Sunday, 26 July 2009

Cultural property 101 for collectors


Over the past few days there has been a tedious discussion going on over on a collectors’; forum where a bunch of the usual pseudo-intellectuals debate the meaning of the word “heritage” (meaning the archaeological one, but they omit the adjective) and the phrase “cultural property”. It is really is rather pathetic to see, their understanding of the concept turns out to be extremely superficial. Both concepts have of course a fairly substantial academic literature which discusses their meaning, use and pitfalls, there are whole university course units (and some courses) devoted to the first. Yet all this is way over the heads of the defenders of no-questions-asked collecting of antiquities. These would-be kitchen table intellectuals cannot even be bothered to find more than a modicum of the material available on the internet, let alone reach for a book or two. It seems to me that they are kidding themselves if they consider they are adding anything to human knowledge by a discussion which does not begin with making a survey of what actually is already written on the topic.

They should surely be aware of the fact that the concept of "cultural property" (biens culturels) in global discussions on the material embodiments of human culture developed mainly as a result of the destruction of material deemed of irreplacable cultural value in the Second World War. So when Nicholas Roerich was putting together his “Pact” in the 1930s (I would hope collectors would not disagree with the principles it embodies) the term was not used in it. The term however gained currency with the 1954 Hague ‘Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict’. The no-questions-asked collectors in question seem to have problems deciding what the term “cultural property” means and to what (and whom) it applies, let us take a look at the definition given in the Convention:


Article 1. Definition of cultural property For the purposes of the present Convention, the term "cultural property" shall cover, irrespective of origin or ownership:
(a) movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above;
(b) buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a) such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives, and refuges intended to shelter, in the event of armed conflict, the movable cultural property defined in subparagraph (a);
(c) centres containing a large amount of cultural property as defined in subparagraphs (a) and (b), to be known as "centres containing monuments".
This is what the convention (signed by several developed and militarily aggressive nations rather belatedly let us note) defines as worthy of protection. Now I would like to see the collectors’ arguments indicating that this sort of material should not be protected from harm in the event of military conflict. When in 2003 the invader of a certain oil-rich sovereign country failed to do that, most of the world considered a great wrong had been committed (that nation had not ratified the Hague 1954 Convention at the time – and of course any dealers and collectors who got the looted stuff at a suitable price were no doubt happy).

Of course the no-questions-asked collectors arguing against the notion of cultural property are not concerned about ‘Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict’. What concerns them is another international document which embodies the term. This is of course (let us note once again its full title and function) 1970 UNESCO ‘Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property’. As we know Article 1 of this convention “the term `cultural property' means property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories: […]”. Article 2 follows on from this: “The States Parties to this Convention recognize that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country's cultural property against all the dangers resulting there from”. I think that would be rather difficult to argue with. The no-questions-asked collectors of and especially dealers in certain types of this material are however attempting this. Fortunately though they have not really bothered to find out even in a very perfunctory manner what it is they are up against so they are merely tilting at windmills.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Silvio, Sex and (archaeological) Scandal

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I am extremely surprised that the anti-conservationist antiquity dealers' lobby have not picked up on the latest installment of the Silvio Berlusconi sex scandal. This seems just the sort of thing they like. Tapes of intimate conversations between high class escort Patrizia D'Addario and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 72, are the talk of Italy today - but not because of their racy content. Instead Italians are outraged at the Prime Minister's inadvertent boast in them while showing Ms D'Addario around his Villa Certosa estate on Sardinia of 30 ancient tombs buried under the swimming pool. By law, any discovery of historical significance should have been reported to the Ministry of Culture in Rome and to the local paramilitary police office in charge of cultural heritage, failure to do so can result in a fine of up to 3,000 Euro and or a year in jail - and it would appear that Berlusconi has not reported the existence of the tombs. The opposition Democratic party, which had been looking for a way to embarrass the prime minister without getting immersed in his eventful sex life, was not slow to spot the opening. Representatives in both houses of parliament tabled questions, demanding that Berlusconi and his heritage minister give an explanation. Instead of the artistic photos of Ms D'Addorio in scanty attire which most news services have appendeded to this story [no doubt to show how clever she was to hide the dictaphone dressed like that], I am sure my readers would prefer a photo (from the Daily Mail) of the Villa Certosa.


(compiled from: Archeologiczny wątek nagrań Berlusconiego i prostytutki PAP, 23.07.09; John Hooper, Berlusconi digs himself a bigger hole and claims he found Phoenician tombs Guardian 24 July 2009; Nick Pisa Italians finally outraged over Berlusconi's sex tapes (not the sex, the bit where he reveals the 30 ancient tombs on his estate) Daily Mail 24th July 2009).

A question and Two Answers


I think I mentioned earlier Robyn’s question to Peter Tompa:


Given the scale of damage done by commercial diggers to ancient Native American burial, sacred, and other sites which are protected by law, would you also oppose an MOU between the US and another country that restricts the import of Anasazi pots (such as the ones in the Blanding case) into another country? Or would you welcome their help in enforcing our own cultural property laws? After all, it's not illegal to own Anasazi pots in Egypt. Would you support their "right to collect" them, even though they were illegally dug up here?

The Washington lawyer chickened out of giving a straight answer “Robyn - If you fully identify yourself, I will be happy to answer that question. Regards, Peter Tompa”. I think Robyn is sufficiently identifiable, a collector that asked Mr Tompa a question he is not prepared to answer.

Coin collector Bill Donovan had no such qualms, his long comment goes over some of what he has garnered from the writings of the “sages of collecting”, none of which has any relevance, philosophical or otherwise, to the question posed in the main post. He does however answer it. What a revealing answer it is, it speaks volumes for the mentality of these collectors and their failure to connect elements of the wider picture.



[...] I personally would not have a problem with someone in Egypt owning an Anasazi pot, because that object would bring that person a little closer to a global awareness. That Native American pot in a foreign country might build a little bridge of friendship, empathy, and optimism. I am so proud of my country that I am willing to share its identity objects. In fact, I would much rather have a person who would identify with, look it, and study an artifact be able to purchase and own it over a state. [...]

Jeepers, he’s so “proud of his country” that he’s willing to give away illegally excavated pots from Anasazi graves to “build a little bridge of friendship, empathy and optimism”. (In other words, use it in international diplomacy – is that not what the ACCG is criticising the Cyprus MOU for?) As Robyn quite rightly observes, what kind of "bridge" is built on the proceeds of illegal activity? It would appear from this that Mr Donovan basically is not against the looting of archaeological sites in the USA since some of the loot can go to collectors and build empathy. With what?

Why would Mr Donovan use ancient Native American grave goods to "build empathy" between a nation that came into being in 1776 and others? Isn't that what the ACCG is criticising nations like Italy, Greece and Turkey for doing, because there is "no continuity" (they say, I'd dispute that) between the ancient people that made the stuff they covet and the modern nation? Why for a collector is it American heritage when old stuff is dug up in Utah, but a "global heritage up for grabs by US collectors whose heritage it is too" when not.


Vignettes: Oedipus and the sphinx ; chicken; vulture - Getty Images

How To Get Involved In Archaeology in the UK

A brief guide to "How To Get Involved In Archaeology in the UK". This is a
short guide designed to help answer some of the basic questions that are asked about getting started in archaeology, whether as an interested amateur a determined schoolchild or a student getting ready to leave university or college. It can't be completely comprehensive, without being hundreds of pages long, but hopefully adds enough detail, and links to other resources to satisfy most questions. Includes YAC clubs, starting a local society, Writing a CV and a few other pointers.
Not a mention of a metal detector in sight. Good. More puzzling, no mention of the role of the PAS bringing archaeology (sic) closer to the public. But I suppose (given the manner in which this is currently done), we might question whether they do.

