Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Coin Dealer Arrested

Polish police today arrested a 48-year old man apparently an internet-based dealer in ancient coins from the Wrocław region on suspicion of illegal posession of archaeological artefacts. In his flat were found 700 coins which were confiscated, a Ministry of Culture and National Heritage expert will now determine the value and origin of these artefacts.

If convicted of illegal posession, the man faces up to three years imprisonment. Looking at the coins, I'd accuse him of another crime on top of handling stolen goods, totally destructive cleaning. In fact, looking at this sorry load of chemically stripped rubbish it looks like this jackass will get off free, as the coins most probably come from outside Poland's borders. Probably somewhere to the south (Romania? Bulgaria? Hungary?). Polish law only refers to artefacts coming from Poland, and I think the numismatic expert will decide this cannot be demonstrated to be the case. This is not the first time this has happened, and no charges were pressed. But it makes a good news story to make the public aware of the problem.

Monday, 21 June 2010

UK Artefact Hunter: "You and your profession are being outdone by so called Amateurs like myself…"

Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action has a wonderfully lucid piece on the Heritage Journal prompted by a British artefact hunter's reaction to the conservation group not publishing his comment ("a sensible idea") on their blog containing the suggestion that a commercial metal detecting rally should be used to generate revenue for the upkeep of Stonehenge. Well worth a read, to illustrate the vast gap that exists between what archaeologists should be getting across to the artefact hunting community through "partnership" of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and what artefact hunters really take away from this arrangement. The PAS is just losing it.

Mr Kingston writes:
since the finding of the Staffordshire hoard, an hubristic force has been building in the metal detecting community, like gathering thunder, and those comments sum it up better than I ever could. [...] find it, to put it bluntly, grotesque, that anyone should think that such a rally could actually take place in the fields around Stonehenge - which are part of a protected World Heritage Site – and that they thought that the suggestion was ”a sensible comment”. Is it any wonder that our criticism is met with anger from metal detector users? It is both hobby and narcotic, don’t you think? Its features include the thrill of the hunt, regular hits of reward or possession and, ever-present (it could be you?), the tantalising possibility of hitting a lottery-like jackpot. If you recall Mike Parker Pearson’s long, painstaking, but ultimately rewarding, excavation in one of those same ‘fields around Stonehenge’ (the site of Bluestonehenge), how – again – grotesque is a proposition that the archaeological record of a similar piece of ground should be destroyed in a single afternoon, for a ‘hobby‘, for a ‘buzz’, for ‘profit’ – or, in the words of our correspondent - to “generate revenue” to spend on heritage? “You and your profession are being outdone by so called Amateurs like myself”. This is true, although not in the way that it was intended when written.
There will, I see be a 'part two', I will link to it when it appears.

I Found it in My Garden

It is not unknown for metal detectorists to say they found something "in their gardens". The first recorded owner of the Cleveland "Sauroktonos" which has fancifully been ascribed to the hands of Praxiteles himself was Wuppertal lawyer Ernst-Ulrich Walter. He says he found this mega-buck statue in pieces in his back garden, and that he vaguely remembers a garden ornament looking something like this back when he was a kid. Anyway, not being interested in such stuff, he offloaded it onto a Dutch dealer whose name he does not remember for 1,600 Deutsch marks. The rest is (almost) history, it passes through other hands before ending up with the Aboutaam brothers, who sell it to Cleveland.

Now I must admit to being very curious about this garden ornament story. Let's have a look for Ernst-Ulrich Walter in the Internet. We find the article discussed today by David Gill Katlen Trautmann ("Der Schatz von Göda", June 6, 2004). Göda is a village west of Bautzen in Lausitz. Earlier than that is another article of similar content and tone: Anon, Dem Traum ein Stück näher on the website for the hamlet of Leutwitz west of Göda. It is here that the collector regained his grandfather's Dreiseithof which had been seized by the German Democratic Republic. Presumably this is the garden where the Sauroktonos had been found. Now the nobility of central Europe were every bit as prone to go on the Grand Tour as anyone else and bring back bits and bobs of marble, pottery and other displayable "art". The problem is that we know about most of these objects from the copious literature generated at the time, some of my academic colleagues have spent their working lives collating all this information. If a life size bronze Greek figure had been brought back here in the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twenieth century, why is no record surviving?

