Sunday, 31 August 2008

Attacking the Kaimsthorn Bogeyman

We may observe that the pro-collecting lobby have a tendency to prefer simplistic arguments and create straw man arguments which they demolish with glibness and glee. They are happiest picking on a participant in the debate about collecting, demonising them and pouring scorn and hatred on them in the manner the Two Minute Hate of Orwell's distopian '1984.

One of the bogeymen of US collectors for some reason is Lord Professor Colin Renfrew, humanist, scholar, pioneering theoretician, one time Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge. This means little to collectors. Renfrew is reviled among them for the forthright way he has since the early 1970s and particularly from the 1990s onwards spoken out against (among other things) the illicit trade in portable antiquities, the thought-provoking texts he has written on the subject and his activities to promote the development of legislation to regulate this problem. What for the conservation conscious among us would be laudable clearly makes collectors uncomfortable.

A few days ago what was meant (I think) to be a critique of Renfrew's ideas (entitled "Problems with Renfrew") was going the rounds of collectors' forums and was even cross-posted on two archaeology forums. It was signed by Professor T.V. Buttrey from the Coin Department of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It concentrates on a very narrow (coin-centred) interpretation of the context of Renfrew's position and that of the conservation lobby he represents. Although some collectors enthusiastically received it, the text was largely disregarded, mainly one suspects because of its character. A colleague has characterised it as "most offensive and unnecessary too, and possibly libellous". I agree. One gets the impression that this text reflects some Cambridge infighting and academic cattiness and personal jealousies rather than being a fair discussion of the views which Renfrew espouses. Certainly it contains a number of factual errors.

Only "digging by children..."?

In a thought-provoking post in his blog Larry Rothfield provides several good reasons why he thinks that Martin Bailey’s latest story about Iraqi looting seized on with such alacrity by the dealers in and collectors of portable antiquities and their supporters should be treated with some reserve. He too is sceptical about the level of investigative journalism employed:
Given all this, and given the outrage that greeted his first article on the subject, Bailey should have at the very least asked around to find out whether there was any actual statistical evidence, in the form of satellite imagery, to corroborate Dr Abbas' happy news that looting is over. Had he done so, he might have learned that the Oriental Institute has purchased satellite images that offer incontrovertible evidence to the contrary”.
One phone call really is not sufficient to free collectors of this spectre. Rothfield goes on:

we do not know for certain what the degree or rate of looting has been for the entirety of the country. To determine that we would need to be able to compare, year by year, the satellite or aerial imagery for at least a representative sample of sites. Unfortunately, purchasing these images on the market would be prohibitively expensive; for just two sets of imagery for the single small site analyzed by Hritz, the cost was over $7000. As I have noted elsewhere, the US military undoubtedly possesses these images and could share them with researchers. Why the images are not being shared is a question that an enterprising reporter should be asking Pentagon or State Department officials.”
Perhaps not just journalists. Let us remember that the US military promised the scholarly community to work with them to help prevent damage to Iraq's heritage during the US-led operations. Perhaps this is a time for it to realise those assurances. Rothfield I think speaks for us all when he ends:


We all wish that the looting was over, just as we wish it were true that the looting of Iraq's sites had been limited to a brief period back in 2003-4, just as we wish the losses to the Iraq Museum had been insignificant. But wishing does not make it so.


An account of the survey by Carrie Hritz in Washington University, St Louis that Rothfield mentioned can be found here.

UNESCO Cultural Heritage Laws Database

Soon there will be no excuse for collectors and dealers of portable antiquities to claim ignorance of the details of the various national laws and regulations related to importation, exportation and ownership of cultural goods. The UNESCO Cultural Heritage Laws Database which was launched in 2005 is becoming a useful online database which can be used by law-makers, lawyers, police and customs officers, art and antiquities dealers, students and researchers as well as private individuals. It offers free access to the relevant cultural heritage laws from UNESCO Member States. To date some 1150 pieces of legislation from 126 countries are made available online and can be consulted in their original language and in official English translations. The creation of this database recently receieved grant support from the USA.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

"Fifteen minutes of fame": or fifteen years or more of vigilance

In response to the Art Newspaper story which proclaims "the end" of the looting in Iraq, Peter Tompa feigns surprise: "One would think this news would be cheered and not jeered as it has been on both the "Safe Corner" blog and on the Iraq Crisis List". He goes on to speculate: "A cynic might suspect that those most interested in arguing that looting in Iraq continues on a large scale fear that good news will mean that their "15 minutes of fame" is fast drawing to a close".

Now I am not sure who he thinks is "interested"(sic) in "arguing that the looting continues on a large scale". It is not clear if that is addressed to McGuire Gibson whose post on the IraqCrisis list he highlights, or the author of the Safe Corner post or somebody else. Personally I would like it to have stopped back in the 1990s, or never have started.* Back then there was only moderate public attention paid to it, but with the political opposition to the US-led invasion, it became hot news. There cannot now be many readers of the serious newspapers across the western hemisphere that have not heard about this and realised its connection with the illicit trade in antiquities and those who collect them. I expect that makes those collectors and those who represent them feel more than a little uncomfortable. It casts them in the role of the 'bad guys'. Of course they strive so hard to present themselves as the good guys who are busily collecting away for the greater good of mankind (sic).

I am sure that there are a lot of people therefore who will find comfort that there is an arts newspaper telling people first that the looting "never happened", and then when the evidence shows the story was not true, that "it has now stopped". I expect a lot of dealers and collectors are now counting on the fuss blowing over in the coming weeks and months, that once again undocumented and unprovenanced Mespotamian antiquities can be sold and bought as openly as in the carefree days before the invasion.

I personally suspect that especially after the post-2003 looting there is by now such a stashed-away backlog of so many of these collectables around that it will be more than any "fifteen minutes" of vigilance to make sure that as few people profit from this heinous culture crime as possible. Mr Tompa should be aware that even if the story of Art Newspaper journalist Mr Bailey is right (which actually I personally sincerely doubt), this is by no means the "end". This is only the beginning of a long period when the circulation in the trade in Mesoptamian "pieces of the past" will need to be under close public scrutiny.

[And how interesting that if one compares the original title of the article and that of Culture Property Observer's blog post, it can be seen he has inserted the word "most". Could it be that Mr Tompa has doubts whether the Art Newspaper story as written is indeed true?]

* I think, as the author of the SAFECorner post to which Peter Tompa so scathingly refers, to avoid any misunderstandings it is worth stressing that I write on SAFECorner (as here) expressing my own personal opinions and of course not necessarily those of SAFE itself. I am at a loss to see where he perceives "jeering".

Iraq Looting said to be "over"...

Well, I wondered how long it would be after the publication two days ago of the latest Martin Bailey Art Newspaper story before the collectors' forums start buzzing with the news that "the looting in Iraq is over"... Well, just now a whole bunch of them just threw the joyous news into my inbox simultaneously. I would like to believe its true. Sadly though in the opinion of some of us, there are grounds for treating this as sceptically as the same journalist's premature announcing a month earlier than an Iraqi-British mission of experts to southern Iraq had shown there had been NO looting. The publication of the actual report a few days later showed the actual results of the mission to have been entirely different. So Mr Bailey has tried again. Time will tell, but perhaps real investigative journalism requires more than just a single international telephone call?

Illustration: Irreparable damage caused by illicit digging at Isin, Southern Iraq, the state in July 2003. Photo: M.Bouchenaki, UNESCO.

REFERENCES
Bailey, Martin '
Archaeological sites in south Iraq have not been looted, say experts" Art Newspaper Issue 193, 01.07.08.

Bailey, Martin 'Iraq’s top archaeologist says looting of sites is over'
Art Newspaper Issue 194, 28.8.08.