To what degree are comparable resources open to those wanting to "get involved in archaeology" in other artefact-collecting countries such as the USA or Canada?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Sages of Collecting


In the past few weeks there have been a number of nit-picking posts on Moneta-L taking issue with what coin collectors have seen discussed on blogs like this one – mostly without giving links back to the items discussed. Another has just appeared there (John Hooker, “What is heritage?”) which though it's all about Celtic coins seems to be a reply (of sorts) to my post here a penny and an old shoe, though of course avoids addressing the issue raised. At this, one list member broke ranks and wrote:
I'm a lurker but this has been really irritating me and others I bet too. Is this a group about collecting? Or is it a place for hissing about how evil archaeologists are and how superior we and our little pet projects are in comparison? The people targeted aren't posting here so can't we please take it
elsewhere? Rob.
The writer was soon put in his place by painter Bill Donovan
[…] Speaking for myself, I like the discussions on this list lately, because they pertain to the philosophy of collecting. I like to read what the sages of our hobby have to say.
Try as I might I cannot actually find anything particularly philosophical in the flood of anti-conservation witterings from the "sages of the hobby" on Moneta-L. There seem mainly to be accusations that to try to protect the archaeological record against looting is "nationalist" and to have a "heritage" must be a bad thing, though in fact almost all nations try very hard to do the first and most try even harder to have one of the second. There however is not very much sagacity in the positions held by the no-questions-asked collectors and dealers of portable antiquities, just a lot of dubious self-justifications and when they are challenged, instead of a philosophical reply, what we most often see is tactics to avoid the issue, including name-calling and personal attacks.

A Group of Artefacts Exported from Where?

Readers of this blog may recall the eBay seller who was offering unreported "dugups" from England and the ensuing discussion. He is now advertising another lot of uncleaned "dugups" on the Yahoo Uncleanedcoins list, this time he's not letting on where they are from.
Re: An Uncleaned Lot From Un-Named Middleast Country
Costly to get but an interesting lot as can be seen. I am accepting $135 for the 45 coin lot and that includes shipping. Paypal accepted as well as checks and money orders. Need to cover 3% paypal fee is required if used to pay. First come gets the lot. You wont be disappointed.
Hmm, there's some little Late Roman bronzes (or is one maybe silver?) a Byzantine coin, some Islamic ones, Mamluk it looks like. This unnamed source country would not by any chance be one of those Middle Eastern countries (Turkey, Egypt, Syria, [Iraq?]) with export laws which means that anybody shipping them to the USA without following the proper procedure is committing an illegal act, would it? I am sure honest Joe Blazick ("romanpeddler") has an export licence for them, just failed to mention it in the sales offer. I guess that means though that he will not be able to sell this lot until he posts this additional information on the website, as I am sure no collector of ancient artefacts would touch it without such an assurance that the transaction was legal from beginning to end.

Map: Area under Mamluk control in red (Wikipedia)

A penny and an old shoe


US dugup Coin fondlers are continually looking to justify to each other (and the rest of us) why the subject of their hobby should continue to be carried out “as petrarch collected coins” with no-questions-asked about where the items on sale are coming from and without seeking any assurance that they are of legal origin. They do this by appealing to US exceptionalism and numismatic exceptionalism. This is the conviction that coin collectors are in some way a special and privileged group within antiquity collecting, for whom exceptions “must” be made, and as US citizens are in some way a special and privileged group within the world community, for whom (again) exceptions “must” be made. In reply to some (rather superficial) remarks of Canadian coin collector John Hooker on Heritage on Moneta-L, Jorg Lueke suggests:
This is one reason that coins are very important, especially their access (sic) to a wide range of individuals from scholars both public and private to indivisual (sic) collectors. Ancient coins are the most accessible primary source material. There's no question about subsequent alterations of texts, no chance of altering a legend or devices. They tell an unaltered story about the past, sometimes the only primary sources that exist are coins. Ideally they would be preserved and studied by the largest pool of people, and the market is clearly the best tool for all but the most rare items.
This is laughable. Rarity of course has nothing to do with it, an irreplacable archaeological context is destroyed by the removal from it of a common late Roman Bronze worth a few dollars or pence as much as it is in removing a unique medallion worth tens of thousands of dollars or euros.

Lueke claims that the “story of the past” is constructed from the interpretation of “legends and devices” on coins, and not from any other “primary source” which can be “altered” (I presume he means written sources such as chronicles and charters). It does not seem to occur to Lueke that the legends on coins were created to achieve the same propaganda as the written sources which he dismisses. One might take for example the “Fel. Temp. Rep” reverses. The worst and most disasterous reigns of any monarch will appear on their coins and other mass media as the time of shining glory and enlightened and successful social policy. It is therefore difficult to see why writing should necessarily be more "reliable" just because it has been impressed into little metal discs rather than inscribed on stone or on parchment.

Mr Lueke seems (deliberately?) to ignore archaeological evidence. Nevertheless the archaeological record is a valuable primary source too, but is “altered” by artefact hunters burrowing into sites randomly to obtain saleable collectables. The “story of the past” the archaeological evidence tells however is not that of “kings and battles” concerned with the succession of monarchs and pharaohs which is the most numismatists can create from their "legends and devices", but of the everyday life, some might say the everyday experience of life, of the ordinary man who inhabited the landscape we now walk in.

In a site at Westgate Street in Canterbury, England is an infilled cess pit which was sealed by the extension of the timber outbuildings in the yard at the rear of a plot which we know from the twelfth century rent rolls of the monks of Christ Church Canterbury was owned at the time by mercer Richard de Barefoot. In its fill is preserved a leather shoe with the pattern of wear caused by everyday use by a twelfth century inhabitant of the town. There is also rich environmental evidence telling us what was growing in the yard. These have a different story to tell from the legend HENR]ICVS RE[X] /[ ] ON LVND (or whatever here, here and here for example) and "devices" (a cross and some grouped round bobbles) on the halved silver coin that is lies alongside them in the same pit.

We know quite a lot about Henry II. The places where coins were minted for him, the names of the moneyers and the number of dies used at different times etc, are part of that story of course, but only a small part of the story which the recording of the context of finding of that coin contributes to. Deliberately digging through the remains of the timber building and trashing a context to hoik out a coin that will then appear on “the market” without any indication where it came from is simply vandalism. In most countries (with the major exceptions of Britain and the USA) such vandalism of archaeological sites is treated as a crime.

Mr Lueke narrows his view of the past to what “coins” can tell him, he does not seem to appreciate that creating the “story of the past” can and should take other sources of evidence into account. As in investigating a crime scene, just finding a bloodied knife next to the body is not enough to build a case that will stand up to the scrutiny of the defence team without collecting fingerprint, DNA evidence, examining the house for signs of a break-in and so on. The mere information that a a moneyer made a portrait of a slightly dorkish looking guy with effeminate hairstyle and labelled it Henri[cus] who was regarded as a “rex” (but did not claim it was Dei gratia) tells us nothing whatsoever about the nature (or even extent) of Angevin kingship. Furthermore it tells us nothing about the life and household of Richard de Barefoot and in what kind of streets a member of his family trod in those worn out shoes.

