, including, of course, cars, bikes, and guns.
They reach out to experts when their own valuation skills prove inadequate. One guest on the show might validate a signature on a baseball bat, another suggests a price for a 1930s puppet, a third judges if a 17th century manuscript is genuine or forged, and so on. Many of the criteria used to value such items are common though the pieces themselves seem entirely unrelated. Condition, provenance, rarity, historical importance, such yardsticks apply to cars, cannons, coins, curios, and canvases alike. Pawn Stars reminds us that art and heritage are not things that occupy some rarefied dimension, but part of a continuum of material culture.
Most things humans create depreciate in value and ultimately become entirely worthless. A tiny minority remain interesting and appreciate in price because of their aesthetic or historical properties. Judging exactly how valuable they are involves understanding them intimately, for anything of value can and will be faked, and because the most minute flaw can have a disproportionate effect on price. Pawn Stars demonstrates how a market for artefacts creates an ecosystem of expertise around it.
In his speech at Blair House, Narendra Modi spoke of antiquities being dug up and smuggled abroad. It raises the question: Why are these pieces smuggled abroad at all? Wouldn’t it be much easier to sell them in India? The sad truth is that for all our nationalistic chest thumping the demand for Indian artefacts is greater outside India than within the country. Rick Harrison in Las Vegas might be interested in a Kushana sculpture a client brings in, but no saudagar in India would take a second look at it. Even if one did, who would authenticate and value such a piece? There are a few well-qualified museologists and academics in India, but they work in isolated pockets, and might be reluctant to involve themselves in commercial transactions thanks to the Antiquities Act of 1972, which created massive barriers to buying, selling, and even possessing heirlooms, old jewellery and ancient art.
Without a flourishing market in a field, expertise in that field tends to crumble. The state can, and should, support a system of universities and museums where competence is built around understanding the context and meaning of artefacts thoroughly rather than valuing them in the present day, but though the framework used by academics and auctioneers is far from identical, the two are substantially related.
One of my favourite moments from a visit to Hong Kong a couple of years ago was walking through an exhibition of Chinese artefacts to be sold by Christie’s and looking at the little booths where potential buyers or their representatives sat scrutinising through magnifying lenses vases or sculptures they were interested in acquiring. China opened up its internal antiquities trade a few years ago, and has quickly become one of the largest markets for heritage artefacts in the world. Of course, Chinese collectors are mainly interested in their own material heritage, but there is enough of that to fill hundreds of museums, public and private.
As a result of the boom in internal demand for Chinese antiquities, the flow of trade has been reversed for the first time in history, with goods flowing from Europe and North America into China. In fact, demand is so high that crime cartels have taken to stealing Chinese artefacts from Western museums and smuggling them into China. Don’t be surprised if in the future we hear of China repatriating stolen Chinese treasures to France.
India’s outdated Antiquities Act places an intolerable burden on private collectors while keeping the operations of state-run bodies opaque. In its stead we need a law that makes government collections and procedures transparent while allowing citizens their privacy. Increased demand anywhere, whether inside India or abroad, will cause a spurt in damage, desecration and thievery. Hand in hand with opening up the trade in antiquities, we will need to protect heritage sites better, and document in situ artefacts comprehensively (we should do that anyway, whether or not trade is liberalised). We also ought to remove import restrictions, provide incentives to private museums, and encourage individuals to donate collections to public institutions.
I look forward to the day when, desiring to sell a Deccan miniature or an 18th century Kashmiri carpet, its Indian owner can approach a local auction house or antique specialist without traversing a labyrinth of red tape. Who knows, the collector might even be able to hawk it at a pawn shop round the corner.