Curtis, J., Hussein Raheed, Clark, H. Al Hamdani, A.M. Stone, E. van Es, M, Collins, P. and Ali, M. 2008,
An Assessment of Archaeological Sites in June 2008: an Iraqi-British Project ’ (British Museum webpage)

Friday, 29 August 2008

Collecting for today to collect for tomorrow?

Say YES to Sustainable Seafood” the leaflet handed out a few years ago by a pretty girl in the town center said. As I chatted with her I glanced at it, and then started reading it. On my way to a meeting, I put it in my pocket to read later, a bit further along I picked up another one a thoughtless pedestrian had discarded so I could give one to a friend. The leaflet contained a list of fish that the World Wildlife Fund says were currently being fished in a sustainable manner, and those that were not. It gave links to other organizations part of the same Sustainable Seafood campaign, but more importantly gave a list of things to look for and ask about when buying fish to ensure that we were buying only a commodity which had been ethically and responsibly produced. That means not only in accord with current international and national marine and trade legislation, but also conservation and ecological guidelines.

One of the key questions is where the goods on sale actually come from, that the population of a species may be sustainable in one region of the seas, but the population of the same species is declining off another country’s coasts.

I've been consuming fish for a good part of my life, after reading the WWF leaflet I wonder why I really had not given much thought to the environmental impact of what I bought at the fish counter. It was inexplicable (as I was brought up to be conservation conscious and regularly avoid products I do not believe have been produced in the manner I as a customer would approve). The fish leaflet though gave me something else to think about. Now I know, and now I ask. Usually in the shops which I use the source of the fish is given on the label. If not and the seller cannot (or will not) tell me where the fish comes from, I now do not buy it on principle. Probably a lot of people in my city have not yet met the pretty girls with their leaflets or seen the media campaign, and don’t even think yet about where their Friday dinner comes from. I hope they do soon.

Surely is it not the same with antiquities? Can collectors collecting for today collect for tomorrow? Can they help retain the sustainability of the historic environment by buying and curating portable antiquities responsibly? The PAS advice which says in effect “ask where its from and how it got there, and if in doubt, don’t buy” seems generally applicable. The PAS is above all a sizable public information campaign, wouldn't it be great if this aspect of its work encouraging only responsible collecting and that of volunteer groups like SAFE were copied elsewhere?

Logo from the Marine Stewardship Council, a sort of a marine wildlfe SAFE

Thursday, 28 August 2008

More on the new discussion list

I see Ed Snible, a frequent commentator here, has been invited as a contributor on the new UNESCO-L list and suggested that the name is perhaps confusing. I also wonder if its use was cleared beforehand with UNESCO itself:
Authorizing the use of the name, acronym and/or logo of UNESCO is the prerogative of the General Conference and the Executive Board. In specific cases as set out by the Directives, the governing bodies empower, by delegation, the Director-General and the National Commissions for UNESCO to authorize such use to other bodies. The power to authorize the use of the name, acronym, logo and/or Internet domain names of UNESCO may not be granted to other bodies. Any decision authorizing the use of the name, acronym, logo and/or domain names of UNESCO shall be based on the following criteria: 1. relevance of the proposed association to the Organization’s strategic objectives and programme; 2. compliance with the values, principles and constitutional aims of UNESCO. The use of the name, acronym, logo and/or domain name must be expressly authorized in advance and in writing, and must comply with the specified conditions and procedures, in particular with respect to its visual presentation, duration and scope.

Yet Another Discussion List for Portable Antiquity Dealers and Collectors

Portable antiquity collectors interested in questioning the need for further legal regulation of the antiquities trade already have their increasingly monologous Unidroit-L discussion list devoted to “ the Unidroit Convention and related legislation […] anything to do with the law as it applies to trading in and collecting stamps, coins and ancient artifacts”. Now a group of nine of them (mainly one suspects living in the US) have deemed it necessary to create another discussion list. This new one, the UNESCO-L Discussion List has been set up to examine the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. An introductory text (very similar to that of the Unidroit-L discussion list) proclaims the aim is to provide a forum for discussion of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and related legislation”. Personally I cannot see the difference, where one set of 'related legislation' differs from the other. But this discussion list, we are assured will be different.

The organizers of this initiative assert:


The UNESCO Convention (1970) […] includes among the items defined as "cultural objects:" (e) antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals (i) postage, revenue and similar stamps, singly or in collections […] The definitions of stamps, coins and antiquities are so broadly stated that any collector or institution acquiring a stamp, coin or minor antiquity (such as a scarab or oil lamp) more than one hundred years old, originating in another country than that in which the collection resides, could be prevented from importing it to his nation of residence, and may be required to return it to the country of origin in the absence of documentary proof that the object was legally exported.
Ah, here's the rub. They obviously expect the collector of so-called "minor" pieces of somebody-else's-archaeological-heritage such as coins, scarabs or oil lamps to be worried by that latter phrase. Simply “acquiring” an item is not enough to fall foul of the legislation which this convention requires the international community to honour (clue: “export licences”).

The authors of this text are misleading the reader about what the convention defines as cultural objects. They neglect to draw the reader’s attention to the most important element of Article 1, which reads: “the term "cultural property" means property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories…”. So for example as we saw in the case of Great Britain the other day, the category of “postage stamps and other articles of philatelic interest” is specifically excluded by state legislation (The Export of Objects of Cultural interest (Control) Order 2003, Schedule 1 Article 1 [a]) as objects of cultural interest. My guess this omission is deliberate, as is the selective presentation of categorises that might be included seems to be a cynical attempt to make stamp collectors feel threatened in an attempt to gain their support in the questioning of this Convention (they tried it in the case of Unidroit-L too). I think we can safely assume philatelists outnumber the 50 000 collectors of ancient coins in the US. One presumes however that most stamp collectors can read the Convention themselves and probably will conclude that an attempt is being made to manipulate them.

In fact, if one examines with attention the FAQ of this list, it becomes abundantly clear that its author(s) completely misunderstand (that is more charitable than misrepresent) the nature of the Convention, its scope and purpose, as well as completely ignoring its relationship to the national laws of sovereign countries that the US of America.

A second objective of the list will be discussion of whether:
in view of the […] now well established, rapidly growing and
serious extent of controversy and social conflict that have resulted from its implementation, continuation of this Convention is beneficial to mankind.
Let us get this straight, a bunch of US collectors is questioning whether international co-operation in the field of fighting the trade in illicit antiquities is “beneficial to mankind”. I wonder if equally under discussion will be whether the unregulated continuation of illicit trade particularly beneficial to mankind, or just North American collectors of portable antiquities which are not found in the soil of the USA?

Let us also bear in mind who it is that threatens "turmoil" until the archaeologists cave in and agree to forget about archaeological context when talking with collectors of archaeological material taken from archaeological sites. Precisely who is stirring up social conflict over a comparatively simple issue of morality and responsibility towards the use of a finite and fragile resource?

These collectors presumably want to discuss on the new list whether disregarding Article 2 (opposing illicit trade) of the Convention is “beneficial to mankind”, and likewise Articles 5 and 14 (heritage protection). From past experience, we may be sure that in their discussions they will be dead against Articles 6 and 8 (clue: export licences), what about Article 7 (museums)? I am sure they will say “Nine (international co-operation) – nine is right out”, (that’s what the Cyprus MOU bru-ha-ha is about). Article 10 (education), well, that must be real uncomfortable for some collectors. I’d like to see what US collectors make of Articles 11 and 12 (military occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan etc.). We can see from their introductory texts, the members of this list also intend to usurp for themselves the duties alluded to in Article 16 and part of 17 (reporting).

