.After over five years of criticism, the ACCG Board of Directors has altered the text of its Code of Ethics "to clarify the guild's position in regard to illicit trade". The initial text of the first paragraph was:
"1. Coin Collectors and Sellers will not knowingly purchase coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites or stolen from museum or personal collections, and will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country".This was criticised by David Gill on at least one occasion, and myself. It took them five years however to see that the text really did not present the dealers organizing the "Guild" in the best of lights, so "by a formal decision of the Board of Directors on June 6, 2010" the first paragraph of the code was "updated" (sic). It now reads: "
1. Coin collectors and sellers will not knowingly purchase coins stolen from private or public collections or reasonably suspected to be the direct products of illicit excavations in contravention of national patrimony laws. Coin collectors and sellers will also comply with all applicable customs laws".The Guild explains:
This revision was felt necessary in order to clarify the position of the guild in regard to illicit excavations in countries where patrimony laws make such excavation products stolen property. It also recognizes the responsibility of importers and exporters to accurately describe and value objects being transported or shipped and to comply with any customs laws that may be applicable.Well, that rather puts their own Baltimore illegal coin import stunt in a bad light. The clarification of the "position of the guild in regard to illicit excavations in countries where patrimony laws make such excavation products stolen property" is a dramatic turnaround. As we have seen here, ACCG associated dealers have said defiantly all along that they consider that the fact that something is regarded as "stolen" in some foreign land does not make them so by US law. A position that did them and the collectors they claim to represent no credit whatsoever. It is good to see at last a recognition that the bounds of ethics are not merely limited to what a law does and does not determine is merely legal. It remains to be seen how this affects the trading practices of ACCG-associated dealers and collectors.
Spot the weasel words. There are now three parts here. (a) "Coin collectors and sellers will not knowingly purchase coins stolen from private or public collections". Note the word "knowingly". There is however still nothing here about due diligence in ascertaining that coins are not stolen - for example checking on published lists of stolen items. In fact this point of this "code of ethics" does no more than assert that collectors and sellers will not handle stolen goods, which is what the law says. So how far do these "changes" extend? A separate explanation (Guidance notes) would be helpful here to actually "clarify the position of the guild" on this matter.
The third part "Coin collectors and sellers will also comply with all applicable customs laws", interestingly dropping the "of their own country". So dealers importing ancient coins from Bulgaria are obliged by this "code of ethics" to have Bulgarian export licences in the case of coins to which such licencing applies. On the one hand this merely reinforces the existing law, but on the other hand, given the general and frequently expressed attitude of the Guild's membership, that the US collector is somehow "outside" these laws, this is an interesting change. Provided, that is, that we all interpret that word "applicable" in the same way. Again, a separate explanation (Guidance notes) would be helpful here to actually "clarify the position of the guild" on this matter.
In the middle is the central point. "Coin collectors and sellers will not knowingly purchase coins [...] reasonably suspected to be the direct products of illicit excavations in contravention of national patrimony laws". Once again we have the dichotomy between "knowingly purchasing" and "ascertaining that they are not purchasing". If you don't ask the question, you do not know the answer. As long as you keep your trading within the no-questions-asked framework, then you cannot be accused of doing anything "knowingly". But is that the direction ethical collecting and dealing should be heading? The rest of us say no, the ACCG apparently (from the wording of this text) says yes, so really nothing has changed.
Illicit excavations are defined as those "in contravention of national patrimony laws", hardly a very revolutionary definition, but a significant one from a group whose board members have been heard loudly calling for these "restrictive" ("nationalist") "retentionist" laws to be ignored. One presumes that this phrase means the laws applicable in the source countries from which the items come, and it would have been helpful if the revised text had said that explicitly. Also there is no time limit stated (pre-1970/post 1970 for example). But then note the weasel wording, it is ethical to handle coins that are not the "direct products of illicit excavations". What does the ACCG mean by that? Does it mean that they consider items not to be the "direct products" if they lie stockpiled in a collection or warehouse for a few weeks, months or years before they are bought by the ACCG dealer? If they are smuggled out of the Balkans to a Swiss, German, Austrian or British auction and bought there no questions asked by a US dealer or collector? Looted objects are the direct products of illicit and illegal activities however many hands they pass through, they are tainted from origin, and no amount of laundering can change that. "In contravention of national patrimony laws" means in contravention of national patrimony laws. That is like saying that buying articles from a fence is not actually buying the direct products of a theft, because not bought directly from the burglar. Again, a separate explanation (Guidance notes) would be helpful here to actually "clarify the position of the Guild" on this matter.
Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh comments with hidden irony that:
This revision to the published code does not reflect any change in the ethical approach of the numismatic trade.He claims that the dealers and collectors routinely avoid what he calls "suspicious material", though again there is a lack of clarity what is meant by that term, as I have pointed out here on this blog, there is much that I find suspicious about the items his own firm "Classical Coins" offers.
The reworded code is now in discord with that of the supposedly "ethical" V-Coins (whose owner is currently ACCG President Bill Puetz) the corresponding element of the later's code of ethics is "I will not knowingly deal in stolen numismatic items. I will report such items to the proper authorities if they are offered to me". No mention of illcit excavations or their definition (or a definition therefore of the word "stolen"). No mention of customs regulations. There are other differences more applicable to dealers than collectors. Which Code therefore is a dealer who is both a member of the ACCG and operating through V-coins to apply? By which is he more bound? It seems to me that being chucked off V-Coins has more economic clout thjan being expelled from the ACCG for mispractice (see below) which rather suggests that it is the lower-threshold V-coins "Code" which would win here.
In the case of the ACCG Code, there is no sign here that the changes to the established code of ethics were made after consultation with the collectors which the Guild claims to represent. Maybe collectors could have suggested, for example, forms in which the adherence to this code by dealers is demonstrated (up-front declarations that the buyer will receive a copy of the export licence for example). This would be in the spirit of the second principle (unchanged) of the ACCG Code of ethics ("Coin Collectors and Sellers will protect, preserve and share knowledge about coins in their collections", knowledge could in this case be documentation of licit provenance). Was there any collector input into this revision? Perhaps "transparency" requires that this is revealed and why any suggestions that were rejected were ignored. After all that is precisely what the ACCG is fighting for against the US government, so they should show their members that they too can apply the standards they expect from others.
Finally, there is no mention here of what happens to collectors and dealers who do not adhere to the principles of the ACCG Code of Ethics, whose shipments are seized by customs, who are found to be knowingly dealing in material which any idiot can see is the "direct product of illicit excavations". Is there some kind of a disciplinary procedure? To whom should infringements be reported? Would the offending dealer or collector be expelled from the Guild, or can they continue to flaunt the Code and claim to be a fully-paid-up member of the Guild? Or, due to a lack of ability to ensure they are abided by, are these just so many utterly meaningless words? Again, let us have some transparency on the intentions here.
Vignette: ACCG Code of Ethics, no more than just empty words?