If an ancient Greek statue was standing in a garden in the DDR, why was it not noticed by the state antiquities service and taken to a museum? The East Germans were very thorough about surveying the countryside inventorising ancient monuments. Secondly such an item not included in any inventory was asking to be smuggled out of the country for hard currency (OK, the Iron Curtain made that extremely difficult, but smuggling did take place).

Vignette: Sauroktonos with no passport. Photo: Leutwitz near Bautzen on Google Earth, that's it folks, the Grand Tour item was reportedly found in one of those farmyards. Isn't that strange?

Baghdad National Museum Text

Zainab Radhi has a summary piece called simply "Looted" on Journal Live - Blog Central (Jun 20) about the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. Worth a read.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Stolen Imperial Tang Sarcophagus Back in China

Edward Wong ("China: Tang Dynasty Coffin Returned by U.S. Businessman" New York Times, June 18, 2010) writes:
A 27-ton imperial sarcophagus from the Tang Dynasty that was stolen by tomb raiders has been returned to China from the United States, according to a report in China Daily, an official English-language newspaper. The coffin, which was stolen from the tomb of the Tang empress Wu Huifei, who died in 737, arrived at the Shaanxi History Museum on Thursday. Chinese police officers first discovered that the relic had been stolen in 2006. They traced it to a businessman in the United States, who had bought it for $1 million, China Daily reported. The businessman agreed to return the coffin unconditionally after three rounds of negotiations. The coffin was shipped from Virginia on March 16.
Well, isn't that nice of him? Perhaps he'd have been a little less out of pocket if before buying it he'd made the condition of the seller revealing how the object surfaced on the market, and what made the sale of a coffin from an imperial tomb "legitimate". Was he tricked by the trade, or did he just not care? It seems to me to be an extremely difficult thing to buy "by accident" a stolen artefact when it is something like this (unique associated with a known person whose single tomb is known to exist in a specific place). Again, no names, no details are given - like where he claims to have acquired it from.

Photo: Stolen portable antiquities are generally a bit smaller than this one.

US Artefact Hunters in Partnership with Museum

The Southampton Historical Museum in New York State now has a metal detecting club, called grandly an "Artifact Detecting Team" (ADT). The idea is that it will arrange access to privately owned land with historical sites on it and then charge metal detectorists a fee to search it and the artefact hunters get to keep what they find. Apparently, there is a lack in the USA of "places where a metal detecting enthusiast could potentially make a relic find such as a coin, button, buckle or other item that dates back to the period of pre and post Revolutionary America. Any item found within this time frame is typically a once-in-a-lifetime discovery for these metal detecting hobbyists". Barry Small, a Long Island resident and metal detecting artefact hunter who will be running the scheme for the museum says: "The unique combination of the colonial history in the Southampton area and the potential access to historically significant sites, large private estates and undeveloped pristine farmland makes for a metal detecting dream opportunity".

"Barry approached the museum with a unique and detailed proposal to help raise funds" said Tom Edmonds, executive director of the museum. By gathering fees from artefact hunters for arranging access to land, the museum hopes this way to raise funds for "historical preservation" (that means maintaining its own assets). This is achieved however at the expense of the preservation of the historical resources of other historical sites in the region (ones which are not formally part of its own assets). The museum refers to this scheme with that horrible cliche as a "win-win situation". But it is not a win for the archaeological record of those historical sites still surviving rampant redevelopment in Southampton's backyards and farm fields, some going back to the colonial period. That is compromised rather than being preserved. That does not seem like a "win win" situation to me.

The museum describes this dismantling of parts of the region's archaeological resource as "getting creative" and boasts of its ability to "tap into a heretofore unknown source of funding driven by the passion to uncover local history". Not at all "unknown", commercial metal detecting rallies are a well-known feature of the landscape of archaeological destruction in other countries.
"My proposal was to create an annual dues paying, membership-driven Team of metal detecting hobbyists who would pay daily detecting fees directly to the non-profit Southampton Historical Museum for the opportunity to metal detect on various historical and estate sites and plowed farmlands which date back to their settlement in the early 1700s," said Small. The museum would be getting the appropriate permission from the landowners, as necessary. [...] "This past fall I had the opportunity to metal detect on some Southampton area farmland and made some great 1700's era finds. I was immediately hooked," said Small. "After such a great opportunity I was racking my brain for months trying to figure out how to gain access to these historically rich properties. I knew that I would be willing to pay at least $100 per day to detect these pristine farm sites and even more for access to significant historical or estate properties that had never seen a metal detector before and believed that others around the country would feel the same way too".[...] Edmonds added, "We will be recording the specific locations of any significant finds that are made by the Team members for further examination and investigation by the museum's trustees".
So in other words, the metal detectorists knows that if he knocked on the door of a conservation conscious landowner and asked if he could loot historical sites on their land for collectable (and possibly saleable) items, they could well meet with a refusal, but if the museum asked, permission might be forthcoming. Another advantage for the hobbyist is that it craftily places all the administrative costs (drawing up and signing agreements with landowners, third party liability insurance etc) as well as the task of documenting significant finds on the museum. The detectorist just pays a reasonable fee for which they can carry off as many archaeological treasures as they can find. Should not museums be educating the public about the destructiveness of the commercial exploitation of the archaeological resource by artefact collectors, and not themselves profiting from it? What are they thinking of?