One of the stated agendas of the discussion list is:


To define the impact of the 1970 UNESCO convention on collectors of coins, stamps and antiquities […]and whether it may create uncertain or unfavorable market conditions that would impact collectors and the sale of collections.
How about favourable conditions for the prohibition and prevention of the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property? In what way would (we presume continued) complying as the Convention requires with legal export requirements "impact" the current market, one wonders?

The Convention as befits an agreement of significance to the international community (Article 18) was published simultaneously in four languages (English, French, Russian and Spanish) “The language used in all posts [to the UNESCO-L list] shall be English” as befits what seems to be little more than a unilateral attempt by a minority group of Americans to exert what they see as their "rights" at the expense of the cultural heritage of members of the international community.

Let us hope that the international community pays very close attention to what these US collectors want, understand and have to say about their relationship to the ideals that the Convention is intended to uphold.

Happy Birthday Ben and Jamie

Time waits for no man, and your Uncle Paul did not manage (again) to get to the post office “quite” on time in between everything else, but something is winging its way to you as we speak. Hope you have a good day anyway.

While you are here, as young numismatists yourselves, you might like to look around, as there is a lot here about coin collecting and what some coin collectors say.... Probably not up your street though, those guys collect an entirely different type of coin, from entirely different sources.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

"Collectors' Responsibilities" as seen in Ohio

The Portable Antiquities Scheme exists to promote a responsible attitude towards collecting of portable antiquities in England and Wales. It helps ensure that collected items and those offered for sale come from a known and licit sources and have been recorded. This aims to curb the market in illicit goods without unduly hampering legitimate collecting. The US portable antiquity collecting lobby has until now openly expressed admiration for this scheme. It has been one of the kingpins of its lobbying ‘program’ that creation of similar systems of dealing with collecting would greatly benefit collectors.

In the past few weeks, ACCG officer Dave Welsh has recently been regaling members the Council for British Archaeology’s Britarch discussion forum with his assorted thoughts on collecting and how bad it is that certain “extremists’ have unreasonable ideas that responsible collectors should stop buying artefacts of undocumented origin. In his opinion, indicating that the responsible collection of artefacts would be to stick to those that are properly provenanced and have a documented licit history is “an extreme, completely impractical and unreasonable approach."

The Chairman of Heritage Action, Nigel Swift asked him recently about his attitude as a dealer to the PAS "Advice for people buying archaeological objects from the UK”, pointing out that they propagate a similar approach to provenance as those who Welsh labeled as “extremists”. The self-appointed spokesman for US collectors stressed his "support" for the PAS and made his position clear "I regard a "full provenance" as essential insofar as that term applies to acquiring objects which British law requires to be reported". One presumes he has in mind the Treasure Act. This completely ignores the fact that the PAS and their advice are independent of the Treasure laws, but are to do with encouraging voluntary responsible behaviour in accordance with best practice. Ignoring the fact that this is the primary aim of the PAS really does not qualify one as a “supporter of PAS”.

Pressed for an answer, Mr Welsh then said "I do support PAS and its advice. However, there is an essential difference between that which applies to British subjects governed by the Treasure Act and PAS, and that which applies to all buyers in other nations". That is simply not the case. The PAS is entirely a voluntary scheme for responsible collectors and does not "govern" anyone. It asks collectors them to act in a particular way as a matter of personal responsibility - nothing to do with the law. The text of the “Advice” was however addressed to buyers abroad too requesting the same degree of personal responsibility as British citizens.

In the course of this discussion, Welsh revealed that as a US antiquities dealer he regards himself exempt from any compunction to follow PAS advice for responsible buyers of portable antiquities on the entirely spurious grounds that he is not British and therefore postulating that the advice wasn't meant to refer to him and his fellow collectors abroad. According to this view, Britain cannot possibly have any opinion on or wishes about what others should do when acquiring ancient objects of cultural interest from its soil. Surely this is something that Britons do have a right to decide themselves and not, Mr Swift correctly argued, a subject of negotiation over the other side of the Atlantic. There is no question of the foreigners having a different relationship to portable antiquities coming from British soil than Britons. Either buyers agree with PAS's advice about responsible purchasing of portable antiquities and conform, or they don't.

Referring this discussion over the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the "Advice for people buying archaeological objects from the UK” on the Unidroit-L list, Welsh was greeted by fellow antiquities dealer Eftis Paraskevaides with the words “Congratulations for exposing this verbal excrement”. Iranian chemical engineer Farhad Assar asked “Who is this "Mr. Swift"? Is he part of human race?”. John Rieske a collector who hails from Ohio (calling himself ‘Lysimachos’) however was more forthcoming about his attitude to PAS urging to collect British artefacts responsibly:

Mr. Swift (via Unidroit-L) So you think that everybody, no matter where they live should abide by your laws (British, I presume) even though I live in different country from yours. Oh! how wonderful! Now I guess we must abide by your traffic laws (driving on the left? How reprehensible!) and your court
system (which sucks BTW, [not that ours is great.]) It is the job of the citizens of a country to enforce their own laws through the establishment of responsible law enforcement, rather than shifting the onus upon citizens of other countries. You are in violation of many of my countries laws, possibly including libel and certainly in driving left of center. Do I have the right to demand that you cease and desist because I and my nation disagree with your laws? Of course not.
So keep you laws to yourself and place your blame where it truly lies: with the criminals.


So there we have it, according to the Ohio collector addressing Nigel Swift's remarks, there is no reason for the PAS to try to encourage good practice among buyers of portable antiquities. He says if the British cannot stop sales of illicitly obtained artefacts through responsible (sic) law enforcement, the US collector is entirely justified in buying any of it they want because it is the fault of the British for not looking after it properly. This collector too seems unaware that the PAS is not a "law".

Does the blame for irresponsible collecting lie as Mr Rieske asserts “with the criminals” or those that aid and abet the criminals by buying illicit property from them without asking any questions?

The PAS advice seems quite straightforward to me:
Five things to ASK :
Have you legal title to sell? Where was the object found? When was the object found? Was there a legal obligation to report the find? Has the object been recorded?If a seller cannot satisfactorily answer all or any of these questions or if you have doubts whether an object is illicit or not, then our advice is do not buy it”.
Oh and they remind foreign buyers they need an export licence to legally export archaeological finds from the UK.

What actually is so unreasonable about that when seen from Ohio?

Pssst... wanna buy this, Guv?

The Codes of Ethics/Conduct of dealers and collectors of portable antiquities speak in comforting but very woolly terms about not buying illicit or stolen goods. When one examines them closely however it can be seen that they do not restrict collectors overly since they have a very narrow definition of what falls into those categories and do not require the collector to actually ask penetrating questions of the seller like the "Advice for people buying archaeological objects from the UK” of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Any good citizen who receives an offer to buy illicit goods would of course refuse to take part in the transaction no matter how superficially tempting it is. They would also in many cases report the incident to the appropriate authorities so the culprit can be prevented from engaging in illegal activity and perhaps in some way harming the interests of others. Not so in the portable antiquities collecting world. Many dealers say they will not buy illicit items if offered, but how many warn those that would attempt this would be reported to the relevant authorities if they tried? A few years ago I was writing up old excavations on a site and contacted a major museum about finds from old excavations they had from it, “oh we’ve got some new finds of coins from there in our database!” they said. They had, information on finds which doubled the known finds of coins of that period from the site as a whole, but ripped out of context (no information on what part of this large and complex site they had come from) and now scattered in at least two private coin collections. The problem is that the remote site had been scheduled for several decades before it was visited by the metal detectorists whose finds I was now hearing about. The names of the miscreants? Oh, that’s secret says the museum numismatist, covering up for the criminals, so as not to scare off others bringing dodgy finds so they can be included in some coin typological database. No matter that they had trashed part of the site I was working on and no doubt as we spoke could well be doing the same to many more. But the numismatist got to hold briefly a few nice coins in his hand and ponder their typology. Ellis (1995, 223) notes that dealers also do not report dodgy offers to the police, in order not to jeopardise a potential 'source'.

