Friday, 2 October 2009

US collectors on Bulgaria's Constitutional Court Ruling on Cultural Heritage Law

US collectors, especially those with heaps of ancient coins from "unknown provenance in the Balkans" are extremely excited about the recent ruling of the Bulgarian Constitutional Court. It turns out however that they do not really understand what the whole affair is about. Perhaps knowledge of Slavic languages is slight among US ancient coin collectors, and they are reliant on what coin-supplying colleagues with contacts in Bulgaria and an axe or two to grind for the inerpretation, but the exchange of views shows once again the total superficiality of the milieu and its concerns. Let's have a look at the threads as they developed. First of all, there was no interest throughout the year in the new cultural heritage laws in one of the principle source countries for ancient artefacts for the no-questions-asked market before last Wednesday. Then this appeared:
Blake Davies (collector):
I have just heard that the Bulgarian Supreme Court (or whatever is the top court in Bulgaria) has struck down the law prohibiting private ownership of coin discoveries and has legalized, retroactively, all ownership of coin finds. Does anyone else know anything about this?
Alfredo de la Fe (dealer):
I called a Bulgarian friend and he told me that this is true. The law was struck down yesterday [...] [it] basically stated that all coins and antiquities were the property of the state and that individuals could not own them. The Supreme Court has upheld the personal property rights of Bulgarian citizens and found the law to be unconstitutional. According to my friend it is now legal to collect, own, selland purchase coins and minor antiquities in Bulgaria.
[This "Bulgarian friend" would not be another dealer would it?]
R. Kokotailo (dealer):
Obviously a move in the right direction for Bulgarians.
[Sic, I presume he means dealers and collectors, it is not in the interests of "Bulgarians" as a whole to have their cultural heritage siphoned off into scattered private collections]

B. Davies (collector):
If true, the change in the law will have a great effect on the import laws of the United States, and the ability of individuals to import coins directly from Bulgaria. Why? Because, and this is my understanding, the Stolen Property Law, which is the latest tool of enforcement being used against importers of coins allegedly originating in Bulgaria, is dependant on the fact that the coins and/or antiquities are "stolen." The presumption that the US government is making is that ALL coins that can be proved to have originated from Bulgaria at any time in the past are presumed to be the property of the Bulgarian government under Bulgarian law. If that presumpion is incorrect, or cannot be proven, then a critical element of the offense is absent.
[Phew, eh? That'd be good news for all those who spent lots of dollars on coins that collectors KNOW are stolen according to the law in the country where they entered the market. Sadly for them, cultural property stolen in Bulgaria under laws before April 2009 remains stolen property].

Dave Welsh (dealer and cultural property activist): post on Unidroit-L: "Private Ownership of Coins and other Antiquities Legalized in Bulgaria"
[followed by a completely garbled presentation of what the decision says]

Simultaneously the same D. Welsh on the Ancientartifacts forum an identically garbled post entitled:"Bulgaria Legalizes Private Ownership of Coins and other Antiquities".

This was followed by an interesting exchange:
Steve Minor (minor dealer in Bulgarian metal detected tat and other assorted items) asks:
Once cleared, can they be exported?
[ "cleared"? Cleared from what? This ruling affected two paragraphs, neither of which affected export licencing procedure, and the legislation affecting sales was unchallenged by the Constitutional court].

Remarkably though Welsh replies:
That's still not clear, but there are some reasons to expect that such may be the case.
[What "reasons"? The guy is talking out of the back of his head, I bet he has not even been on the phone to his favourite Bulgarian coin suppliers yet]. He then later notes:
This is a huge change. Perhaps not least, because application of the US stolen property statute in the case of illicitly exported Bulgarian antiquities may now be in question.
This is quite remarkable. Here we can see how the collecting milieu develops its ideas. They have not bothered to check what the ruling says, they know there has been "some" ruling and all the rest is total wishful thinking. No doubt there's an element of "Chinese whispers" going on here, they cannot read the Slavic languages the ruling was published in, Bulgarian collectors are no doubt jubilant that they have won a case against "restrictive legislation", the US dealers who handle Bulgarian artefacts are no doubt repeating what they say to the people they supply in the States and they in turn are passing it on to their clients. At each stage of the relay process something is omitted, something added. A post in English is circulating which purports to contain the gist of the ruling (the author of the post even posted the full Bulgarian text on his own forum) but is totally garbled.

Now, if you were a responsible and ethics collector of Roman coins coming from another country (such as Bulgaria), does it not behove you to actually learn what the laws of that country actually say about the origins of those items? How much more so if you actually sell these items? How many people taking part in the discussions on three forums (Unidroit-L, AncientArtifacts, Moneta-L) actually know what the Bulgarian legislation says about clandestine excavation, ownership, the duties of finders, export procedure? That includes dealers. How can any client of any dealer who shows he has not the fogiest about what the legislation says be assured that the items he purchases from them have been acquired in accordance with the law - if the dealer has not even bothered to find out what that law is?

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