[We Europeans might find it hard getting our heads round the idea that finding something from before the 1770s as a "once in a lifetime experience"! Still, whatever turns you on... Anyway if the culture hooligans are only trashing sites with post-1600 metal objects in the search of collectables, they are only damaging a small part of the archaeological record of the long history of mankind on the North American continent].

Vignette: more archaeological deposits damaged for the benefit of garden shed collectors.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Story of "Saddam's Coins"

Further on the subject of the imagined "rights" of US coin collectors and what they actually do with the items they collect - I came across the "Story of Saddam's (sic) coins" (quoted below without the copious links to Wikipedia - unlike the American sellers of this war booty, I assume my readers know where Iraq is and who its former leader was):
In the spring of 2003, US and British coalition soldiers in Iraq were called upon to secure the banks in Basra, Iraq from looters. The soldiers found Iraqi coins, most of which were were melted down for scrap metal content, however, there was one exception. A group of British soldiers led by Captain Chris McGinley & Reservist Robert Brannagan found roughly 70,000 pounds of brilliant un-circulated Iraqi coins that were decommissioned by Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War. [...] In late 2004, through an unbelievable string of connections and coincidences that can only be described as divine intervention; the Products for Good team was offered the opportunity to purchase the entire collection of Saddam's coins. The team immediately acted on the opportunity and developed a plan to [...] sell what had at one time been Saddam's property to create good works for as many people as possible. A product line was designed that would display the coins in a patriotic and high quality fashion. Using the coins themselves, in a beautifully designed frame, surrounded by pictures, memorabilia and quotes that honor and reflect the sacrifices made by our military to protect our freedoms. [...] In keeping with the mission to help as many Americans as possible with this project, Products for Good chose to assemble the shadowboxes at the Cleveland Vocational Industries.
It seems these "patriotic" boxed sets do not contain images of the country of origin of the coins, but its American-led invasion and conquest. Since Basra was under British control, it would be interesting to know from whom the coins were (by "divine providence") purchased by this US organization apparently after the June 2004 handover of control from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi puppet government. Somehow the US producers of collectors' geegaw "patriotic shadowboxes" (50- 150$), golfball markers (20$) and ready to wear numismojewellery (100$) fail to mention.

The only specific authorisation the website mentions it has for the posession of these coins is: "A letter of approval was drafted August 9, 2003 by FE Castle, commanding officer of the 19 Mechanized Brigade at the British Brigade Field Administration Office Headquarters". But what specific authority did tank-commander Castle actually have to apportion Iraqi war loot? To the Americans in "late 2004" too?
The above account suggests the coins were initially auctioned off - we are presumably meant to understand as numismatic specimens ( Can anyone supply a link to this alleged "London auction"?). Other accounts have the British instead shipping the material away and selling the items seized to a "London metals company". The weight involved is 31751 kg. Are there really no scrap metal dealers anywhere in the near East? Perhaps the tommies thought the metal was parts of those legendary " weapons of mass destruction", which is why they were taken away all the way to London? Otherwise it is difficult to see how this action complies with international law concerning war booty. Maybe somebody from these soldiers' unit would like to explain this with reference to international law?

The sellers of these collectors' geegaws stress how much "good" for Americans comes from the use of these trophy coins (formerly property of the Iraqi government and people not "Saddam") deriving from the US-led invasion of a sovereign country. There is not however any mention made of any proceeds from these trophy collectors' products (like some of the other 80% of the proceeds) going to people in Iraq injured by coalition military action, made homeless, lost jobs and loved ones. These are Iraqi coins taken from the Iraqi bank reserves during a military occupation by British troops in a manner that is unclear and ended up making a profit for a US organization. Frankly, it matters not a bit what a percentage of those profits are used for.

