Monday, 20 September 2010

The Spengler Collection at the CPAC

Wayne Sayles has made three public submissions to the CPAC deliberations of the Greek request to impose import controls on illegally-exported items of cultural property from Greece. In one of them he presents a totally unrelated anecdote about the activities of dealers in Afghanistan which however raises a question of direct relevance to the issue being discussed:
The late William F. Spengler was, during his career with the U.S. State Department, the highest ranking U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan. During his tenure in Kabul, Mr. Spengler became aware of a section in the local bazaar where scrap metals were traded. Among the various shops were some that accumulated coins that were then melted and sold as bullion. A few were sold as curios in local shops. Being a collector, interested in coins and their history, Mr. Spengler regularly visited the bazaar and selected individual pieces of interest that he typically purchased at the prevailing scrap or precious metal rate. Although countless thousands of specimens have been lost forever, some of these coins and their historical messages were literally saved from oblivion because of the interest of this collector. Due to the benevolence of Mr. Spengler, many of these coins are preserved today in institutions here and abroad. In fact, the sole Athenian decadrachm in the U.S. National Coin Collection at the Smithsonian was acquired in this way and donated by Mr. Spengler. [...] This anecdote is remarkable mainly because it happens all too frequently and historical coins are being lost every day due to repressive laws that make them valueless to the finder in any way other than to destroy them for their intrinsic metal value.
Well, of course Greece (the subject of the CPAC's upcoming discussion) has no such laws, as I have pointed out earlier these coin collectors are consistently ignoring the fact that current Greek legislation means that finders of items like this receive a reward.

But that is not the point. But before passing to that, let us first note how Sayles presents this; coins on the oriental market are being merely "sold for scrap" by brown-skinned peasants with simian mentalities and it is the enlightened American who like a heritage hero "saves" them by buying them from the ignorant dealers at scrap value, well below their market value at home. According to this account there are no dealers in antiquities in Kabul at the time, a few coins were sold in local shops, but only "as curios". This entire narrative framework is wholly typical of the neo-colonialist attitudes which underlie this whole brand of antiquity collecting. The enlightened American single-handedly saving civilization from a sea of Oriental ignorance.

I have already pointed out a number of times that this "melting for scrap" model is a persistent feature of the collectors' mythology. The reality is that collectors are saving the best (the most collectable) coins from nothing else than falling into the hands of other collectors (including museums) and these days, given the voracity of the market, it is the heavily worn and defaced which may be melted - in the same way as UK metal detectorists now sell off for melting down the "rubbish" finds that they do not want to collect and are unlikely to be able to sell.

Now, what was the "the highest ranking U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan" doing regularly visiting the local bazaar buying up freshly dug up ancient artefacts? We are not told when Mr Spengler was stationed in Afghanistan, so what laws applied at the time. Did he ever report any of the vendors to the authorities for having these objects so local museums (Kabul Museum had an extensive numismatic collection in those days) could acquire them, and find out where they were coming from? More to the point, does the US State Department encourage its employees to engage in the purchase and collection of ancient artefacts from the cultures of the countries where they are stationed? (Actually that is not a rhetorical question, it seems to me that since this matter has been raised by Mr Sayles, an official statement is called-for).

Sayles says that "countless thousands of specimens have been lost forever", but countless thousands of coins from hoards like the second Mir Zakah hoard (which I discussed here earlier) were indeed lost, through being scattered in thousands of ephemeral personal collections "sold to Japanese, British and American collectors for millions of dollars" (Osmund Bopearachchi, Vandalised Afghanistan, Frontline Volume 19 - Issue 06, Mar. 16 - 29, 2002 - please read the whole article, it tells a depressingly familiar story).

But Spengler seems to have gone further and did not restrict himself to "saving" (for his own collection) local finds. He is the author with Wayne Sayles of a three volume publication based partly on this collection which he presumably he made by buying up coins in Kabul. The book is on "Turkoman Figural Bronze Coins and Their Iconography" (first volume in 1992). Well, whether or not two American authors have done a good job of studying the pictures on the Turkoman coins [I have not read it], the source of these coins is somewhat questionable, were they not being brought to the Kabul market from outside Afghanistan?

Another matter however interests me even more than the above, and I think - since Sayles raises it in public in a sitting held by the State Department itself in a session debating whether or not collectors in the US should have the "right" to buy dugup antiquities which have no documentation of legal export - also requires a State Department statement. This concerns how the coins which Mr Spengler accumulated during his diplomatic service in Afghanistan reached the US? When and how were they exported out of Kabul? As 'diplomatic baggage'? Were any Afghan antiquity and cultural property laws ignored when this happened? This is not an unimportant question in the present context. Is this not an example of neo-colonialist exploitation by American diplomats of a type and scale only seen at the beginning of the last century? What is going on?

The American Numismatic Society claims it has "probably has the world's best collection of Kushano-Sasanian coins", and admits that to a great degree this is thanks to recent gifts from William F. Spengler, presumably including material obtained in Afghanistan in the manner described. Why should the world's greatest collection of such material be in the ANS collections in New York acquired in this manner and not in the country where they were dug up? To what degree do the policies of the ANS on the acquisition of material apply to the material which arrived as coming from the Spengler collection? Not all of the Spengler collection went to US institutions, some of it (originally we are told bought for scrap metal prices) is now turning a tidy profit being sold on the open market. But I think we would all like some clarification when and how it left Kabul.

Since many American lives are being lost to bring law and order to Afghanistan, should not any cultural property now held in US collections which was removed illegally from Afghanistan be returned there? What justification is there for squirrelling it away in America? Is that what America is fighting for over there?

Note too that it was precisely as a result of (ultimately unsuccessful) US attempts to block the illegal movement of material out of Afghanistan that (the so-called HR 915) that the ACCG began its activities to prevent curbs being applied to the movement of illegally exported material onto the US market. Given the association between Spengler and Sayles, it might be interesting to look at the relationship between Mr Spengler's activities and the rise of opposition to a transparent and regulated antiquities trade by groups like the ACCG.

The two 'numismatic' obituaries of W.F. Spengler which I found (here and here) omit the dates when he was in Afghanistan or details about the export of his coin collection from that country or any other where he may have served. Perhaps somebody else would like to explain how this substantial collection of ancient dugup coins left Afghanistan as the personal property of a US diplomat.

I think also when Wayne Sayles stands up at a meeting at the State Department on October 12th there are one or two searching questions the CPAC might ask him about his oral presentation. I hope they do.

Photo: Kabul Market (National Geographic)

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