PS. The cess pit and shoe are no doubt there (though my photo from a Canterbury Archaeological Trust website shows another site), but I made up the name of the plot owner, my copy of William Urry's magnificent work "Canterbury under the Angevin Kings" is a long drive away from where I write this. I cannot imagine however anyone taking a spade to twelfth century Canterbury and trying to interpret the results without using the written evidence summarised in that book (and in earlier and later studies). Likewise I cannot imagine the same archaeologist ignoring the results of numismatic study of the coin types they find - which is itself a branch of artefactology which is part and parcel of the interpretation of archaeological evidence. So why do coin collectors like Mr Lueke ad his ACCG pals seem intent on turning their backs on the value of the other archaeological evidence?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Well Organised "Mafia" Business


The attempt to clear internet sales portal eBay of as many sellers of forged archaeological finds goes on. There is (as collectors well know) a large centre involved in the production of fake antiquities in Bulgaria. Some of the sellers of such items however are proving difficult to get rid of. As soon as one account is deleted, dormant accounts are reactivated. Some of these sellers operate from bases in the UK, where the products are lost among the numbers of material coming (their sellers claim) from legal artefact hunting on local archaeological and other ‘productive’ sites.

Christian Rizzo (near Villefranche sur Mer on the French Riviera, eBay seller "shams06") writes:
The problem with the bulgarian dealers it's that they seem are working all together (or alone with several pseudo[nym]s ) with the same fake makers ( we can find some of these fake makers on the web looking for "art foundry" in Bulgaria where they show their models ). It's why we use to see at the same time from different sellers exactly the same items. And they use the same agents for collecting the money and sending the sold items. It's why you cannot have a direct contact with the seller and why a lot of sold items never arrive to the buyer ( see the feedback of Annaatana37 for example) or when they arrive they need more than 1 month shipping because the do grouped shipping. Unregistered you can find them some time later with an other pseudo[nym], in another country but with the same items. It's a very well organised " mafia " business.

The significance of the evidence is clear to dealers and collectors - as it should be to eBay who've been happy to take money from these people for providing a sales place for their activities all these years. All know that their no-questions-asked approach favours the use of the antiquities market as a source of funding for organized crime through fraud, the selling of forgeries. Yet they still refuse to even contemplate doing anything about it. I presume they treat it as “somebody else’s problem”, nothing to do with them. Like looting of archaeological sites.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

"Collectors' Rights" in the Shadow of the Ozarks


Less than ninety kilometres from the home of "collectors' rights" campaigner Wayne Sayles, another court verdict marking an erosion of the "rights" of US citizens with a passion for collecting ancient artefacts was passed down a month ago ('Artifacts Excavation Results in Prison Term and Fine'). I wonder if the dealer in antiquities and antiquity collectors' spokesman was there to lend them his support?

William A. Graves and his wife Misty Graves were sentenced on June 24th, 2009 in US District Court for possession of ancient artefacts that had been dug up on public land in violation of archaeological resource protection legislation (Couple Sentenced for Looting Buffalo River Archeological Site). As a result of a plea bargain, the husband was sentenced to six months imprisonment and one year of supervised probation, while his wife received one year of supervised probation. In addition, the two have been ordered to pay $4,613 to cover repairing the damage they caused to the land (filling in the holes no doubt). The damage to the archaeological record where they had been digging however cannot be repaired so easily.

At the beginning of January 2008, rangers in the Buffalo River National Park found holes and disturbance indicating the recent looting of a known archeological site in the park (Lee Brumbaugh, 'Worse than Poaching: Husband And Wife Sentenced On ARPA Charges', Yosemite News). After two days of keeping a close watch on the site, rangers installed surveillance equipment near it. While this was in progress they met William A. Graves and a juvenile walking toward the area carrying digging tools. Graves was wearing boots which matched impressions of footprints left in the bottom of the looter's holes. Misty Graves was waiting in a vehicle nearby with artefacts and a pickaxe. After preliminary investigations, a search warrant was issued and a search of their home produced numerous items associated with collecting artefacts and other evidence linking the couple "and others to excavating activities in the park and on nearby private land". Graves admitted to digging in the park and "relinquished 71 stone tools, projectile points, or other artefacts that he said originated from the site". After a six month investigation in conjunction with agents from the NPS Investigative Services Branch, the Cultural and Archeological Response Team (CART), William and Misty Graves were indicted by a federal grand jury. The park’s archaeologist, Dr. Caven Clark, was instrumental in the investigation and provided expert testimony during the sentencing proceedings.

These people by going out and digging up what they wanted to collect were exercising in the US what collectors' and dealers' lobby groups in the US (such as the ACCG) regards as simply "free enterprise" when done in foreign countries which have what they call "restrictive antiquities laws" which declare the private search for archaeological finds illegal. The US antiquity collector considers, when the laws are foreign ones, that these are "bad laws" imposed by "corrupt governments". As a result, the purchaser and collector of the items they dig up and sell envisages themselves as striking a blow for freedom and free enterprise doing so.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act in the US restricting the rights of US collectors of ancient relics from the land they live in was inposed by the Carter Government in 1979. In almost all respects this law is parallel to the foreign ones that groups like the ACCG consistently portray as "bad laws", "restrictive", "nationalistic" laws, which are fundamentally "unfair" to the citizens of the country whose "corrupt" government imposed them, and 'unfair' to collectors outside the country which may claim that country's as their heritage too and want to get their hands on pieces of "their" past. So, obviously if the ACCG wants to get the laws changed in these foreign countries to give US collectors and dealers freer access to the items they protect, they must first lead the way by leading to the abolition of the parallel US laws.

Perhaps collectors might consider that the opportunity seems right for a few ACCG members from the Ozark region to stage a test case by going to the Buffalo River park and emptying out the backfill of Mr Graves' holes after first informing the Park Rangers of their intentions. While they are awaiting trial, a Washington lawyer could then make an FOI request to try and identify any circumstances surrounding the institution of the 1979 ARPA legislation, which can then be used to challenge the arrest of the pot-digging ACCG members as "unconstitutional". After all, the ACCG can hardly fight for the freedom for US citizens to collect ancient artefacts from foreign lands in disregard of the laws and wishes of the governments of those countries if they do not first establsh the (Constitutional) "freedom" to do so in their own land. That is simply illogical, isn't it?

The Executive Director of the ACCG was complaining the other day they were getting so little suport from collectors, well just over the state line from him there has been a petition created for supporting "collectors' rights" in Arkansas. It is called "Metal Detecting In Arkansas State Parks" and it has collected 1095 signatures in support of allowing "coin shooting" on public land. If the ACCG was to champion this collectors' cause, they could boost their membership figures by a substantial percent. That is just one state, why if Mr Sayles was to support metal detectorists, pot-diggers and grave robbers from all fifty US states, his organization would potentially have more than 50 000 new supporters to "fight the fight" for the hobby. So what is stopping them?

Bottle Digging in New York

Jack Fortmeyer a NY fireman digs for old bottles in New York backyards, interesting video story from the New York Times.

Antiquities in Space

Putting together a slide show to coach my daughter for her History of Art exams last year when covering "Cycladic art" (sic), I came across this photo. It is of course 'Star Trek' (apparently Star Trek "Voyager", series 1 episode "Time and Again").

It makes one think where the portable antiquities we discuss today will be in half a millennium from now.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Medici, Scapegoat or first to fall?

David Gill's highly interesting post on Looting matters "Giacomo Medici: scapegoat or first in a series?" certainly deserves reading and reflection together with the other material reported on that blog. As he says, "lack of transparency will merely prolong the agony as the information is likely to come out at some stage. Should Medici be singled out as the only example of wrong-doing?".

"Huub Meyer" spills the beans, or does he?