By the way the exact duplicates of the coins themselves, same mint, same dates, same minting authority, can be bought by collectors perfectly legitimately on ebay or wherever for a few cents - but without the "patriotic" (read imperialist) claptrap.

I suppose it is only a matter of time before we see the "Internationalist" US ancient coin dealers producing "patriotic shadow boxes" with eagles and maps of expanding empires with Roman coins glued into them, Emperor Constantine golf-ball markers, and Gallic Empire coctail swizzle sticks. We already have lots of the wearable numismojewellery geegaws, including those produced by a subsidiary firm of one of their number.

Photos: from the vendor's website: "Products for good".

Interview last April

Oddly enough, I do not seem to have given at the time a link on this blog to this HAPPAH piece:

Bulletin n°02, avril 2009

Why did the STOP campaign fail ?
- Interview de Paul Barford, archéologue britannique

so do so now. I wonder why I forgot to mention it?

Cambodia gets US-held Stolen Statues Back

The "It Surfaced Down-Under" blog has a post about the recent news of some stolen Cambodian antiquities being repatriated from the US (Angkorian Statuary Repatriation: What's Behind the Headlines? ) the story attracted a lot of media attention, but almost all the articles were duplicates of each other, and they all missed the vital information:

The article makes some to-do about these pieces being recovered during a 2008 "raid" by US Immigrations and Customs (I.C.E.) agents, on the location they were being held at somewhere in Los Angeles, yet fails to report where this locations is, who possessed them, if they were recovered from private residences or institutions post-sale or were in some warehouse somewhere awaiting delivery. The article notes that, despite the M.O.U. (Memorandum of Understanding) signed between Cambodia and the US (and, I should note, the existence of an I.C.O.M. "Red List" for Cambodia since 2009), numerous artifacts large and small have ended up in private collections overseas. This is indeed true, and ongoing. What I question is whether there's more to this story than meets the eye.
To look at the way these "stolen cultural property repatriated from the US" stories inevitably written on the basis of ICE press releases, one cannot avoid getting the impression that the ICE does not really seem all that interested in actually catching smugglers, still less investigating the sources that supply them (to allow others to get back to the looters). The press stories give the impression that the ICE mostly interested in getting its hands on showy and easily identified things to "send back" to create photo opportunities and show US "co-operation" with other nations and America taking some form of moral leadership. Stopping the actual looting is entirely secondary to that, in fact helps to provide material for the backslapping stories.

The Cambodian statues is just one case where the back story is never provided. Where did they suddenly "surface"? That is not deemed important to the reporting of these stories, what is reported is they went back and the Cambodians are ever so grateful to the wonderful USA for handing them back. Again we have the object-centric approach, totally ignoring the destruction of a monument, or context to produce those "works of art" which everyone is so pleased about. What however is more important is how on earth did they get to the staes in the first place, what sort of deals lie behind that, and what unscrupulous US collectors or dealers were actually buying these items despite the existence of an MOU?

Opacity in the Coiney Guild

The day before yesterday I wrote to a board member of the US-based Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild and the Executive Director of the ACCG with a question about the procedure by which the former Code of Ethics was reworded and what it means. The one refused to answer the questions, referring me to the Executive Director as if he had no knowledge of the procedure adopted (even though the decision was voted at a board meeting on 6th June) and enjoining me not to quote or even paraphrase our correspondence. The latter has simply ignored my letter. If coin collectors have been sending messages on the topic of the new wording to Moneta-L, reports suggest that those who control access to the list are stopping them, as there has apparently been very little discussion of the topic there amongst those who one would have thought the new code would most directly affect - unless of course every man jack of them is set on ignoring it from the outset.

So much then for "transparency", eh?

Friday, 18 June 2010

Reworded Collector's Code of Ethics

In the posts below the rewording of the Code of Ethics of the US-based Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is discussed. It seems that the ACCG is basically saying that anything not illegal in the US is "ethical", and seem genuinely perplexed by the notion that this is not what a code of ethics is about.

There is of course a lot of discussion about ethical codes in businesses and other activities these days and reference to any of the literature (even the selection of it readily available online) shows that the ACCG text falls far short of anything that would be acceptable in any other field. Just for example, the compilers of this document might have looked at what Chris McDonald on Ethicsweb says in his "why have a Code of Ethics?". In particular I liked the extract from the Life Skills Coaches Association of British Columbia code of ethics:
"Why have a Code of Ethics?

