Monday, 20 April 2009

America helps Britain pay for its heritage

On this blog on Sunday I suggested that US collectors might help out a small local authority museum in England trying to raise the cash to purchase a hoard of nine Late Roman coins from Nailsworth, near Stroud, Gloucestershire recently declared Treasure. Half of the 450 quid needed is for the landowner who allowed a metal detector using artefact hunter on his land, and half for the finder. The next day this anonymous news message appeared on the ACCG website (of course omitting any mention of this blog and my suggestion). The ACCG makes it look as if it is its own unprompted initiative for North American collectors to donate to this appeal:

As collectors and dealers we all benefit from the sensible laws in England governing coin finds and we support the voluntary reporting of metal detector finds. [...] This is an ideal opportunity for us to support these laws and the good practice of voluntary reporting by giving something back.

So get your checkbooks out please guys and help out. Just think what good publicity it will be.

The actual total costs of the payments given to artefact hunters all over the UK for complying with the law and handing over government-claimed finds to the state for inclusion in public collections is currently unknown. We should not forget that administering the process is not without its own costs. This system must cost the citizens of Britain in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a hefty number of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for them to buy back from metal detector using artefact seekers pieces of their own heritage. In some years, the overall annual costs must top a million pounds, surely. These are the hidden costs of the "British system" that US portable antiquity collectors (like those in the ACCG) want other nations to adopt because it allegedly works so well in the UK. So while it is nice to see the ACCG chipping in to help Stroud Museum find 450 UKP, one wonders how much they will be willing to donate to the purchase of the Harrogate Hoard (probably somewhere in the region of 1,082,800 UKP) and other such shiny goodies.

I suspect the argument might be raised that such items will be going in most cases to the larger museums where the issue for the pro-collecting lobby is that there such items may not be on permanent display and "would undoubtedly be stored away from view and perhaps never seen again". Nevertheless if they are to find their way into the public collections, somebody must pay for them.

I was also interested by the ACCG's remark: "The museum has an annual budget of only about £100 for the purchase of all finds! Most private collectors could hardly imagine such a small amount to devote to their collection each year". The ACCG's estimated 50 000 US collectors of ancient coins alone spending more than 100UKP on coins a year is putting at least 5 000 000 pounds a year into the market. Just think how much artefact hunting that can finance.

Now, the only problem is if countries like Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and all the others from which a steady flow of portable antiquities currently on the US market come from were to adopt the "British system", who would help THEM foot the bill? Many of them are countries which do not have the resources of the United Kingdom and what they do have is clearly better spent elsewhere. Even if each of them "only" has to find something like the equivalent of Britain's (estimated) million pounds per annum, that's a lot of funds got to come from elsewhere. All the citizens of those countries would have to foot the bill, all so a small minority of collectors do not have to "say no to tainted and undocumented artefacts". Why?

UPDATE: No sooner had I spoken than Peter Dearing posted to the Moneta-L list an appeal from the "Friends of the British Museum" (which he calls an "English museum" sic) for help aquiring the "Vale of York [aka Harrogate] Hoard". They only need a cool quarter of a million quid. But that is just one Treasure find, there's many more out there the Brits would appreciate help with securing for public benefit instead of them disappearing on the open market. I think museums from all over the British Isles might like to send requests for financial help to the US coin collectors lobby organization - The address of the secretary Wayne Sayles is on the ACCG website.

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