One Huub Meyer was assured by members of the Yahoo AncientArtifacts discussion list that “most” [Egyptian] antiquities are “sold legally and were excavated legally for example in Egypt as for 200 years the local, Egyptian, government did not care much about its own culture, and no records were made of the hundreds of thousands of objects that were exported”. He remains however sceptical and replies:


I think that 90% of the items that are now in the antique shops are more recently excavated. I think it is not possible that those items are excavated more than 200 years ago. I know a Guy who is collecting items in the Near East, than brings them to Europe and sells them to major antique dealers over here, no questions asked... I know for a fact that he Sold items to Dick Meyer, Mieke Zilverberg, Akanthos (now living and selling in Belgium) and others. And did you see the items sold by Stormbroek, no way that they were excavated more than 200 years ago... correct me if I am wrong. Also In Belgium, France and England he sold items to several major antique dealers (Drees Gallery in Brussels) no provenance asked, in fact they know were the items are coming from. I myself purchased some items from some major dealers in the Netherlands, not once they did give my proper provenance out of themselves, I always hat to ask them. I also remember a few years ago 90 % of the antique sellers in archeology were closed in London (Mews Gallery or something) for selling looted items. In France, England and Germany there are large archeology auctions several times a year, I do not believe that all those items were excavated more than 200 years ago. I think it is simply not possible that there are so many items on the market that were excavated more than 200 years ago.
Me too. Although this message looks like provocation (and one can imagine a number of reasons why it might have been made), let us look at the dealers he mentions.

Dick Meijer was mentioned in a previous post, the photos of the interior of his shop show mostly what seem to be (Dutch and Spanish ?) post-Medieval ceramics, which suggests he is more of a general antiques seller than a specialist antiquities dealer. He has no website I can see, but sells stuff on eBay and from the feedback we can access his old auctions, where we find comments like the object concerned comes from “a private collection of all kind of items, collected in the before 1950-1980”, “private collection from The Netherlands, of Pre Columbian pottery etc. collected in the 1950-1960. in Mexico”. A cuneiform tablet is provenanced “Privat collection Wally Elenbaas, artist the Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Solt by the estate actionhouse Rotterdam”. (This is the deceased artist). A money back guarantee covers authenticity issues, but no mention is made of documenting licit provenance.

Mieke Zilverberg’s website (Kunsthandel Mieke Zilverberg, Rokin 601012 KV Amsterdam) offers Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins and archaeological objects "from Egypt, Western Asia, Greece, Etruria and Rome, ranging from 3000 BC to 500 AD". We are assured that "Kunsthandel Mieke Zilverberg undertakes not to purchase or sell objects until we have established to the best of our ability that such objects were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property". No indication is given how this is striven for, apart from a mention of the Arts Loss Register. She gives some objects the vague provenance “ex private collection [+country]” but others have more explicit ones, including a number in which inclusion in two (successive?) collections are cited. Nevertheless there is no hint that the purchaser will get any kind of documentation of the provenance beyond what is stated on the website.

The Drees Gallery website (Nelly Drees, Rue des Minimes 22 B- 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium) claims it has a “fine selection of Ghandaran artefacts, as well as a fine selection of Greek, Sassanian and Roman gold, silver and bronze coins. The art of south-east Asia (Myanmar-former Burma) […] is well represented”. No mention is made anywhere of any acquisition policy or maner of exercising "due diligence", and sometimes gives the formulaic “private collection”, “[nationality] individual collector”. In many cases objects have no indication of provenance (“A certificate of authenticity will be delivered to the buyer's request”. How about a written guarantee of legitimate origins instead?)

Stormbroek Ancient Art Gallery (Stormbroek antiquities/ Ancient Art Gallery Stormbroek BV, Ekkersrijt 4411, Son en Breughel, Netherlands - proprietor seems to be A.C. Wouters):offers "thousands of collectibles and antiques direct from European Private Collections. A touch of history: Ancient artifacts, coins, antiques and collectibles from the Bronze Age, Celtic, Roman and Medieval to the 20th century". The website seems to be down at the moment. Stormbroek was discussed here earlier as the seller of a Wenneb… shabti. Also just now a Dutch collector of shabtis remarked that "Stormbroek has sold these pieces to the major dealers as he also sold large amounts of shabtis to many dealers with uncertain provenance". Hmmm.

Akanthos might be “Akanthos Ancient art and Antiques” (Oever 7, 2000 Antwerpen, België [other addresses seem also to be listed]) but it seems to be off-line at the moment.

[There have been a number of galleries in England called the "Mews gallery", it is not clear to which of them Mr Meyer might be referring, anyway, as we all know, no BRITISH dealer would ever offer objects of uncertain or tainted provenence would they?].

While there may be no foundation whatsoever in Mr Meyer's allegations that these Dutch and Belgian dealers are knowingly buying ancient material of tainted origins, the standards of documentation which each of them seem to be offering does not allow the concerned buyer independently to check how in fact many of the items they sell came to the market. It is not even a matter of accepting a dealer's word for it (relying on a dealer's good "reputation"). Stating that a dealer has determned that the collection they bought something from was made between the 1950s and 1980s self-evidently is insufficient (especially as within that 30 year period there were decisive legal watersheds). The "estate sale" sales pitch is a commonly used ploy by dealers to say "I don't know anything about where this comes from and the guy who does is dead so you cannot touch him or me for it". Either the object has a documented provenance or it does not and in the latter case a truly reputable dealer would not touch it.

If a hypothetical dodgy dealer was slipping illictly-obtained goods onto the market alongside other items, how on earth - given the current state of the facilities offered by dealers such as the ones mentioned here to would-be ethical collectors to check - would it be possible to determine them? Anybody can say any old object comes from "an old Ruritanian private collection" and refuse to provide any documentation or further information. We all know that such "provenances" are worth nothing without the ability to verify them. They are also meaningless if the fact that they were in a particular collector's ethically-obtained collection cannot serve to show that the object itself had been legitimately obtained. A collector buying items no-questions-asked from a mixture of due-dilligent and dodgy dealers has a contaminated collection. The mere fact that an object comes from that particular collection is not enough to establish licit origins. Or do we accept that objects become legitimate by passing through such contaminated collections? How on earth can the current laissez faire system operate to exclude the passage of illicit items onto a legal market? Given that the present situation is intolerable, how could collectors and dealers improve on the present system (I use the term loosely), or is the only way to achieve that going to be through strict registration and regulation coupled with an aggressive public relations campaign condemning no-questions-asked collecting?

Photo: Relief from Portus apparently showing smugglers bringing illicit goods to Roman antiquities dealer.

Meyer and Meijer

In a recent article about 69 objects apparently stolen from Iraqi museums are discussed ("Netherlands sends back Iraq artefacts", Agence France Presse July 9, 2009, see BBC news report "Dutch hand back looted Iraqi art"). They have been seized by Dutch authorities and are destined for return to Iraq (German government please take note). In the text, archaeologist Diederik Meijer of Leiden University is quoted as saying "These things should not be bought and sold". This has produced a little flurry of interest on the Yahoo AncientArtifacts forum, one member claiming that "Dick Meijer" is not an archaeologist, but an antiquities dealer and appraiser ("Dick Meijer Antiquiteiten", Keizersgracht 539, 1017 DP Amsterdam, here and here). He is however confusing Dick Meijer with Diederik Meijer of Leiden who is presumably the gentleman quoted in the news articles. What is interesting is that the person concerned, going by the name of Huub Meyer made a later post which I will discuss above, I suspect there is a story behind it.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

"Heritage" is the biggest danger.


A Canadian collector has a a somewhat outspoken opinion of cultural heritage:
The biggest danger right now is the growing concerns over "heritage". This is an anti-intellectual movement, obviously of great use in the promotion of nationalisms. I entertain the hope that it is merely the last dying gasp of an outmoded and elitist xenophobia which fears true globalization. Its association with history is an insidious scam as it only ever attempts to create current myths about the past. Heritage sees no differences in Julius Caesar, King Arthur and Bugs Bunny -- it doesn't matter if one is real, one is legendary and the other is a cartoon character. All that is important is how they can be used to affect minds.
Discuss. No prizes for guessing which nation claims Bugs Bunny as its "national heritage" (it's the one that cannot legimately claim the other two).