  • to define accepted/acceptable behaviours;
  • to promote high standards of practice;
  • to provide a benchmark for members to use for self evaluation;
  • to establish a framework for professional behaviour and responsibilities;
  • as a vehicle for occupational identity;
  • as a mark of occupational maturity [...];"
It seems to me that to meet any of these aims the vague, patchy and brief ACCG code falls far short. It is a mishmash of separate ideas not welded into a whole to do any of these things in the field of collection of antiquities, most of them refer to the SELLING of antiquities. I sincerely doubt whether its author(s) actually sent this text out among the membership for consultation, if they had they might have found they had collector members who in their professional lives were bound by much better and fuller codes of ethics, which would have prompted consideration of a far rounder document. Even the counter staff at McDonalds have a Code of Ethics far superior in general layout and narrow issues touched upon to the Collectors' Guild.

It is interesting to study the ACCG document as a COLLECTORS' code in the particular context of ethical colection of antiquities. Since collectors are claiming to give the artefacts in their care a good "home", it seems to me not without reason to compare the Collectors' Guild Code of Ethics with the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. Here we can see at once a whole series of principles connected with providing the object a good home. These are in fact completely missing from the ACCG Collectors' code. It is not that the domestic museums of collectors are set lower standards, the whole aspect of the ethics of collecting is completely ignored. Nothing here about premises and suitable conditions, conservation and documentation. Of the eight core issues covered by the ICOM code, legal propriety (which is the main focus of the ACCG Code) is the seventh.

This is an important comparison because not only do collectors present their curation of objects as if it were a viable alternative to museums, but even suggest items should be removed from the care of museums to enter the market. In this case therefore the ethical standards set by collectors for their collections cannot be below those of museum, collections. It would make no sense to remove items from being under care guided by clearly formulated and igh ethical standards to an environment almost entirely lacking in comparable standards.

Indeed, one might compare the ancient coin collectors' code of ethics with the codes of ethics of collectors of other types of material from finite resources, such as the best examples from palaeontology for example.

In comparison with what we expect a code of ethics to actually consist of, the ACCG document looks incredibly amateurish and really does not deserve the title of a code of ethics at all. But then what can we expect from the trade in ancient coins in its current form?

Reworded Coiney Code of Ethics: "SS" Holds Out

There was a surprisingly telling reaction to the announcement that by amending the wording of its code of ethics, the ACCG was clarifying its position on the trade in illicitly obtained artefacts. A "SS" (who has been mentioned here before) angrily reacts with a one-liner:
Clarification? I'd call it capitulation. Scott Semans.
Scott Semans of Issaquah, Washington (WA 98027) deals in all sorts of stuff, but in particular in Asian, including Chinese coins. So if he refers to attempts to establish more ethical dealing practices in such items "capitulation", I would suggest that Mr Semans is not a coin dealer that an ethical collector would want to do any further business with.

"Capitulation" to what Mr Semans? In what? Are dealers like you really at war with the rest of the world? Why?

If Mr Semans refuses to accept the new wording (were ACCG members consulted?) then will he be withdrawing from the ACCG in protest? If he refuses to be bound by this code of ethics, will Mr Semans be expelled from the ACCG (after all he is a dealer and not [just?] a collector anyway).

SS Holds out on Reworded Coiney Code of Ethics: ACCG's Hooker Soothes

The ability of the collectors of ancient artefacts to shoot themselves in the foot really amaze me. Just twenty four hours ago with great fanfare collector's rights lobbyists the ACCG announced their new code of ethics which seems to go so much further than the old one.

(1. Coin collectors and sellers will not knowingly
purchase c
oins 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".)

Doesn't that sound wonderful? The dawn of a new era in collector-archaeology dialogue it seems to most people. Then the reaction of members start to trickle in. "Capitulation!" calls it Scott Semans, looking fair set to withdraw from the ACCG in protest. "Not so!" leaps in quick-as-a-flash ACCG spokesman, Canadian amateur celtomaniac John Hooker. For "National patrimony laws are not the same as any UNESCO declaration":
Purchasing an object subject to national patrimony laws would result in a charge of receiving stolen goods -- However, the state would still have to prove that the object came from there and nowhere else and that it left that state after such patrimony laws were implemented. [...] If national patrimony laws are brought against someone then there is a criminal prosecution. Then the state would have to offer the proof that the items were taken from the state and that this happened after such laws prohibiting the sale were in place.
Now wait a minute, I thought we were talking about a code of ETHICS, not what the foreigners can "do you for" and what not. So basically Hooker is letting slip that in the eyes of the ACCG and its members that what is meant by abiding by "national patrimony laws" is only those where the dealer or collector can be shown to be culpable. So basically what he is revealing is that the new wording of the code of ethics means nothing more than just keeping to the law of the collector's (dealer's) own country. Which is what the old one said. So really no change whatsoever.

