Sunday, 28 June 2009

Archaeologist Urges More Transparency

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The ACCG shows signs of exasperation in their efforts to win minds and hearts and overthrow the law with their illegal coin import stunt. Readers will know that Missouri coin dealer Wayne Sayles, the unelected executive director of said lobby group, has an “Ancient Coin Collecting” blog (which has just undergone a facelift from that morbid black - maybe now we'll even have some posts on it about ancient coin collecting). On it he frequently discusses matters connected with maintaining the status quo in the no-questions-asked ancient coin market. Thus it was that this morning I woke up to find there another attack on the writer of these words - this seems to be becoming rather a tradition among US coin collectors and British "metal detectorists".

Mr Sayles' new post is called “Archaeologist defends State Department Secrecy” and it is the usual stuff. Its author justifies its tone by pointing out that “the controversial Barford paints” ancient coin collectors and dealers,”as looters and criminals”. I rather think he is simplifying my arguments somewhat. Apparently:
hot on the heels of Obama administration guidance that transparency is the new order of the day, archaeologist Paul Barford has defended DOS refusal to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
have I? Frankly, I do not care a bit what documents the State Department show Mr Sayles and his coin collecting mates or the Belgian coin dealers’ association, or the big auction houses and petty dealers financing this FOI suit. I think their lawyers and employees are obviously having great fun leading them a merry dance for their members' misspent money. What I find ironic is what this is all ultimately about.

It is about transparency. The coin dealers do not want to have to show US customs one of two types of pieces of paper when bringing ancient coins from certain source countries into the US. They do not want to have to reveal to their customers where the objects they are selling come from. The whole global antiquities trade is built on secrecy, on the right of the dealer to withold information when a specific commodity (antiquities) is concerned. In other words on a lack of transparency. This is important as it is under such conditions that looted and smuggled material can easily enter the market and generate revenue for those involved in the looting process. Having more transparency and accountability in the antiquities trade would greatly reduce the possibilities for this to happen.

The introduction of import restrictions which requires demonstrating licit origins of selected types of artefact is obviously perceived by those opposed to these measures as threatening the introduction of transparency into the trade, and so one may deduce that this is the reason why coin dealers are particularly concerned. They presumably see this as the thin end of the wedge which could lead (together with public concern about its place in encouraging looting) to the end of the no-questions-asked buying and selling of archaeological artefacts.

ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles has a business selling ancient coins. It can be found by going to ACCG president Bill Puetz’s V-coins portal described as the "ethical alternative to ebay". There we see that Mr Sayles currently has several thousand items on sale. Clicking on the majority of the items being sold on V-Coins by Mr Sayles will not reveal any information whatsoever on their provenance or pedigree. Why not? Where is this transparency Mr Sayles is so concerned about? Mote and beam come to mind here. Why is he acquiring for resale ancient artefacts which he transparently cannot state frankly and openly where they come from? Why the secrecy (which one might say is similar to that attributed by him to the US State Department) over this? If we demanded "Freedom of Information" from Mr Sayles, I wonder how much information would be forthcoming about where those items came from and in what circumstances they left the source countries?

What is interesting in all this is that the ACCG and PNG are not by any means the only North American trade associations involved in the dealing in items covered by the implementation of the CPIA. There are a number of antique and antiquity dealers’ associations for example. How have their members reacted to the requirements that in importing certain types of art objects into the US [such as ethnographic objects and certain paintings like Cypriot icons], they have to show a piece of paper? Are they too trying to overturn the law? Are they too attacking people for saying it is a good thing that there is a bit of transparency in the trade of such items? Well (I am sure Mr Sayles will correct me if I am wrong), there does not seem to be a parallel move from US dealers in these types of material to the actions being taken by US coin dealers. Why not? So what makes coin dealers think they are in any way special?
Predictably, Mr Sayles applies the "Petrarch collected coins" argument in summing up what he'd like his readers to believe this is about:
Representing the views of a venerable 600-year-old hobby and its modern adherents, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is challenging what it sees as bias leading to arbitrary and capricious actions on the part of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
This has nothing to do with any altruistic challenge to "arbitrary and capricious actions", it is about defending the no-questions-asked market in antiquities. It is about defending the lack of transparency in this particular segment of the market. The question is, is this whole action ultimately to the benefit of ethical collectors or merely the less-than-fastidious importers?

Mr Sayles provided a link to a Google search for "State+Department+secrecy". Here are the corresponding results for "antiquity+collecting+secrecy" and "antiquity+dealing+secrecy". The vignette shows the ACCG defending the non-transparency of the no-questions-asked antiquities trade .
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7 comments:

Marcus Preen said...