The author of this text being based in north America seems to think "globalisation" is a positive phenomenon, I think there are a goodly few over the other side of the Atlantic and Pacific that might not share that view, for whom cultural diversity is as desirable as global cultural homgeneity seems to be for the North Americans. ["What has Canada done for us?" seems here a totally valid question.] The actual material culture of globalism however does not consist of material from the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean basin, even when they formed the centres of geographically extensive and culturallly relatively homogeneous empires. They are of an entirely different nature, among them are: rifles, barbed wire, telegraph insulators, steam locomotives, blue jeans, McDonalds happy meal toys, airline ephemera, Michael Jackson CDs, manga and so on.

Perhaps the problem here is that there are some new nations (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc) which do not in fact treat the ancient ("native") cultural heritage of their territories as their own but as that of an "other" to which they were opposed at least at the time of the creation of their statehood. This, as Roger Bland noted reviewing Cuno's "Who Owns Antiquity?", is inevitably going to colour the thinking of at least some of their citizens on such matters. I really however do not see the logical basis of the negationism expressed by Hooker, nor why the rest of the world (where perceived links with an ancient landscape are much more alive in the social consciousness) is expected to follow suit.

The collectors of foreign ancient atefacts in the countries divorced from the native ancient culture justify what they are doing by claiming the artefacts of ALL ancient cultures as their "heritage". So physical objects from far-off lands such as dugup coins from ancient Greek city states are the "cultural heritage" of the owner of a hamburger bar in Punxsutawney, whose "constitutional rights" in some mysterious way override any other considerations. The collecting of antiquities from the "Old World" clearly has however as much a political and social context in the New World as anything the no-questions-asked-collecting activists criticise in the "heritage movement" in the source countries. These objects are used to create and reaffirm identities which do not come from a continuity of population of a territory or a region. They are the medium of the transplantation of an identity, the material confirmation of an origo gentis myth and an expression of domination and identity which are necessary for individual groups withing a self-consciously "global" community, seeking some form of little homeland in an imagined past.

In order to provide backup for his views on "heritage" John Hooker announced he's going to write a "review for ACCG soon" of Lowenthal's "The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History", real cutting edge scholarship, it only came out in 1998 - but I guess the problem for the kitchen-table-scholar is that the Google Books version appeared online only recently.

Photo:
somebody else's "heritage" according to Hooker.

UPDATE 2.12.12
The threatened review never appeared. More empty words from the milieu.

Archaeology, Conservation and the New World Order

Ohio collector John Rieske is (he says) a former archaeology student, he claims to know what archaeology is about. He has just explained his theory to his fellow collectors. It goes something like this:

1) "We must realize that many zealots are not really out to stop only the collection of things considered old. That is just the first step toward total collectivism and I don't mean collectors. The first step in these radicals view is to label those who collect as elitists and as criminals: the enemies of mankind."

2) " When collectors become criminals in the rest of society's eyes, the next step toward totalitarianism becomes just that much easier: the banning of all private ownership of anything."

3) "When all property belongs to the state, everybody becomes de facto state property. That accomplished, the true elitists can then control everything to their hearts' content."

4) Presumably the rest of the argument would claim that this is part of the proccess of establishing the New World Order. Over the past decade concerned citizens have witnessed an extreme acceleration of the physical implementation of a framework and infrastructure ready to receive those who will not go along with a coordinated destruction of traditional American values and freedom. Evidence of this is in the FEMA prison trains with guillotines, and stock piles of plastic coffins for its victims, and the concentration camps that are even now springing up on federally-owned property on US soil. Peter Tompa has produced "evidence" he says proves the US State Department is ignoring the interests of the US people.

5) It would seem that collectors like Mr Rieske regard it as "obvious" that there is a secret conspiracy of archaeologists to aid and abet the institution of the New World Order. The original name of the Society of Antiquaries was the Society of Dilettanti - might for example be seen as a cover organization for the secret organization of the Illuminati.
In fact, was it not during the 1986 World Archaeological Congress (ArchCong) in Prague that a group of senior archaeologists met at the central point of the old Jewish cemetery to agree the plan of action, and it was there that the document known as the Protocols of the Elders of ArchCong was created? The document, if genuine, unequivocally proves the role of heritage professionals in the plan for total world domination.

6) Mr Rieske has therefore suggested that by fighting conservationists, by collecting antiquities without checking whether they have been obtained and exported legally, and by honouring the lost values and glories of the the vanished classical world, the collector is doing his bit for the perpetuation of the Old World Order and fighting the establishment of the New World Order. Tinfoil hats on, and watch out for those black helicopters.

[Alternatively, you could read the bit in exasperated mauve in the post below].

It is interesting to note that there are over 2000 collectors on the discussion list to which Rieske posted his conspiracy theory this morning, many of them showing little restraint in disagreeing with other views and other writers of posts made on that forum. Nevertheless, several hours later, not a single list member to date has questioned it. We might conclude from that perhaps that many of them go along with this sort of the vision of the world. Astounding. Where did our educationalists go wrong?

Saturday, 18 July 2009

"Discretion" a necessary priority for the no-questions-asked marketeers

Alfredo de la Fe was describing on the Moneta-L forum a new database he was setting up similar to the CoinArchives site which, as I mentioned earlier, has priced itself out of the range of the casual or average collector. It was gratifying to observe that he and his advisory group were contemplating including a section which would allow the movement of coins from owner to owner to be followed and also reconstruct associations (such as coins coming from the splitting of hoards). This seems a step on the road to a fuller transparency in dealing with archaeological artefacts by this branch of the market and is to be welcomed. Not, however by the no-questions-asked dealers who apparently have reason to feel uncomfortable that somebody could look over their shoulder. Thus Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh was quick off the mark to "warn":
Considering the hunger Paul Barford and others of his ilk have for obtaining this sort of traceability information, caution is necessary to insure (sic) that it does not get into the hands of those who seek to discredit ancient coin collecting. It is unfortunate that collectors must think of such
considerations when considering the wisdom of information sharing regarding their holdings and acquisitions, however the reality today is that there are enough zealots out there whose goal is to abolish collecting, to make discretion a necessary priority.

Priority over what? Transparency? I wonder what is the difference for the ACCG and its officers in "discretion" and secrecy? When it's the State Department exercising discretion about its dealings with foreign governments (as US law allows and diplomatic protocol requires) its regarded as reprehensible by US no-questions-asked dealers. They want to import whatever they make a quick buck on without having to be asked by an impudent US customs officer where the export licenses are. But when it involves the deliberate suppression of information about where those artefacts are coming from and going, that is OK, because then it is ("necessary") "discretion".

There is nothing very discrete about the way Mr Welsh tries to cover his no-questions-asked tracks. Yes, I asked him outright (three times) about the origin of the Balkan dugups he is selling as special lots. I asked him (twice) about a group of Parthian coins he was selling (discussed here, here, and here). He said the latter came from "Spain", the Balkan ones he effectively refused to discuss. I have no "hunger" for the information, I asked him, I got singularly evasive replies, which we can all see and check and ponder over. I think we may all fairly draw whatever inferences we make on what Mr Welsh sells on their basis.

Once again, we see the same blatant misrepresentation of the facts of the case. Welsh asserts that "there are zealots out there whose goal is to abolish collecting". Where, precisely? I've been through all this before (see also here), but Mr Welsh still uses the same tired old mantras to try to whip up the indignation of the masses. Of course he knows his audience, sheep like "Fred S." are obviously gullible enough to believe any old nonsense the pro-no-questions-asked-market activists like him try to foist off on them, without checking the facts for themselves.