According to Mr Hooker:
"Due diligence" is a term that gets cited a lot by people who are clueless about what it means.
Really? Hooker suggests that it refers only to "matters of great monetary value". He says that in the antiquities business the idea of "asking for proof of innocence" is "repellent to all ethical and moral people with reasonable intelligence". Hooker enlarges on the point:
...if a state claimed that an object came from within its borders and yet offered no proof, and the same type of object had also been found in other states then there will be no problem for the buyer as no state has sole claim -- it cannot be returned by Canada to any of them. Let's say I buy a Campano-Tarantine didrachm from England and Italy says it "wants it back". In Canada, all I would need to do would be to show that such coins have been found in England -- or rather Italy would have to prove that they are only found in Italy. As I identified such a find for an English detectorist on a metal detecting forum then Italy would not be able to make any claim.
Ah so that's OK then, you can carry on buying and selling stuff no questions asked as long as its a type which has never been found outside a single country. I'm interested by the notion that the Code of Ethics says then that they will abide by these "national laws" which ACCG's Hooker suggests have absolutely no clout in the countries where foreign collectors collect, but avoids mentioning international documents such as the UNESCO Convention signed by their country.

So basically this revised Code of Ethics is regarded by insiders of the ACCG to be merely camoflage, worthless words for "anything goes, unless you get caught". Which is basically the grounds on which the whole no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities in general has always functioned.

Coiney Code of Ethics: Sayles Holds Forth

We have seen that a single ACCG member stepping out of line was the occasion for John Hooker to soothe him that the new ACCG Code of Ethics does not mean what it seems to say. Now ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles has stepped in with an official ACCG statement to the same effect:
Hello Scott; I think you may have misinterpreted the code in some way. It does not call for any action that you not already obligated to under existing U.S. Law. [...] Rest assured the ACCG has not "capitulated" in any sense on issues of importance to the hobby.
Well, indeed, what could we have expected? That "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" really means that "coin collectors and sellers will not knowingly purchase coins which may reasonably suspected to be the direct products of illicit excavations in contravention of national patrimony laws"? Sayles sets fellow dealer Semans right here: he can jolly well continue buying whatever he wants just as long as US law can't touch him for it. Just as Hooker says. And as we have seen in this blog, there are a lot of things that US law canot touch the dodgy dealer for. A multitude of sins is entirely allowable by US law. They are all thereby "ethical" by the ACCG code.

Now I think anyone who buys coins from certain blokes in the US with exotic eastern European-sounding names who have them by the bucketfull with earth still on them can reasonably suspect they come from recent excavations rather than old cabinets. Anyone buying bucketloads of "widow's mites" from "the Holy Land" from sellers who also offer bucket loads of Byzantine coins or Roman Imperial issues all with earth on them, can reasonably expect (export licence or not) that they have come from recent excavations. A US dealer who suddenly offers a whole group of coins of a restricted range of rulers/dates of striking (Dacian, Parthian) does not have grounds to reasonably suspect they came from a single recently excavated find? Legal excavations done with an excavation permit? How many US coin dealers have even seen a copy of a Bulgarian excavation permit? I challenge any ACCG dealer to post a scan of one on their website for an ancient coin or group of ancient coins he is currently selling. Bonus points for a scan of a copy of the relevant Bulgarian export licence too.

Also those who expected that "Coin collectors and sellers will also comply with all applicable customs laws" actually means that "Coin collectors and sellers will also comply with all applicable customs laws" are obviously misinterpreting that to mean ALL applicable laws, instead of any that actually apply just in the US, rather than the source country or those the antiquities in question pass through. Sayles puts him right.

So if any of the coins he is offered were are illegally excavated in China and illegally exported from China, if he is so minded, Semans can still sell them in his shop and call himself ACCG-ethical as long as they don't get stopped by the customs (and if they are they can always get the bloke they bought them from to scribble a friendly little note (CPIA section 307 (b) and (c)(1) (A)) that they are "legit" and ICE will let them through).

But then that makes the ACCG code totally meaningless as a code of ethics.