Surely Codes of Ethics for dealers and collectors should include not only an obligation not to benefit from criminal activity but to actively fight it.

Ellis, R. 1995, 'The Antiquities Trade: a Police perspective', pp 222-5 in: K.W. Tubb (ed.) 1995, Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed, legal, ethical and conservation issues, London.

A Threat of Turmoil unless...

Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh's latest "contribution" to international dialogue on portable antiquities collecting:
I really do not think that all of British archaeological thought has yet fully grasped the ethical implications of [the] demand that all antiquities must be fully provenanced before they may ethically be traded or collected. This is a very fundamental point, and it would be a serious error for British archaeologists to promulgate a "code of ethics" for collectors in which that demand is included as an ethical requirement, before the serious differences that presently exist have been fully discussed and resolved.
[...] When Barford and his fellow thinkers leave collectors in peace, you will be left in peace. Until that happens there will be turmoil. If you find that disagreeable, then I suggest that you give some thought to whether Mr. Barford is accomplishing anything constructive, or whether he is simply alienating and irritating collectors to the point that they are ready to take
concrete action to assert their rights.
Sounds to me like ACCG officer Mr Welsh is angling for British archaeologists, under threat of him and his fellow portable antquity collectors creating "turmoil" in their midst, to place a gag order on critics of portable antiquity collecting 'a la ACCG'.
What "rights" does the US collector actually have over the objects of cultural interest from other countries, such as Great Britain? Do these people imagine that their own personal rights completely override those of the citizens and state administration of those other countries? By what right does Mr Welsh think he can dictate to the British archaeological community what they should think, and threaten them if they don't change their minds about the ethics of collecting artefacts taken from their archaeological contexts? Let us see how well he has judged them and the depth of their obsession with "context". Of course they could just ignore his threats and treat the ill mannered transatlantic interloper with a polite but sardonic grin.

Dura lex sed lex

Wisconsin coin collector and dealer Jim McGarigle (“Polymath numismatics”) says he is “shocked” to learn from this blog what British law defines as Objects of Cultural Interest and in a post on his 'Ancient & World Coin Geek' blog called “Scholarly Pedantics - More Extreme Archaeology” proceeds to poke fun at what he calls “extreme archaeologists” who (as the ACCG-style numismophilic conspiracy theory goes) allegedly must be behind all this. He says “I think documenting any coin 50 years old or older, regardless of value qualifies as a demonstration of pedantry or pedantic behavior”. He then goes on to define the word, presumably worried that some coin collectors may not know what it means. Frankly I do not see any evidence of "scholarly pedantry" has been presented by Mr McGarigle, rather the opposite.

In his disdainful treatment of what the law of the UK says, Mr McGarigle ignores the fact that there might be other types of objects of cultural interest that the British might wish to control the export of. As a foreign collector eager to get his hands on cultural property from other countries, he may not accept that Britain has the right to do this, but fortunately it does. The fifty year watershed is for all types of cultural property, not only that which is the direct product of excavations, and the legislation sets out exemptions (for example postage stamps).

McGarigle ignores this, and pokes fun at the British showing examples of recent UK coins on sale on eBay which have obviously never been in the ground and pretending that British law (personified for some reason by an Indiana Jones icon) is saying “that belongs in a museum!” I invite Mr McGarigle to read the Reports of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and related literature and discover how many coins have had export licences refused and on what grounds. I do not think he will find many 1958 shillings among them.

As I said here earlier, it is essential for collectors of portable antiquities to make an effort to determine what legislation applies in the various source countries to the material they collect. Surely responsible collectors and dealers could easily put together a resource containing this information. It is disturbing that people like Jim McGarigle should be learning about it - apparently for the first time - from sources like this blog.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Californian coin dealing: the British Connection

Earlier here I posted some perfectly reasonable queries that arose when reading what pro-collecting activist Dave Welsh was saying about his own business practices which he was holding up as an exemplar of ethical trading. He seems however not to have appreciated his firm, ‘Classical Coins’ of Goleta California being examined in this way. In a post entitled “Barford Attacks Unidroit-L Listowner's Ethics” he complains
I should add that the tone of Mr. Barford's blog post is gratuitously insulting, and that not only in my opinion, but also in that of an attorney experienced in cultural property law, his remarks are skating on the very edge of defamation.

Anyone who has followed these discussions will be aware that Mr Welsh and his fellow ACCG officers are no strangers to the use of insulting language referring to conservationists in the archaeological milieu. There is of course nothing “gratuitously insulting” in pointing out contradictory statements in information Mr Welsh disseminates about his own firm in presenting it as an exemplar how other similar businesses should be operating. In response to his answer and its somewhat aggressive tone therefore, I would like to expand on why I am still puzzled by what Mr Welsh asserts, and invite him to avail himself of the ability to post a comment here to clarify the situation. There are three main matters involved and for clarity I want to treat them in three separate and successive posts.

The first issue concerns three conflicting statements about purchase of artefacts in Britain. Mr Welsh has at many times expressed the opinion that Britain has the wisest and most fair antiquities legislation in the world. It is therefore perfectly valid to ask what experience Mr Welsh actually has with this system. In his reply to the questions I raised here, he now asserts:

The only items I have acquired that are known to have originated in Britain are antiquarian books and antique furniture, which if more than 100 years old are subject to export control under the provisions of UNESCO 1970. These however did not fall under
that classification
I suspect that Mr Welsh is becoming confused; the 1970 UNESCO Convention has NOTHING to do with this. What is important is UK and EU export licencing requirements.

Let us have a look at the wider context of the first quote I cited the other day. It was (as the reader can check for themselves) part of an ongoing discussion about export licences for antiquities in general:


"The question is, whether once British subjects or concerns get
title to an ancient coin
, are they then free to sell it to me without having to get an export license? I believe that they are.
I have never received an export license with any of the items shipped to me from the UK. Can you help to clarify this, seeing that there is apparently some confusion?" [my emphasis]
The context indicates that the word “items” here clearly does not refer to “antiquarian books and antique furniture”. In the second quote I cited here, the topic of discussion was “doing the right thing” (and the context in the thread was a discussion of following the advice of the Portable Antiquities Scheme about the purchase of artefacts. In answering an earlier point Welsh wrote:

Conducting my business is also "doing the right thing." I'm an
ethical dealer, and have never acquired an antiquity from the UK that was not provenanced.


Again, “antiquity” and not “antiquarian books and antique furniture” and they are all provenanced (how do you provenance second hand books and old chairs?). But then a day later he said:


I have never acquired an artifact in Britain, and do not ever expect to do so.

There is nothing “gratuitously insulting” in pointing out that these three statements as written are in total conflict with each other. It does not seem unduly churlish to ask the reason why this should be when Mr Welsh has been setting his own business practice out as an exemplar.

On his own Unidroit-L site Mr Welsh comments “I believe I have every right to defend myself and the collectors I serve on archaeology lists.” Perhaps the collectors Mr Welsh “serves” and archaeologists will note that instead of an explanation of the first three mutually exclusive, only a fourth was proffered which conflicts with them even more.

I ask again, Do any of the coins Classical Coins has had in stock come from provenanced British finds or not?. (Mr Welsh is perfectly welcome to post a comment here explaining these discrepancies if he can manage to stay on topic and not use abusive and insulting language).

