Saturday, 31 January 2009

Ringing the "alarm bells"

I have mentioned earlier (here and here) concerns being raised in German collecting circles about the 'criminalisation' of no-questions-asked collecting. According to a message on the Ancient Artifacts forum (cross-posted to the Moneta-L forum too):

German cultural authorities have begun searching private homes and seizing entire collections of antique coins, if provenance of only a few coins in the collection is not documented. These invasions are being conducted under the new German laws on importation of cultural property.[...] In one case, a pensioner from the Thuringian Eisenberg recently acquired four old coins on an Internet auction site. Shortly afterwards his house was searched, ending with seizure of his entire collection. [...] Not only coins, but all "cultural objects" more than 100 years old are subject to these new cultural laws, leading to fears that stamp collections, collections of graphic arts and antique jewelry may also be targeted. [...] The new laws on importation of cultural property became effective in September 2008, after the German government finally gave in to demands that importation of unprovenanced coins and other artifacts should be prevented, because archaeologists allege that looting of archaeological sites is driven by the collecting market. This allegation is unproven - no verifiable, factual evidence has yet been presented to support it.
And so on... According to this author, those nasty, nasty, dirty archaeologists are at it again, entering pensioners' homes and seizing little kids' stamp collections to stop looting of archaeological sites.

In reality no new law was passed in Germany in September 2008 empowering the German authorities to seize just any antiques or stamp collections they fancy. (It is typical that the author of the above-quoted passage did not give his readers the name of this legislation so they can check for themselves what the wording actually does say). This is of course just another of those ACCG black fantasies about what the conspiracies plotted by their bogeymen, the mythical Heritage Brownshirts. This turns out to be just the ranting of another US dealer in no-questions-asked portable antiquities.

The people being investigated in Germany are those who have in some way infringed the cultural heritage protection laws. A gentleman who was traced as being the recipient of four - apparently illicitly obtained - coins might well, in any country, expect the police to interest themselves in what else they may have acquired and how in the past. The problem is that no-questions-asked market they have so carelessly patronised leaves them with no defence against such questions.

Perhaps now the discussion has started there among collectors, we will see the German market not following the line of denial and self-delusion adopted in the USA, but adopting a more responsible approach and paying more attention to these issues and the reasons behind the concerns. The US antiquities seller will however lose part of the European market for no-questions-asked undocumentable antiquities as German collectors will shun these in favour of those that they can add to their collection with the paperword "in ordnung" (perhaps that's part of the motivation behind this alarmist type of propaganda from US and other artefact dealers about the 'consequences'). In addition, the US dealer - for whom the German market was formerly an antiquities laundry, a major source of freshly-dug artefacts - will now have no excuse for the claim he makes to his clientele that the middlemen he buys from do not provide any documents for the material they "legally" sell. As the German collector becomes warier - and better informed about the origins of the material they collect, we will hopefully see an increase in the documentation available from the reputable German dealers.

Is it necessarily a 'bad' thing that responsible artefact collectors will increasingly shun undocumented artefacts of unknown origins? Surely that is the way artefact collecting should be going if it is to exist as a socially acceptable pastime in the twenty-first century?
The days of Petrarch are long gone. This is the way the PAS, for example, is leading.

As for the "verifiable, factual evidence" that looting of archaeological sites is driven by the collecting market, surely it is up to the German people to decide whether or not this is true, after all Germany has what the USA does not - an archaeological record containing ancient collectables which is actually being exploited to serve the market. The evidence the US dealers so strenuously - but ultimately unconvincingly - try to deny is in their face. Let the ACCG send their "foreign affairs officer" over to Germany and try to tell the ancient coin collectors there that all the coins in their collections come from hoards buried "on the edges of old battlefields" by "soldiers who never came back from battle". I imagine he'd get short shrift from educated collectors in a source country like Germany who know where ancient coins and other artefacts are to be found in their own country.

Germany ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in November 2007. The reason by the way, was not so much to stop looting but "to help fight illegal trade in cultural property at the international level". I do not see what a responsible collector of portable antiquities would have against such a measure.


Panopolis said...

Finally, some good news!

Paul, thanks for writing this blog!

I'm reading it in the last months regularly.

Best wish from Hungary.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks Karikásostor
Nice to know that despite what my tracking widget suggests, its not just the "Dark Side" ("metal detectorists" and ancient coin collectors) reading this!

Paul Barford said...

Culture property Observer (Peter Tompa) has a long post about how the German police are breakinbg down people's doors and hauling them off just because they are collectors...

" One thing is for sure. Those archaeologists who take pleasure in the pain of that German pensioner only feed into stereotypes of the archaeological community as a whole amongst collectors."

I suspect that is largely a stereotype of archaeologists that only Peter Tompa has. Actually who this gentleman had problems with is the POLICE. I wonder what "stereotypes" of the German police lawyer Tompa entertains?

Paul Barford said...

I forgot the link to his ACCG-alarmist text "German Police run amok over Provenance requirements". It's here:

It would be funny if I did not think this author was deadly serious and really believes what he writes. Run amok, indeed?

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