So once again, but this time I will write it in exasperated mauve and I'll write it in big letters for the 'hard of reading' in the portable antiquity collecting community:

When will collectors get it into their heads that what is being urged here is a more ethical, responsible, sustainable, accountable and transparent trade, not its abolition?

By all means however let us abolish from the legitimate market those who cannot and will not exercise due dilligence to cut down the ease with which illicit items enter and circulate in the market, those who deny the need for it, those who refuse to even consider that the "Petrarch collected coins like this" status quo is unsustainable in the twenty-first century.

I suppose the existence of the imaginary "zealots" is supposed to act as an excuse for why "collectors must think of such considerations when considering the wisdom of information sharing regarding their holdings and acquisitions". It could not possibly be, of course that collectors who buy from certain dealers have something to hide? Mr Welsh sounds here so much like a certain group with the UK "metal detecting" milieu. Interestingly though, when he came onto the Britarch forum to spread his poison, even the "metal detectorists" rejected him.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Repeat: "Four legs good, two legs bad, four legs good....."

The pro-collecting lobby frequently presents collectors of portable antiquities (aka decontextualised archaeological artefacts) as erudite scholars on the whole engaged on a quest to increase our knowledge of the past. Here is one of them ("Fred S.") expressing his views on the future of his hobby:

I feel very sad at what I see happening and I am particuarly sad about this very real threat to the hobby of governments outlawing collecting of anything over a hundred yrs. or so (like the EU) and pronouncing objects over that meager time frame as being "antiquities" and "cultural treasures" and such like rot.? Now mainland China, Italy, Cyprus and soon others are getting into the game as well with various demands, all of them dire for private collectors.? If this trend continues, and it seems to be trending that way, I don't give the private ancient collecting community extinction in 100 yrs., more like 20 or so, alas.? Take care and be well...

Astounding, isn't it that groups like the ACCG can pretend it represents intelligent people engaged in a scholarly pursuit while it rams such nonsense down the collectors' throat and presumably looks on with a self-satisfied smile when it sees its supporters quoting such rubbish in public as here.

It would be difficult to know where to start explaining to the likes of Mr "S." the actual situation. Governments have not "outlawed collecting" of anything over 100 years, not in the EU nor anywhere else except Mr "S.'s" imagination. In the case of Cyprus and Italy (China being a more complex situation) the national antiquities legislation was in place well before the 1970 UNESCO Convention on (and let us again note the title) 'the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property'. I really fail to see what "demands" China, Italy, Cyprus and "others" have which are all so "dire for private collectors [...]". What, in fact, they ask from foreign collectors in countries signatory to the above-mentioned UNESCO convention is that they collect material which has been legally obained (they have determined is not stolen) and has been legally removed from their countries (with export licences). Is this really an impossible demand? Are the consequences of collectors abiding by such principles really so "dire"? It makes one wonder what "Mr S." collects and who he buys from, doesn't it?

Mr "S." says if the trends of the international community and (increasingly) domestic public opinion to get the antiquities market to clean up its act continue, that the "private ancient collecting community" will be extinct in twenty years. I'd say to him to stop listening to the inflamatory self-serving nonsense put out by self-appointed and commercially motivated spokesmen from the nineteenth century neo-colonialist no-questions-asked school of antiquities dealing with their advocacy of the maintenance of a damaging (erosive, exploitive and unsustainable) status quo. I'd ask him and his follow collectors to stop being mantra-chanting sheep mouthing the words prompted by no-questions activists. I'd urge them to make a bit of an intellectual effort and sit down with some books (or if he cannot manage that some websites), find out what the UNESCO convention actually says and what it deals with and why, read a few articles by Nathan Elkins and others and have a bit of a think about what he has just said actually compares to what he discovers.
Far from becoming extinct, the ethical collector could be taking the avocation into the twenty-first century and leaving behind the loud naysayers and no-questions activists in the dark shadows of an unenlightened nineteenth century legacy. Of course it requires a bit of intelligence and reflection to make that happen, we will all see to what degree the artefact collecting community is equipped to meet the challenge.

Vignette: Stop frame from an animated version of Orwell's Animal Farm. Bottom: The activists' website depicted in the 1999 John Stevenson film of 'Animal Farm'.

"The UK finds database"


There was some "monetan" discussion on the Republican Roman coins in the Stratford Upon Avon 'four foot deep' hoard the bungled Daily Mail journalism of which was discussed in the post below. A collector, Ted Watts has a solution to the problem of how many such coins are found in British assemblages. Despite the fact that the pro-collecting lobby makes great efforts to present coin collectors as largely comprising erudite scholars busily researching and increasing our knowledge of the past, it was not through perusal of the literature on the subject. He goes straight to the source of those on the market:

Out of around 1113 Roman coins in the UK Finds
database
, 102 of the coins are listed as Republican or Imperatorial denarii or aureii (and there's one Republican AE). [...] While that may to be an accurate reflection of the balance of coins (would you be more likely to go to the trouble of reporting a Republican silver coin or your 200th cruddy bronze from one of Constantine's relatives?), the numbers do seem to imply a reasonable number of Republican denarii made it to Britain.
The collector has found the privately-run UK Detector Finds Database (sic) rather than directing his attention to the Portable Antiquities Scheme database which is much more ample and (claims to be) more representative. The UKDFD is a show-and-tell showcase for detectorists to boast about what they have found, and Mr Watts predicts is used by most of the contributors to sow the highlights of their personal collection rather than provide an objective record of what is being found. It has been running a couple of years now, 1113 Roman coins recorded there is hardly going to be representative of the proceeds of the exploitation of "productive sites" by ten thousand detector wielding collectors is it?

Zmarł Leszek Kołakowski


Kołakowski urodził się 23 października 1927 roku w Radomiu. Po wojnie studiował filozofię na Uniwersytecie Łódzkim i Uniwersytecie Warszawskim. Wśród jego profesorów byli m.in. Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz, Maria Ossowska, Tadeusz Kotarbiński. Pod koniec 1945 roku wstąpił do Polskiej Partii Robotniczej, następnie w latach 1947-1966 był członkiem PZPR. Był pracownikiem Instytutu Kształcenia Kadr Naukowych przy KC PZPR. Do 1966 profesor, kierownik katedry marksizmu-leninizmu na Uniwersytecie Warszawskim. W latach 50. Kołakowski zaczął jednak stopniowo odchodzić od doktrynalnej wersji filozofii Marksa. W 1966 r. odebrano mu katedrę i usunięto z PZPR za zbyt radykalną krytykę władz i odchodzenie w nauczaniu studentów od oficjalnego kanonu marksizmu. Kołakowski został oskarżony o "kształtowanie umysłów młodzieży w kierunku rażąco sprzecznym z dominującą tendencją rozwoju kraju i narodu". W 1968 r., za udział w Wydarzeniach Marcowych, odebrano mu prawo wykładania i publikowania, co zmusiło go do emigracji. Pracował najpierw na McGill University w Kanadzie (1968), a następnie wykładał na University of California w Berkeley (1969), zaś od 1970 r. do emerytury rozwijał działalność naukową i nauczycielską w oxfordzkim All Souls College. Na emigracji został członkiem Komitetu Obrony Robotników, współpracował też z paryską "Kulturą".

Leszek Kołakowski - jeden z najwybitniejszych polskich filozofów, publicysta, prozaik, autor satyr i bajek filozoficznych.

A four-footer, or bad journalism?


One of the largest hoards of Roman coins ever discovered in Britain has been officially declared 'treasure' today. "Metal detectorist" Keith Bennett discovered a total of 1,141 Roman denarii, or silver coins, in a field near Stratford-upon-Avon last July. The coins, buried in a pottery vessel and buried around four feet underground, date (the Daily mail journalist says) from between 206 BC and 195 BC. That is not the date of the ones shown in their photograph, which makes you wonder about that "four feet" reported, which would be well below plough level. The Birmingham Post report says they were about "a foot down", but the Coventry Telegraph has the four-foot version..