Californian coin dealing and the Bulgarian connection

In an earlier post here I discussed the accumulations of Roman provincial bronze coins from Thrace and lower Moesia which a Californian coin dealer is offering. I asked where they came from and how they got to California. In reply, the proprietor of the firm, coin dealer and pro-collecting activist Dave Welsh tells readers of his Unidroit-L list:


They were acquired from a long established, reputable dealer in Canada. Canada is a signatory to UNESCO 1970, and I had observed that Revenue Canada was very scrupulous in enforcing Canadian import regulations. I did not doubt that these coins were licitly imported.
So once again we have the employment of a variant of the “Customs officers had no objections” argument which I have earlier discussed here as a totally dubious justification which sometimes used by dealers who cannot be bothered to comply with the export regulations of the countries which are the source of the exported archaeological material. I am sure though that Mr Welsh meant to say that the (unnamed) Canadian dealer was able to show his customer (Classical Coins) a copy of the export papers which were required to get them through the rigours of Canadian customs.

I am however a bit puzzled by the fact that earlier Mr Welsh talking of these same coins wrote:


"I had, and still have, no idea of where or when the coins were discovered. They were acquired licitly in the USA and Canada. […] I make all reasonable efforts to avoid acquiring anything that may have been stolen or that I think has been smuggled into the USA. It would, however, be absolutely unreasonable to require me to prove beyond all doubt the actual origin of everything I buy". [my emphasis]
To judge from a juxtaposition of these two statements talking about the same process, one might conclude that these “all reasonable efforts” consists of little more than buying from a dealer whose suppliers for one reason or another have not been stopped by US and Canadian customs of sending archaeological material abroad. The admission that some of these coins were purchased in the USA however takes on a new irony in the light of the fact that Mr Welsh is very visible as an ardent campaigner aiming to get the lifting of existing US import restrictions on certain types of archaeological material, including coins. Mr Welsh apparently sees no ambiguity in relying on the existence of import restrictions to justify his claims of the legitimacy of his own business practices as an artefact dealer while at the same time being an active campaigner for their lifting.

Surely due diligence in cases like these does indeed require the buyer to “prove beyond all doubt the actual origin of everything” they buy when the commodity is notoriously known to be one which includes a substantial admixture of material of completely illicit origin. Such as precisely ancient coins of the types found in the Balkans and Bulgaria, in other words precisely the type of material under discussion here. It is not “unreasonable” at all for a responsible and ethic dealer to take every possible step to identify the origin of material like this, and if that is impossible, not to touch it. This is not a case for "innocent until proven guilty" but simple good practice.

There is nothing “gratuitously insulting” in pointing out the ambiguity of the situation concerning these job lots of provincial Roman coins offered to its customers by Classical Coins, held up by its proprietor as a paragon of virtue, but in fact no different from several hundred sellers engaged in the selling of bulk lots of objects some of which may reasonably be suspected by its purchasers in the light of evidence to the contrary as having come from the illegal metal detecting of archaeological sites in central southeastern Europe which we know is occurring on a massive scale. On his own Unidroit-L site, Mr Welsh comments “I believe I have every right to defend myself and the collectors I serve on archaeology lists.” Perhaps the collectors Mr Welsh “serves” and archaeologists will note that instead of a meaningful assurance that these coins can be documented as being of legitimate provenance, all that seems to be being offered is a weak argument that “Canadian customs had no objections to their import”, but that some of them were in any case bought in the USA.

I ask again, to what degree do the measures applied by the proprietors of US firms like Classical Coins prevent their stock containing items from illegal metal detecting in the Balkans and how is the client to know from the information presented in its sales offer? That is surely a perfectly valid question in the circumstances and one that should not be dismissed.

Classical coin dealing and the Parthian connection

In a discussion here, I raised a number of questions about a newly-listed group of 17 Parthian coins of Orodes II on offer by a Californian coin dealer. Since no provenance is cited in the sales offer, I asked how the dealer and more importantly his clients can know these do not come from recent looting of archaeological sites in Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan? The same dealer has many other similar coins, again no hint of where they came from and how they got into his shop. This is a straightforward question, no “insult" there. How is the concerned client to know? The dealer has himself offered an answer.



These were received from a Spanish dealer who is among my trusted sources. Spain is not a path through which illicit coins are known to flow to the market, and there was considerable commerce in antiquity between Spain and areas where Parthian coins circulated.
It would seem from this reply to my question that in effect "due diligence" here is merely an assumption that Spaniards cannot possibly take part in any illicit trade of antiquities. So where did this mysterious unnamed Spanish portable antiquities dealer get this group of coins from? Mr Welsh offers the information that in antiquity there was “considerable commerce between Spain and areas where Parthian coins circulated”, and we understand that this is offered as an explanation how a Spanish dealer legitimately obtained these coins. I am unclear whether Mr Welsh is perhaps claiming that these 17 Parthian coins were found in Spain at the end of some cross-continental trade route from one end of the Roman Republic and Empire to another (otherwise why mention it?). If so, maybe he could explain how the story of how these coins reached California tallies with Spain’s very complex and relatively strictly enforced (vide the "Black Swan saga unfolding) antiquity protection legislation. I wonder whether he would like to show his clients any export licence he was issued together with the export of these coins if they came from Spanish soil (I understand that among collectors Spain has a notoriously complex export licencing procedure for archaeological finds).
An interesting sidelight on all this is provided by Farhad Assar (expatriate Iranian chemical engineer living in Oxford and amateur numismatist specializing in Parthian coinage). He writes on Welsh’s Unidroit-L forum (and cross-posted on Britarch) reassuring Mr Welsh:

Having browsed through your website, I found no Parthian tetradrachms of Orodes II that might have been originated in Iraq. So, if Barford is talking about those silver drachms of Orodes II (Nos. S0240/3442 - S0263/3448) some of which have a reddish patina, his remarks prove that he is numismatically illiterate. Please refer him to the publications by McDowell and Le Rider on coins from Seleucia on the Tigris to see for himself the improbability of your drachms having been found in Iraq. Parthian drachms hardly ever circulated in Mesopotamia.
Well, of course I made no mention whatsoever of “Parthian tetradrachms of Orodes II” and Dr Assar seems to confuse place of minting and findspot. Being “numismatically illiterate” (sic) I am at a loss why Dr Assar can state that (whatever the denomination) Parthian coins "hardly ever circulated" in Mesopotamia. In fact I cannot see on what basis such comments can be made when so few of the relevant coins on the market come from known findspots. A quick search reveals that several hoards with coins of Orodes II have been found in recent years but no mention is made of information on where they were found. For example this one discussed by Californian collector Thomas K. Mallon-McCorgray:

"a new hoard of Orodes II coins I looked through in early May, 2002. Although there were several hundred coins, I was able to document only 121 of them, as follows....” (no details of where these coins were found, seen, who they were shown by and what happened to them afterwards).
Another, the so-called:

"90-50 BC hoard" 2004 - reports began surfacing in August-September 2004 of this hoard which reportedly contained well over 4000 drachms issued from
Mithradates II (Sellwood 28) to Orodes II (Sellwood 43) in different grades
and a good number of unrecorded varieties.
This phrase "surfacing" of course refers to these items appearing on sale. (The same website does not list any hoards containing Parthian coins from Spain). Looking through various online sources certainly suggests that many if not most Parthian coins on the market have lost any provenance details (Dave Welsh estimated somewhere that this is the case for 98% of ancient coins generally), so I find it it odd that Dr Assar can assert with any confidence based on two old excavation reports (1935 and 1965) what can be and is being found in Mesopotamia. Provenence details are of course also information of value to numismatists, even though most collectors pay no attention to them.