So why do the ACG not be honest with everyone? Let them just write:

ACCG Code of ethics (Revised)

1. Coin Collectors and Sellers regard as ethical everything which is not illegal by US law.

2. Coin Collectors and Sellers will protect, preserve and share knowledge about coins in their collections (though this need not apply to where the coins came from or how they arrived on the market)

3. Coin Sellers will adhere to the published codes of ethics of reputable professional organizations.
That basically seems to cover in a more direct fashion what the ACCG are on about in fewer words. Less easy to misinterpret then.

By the way, Sayles asserts on behalf of the Collectors' Guild that in ethical collecting allegedly:
"It is not the responsibility of a buyer from a legitimate vendor to trace the title to a coin (some might call that provenance)"
Well, first of all "title" is not "provenance" (but it might be revealed by David Gill's 'collecting history' I suppose). Secondly it actually IS the responsible buyer's responsibility to check the story (which could be a load of made-up crap) a dealer offers. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (which the ACCG unreservedly supports) makes this very clear in their published guide to buying antiquities. One wonders quite what the Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild consider ethical collecting actually consists of. Buying from dealers whose idea of "ethics" is limited to what they can get away with under current US law and not questioning anything they are offered by them is not what most of us would consider the epitome of ethical collecting. On the contrary in fact.


Thursday, 17 June 2010

"Capital" example of Collectors' Hypocrisy

Pastor Scott M. Head aka "Scotvs Capitus"("Husband, Father, Elder, Media Professional") from Friendswood, Texas is a blog-owning collector of ancient coins. Pastor Head has recently posted on his coiney blog (he has a Christiany one too) a post called "The Reality of Uncleaned Coins for Beginners which purports to be about the "ifs" attached to the collecting of ancient artefacts bought in the form of bulk lots of "uncleaned ancient coins".

I note that (apart from a general lack of any mention of contributions to scholarship about the past which flies in the face of the coiney propaganda) the big "if" that is not dealt with is where these coins came from and how they got on the market. The Pastor clearly does not feel that there is a question of ethics or morals there at all.

Nevertheless, from what we know about the supply of the US market at the moment, the great majority of these coins are the rejects from the sorting through of the vast bulk of metal artefacts which is being stripped on almost industrial scale from the archaeological sites of southeastern Europe and other regions of the former ancient world (Texas has no ancient coins of its own). The more attractive pieces are selected out either in the source country or abroad by middlemen, tarted up, and sold individually to dealers, while the rejects end up being sold off by weight as "uncleaned lots". The idea that all these coins with earth on them are coming from the cabinets of "old collectors" is self-evidently an unsubstantiated myth. But the scale of ongoing looting and smuggling of precisely such ancient coins from ancient sites in a number of source countries is well-documented.

Apart from being archaeologically damaging the commercial stripping of collectable objects from archaeological sites is illegal in most of the countries where this is going on. Even in parts of the otherwise liberal UK. The non-reporting of these finds is equally illegal in most areas of the ancient world. The removal of these items from the region without going through the proper procedures is also illegal. US Coin collectors argue that buying these coins is "not illegal" in the US, because "no US law was broken". But quite clearly buying illegally produced goods cannot be moral, even if done by a pastor and Church elder.

In fact should it not be these pastors and Church elders, not to mention school teachers, that are setting the moral tone of the nation?

But Pastor Head is led into other moral dilemmas by his love of the coins he collects. On his coiney blog, he has a message of Christian love for anyone who might be tempted to touch his coins which basically announces that he has a big gun and will shoot to kill trespassing "riff raff". The pastor warns he's willing to kill a man protecting "a couple of $2 bronze coins", it's his "right" he says. I note that collectors, especially those in the USA, claim a lot of things are their "rights" (because not explicitly forbidden in law provided certain conditions pertain). I really find it hard to be convinced that indiscriminately handling what is in all likelihood in many cases items which have been illegally obtained and also killing people in defence of their ownership are in any way moral positions. But then I do not live in Texas, collect old coins or go to shoot-to-kill Pastor Head's Family Grace Baptist Church.

Vignette: (1) I don't suppose Jesus would have thought his followers were setting a good example by buying coins without ascertaining that they were not stolen. (2) Texans, try not to spoil the pastor's day by coveting "his" coins.