Mr Sales describing the hobby he supplies coins to as “venerable” made me smile. Venerable means “deserving to be venerated” which isn’t much help but “venerated” is clear – “to regard with reverential respect or with admiring deference”.

I guess high-end numismatics might be worthy of considerable respect (though hardly with reverence or deference) but those who simply collect things? Should we treat THEM with reverential respect or admiring deference?

Perhaps Mr Sales would have us believe that amassing loads of coins makes one a respected academic? I know some who do it and they aren’t. And I know a lot that do it over here most of whom are pointedly at the lower end of the social and educational scale according to an official survey. So I think he should withdraw his claim that it is a venerated hobby. It’s a hobby, plain and simple.

And that assessment doesn’t take account of the fact that it has supplied every penny that has gone into every looter’s pocket since the year dot. On that basis it’s often not a venerable hobby but a venal one.

Words, eh? They’re such tricky things, the chief weapon throughout the ages of sinners that want to be seen as saints!

Paul Barford said...

I think in the days when it was a "hobby of kings" and the treatises were written in Latin it might be more applicable than when the procurer is a peasant with a metal detector and the "eroodite collectas" themselves cannot even cope with a fourth declension noun in Latin.

The argument that Petrarch collected coins really gets us nowhere.

Nathan T. Elkins said...

What is really insulting about this whole thing is that he maintains it has nothing to do with commercial interests, though one can clearly see that dealers run the group, recruit and mobilize the collectors act, and support all of the group's activities financially.

They are also suing over import restrictions, and let's be honest, most collectors aren't "importing" coins themselves from fresh sources: dealers do that. This all about not wanting to conduct ethical and legitimate business which would make profits less lucrative. Do they really believe that most people are so dense that they cannot see past the facts?

I wonder if the oil lobbyists who maintain climate change is not man-made have tried this same tactic? Put a photograph of a philosopher and rant about "truth": if the facts aren't the issue than I guess you paint yourself as a freedom fighter. Those pesky facts and contexts!

Marcus Preen said...

"This all about not wanting to conduct ethical and legitimate business which would make profits less lucrative. Do they really believe that most people are so dense that they cannot see past the facts?"

I think they hope their customers are, though they have long since abandoned hope that archaeologists and others can be fooled. When talking to them these claims are no more than words to avoid admitting a culpability which both sides know exists.

Mr Welsh has even pretty much confessed on Britarch that it's "all about not wanting to conduct ethical and legitimate business which would make profits less lucrative" by saying he is not willing to abide by PAS's advice "to be sure" when buying, on the grounds that it is "naive" and will result in a reduction in the number of coins traded.

Yes Mr Walsh, it would, that's the general idea!

Paul Barford said...

... meaning we reduce by these means the sales of less-than-legitimate material.


I think they hope their customers are, though they have long since abandoned hope that archaeologists and others can be fooled. Which is of course why they have continued their programatic defamation of archaeologists, a term you will note they have begun to use among themselves as an insult.

Marcus Preen said...

"Which is of course why they have continued their programatic defamation of archaeologists, a term you will note they have begun to use among themselves as an insult."
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Well of course, it is necessary to use “archaeologist” as a derogatory term in order to maintain the internal logic of their arguments. Most archaeologists see an unbreakable connection between less than scrupulous buying and highly unscrupulous supplying, hence they are the enemy of unbridled expansion of the trade, along with governments that are “retentionist”, officialdom that is “corrupt” and the State Department that is in thrall to “archaeologists”.

But of course for public consumption the archaeologists-as-enemies dialogue has to be modified and the only expressed criticism is directed to those who are labelled “radical archaeologists”. The utility of that lies in the fact it implies most archaeologists think the Trade is just fine, which they don’t.

In truth, almost every accusation that is hurled at Barfordian Elkinists could be directed with equal injustice to most archaeologists if honesty came into the exercise. Nearly all the archaeologists I talk to down the Pig & Whistle think dealers should make greater efforts to ensure purchases are ethical ergo all in the eyes of the ACCG must surely be enemies of capitalism (and, no doubt, foreign godless left wing haters of apple pie with hardly a firearm between them, much like the unspeakable Lord Renfrew.)

Paul Barford said...

must surely be enemies of capitalism (and, no doubt, foreign godless left wing haters of apple pie with hardly a firearm between them, much like the unspeakable Lord Renfrew.)

:>)

 
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