Dave Welsh replies to Dr Assar on both Unidroit and Britarch lists:

Dear Farhad, Your observations are of course absolutely correct, however in my experience it is useless to point out such relevant numismatic facts to Mr. Barford. He appears only to be interested in incessantly chanting his mantra, i.e. provenance ueber alles.
These “relevant numismatic facts” however tend to be used by coin collectors rather unevenly. Just a few days before Dr Assar’s message on Britarch, John Hooker was expounding once again on the Cyprus coin import restrictions and stressing how even if a Ptolemaic coin was minted in Cyprus it can be found in different parts of the Ptolemaic realms and beyond. Likewise therefore whatever denominations were minted at Seleucia on the Tigris in the reign of Orodes II, that is no guarantee that Parthian coins of other denominations could not have been deposited in the region of modern Iraq within the Parthian hegemony at the time, and in any case surely the probability of that happening is greater than Mr Welsh’s proffered explanation that they could have been found in Spain as a result of cross-continental trade!

Despite the ironic tone with which Mr Welsh attempts to link the position I represent with the ideology of Hitlerite fascism (and who is being “insulting” now? - Cf here and here), provenance IS indeed important.

Mr Welsh comments “I believe I have every right to defend myself and the collectors I serve on archaeology lists.” This would be very interesting, perhaps the collectors Mr Welsh “serves” by various means and archaeologists will note the way due diligence appears from Mr Welsh's own words to have been applied in the case of this purchase of antiquities taken from the region where Parthian coins circulated. All that is offered is a weak argument that “Spain is not a path through which illicit coins are known to flow to the market”. I ask again, to what degree do the measures applied by its proprietor prevent the stock of firms like the Californian coin shop Classical Coins containing items from looting of archaeological sites the region where Parthian coins circulated and how is the client to know from the information presented in its sales offer? That is a perfectly valid question in the circumstances.

Mr Welsh does not have to annoy members of outside forums to present his case. He is perfectly at liberty to post a comment here as long as he keeps to the topic, avoids abusive language and facile insults referring to the ideology of Hitlerite fascism. I remind him that he himself asserted “It is not necessary to insult one's opponent to argue one's case”.

REFERENCES
Mr Welsh neglected to supply me with the references to the two works to which Dr Assar alluded. I assume they are:
Le Rider, Georges. 1965, 'Suse Sous les Seleucides et les Parthes. (Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner)
McDowell.R. H. 1935 Coins from Seleucia on the Tigris, Univ. of Michigan Press (Humanistic Series, vol. 37). Ann Arbor.

Ethics codes and their application by dealers

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has postulated that the codes of conduct of museum professionals and archaeologists “ought to include certain issues like conservation, publishing responsibilities, respect for private ownership and public access”, and they announce that they will be communicating these concerns “to the appropriate organizations or associations in the form of an ACCG petition for consideration”. They seem to be unaware of the fact that the codes of conduct/practice/ethics of a number of archaeological bodies already include these elements.

More interesting from our point of view is that this body, a self-appointed spokesman for the entire international http://www.accg.us/ (it would seem) milieu of ancient coin collectors has proposed its own Code of Ethics for Collectors and Sellers of ancient coins.

It is interesting to note that this was adopted, not as a result of wide consultation in the collecting and cultural heritage protection world, but as the result of a “formal meeting of the Board of Directors at New York, NY on January 15, 2005”. The majority of the officers of the ACCG are dealers, so it is not surprising that this uniform “Code of Ethics for Collectors and Sellers of ancient coins” concentrates mainly on the selling of coins.

Somewhat conventionally the second principle states “Coin Collectors and Sellers will protect, preserve and share knowledge about coins in their collections”, though it would seem it was not thought advisable to add to this Code that information on provenance is an extremely important element of the “knowledge” about archaeological finds (as ancient coins are) which also should be preserved by sellers and collectors of this type of material.

The last three of the five principles refer to the ethics of selling coins “Coin Sellers will not knowingly sell modern forgeries of ancient coins, and all ancient counterfeits or Renaissance type copies will be clearly identified as such”, “Coin Sellers will disclose all known defects, including tooling, re-engraving or reconstruction of coins they sell.”, “Coin Sellers will not misrepresent the value of coins they buy or sell.”

From our point of view however the first principle of this code of ethics is completely inadequate, as has previously pointed out by David Gill. It states
Coin Collectors and Sellers will not knowingly purchase
coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites or stolen from museum or personal collections, and will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country.
In the same vein the ACCG advises collectors that the way to help protect archaeological sites from looting is for collectors “refusing to purchase any coin known to be removed from a scheduled archaeological site or stolen from a private or public collection and by complying with all cultural property laws in their own country.” It is not however stated how this is to be achieved, it is unlikely that any dealer selling such items or in contravention of domestic would be openly advertising that fact.
We note the wording “knowingly purchase”, this is a far different matter from “will take steps to ensure” (which actually involves asking the vendor to demonstrate the licit origin of the portable antiquities on offer). The same goes for the manner in which the ethical collector will ensure that a coin has come from an old collection because its owner has passed it on willingly or whether it was stolen. As for where the coins ultimately come from, the problem is not whether any archaeological site which has been riddled with holes to extract collectables for foreign markets is scheduled or not (or even known to the authorities), it is whether the irreversible extraction of archaeological evidence from it was recorded or not. Obviously most collectors will feel they are helping to prevent culture-crime by buying coins but not asking where they came from, that way they are not "knowingly" buying looted or stolen material.

The clause “will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country” would be laughable if we did not know that this is actually the self-justification some portable antiquity collectors actually do apply to what they do. “No law was broken in my country” they say and the antiquities protection laws of the countries where this stuff comes from are "unwise” and “unjust” and therefore there is not only no legal obligation to respect them, but (these people claim) neither is there any sort of ethical conflict in not doing so, nor in financing those who deliberately break the law of their own country because there are foreign buyers greedy for the products. This rather reduces the value of the ACCG document as a code of “ethics”. This is merely the “its legal innit?” argument taken to extremes.

More important however than what the wording of a code of ethics says, is how its principles are reflected in action. In particular by dealers who at the same time set themselves up as authorities speaking for the whole collecting community. Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh, an ACCG officer and pro-collecting activist has obligingly supplied some information on this in reply to my queries about the manner of determination of the actual origins of some of the unprovenanced items on offer by his own firm (Classical coins) Yesterday he was assuring British archaeologists that in his own business practices

I take all available measures to avoid anything illicit. No one could possibly carry on my business with more attention paid to ensuring that only trustworthy sources are dealt with.
Mr Welsh therefore holds out Classical Coins as a real paragon of virtue. So it is with great interest that we learn of the methods applied to prevent illicitly obtained archaeological material being among that offered by this firm. In one case he tells us that a group of Parthian coins:

were received from a Spanish dealer who is among my trusted sources. Spain is not a path through which illicit coins are known to flow to the market, and there was considerable commerce in antiquity between Spain and areas where Parthian coins circulated.
Is this unnamed dealer trusted mainly because he is Spanish and “Spain is not a path through which illicit coins are known to flow to the market”? Is that enough to make this dealer a “trusted source"or was any other verification of what he has on offer applied? Especially important when (as in this case) the coins concerned were not of Spanish but of Parthian origin, and so of types in circulation in the region of modern Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, countries where looting of archaeological sites is rife.

My questions in another case which I discussed, coins apparently coming from the Balkans and adjacent areas (another region where archaeological sites are notoriously targeted by looters on a massive scale), was dismissed with the words:
They were acquired from a long established, reputable dealer in Canada. Canada is a signatory to UNESCO 1970, and I had observed that Revenue Canada was very scrupulous in enforcing Canadian import regulations. I did not doubt that these coins were licitly imported.
The unnamed dealer from which these were bought has been in operation over a longish period, has a “good reputation” (for what?) and furthermore operates in a country where Mr Welsh believes the customs service rigorously enforces the export restrictions of other countries (really?)

In neither of these cases is it stated to which of the several numismatic trade codes of ethics/conduct these unnamed dealers subscribe, nor what assurances had been sought and received in addition to the (rather weak) justifications for “trusting’ these sources offered in the pro-collector advocate's description of his own business practices .