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Guild refuses to Question Money-making trend


I mentioned earlier on this blog the discussion of the “slabbing” of ancient coins over on Moneta-L which seems to reflect a trend away from the use of ancient coins as a resource to be studied closely for the information about the past such study may impart, to becoming a commodity for investment like modern US coins are. As part of this discussion, a collector had the temerity to suggest that the “Guild” which claims to represent the interests of the collector of ancient coins should adopt a standpoint with regard this trend in the development of the hobby towards the use of ancient coins merely as a way of generating capital. Just now, the Executive Director of the ACCG, coin dealer Wayne Sayles disabused ancient coin collecting "Monetans" of the idea that the dealers’ lobby group has any intention of listening to them and opposing any such thing.

The first reason he gives is that the person proposing the idea is “not an active member of ACCG”. He complains that there are currently over 2400 ancient coin enthusiasts participating in the Moneta-L list. He says that “All should be members of the ACCG, but most seem content to call on others to do the work. Having said that, now we can all look forward to reading in some nauseating Blog that collectors don't support the ACCG”. That's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy Mr Sayles. How could any blogger fail to point out a simple fact? It is a false assumption that all collectors and students of ancient coins “must” see eye-to-eye with the dealers’ lobby. That’s like saying all gay men in the US should be members of NAMBLA. The ACCG has embarked on a program of confrontation and provocative law-breaking to make a point. A point perhaps that not all ethical coin collectors will agree with (ie that US dealers have a “right” to ignore all export and import controls for the goods they trade in, even though in many countries for very good reasons there are restrictions on their movement). When the same executive director answers the expression of their concerns of the ACCG-sceptics with abuse, then it is not likely to attract too many converts. ACCG claims “5000 affiliated members” which is not much in a milieu estimated as numbering 50 000. Mr Sayles may regard this as “noxious”, it is nevertheless something that cannot be dismissed. I think Mr Sayles and his dealer pals will need to work a bit harder for the support they desire, not assume it is due to them by rights, like they regard taking their pick of some source country's archaeological artefacts.

Anyway, ACCG is not going to oppose slabs because the no-questions-asked “free market trade” of ancient coins “is facing a prolonged and concerted attack”:

Within the United States, it has come in the form of legislation, emergency administrative action, State Department imposed import restrictions, overreaching Federal prosecution of the National Stolen Property Act and a malicious PR campaign from the archaeological community lobby that casts [no-questions-asked PMB] collectors as looters and thieves of the past. All of this is done in the name of protectionism and stewardship, when everyone on this list knows that the private collector is the most dedicated protector, scholar and steward conceivable. ACCG fights this mindset daily and with every tool at its disposal—which are woefully few in comparison to the powerful opposition.
Heart-breaking isn’t it? How absolutely rotten it must be to be so misunderstood! All these people want to do is the “protect, study and be stewards of” archaeological information and we keep reminding people they cannot claim to be doing that if in the process a major part of the archaeological information is being destroyed by the manner in which they currently do so.

A US collector poses a question to US collectors' rights advocates


Robyn, the US author of a blog on ethical collecting as the result of a post she made there (‘Silence’ - about the refusal of the collectors' rights lobyists to acknowledge her earlier comments) has recently been the target of the usual slimy smear attacks from certain elements of the pro-collecting lobby. The one that attacks anyone who question the effects of the no-questions-asked market. Given they really have no other real arguments, this is part of the strategy of the pro-collecting naysayers, to shout down any potential opposition to the one-sided picture they wish to impose. Such behaviour can of course only reflect badly on the collecting milieu as a whole and – usefully - reduce public sympathy for their cause.

Anyone who has been involved in debating these issues with foul-mouthed collectors and their supporters tends to become hardened to it. Being faced with such aggression might however be a daunting and off-putting prospect to any ethical collector who might be considering putting pen to paper to express their concerns and doubts.

Robyn however gives as good as she gets. Faced with a barrage of the usual sneering comments (including accusations of being me in disguise!)and challenges from the former ACCG President Peter Tompa, a Washington lawyer with an ancient coin collection, she kept the upper hand in the discussion about the ACCG/PNG/IAPN illegal coin import stunt with which he is involved.

Tompa justifies the actions of these coin dealers by stating “the ACCG really just wants to preserve the rights of American collectors to import unprovenanced ancient coins JUST AS Cypriot and Chinese collectors can do”. Robyn pointed out that US citizens demanding the same rights (with none of the responsibilities I would add) to Chinese and Cypriot archaeological material as those of citizens of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Cyprus really is stretching the point. She then asks a question I think we would all like to see the Ancient Coin Collectors’ Guild answer:
Given the scale of damage done by commercial diggers to ancient Native American burial, sacred, and other sites which are protected by law, would you also oppose an MOU between the US and another country that restricts the import of Anasazi pots (such as the ones in the Blanding case) into another country? Or would you welcome their help in enforcing our own cultural property laws? After all, it's not illegal to own Anasazi pots in Egypt. Would you support their "right to collect" them, even though they were illegally dug up here?
The reply of a US cultural property lawyer on this topic would be very interesting. The ACCG is a group concerned with collectors “rights” in general. Ancient coins do not occur in the soil of the USA, but there are ancient objects to be found there and collectors that collect them, but also preservationists who are concerned about the preservation of the archaeological record and laws which reflect those concerns. Those laws are the same as those in the source countries whose archaeological record is exploited and damaged to produce the items Mr Tompa and his fellow "coineys" like to collect and US antiquity dealers like to sell. The problems involved are the same. A minority group of US collectors of portable antiquities are fond of talking about their "rights" as collectors and US citizens, let us see the discussion extended to the rights of all US collectors of portable antiquities, pot-diggers, lithics collectors, and the dealers that supply the whole antiquities market in the US and in its US context.

Of course we will not actually see a proper answer to Robyn's question. I am sure in "lawyer school" they teach about Karl Popper, perhaps even in "coin collecting school" they do too. In a nutshell, Popper says that the validity of a model is tested not so much by the facts which seem to confirm it, but those that falsify it. I think Robyn's question quite neatly falsifies the whole ACCG model, the paradigm on which the whole pro-collecting structure is erected. I think the "coineys" deep in their hearts know that too. This is why when I raised the topic on Moneta-L the discussion on what to do about looting was brought to an abrupt end by the moderators, the question has been asked before and no collector has taken up the gauntlet to try to answer it. I really do not think they will, because the answer to this question requires admitting too much (though if the Washington lawyer wants to try it and address it properly, it should be a fascinating piece of text). While however the collectors' (actually dealers') "rights" advocates refuse to respond to it, it seems worth asking it again and loudly, it will give people pause for thought, why it is not being answered.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Brasso on New York dig?

A team of US students led by papyrologist Roger Bagnall of New York University is digging at the town of Amheida in Egypt which is the subject of a story in "Imaginova, Live Science". It is stated that:

The archaeologists at Amheida apply dental tools, Brasso metal polish and gentler chemicals to hundreds of Roman coins and sift through millions of potsherds, sorting and drawing some of them for records.
Brasso metal polish? Surely some mistake! In the Giacomo Belzoni textbook on field techniques (Manuale di scavo... 1824, just under the chapter on "dynamite as an excavation tool") we find the information that the declared ingredients of Brasso are 15-20% silica powder (abrasive), 5-10%ammonia , isopropyl alcohol 3-5%, and oxalic acid 0-3%. It however leaves a non-volatile oily film on the surfaces of objects on which it has been used (to prevent rapid tarnishing of exposed raw metal) which on analysis has been found to contain oleic acid andhexadecanoic (palmitic) acid.

