Monday, 17 May 2010

Opposing "Statism" and the Messianic Role of the US Collector

ACCG member John Pennock from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest of the USA says that if my criticisms of the current status quo of portable antiquity collecting “had any substance” then I would “debate the merits of the points [he had] made. I actually considered that these "points" were stereotypical and naïve (typical coiney stuff) and felt that in coming up to a thousand posts here (it seems), I have discussed all these points, probably many ways from different angles. Only a total buffoon would say what I have “not discussed” without actually checking what has already been discussed, but then as we have seen checking facts is not Mr Pennock’s strong point (see here for another example).

Anyhow seeing as my failure to dissect the points he made has now been characterised as “cowardly”, I feel more inclined to detail the lack of merit of the points Pennock made. His comments are typical of those of a certain mindset and maybe it would be useful to respond to them. [apologies for the lack of internal links due to lack of time today, due to Internet downtime due to severe flooding over here. I may - or may not - add them later]

Before I start, let me remind that this discussion is all about whether the US ancient coin market should continue to have unrestricted imports of illegally exported coins from Italy.

So let us take the original message, identify the main points and "debate" them in an uncowardly manner. Mr Pennock if he is himself uncowardly [and keeps on-topic and civil] is of course invited to respond here.

John Pennock (“ACCG, ANS, PAN”) writes(1) :
I'm a collector and a strong supporter of the ACCG. They represent my views.
That is very comforting I am sure for people to have a group with whom they can claim shared views and to which they can feel they belong (see the letters Mr Pennock naively inscribes after his name as a badge of 'belonging'). In collectors' cases, it saves I guess making up their own mind by doing their own research. Looking at the Moneta-L “discussion” of the putative Italy MOU extension, it seems Pennock is not alone in this. There are a lot of totally superficial statements passing as considered argument there. There really are just two people making any sort of sensible contribution to that discussion and John Pennock is not one of them.

In the monetan discussion there was a contrasting of just two alternatives, both "extremist", on the one side were the alleged people trying to "stop the trade" (the bogeymen) and the ACCG (the saviours). Some people like Reid Goldsborough were pointing out that the extremist obstructionism of the ACCG may not be the best way for collecting to be going. Pennock was standing up for ACCG extremism, and his main point, I guess is (2):
The argument about the 'middle ground' is an illusion. I see no statist source country even attempting to think about a middle ground.
“Statist”, what a strange word, means everything and nothing [incidentally its wider application ultimately comes from Marxist debate from the beginning of the century]. In what way is this collector defining a “middle ground”? Is he referring to states which allow the collection and sale of antiquities? This interpretation is indicated by the statement in the next paragraph:
There are many source countries that do not respect property rights, do not respect the free market, and do not respect the right of their citizens to collect things that are old.
Later on as bogeymen states he mentions China and Cyprus, both nations which his intellectual equals in the ACCG point out in another context (“anti-American discrimination”) actually do allow buying and collecting of antiquities. We have seen ACCG activists point out elsewhere there is legal collecting in Bulgaria, there is legal collecting in the Ukraine (President Yushchenko is a collector of neolithic pottery), Poland and Russia, all states with what Pennock called “statist” antiquity laws. Despite western mythology, collecting (including of ancient coins) existed legally in these countries in the Communist period.

While people could continue to maintain collections (in the legislation of communist Poland even getting tax relief to do so and help with conservation), what is generally illegal in most places was the digging up of fresh material. Collecting was and is allowed but looting is not. This of course [though few collectors there will actually admit it in their dsiscussions of collecting artefacts from the Old World], the same situation regarding archaeological material from public land in the USA. The archaeological resource is seen as the common good, and its preservation from destruction as a source of information about the past also for the common good. Any significant fresh finds being made surely should be going to museums to be curated so that everybody can benefit – exactly like the UK’s Treasure Act, or more precisely the Scottish Treasure Trove system. Now that seems to me to be a pretty good approximation to the “middle way” which ACCG member Pennock denies exists in any country except Britain. It is unclear why ACCG members like himself do not look into these things themselves to check out the glib generalizations that they so willingly repeat.

Pennock says that “statist” countries
'criminalize' their own citizens with their approach. These countries approach to cultural property is Karl Marx”.(sic)
Well, as I have pointed out Scotland has a pretty “statist” (to use Pennock’s terms) approach to dugup artefacts. Both Northern Ireland and the Irish republic do too. Marxist? Hardly. In Scotland's case it is derived from common law which states quod nullius est fit domini regis asigning such items to the Crown - so embedded in the "property rights" so dear to the heart of every dollar-touting collector of ancient artefacts. Likewise the permit system of both Irelands is analogous to the methods used to prevent (or rather punish) clandestine commercial digging of sites in other source countries. Just as they are willing to even acknowledge that collectors in the USA also have the same restrictions, oddly enough we never hear anything from the US collecting community how “unjust” these “restrictive” Irish or Scottish measures are. [Interestingly I have not yet come across either very much in the way of Irish citizens claiming they are “criminalized” by their country’s antiquity preservation laws, though I have come across statements by them condemning the laissez faire approach of neighbouring England.] Pennock joins the ACCG here in using pars pro toto oversimplification and pejorative labels to obscure rather than enlighten.
We then have a trotting out (3) of the ACCG credo by Mr Pennock:
But as has been proved in many cases, statist approaches eventually fail.
well, hang on a second, I mentioned both Irelands just a moment ago. In fact there is a fair amount of agreement among those who know about Irish archaeology that illegal digging or archaeological sites is not actually occurring on a scale that the ACCG model of “the effects of restrictive legislation” would predict. Poland too has such legislation, and it is clear that damage done to archaeologicdal sites by artefact hunting in Poland [with the kind of (“repressive” “statist”) laws that are the object of ACCG revulsion] is nowhere near as bad as in England with its PAS. The ACCG once again is leading people like Mr Pennock to believe all sorts of things that they are not checking for themselves and just regurgitating as “well-known truths”.

