Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Coin Dealers Spends Thousands of Dollars of Collectors' Money to Catch the Bush Administration Out

Peter Tompa discusses the publicity which bloggers of the archaeological resource preservation lobby have given the ACCG attempt to question the doings of the Bush administration over the Cyprus and China MOU about import controls of certain categories of portable antiquities into the USA. He reckons the bloggers ("Barford" in particular) have got it all wrong. He says we do not understand what the struggle of the Ancient Coin 'Collectors' Guild, the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) and the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) with the US government is all about. Well, as far as I am concerned at least, this is only too true, since it is clear what the fuss is actually about, it is difficult to see what all the fuss is about. In particular it is difficult to see why the ACCG think it is worth throwing so much of its members (collectors') money away chasing it.

First of all, it is not a collector's issue. Collectors do not "import" "large numbers of ancient coins" from Cyprus or China. This is a dealer's problem, why is the ACCG (composed mainly of coin dealers) and the IAPN and the PNG making collectors pay for their tilting at the US government windmill?

But secondly, what actually is the problem? Well, forgive me for saying so, but if an organization has just spent $45800 of its members money and is now announcing its intention of getting more ("lifting the benchmark" as ACCG Executive Director put it), surely it behoves them to say precisely what the money is being spent on, and how much of it has gone where (and to whom). So far the fruits of the expenditure of 45800 dollars are only evidenced by a series of more or less imaginative and personal conspiracy theories (concerning 'cronyism') on Peter Tompa's blog and some ranting ACCG-centred posts on the Unidroit-L discussion list. That is hardly a convincing result from the expenditure of 45000 dollars which could have otherwise been spent on more heritage-conscious projects by ancient coin collectors. Mind you, I am not an ACCG member, perhaps in the mind of US coin collectors, these conspiracy theories are just what the money's-worth product they are looking for. I could not possibly comment.

More to the point - and I would have thought of importance to the collectors asked to pick up the tab of this action, we have been told how much collectors have footed this bill, what we have not learnt is whether this has been matched by funding of similar magnitude by the IAPN and the PNG. I am sure collectors would appreciate a bit of 'transparency' here too. Before they try to get more money out of collectors to fight a dealers' battle, let the ACCG, IAPN and PNG be fully open about how much of whose money has already gone where and on what.

But that is a collectors' problem. Let us look at the nuts-and-bolts of the case.

The US Cultural Property Advisory Committee is a governmental advisory committee which has the task of advising on a matter which - like it or not - is connected with foreign policy. It is understandable that communications between the US government and foreign governments and details of negotiations affecting foreign governments are not going to be splashed all over the US tabloids. Like many government advisory committees the world over, neither are individual members at liberty outside official channels to reveal details to all and sundry, the press or other interested parties. Certain texts and documents on the ACCG website and contributed to various collecting forums, however, hint very strongly that some details of CPAC deliberations and recommendations in certain cases are already known outside the CPAC and this information is in the hands of the coin dealers' lobby.

It seems, furthermore, that this is the key to the ACCG/IAPN/PNG case. Let me indulge in a little conspiracy theorising of my own. It looks very much as if what the coin dealers have learnt is that the CPAC recommended imposing import restrictions on (among other things) "archaeological artefacts" but for some reason recommended (perhaps) that this should not apply to the items which US ancient coin dealers want to get their hands on. Now, since ancient coins self evidently are archaeological artefacts and come from the looting of sites, this is a very odd recommendation indeed. I for one - as I have said before - look very much forward to seeing the full text of whatever recommendation the CPAC made and the justification given for it. This would make very interesting and revealing reading.

Let us just assume for the moment that the CPAC really did recommend a lack of import controls on ancient coins as opposed to other ancient artefacts.

So what is the problem that when the MOU was published, that coins were included in both the Cyprus and then the China one? After all, the President of the United States and the State Department operating in this regard with his authority do not have to be bound by the recommendations of CPAC. It is after all an advisory committee; this is rather like the situation regarding the recommendations of English Heritage and the British government. In any case, members of the US administration are surely not totally stupid, most of them probably went on to some form of higher education before being appointed; anyone can see that ancient coins are archaeological artefacts - to say they should not be treated as such goes against common sense, it seems uncharitable to assume that the President and his people could not see that. According to the “Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act” [CPIA], Section 303 (f) “the President shall-[…] (3) consider, in taking action on the request or proposal, the views and recommendations contained in any Committee report”. The Act furthermore specifically notes that he can take a contrary action. The decision is taken and authorised by the President, in both the Cyprus and China cases, the last President, George W. Bush.

The whole ACCG/IAPN/PNG case in fact boils down to one little detail. For the dealers in ancient coins kicking up this fuss, it is a huge giant of a windmill of an issue. The CPIA, Section 303 (g) states that if the President in taking his decision does not do so in full accord with the CPAC recommendations, there should be documentation and justification of that fact in the document establishing the MOU.

Well, anyone can see that the State Department did not include this piece of text in the officially published document.

It is this documentation that the ACCG/IAPN/PNG accuses the former President of not having provided. It seems to me that the Bush administration kept quite a lot of "documentation" of a lot of things under wraps. Probably with good reason.

But here is the 45800 dollar question. IF the CPAC recommended something other that what was published (I say "if"), the official publication does not acknowledge that fact as required by Section 303(g) of the CPIA. But if that is the case, it does not take a 45800$ investigation to determine this. Anyone can see it! (Can I have 45000 dollars from the ACCG if I say I can see it? I can see it guys, there is absolutely no mention of a contrary CPAC recommendation in the Cyprus or China MOUs as required by Section 303(g) of the CPIA. But it's OK, I'll settle for a 45000$ donation to SAFE from the coin collectors guild.)

But then again, let us recall that the problems only start for importers who have not got the correct export licences for the objects they want to trade in. Whatever the MOU says, or does not say, traders who already respect the archaeological heritage, the law and maintain the highest standards of good practice are not affected one way or another by the MOU. So why are collectors being asked to fork out YET MORE money to support the ACCG dealers in their questioning of the pragmatics of the creation of this document?

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