Is this typical of what is happening? Mr Welsh claims that nobody else could carry out this business with more attention paid to the sources of the objects he deals in, and yet what he describes seems to me to be barely sufficient - in fact, insufficient. This raises very real questions about how dealers in portable antiquities actually do ascertain that the goods they buy and sell have not come from the looting of archaeological sites in the source countries and illicitly exported from that country. If they cannot actually show - even when they are trying so hard as Mr Welsh seems to be - that they are able to ascertain that, how can they claim that they uphold any sort of ethics at all? There is a difference between legality and ethics.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Export of portable antiquities from UK

The Reports of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art are reassuring looking documents with colour photos of the objects saved for the nation, and lots of tables. If one turns to the appendices it turns out that annually there are about 27 000 export licence applications processed. Of these, as many as 23 000 will be for British (and European) archaeological material. This high proportion is because archaeological material is not covered by the same conditions as antiques (where items below a certain value are not subject to such restraints).

If this export has been going on at that sort of rate for the last decade it means that in an HMCR archive somewhere there are records referring to some 230 000 exported items. In the same period the Portable Antiquities Scheme managed to gather information about only slightly more items found by metal detectorists (some 300 000 in the same period). There is no way of knowing to what degree these two records overlap, but this is an interesting comment on the scale of the activity. It would be very useful if the two were integrated, or even better the forbidding of export of archaeological material without it first having been recorded by the appropriate body, not only in Scotland and Northern Ireland (which is currently the case), but the PAS for finds from England and Wales. Perhaps PAS could in some way be more fully integrated into the export licensing procedure.

Another interesting fact that emerges from these reports concerns the licenced export of coins. Celtic, Roman and medieval coins are archaeological artefacts and are certainly being removed from the ground by metal detectorists in large numbers and a certain proportion of them exported from the United Kingdom. Despite this, it is interesting to note that the number of UK export licences issued for coins annually is usually only around the 400 mark. This gives the impression that coin dealers are simply ignoring UK export regulations, while sellers of other types of portable antiquities are abiding by them to a greater extent. It is odd that licences are applied for in the case of metal detected regimental buttons or Georgian buckles being sent to the States, but it the object of export is a Roman coin, or a bulk lot of them, it would appear that seldom is a licence being applied for. If we allow that the number of coins alone going across the UK’s borders is probably going to be something like that of other collectables (or maybe there is an even greater demand for them from foreign buyers), that is a pretty substantial drain on our archaeological record, passing away under our very noses without any record and without anyone looking over what is being lost to the national heritage. Is it too much to ask that numismatic dealers conform to these regulations to the extent that, it would appear, many other sellers do?

Ethical dealing: The cock crowed thrice



One of the potential dangers in being a vociferous opponent of cultural preservation measures and at the same time running a business selling antiquities must be that it increases scrutiny of the business practices of one’s firm. Californian “professional numismatist” and vociferous pro-collecting activist Dave Welsh, the proprietor of Classical Coins for example seems unclear where some of his goods actually come from.

For example he is cagey about what he has bought in Great Britain. He candidly admitted in November 2007 on his own Unidroit-L discussion list:

I have never received an export license with any of the items shipped to me from the UK.
and subsequent discussion on that list indicated that he was not the only US portable antiquities dealer that was unaware of the circumstances under which a UK export licence was needed for coins and other antiquities. This incident was discussed in Heritage Action’s online journal.

A few days ago when discussing what the recommendations of Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme on buying antiquities would mean for a collector of portable antiquities, Mr Welsh expounded:

I'm an ethical dealer, and have never acquired an antiquity from the UK that was not provenanced
So no export licenses, but the proprietor of Classical Coins assures archaeologists that the only portable antiquities from the UK which he handles are provenanced. In the light of these, at first sight, unambiguous statements, it is curious to learn just a day later:

I do not make artifact purchases in Britain. I have never acquired an artifact in Britain, and do not ever expect to do so
I think all past, present and potential clients would be interested to learn the relationship between these three apparently conflicting statements and the assurances of the proprietor of Classical Coins about the origins of his stock in general. Do any of the coins he has had in stock come from provenanced British finds or not?

Professor Elizabeth Stone’s analysis (published in Antiquity with a summary here) of of satellite imagery of the holes dug in Iraqi archaeological sites since the weakening of controls due to political instability introduced by UN sanctions in the 1990s has shown that some sites there were being targeted in all probability for Parthian and later coins. These coins are also sought by artefact hunters in neighbouring Iran and Afghanistan, and again the looting in the latter has not abated since the recent US-led invasion. Artefacts from the latter region are now appearing on eBay and attempts to stem the flow by introducing new legislation were strenuously fought by the US antiqity dealer lobby (including the ACG). In the light of this it is interesting to note that Classical Coins has among its "new listings" a group of 17 coins of the relatively short reign of Orodes II (57 to 38 BC) they are all in a similar state of preservation, have the same reddish brown surface deposits which suggests that they might have been found together – but where and when? Although Welsh states where he got his other “new listings” from ("ex Dr A. W. Potts collection”, presumably that sold by Freeman and Sear Feb 2007), the origins, neither general nor specific, of these new Parthian items is not even hinted at. Since no provenance is cited, how does Mr Welsh and more importantly the clients of Classical Coins, know these do not come from recent looting of archaeological sites in Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan? Mr Welsh has many other similar coins here, again no hint of where they came from and how they got into his shop.

The same goes for Classical Coins’ "specials", job lots of Roman provincial “coins that we were able to acquire in quantity and can offer to the collector at particularly attractive prices”. From whom were they “acquired in quantity”, and where did they originate? They seem not to be metal detector finds from legitimate searching in Great Britain, some of them are stated to be “Roman provincial bronze coins from Thrace and lower Moesia” (ie the area of modern Bulgaria), some are specifically noted as having been struck at Thessalonica and Siscia. Many different dates and coin types in various states are involved, and these coins have the appearance of being the pickings of accumulations from metal detector use on many different archaeological sites and findspots across a region. The looting of archaeological sites in the Balkans and along the limes to produce relics and coins which are then sold on illegal domestic markets and smuggled out to foreign ones is a severe problem. Here organized crime is known to be deeply involved in this trade (for example, see the fifth chapter of a recent report on Organized Crime in Bulgaria which Nathan Elkins draws attention to). Again in offering these artefacts for sale, the Classical Coins website gives no indication of where these coins came from and how they reached California. How is the client to know what they are buying and into whose pockets Mr Welsh's dollars were ultimately ending up to get them?

These are of course questions that could be posed to other dealers selling this kind of material. There are many dealerships like Classical Coins (over 200 in the US alone) and serving 50 000 US collectors of ancient coins who seem could not care less where the coins are coming from as long - it would seem - as they have a ready supply of them at prices they can afford. But what price is the archaeological record of the 'source countries' paying?

REFERENCES
Shentov, O., Todorov, B. and Stoyanov, A. 2007, 'Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends', Sofia, Center for the Study of Democracy (this thought-provoking report figures the antiquities trade alongside trade in drugs, prostitution and human trafficking, and vehicle thefts).

Elizabeth C. Stone 2008, "Patterns of looting in southern Iraq", Antiquity, Vol. 82, No. 315, 125–38.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Who needs Export Licences?

In his comments on an earlier post here Ed Snible suggests that it would be helpful if this blog could explain the rules about UK and EU export licences. It is not the purpose of this blog to provide legal advice, but perhaps a few points might be made about the UK system, which by no means exhaust the topic.

The regulations on this are indeed very involved and complicated by the fact that the UK follows the EU in most areas, but not in the case of (for example) archaeological material.