As an archaeologist and former finds specialist, I really can think of no reason to "treat" excavated objects with "brasso", in fact I can think of more than a few why they should not be treated with such a product. I think we'd all be very interested to hear the US investigator's explanation of that reference. I have written to ask, but received no reply. All very odd. it makes you wonder what else these "archaeologists" are up to out in the desert as guests of a foreign country.

UPDATE 23rd July, still no reply to my polite email requesting clarification.

And so:


Antiquities, Neustein said, “are being contested all over the world. The Greeks want the Elgin marbles back. We’ll end up in the Western Hemisphere with just tepees”. Personally I do not see anything so demeaning about tipis, though myself have always more fancied living in a yurt.

Most of Medici Conviction Upheld

In Rome an appeals court has upheld the conviction of art dealer Giacomo Medici, for his role in supplying museums and collectors around the world with antiquities looted from tombs and smuggled out of Italy. The case is especially important because evidence gathered in the investigation (such as thousands of photos found in a 1995 raid on Medici’s Geneva warehouse) has been used to question the legitimacy of the acquisition of numerous objects by US (in particular) museums such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Confronted with such evidence that they had been looted and then smuggled out of Italy, red-faced museum trustees have had no option but to return the items in question to Italy. The archaeological evidence destroyed in the clandestine digging of which these objects are the product however can never be returned.

In Medici’s December 2004 conviction he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a 10 million-euro ($14 million) fine for smuggling, receiving stolen antiquities and conspiracy. After the appeal, the sentence was reduced to eight years. The charges of conspiracy and receiving remain, along with the fine. Medici called Italy a "Mickey Mouse state" and said he was going to appeal the latest judgement. Medici has been free during the appeals process.

Through what was described as a “procedural error” by Rome Judge Guglielmo Muntoni in 2004, Medici was cleared of receiving stolen antiquities that ended up at the Metropolitan (including the iconic 2,500-year-old krater by the Greek painter Euphronios looted from an Etruscan tomb sold to them in 1972 for $1 million by American dealer Robert Hecht.

Hecht and the Getty’s former antiquities curator, Marion True, have been on trial in Rome since 2005 for conspiracy and handling looted antiquities. Hecht is also charged with smuggling. Hecht and True deny the charges.

Trends in ancient coin collecting in the US


A surprise (?) announcement has been made that the hitherto free online resource CoinArchives (a consolidated archive of summaries of old auction sales with superb photography) will now require a $600 per annum subscription to access the full archive. Ancient coin collectors are, understandably, upset and this has generated much discussion on coin forums like Moneta-L. In this a number of contributions are worth commenting on. For example, Reid Goldsborough makes some interesting remarks about the future of ancient coin collecting:

$600 a year is indeed a huge fee for this kind of service, not to mention a huge change, not a transition, from what CoinArchives previously was. It totally changes the service. Along with greatly reducing the number of people who will go to the site, it will greatly reduce its utility to the coin collecting community in general. It also is another step in the trend toward elitism in the ancient coin business. Just as the International Association of Professional Numismatists no longer shares its knowledge of forgeries with collectors, CoinArchives will no longer be letting typical collectors use its information in any practical way, to check for rarity of coin types/varieties, attribution differences, die comparisons, and all the rest. It's a further concentration of knowledge in the hands of dealers, away from collectors.
Blake Davis adds:

This appears to be another indication of how expensive ancient coin collecting is becoming […]. I really miss 2000 to 2006 – that was truly the golden age of ancient coin collecting. Heck, I thought it would last forever, and still don't quite understand how and why it ended. It does appear that the more casual collector's days are numbered. I never believed that what was outlined in the article in the Celator some months back - involvement by uber large auction companies, slabbing, and insane prices even by today's standards, and a switchover from the thoughtful collector and dealer who looked at ancient coin
collecting from an historical and ae[st]hetic perspective to one of purely for investment purposes, where coins are almost fungible objects, would ever come to pass. The wild card here is what the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is addressing - what happens to all this when the gov't comes around and puts the burden on
dealers and collectors to prove that the coins came from "legitimate" sources - and I mean not just tracing it back to the last owner, but beyond that. […]
Good grief. This collector regards it as a “burden” for dealers to prove the coins he buys come from legitimate source when we all know there is so much on the market that is of extremely illegitimate origin? The halcyon days which Mr Davis identifies correspond to the time when the Balkan archaeological artefact mines were still productive, now the most accessible productive sites have been emptied of archaeological evidence (aka “collectables”/portable antiquities) the market is experiencing problems. This is the real context of the ACCG fight.

To come back to CoinArchives, Jasper Burns observes:

I have used the site for research purposes and will greatly miss the resource. […] One of the strongest arguments against denying the public ownership of ancient coins has been the significant scholarly contribution of amateur collectors to numismatics. The CoinArchives database was a very important tool for the amateur. Its effective loss will reduce the opportunities for research by collectors and therefore undermine the argument in favor of private ownership. […] I think that coin dealers benefit greatly from a knowledgeable collector base that is actively involved in research. Perhaps this should justify the subsidizing of sites like CoinArchives by coin dealers […].
I see scope for another ACCG fund here…. :>) Well, Mr Burns might like to consider that nobody is actually trying to deny the public (sic, I think he means private) ownership of ancient coins. What is being criticized (and rightly so) is the no-questions-asked acquisition of ancient artifacts by collectors from could-not-care-less-out-for-a-quick-buck dealers which allows the looting and smuggling of artifacts to continue.

Frankly, I have never seen the “scholarship” argument as having much foundation or validity, there are an estimated 50 000 collectors of ancient coins in the US alone, and the number of scholarly works produced by private collectors in a decade is a pitiful fraction of that number.

It is risible to see that the limitation of accessibility to a single online source will reduce the opportunities for scholarly "research" by these people and will thus "undermine the argument in favor of private ownership" (he got it right that time). What will undermine the argument in favor of private ownership of archaeological artefacts is, instead of collectors taking a pride in the ethics of collecting responsibly, the persistence of attitudes which regard it as a "burden" to document the practice of due dilligence in their acquisition. After all, that is what those who in future who will be treating the acquisition of ancient coins (a finite resource) as an investment will be requiring of the present generation of collectors.

British humour: CBA's "Britarch Debates on Portable Antiquities"

Trying (unsuccessfully) to get a link to the CBA page on HMS Sussex in an old post here to work, I came across a little page tucked away in "Conservation/ Current Issues/ Debates/ Portable Antiquities" called "Britarch Debates on Portable Antiquities" (let's see if this link works). Apparently the CBA thinks "This section provides an archive of the latest debates on portable antiquities in the United Kindom". Well, there has not been much in the way of "latest debates" on the topic since Andy Holland the CBA Education Officer over there told us to shut up because he'd rather talk about "Iron Age fish". I was therefore interested to see this "archive".

It did not take long to look through it. In fact it consists of ten random posts (presumably the head of topics), one from no less than Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh proclaiming that “the black market in [Iraqi] antiquities seems to have stopped”, and a snide comment from a Norwegian "metal detectorist" about the latest Treasure report. There's one from me about something or other (also Iraq), though not particlarly representative of anything I said there in 2007 or 2008 on portable antiquities. There is something about the "Nighthawking" report being set up, nothing of any discussion after its publication. One wonders what the basis for the selection of this rather haphazard collection of unrelated items actually was and who is responsible (though I can guess). Really if that is the best that the Council for British Archaeology can do to highlight and show the public the scope of the debate that HAS been going on about artefact hunting, then its a pretty poor show.
 
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