John Pennock also believes (4):
Any criminal element or 'rottenness' that exists in those source countries is the fault of their own draconian attempts to control the basic democratic rights of property.
Well, actually no. I’ve just written an article for HAPPAH on “relics of the past as a commercial commodity in eastern Europe” which made me do some probing and sort out my thoughts on this. The artefact trade here in eastern Europe (that includes Bulgaria where a lot of the coins sold by ACCG dealers have been coming from) is apparently now largely in the hands of organized criminal groups. Their rise in fact has nothing to do with “draconian attempts to control the basic democratic rights of property”. On the contrary, they are the result of a lack of ability of the new democracies of some countries to apply measures to protect the basic democratic rights of property with any degree of success. Again we see a failure to put the narrow coiney arguments in the context of what is really happening in the wider world.

[Let us also note the tacit admission that coins are being bought by dealers and collectors from law-breakers (but that it is the fault of somebody else this market exists, not those who finance it by making it profitable).]

Then we have the "property rights" argument (soundbite 5):
The PAS system used in Britain is predicated on the principles of property rights, free markets, and equality.
As are the legal systems in the new democracies of Bulgaria and other states in the EU for example. What it seems to me the average ACCG member like Mr Pennock however is interested in (though disguising it as altruism) is his own “property rights” to the stuff he buys, the free market in foreign dugups in his own country and an equality with the citizens of other countries to get his hands on the artefacts found in those countries. It seems to me however that this is ignoring the rights of collectors and citizens of those other countries, placing purchasing power ahead of “power of place”. The "internationalist" position represented by ACCG members like Mr Pennock is self-interest disguised as altrism.

Mr Pennock buying no-questions-asked a car stolen in Sofia has of course no “property rights” over it which trump those of the person who lost it to criminals, especially if when buying it Pennock did not demand any documentary proof of its status, and especially if there was reason to believe that it might well be stolen. This is how I see the no-questions-asked purchase of ancient artefacts, there is a high chance that they come from fresh digging, and the ethical buyer should make every effort to verify that this is not the case before buying. Failing to do so is not buying in "good faith" because it does not apply due diligence applicable as has been widely discussed in the case of this class of object.
Now we get to the specious arguments (6):
So, when a 'Karl Marx' cultural property country (sic) attempts to influence my country to criminalize the trade, it is a moral imperative to not support them.
Really? So according to Mr Pennock, it is more OK to buy stolen cultural property if it is stolen from a country you do not like than one you do? I do not understand this concept, if a car is stolen from a Marxist in a country with a Marxist government, would Mr Pennock argue the buyer has a “moral imperative” not to give it back?

What in fact the US is being asked to do is not “criminalise the trade”, but ensure that the US trade is not supplied with goods coming from criminal activity from selected countries. In the same way as childrens’ rights activists might ask the US to help reduce the flow of goods into the US created at the expense of child exploitation by certain countries or firms, and I think it makes no difference whatsoever if the organization or country asking are perceived by Mr Pennock and fellow ACCGites as “Marxists”. Certainly that does not “criminalise” the trade in sports wear or whatever to take such measures. Again glib generalizations and inflammatory words used to produce knee-jerk reactions rather than worthy arguments.

A market which is careful to provide only legally obtained/produced articles has not been by that measure "criminalised". What Mr Pennock means is that in such a 'clean' market, the criminal elements become more visible, but why should a collector careful about what he buys or truly ethical dealers be concerned about the people to avoid becoming easier to distinguish?

Then the ideological element (7):
If the USA enforces these trade restrictions, they by proxy are enabling and abetting an unethical anti-democratic system and lengthen the date out for when they might adopt more enlightened policies.
Oh bollocks. We are talking here about the treatement of antiquities in EU member Italy. This type of statement is American imperialist messianism at its worst; straight out of a Superman comic, “truth, justice, and the American Way”. Shut it, please.

The justification for an American Exclusionist carte-blanche to buy illegally exported antiquities is (8):
Giving in now, takes away our ability to influence and promote the kind of world we dream of and desire.
(Building a brave new world for collecting run by the Americans, very "internationalist"). Holding out and continuing to import illegally exported artefacts to further fuel what is already seen as many as a corrupt and damaging market is certainly not doing anything to allow the United States of America to claim any moral high ground now or in the future. It certainly places America in a position where instead of having an ability to influence, it is increasingly being seen as the rogue bully state that needs to be influenced.

The “moral imperative” Mr Pennock, when offered goods which there is a very good chance were illegally obtained is to ensure they are not, and if the seller will not or cannot allow you to verify that, not to buy them. Period, as they say.
Vignette: If Superman were alive today he'd no doubt collect ancient coins, but only those with a verifiable licit provenance. I doubt he would join the ACCG.

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