I think we should keep in mind the purpose of export licences. Portable antiquity collectors see it from their own point of view as something which is “restrictive” (in other words restricts their “freedoms”), fortunately not all collectors on the British art market see it that way, US portable antiquity collectors (and coin collectors in particular) seem to be a breed alone in this regard. In effect, the purpose of the British export licencing system (like any other of course) is that the British authorities would like to see what is being removed from the country before it goes. This is to make sure nothing is going out that the British people might feel should in fact be in the national collections. If something is regarded as required for the national collections, import is temporarily halted (by non-issue of the required licence) while the object is offered to national collections which can attempt to raise the money to purchase it. This is not always possible even despite the inevitable media campaigns, and the item ends up being exported anyway. Surely it is not too much to ask of exporters that they ask politely if the British do not mind this or that piece of cultural property being exported instead of being made available in British collections? The number of items refused permission is actually very slight in comparison to the immense scale of the movement of cultural property (both ways) across the borders of the UK.

Ed is a coin collector and asks in his comments to the earlier post,

If I buy a Roman coin minted in Rome found in Britain is it a "UK object"?
and

The flow chart doesn't mention coins

As we have seen, there is a curious opinion in the coin-collecting world in the US (where ancient coins do not as a general rule come out of the ground) that “ancient coins are not archaeological finds”. In the UK (one of the countries where ancient coins do indeed form part of the archaeological record) there is no such opinion. In the eyes of British law and public opinion and of course the professional view is that coins are archaeological finds and need an export licence to the same degree and under the same conditions as other archaeological finds.

Basically any archaeological material found in UK soil or UK territorial waters, more than 50 years old and regardless of monetary value, requires an individual export licence to leave the UK. That's what the law says. So regardless of whether the coin was “minted in Rome” or not, and whether coins were generally "originally made to to be exchanged between regions", if it formed part of the archaeological record in the UK and was dug from it, it needs an export licence. In fact of the many thousands (yes) of export licence applications made in the UK each year for archaeological finds, only a handful of objects are refused export permission. They are published in a series of nicely written and illustrated ("look how well we are doing") reports. I must say that on looking through them, the archaeological objects retained on the basis of the criteria applied in making the decision are rather a motley bunch of items.

So basically in the majority of cases, getting the required documentation is a matter of filling in the forms properly and waiting. Some exporters though (perhaps at the instigation of impatient clients) obviously cannot be bothered to do this, they put the item in a padded envelope and clandestinely send it across the UK’s (and EU’s) borders in that way, counting on the fact that Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue only open and inspect the contents of a random selection of the many millions of postal packages sent abroad daily. It would seem that most times these exporters get away with it (that says a lot about HM Customs, because it must mean that far worse cases than a few ancient coins or brooches are also getting through the “net”). It is worth noting that many sellers of ancient and historic objects in the EU (for example metal detectorists) write clearly in their sales offer that they “do not send items abroad”. In other words, they are aware of the export regulations, and feel obliged to comply with them, but don’t want the bother of filling in the paperwork, so rather than export artefacts illegally they sell only within the borders of their own country.

A few weeks ago, I had a frustrating discussion on the Yahoo ‘Ancient Artifacts’ forum with a dealer who thought that by the seller putting metal detected archaeological artefacts in a padded envelope and writing on the outside “old coins” the customs formalities had been “satisfied” because, his argument ran, if customs had “had any objections” to their export they would have stopped the package. If they did not, these items were in his opinion legally exported.

Probably the person who carries a few old coins mixed with other coins in a purse and walks through customs with them can say the same thing "they could have stopped and searched me but they did not, so what I did is obviously OK with them".

This "Customs Had No Objections" Argument is a very dubious self-justification indeed. Firstly it ignores the fact that customs only enforce (or not) the requirements, while decisions on what is and is not to be exported (ie the issue of an export licence) in most countries are the domain of a specialist service set up for the purpose. Secondly, there are a number of reasons why archaeological items might pass through customs undetected, and none of them is connected with the legality of the activity.
Objects exported by these means without an export licencew where one is required have unquestionably been illegally exported. They have been “sneaked through the system” in other words – lets call a spade a spade – smuggled out. The purchaser who surely knows there are export restrictions on such items and cannot produce a valid individual export licence for them should surely be accountable for it. The dealer who buys these objects is buying illegally exported items and in doing so is dealing with a criminal. The collector buying from the dealer should have access to the documentation that shows the offered artefact was not originally purchased from a criminal, the "reputation" of the dealer must be grounded in their ability to demonstrate this.

I have been unable to find out whether there are any international postal agreements which cover the use of the postal service for the transfer of cultural property like this. If not, there should be.

There are also complications in that most of the legislation covering this concerns illegal export, while a serious loophole is that import into many countries is not restricted, even when the object is illegally exported at the other end of its journey a few hours earlier (unless certain conditions exist, like the US import restrictions on archaeological material of Cypriot or Iraqi etc. origin – but it should be stressed that these are exceptions). While I am sure there are many good reasons (and a few less salubrious maybe) why this should be so, it places the struggle against illegal transfer of cultural property at a disadvantage.

Mr Snible asked:
What if I purchase a Greek coin that wasn't found in the UK? If an object receives an Export license can it be re-used if I want to carry the object around with me while visiting the UK or is a new one needed each time?
Here we are getting into the more complicated areas, Greece is in the EU and the questioner lives outside the EU and here all sorts of other things come into interplay, and really it would take a lot of words and time to set out the various options (I've got a book coming out soon, and in its current draft it has a long and boring appendix which sets all this out with a bit of help from colleagues). There are situations when Britain is required to issue an export licence, there are situations when it is not.

It seems to me that if somebody sets out to be a collector of, or even dealer in, in a commodity which is by its nature controversial and often subject to various restrictions, they are honour-bound (if nothing else) to investigate the various regulations that govern its use and transfer. It would be at the least irresponsible to take a car on the road without knowing the rules and regulations which govern not only your own behaviour, but that of other road users. If you drive in several countries, you need to know how the movement of traffic is regulated in these different countries. I do not see where collecting antiquities or any other type of item should be different. I have suggested on collectors’ forums that creating a database of these national and international laws and regulations would be a useful task. It should not take much work, as no doubt the ethical and responsible dealers will already have determined them for their own use. Maybe Mr Snible and other collectors will join me in requesting that responsible dealers in portable antiquities set up a resource for the benefit of their clients setting out the laws which they have already researched and which govern the acquisition, export and import of archaeological finds in the various ‘source countries’.

The UK law at the basis of the rather complex series of export regulations is SI 2003 No. 2759, The Export of Objects of Cultural Interest (Control) Order 2003.

A new aim for the Portable Antiquities Scheme?

A while ago the Portable Antiquities Scheme produced a concise and helpful text called Advice for people buying archaeological objects from the UK addressed to collectors in the UK and beyond its borders. It reminds them of the legal and moral issues involved in purchasing archaeological collectables of UK origin. Topics covered include establishing legal title of the seller to sell, determining where and when the object was found and whether all laws had been followed; in particular whether its discovery had been reported or hidden. It also informs foreign buyers of the need to obtain an export licence to allow it to be taken out of the country legally. I am sure many collectors will find it useful in picking their way through the antiquities trade minefield and in sorting out who is offering items for sale which are legitimate, and who is a 'dodgy dealer' best avoided.

What is interesting however is a comparison of this text with the aims of the PAS as set out here. It becomes clear that, while the initiative is extremely laudable, in reality the writing and publication of this text on the PAS website (as well as on eBay) is not actually related to any of them. This suggests that the Portable Antiquities Scheme in reality has (or should have) a sixth aim:
To encourage responsible collecting of portable antiquities

Is it not interesting that in its current form, the PAS depicts itself as dealing with "finders" and "metal detectorists", but not "collectors" of portable antiquities. Is it not time that this apparent anomaly was dealt with?
 
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