Heritage Action: Rip-off Rallies, the Portable Antiquities Scam in Action

. In a thought-provoking text " detecting: more rip-off rallies", British grassroots heritage organization Heritage Action continues a series of commentaries about the effects on archaeological resource preservation of current British policies on artefact hunting and collecting. No doubt, like all the previous ones the British archaeological establishment will inevitably turn its back on the points raised. As experience shows, where there are things to be said about current policies towards artefact collecting in Britain:
The Establishment won’t say so out loud and leaves it to the likes of us to say it and to take the consequent nasty flack that ought to be their professional burden. That’s the way it is in crazy Britain, where the government has decreed that professionals must suppress conservation principles in favour of lickspittle populism.
This time they look at the wording of contracts drawn up by artefact hunters with landowners and used in the organization of commercial artefact hunting rallies. which is characterised as "a cleverly worded rip-off, who can possibly pretend otherwise?". This is, Heritage Action considers, a matter that should be taken seriously by the management of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which they argue as a matter of routine should also start examining the Landowner/Organiser Contract before they attend any rally.
“Partnership” with metal detectorists in order to try to get them on side was never viable since it is partnership with “taking” (see the recent changes to the IfA code of ethics). But extending the strategy to include mutely standing by as one’s partners bamboozle innocent members of society? There’s a racket going on, PAS. What are you going to do about it?
What are the PAS going to do about it? Past experience sugests they will ignore the fact that the question was ever raised. Over the years through increasingly weak responses to UK artefact hunting resistance to good practice in the name of "building a partnership", The PAS has by default become part of what I have before labelled, and quite justifiably so, the British Portable Antiquities SCAM. Artefact hunters and collectors are scamming the real stakeholders in the heritage, the general public ("society" if you like). Those that support them in this, even if passively, are part of the scam.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Collectors' "Rights" Lobbying Guild Rewords their Code of Ethics

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?

More on Museum Security, Art, Antiquities and Organized Crime

There is more on the topic of the involvement of organized crime groups in the art trade on Museum Security Network. The moderators posted on MSN my comments from this blog over there and Mark Durney added his own comments. Art journalist Jonathan Lopez claimed that his interview with Wittman "thoroughly debunks" the link between organized crime and art theft. Since it has been emerging that in the field of "portable antiquities crime" there are a worrying amount of strong links, my concern was that this statement be not taken out of context and used by the advocates of no-questions-asked collecting and trading (such as the gormless individuals with which ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles surrounds himself) as another example of the alleged "lies" of the preservationists.

Mark Durney points out that the Lopez hypothesis about a lack of evidence that organized crime is involved in art theft "runs counter to what a number of other cultural property law enforcement investigators, including former members of the FBI's Art Theft Program, have suggested to me".

The article "The FBI Art Theft Program and Its Impact on Collecting: A Report from FBI Special Agent Robert Wittman and the Editor," which was published in the The American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin 93 (2005), supports the claim that organized crime's involvement in art theft is not limited to only a few isolated cases. The Editor, who was furnished with a description of the FBI Art Crime Team
operations by former Agent Wittman, writes, "Russian officials have advised the FBI that over forty Russian organized crime groups have been identified as dealing in stolen art and cultural property." It continues to describe an "isolated case" from 2002 that involved the recovery of $50 million worth of art and the arrests three men, who were seeking to sell the art to an Eastern European criminal organization. Accordingly, I am interested to know who is floating the "fanciful theories regarding the methods and motives behind art theft"?

He then refers to my earlier blog post (I may regret the use of the phrase "the art of antiquities theft") and points readers to Neil Brodie et al. 2000 for more information.
Finally, for an in-depth, criminological study of organized crime's links to art crime I suggest reading A.J.G. Tijhuis "Doctoral Thesis: Transnational crime and the interface between legal and illegal actors: the case of the illicit art and antiquities trade," Leiden University, 2006.
Tijhuis has a brief article "trafficking in stolen art, antiques and cultural property" in Shanty et al. 2009 (pp. 223-5).

Coming back to antiquities, the involvement of organized criminal groups in the trade in Chinese antiquities (and the fake antquities of varying egrees of sophistication produced in 'industrial' quantities) has long been a commonplace of discussions on the seedier side of the trade. The same goes for other Asian countries, such as in Cambodia where temple looters sometimes operate in large well-equipped groups. In Iraq too the involvement of organized criminal groups in looting museums and archaeological sites has been posited.

See also S. Manacorda (ed) Organized Crime in Art and Antiquities. Milan: International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme. I am sure there are a lot more considerations of this topic in the literature, these are just a few that come to mind at the moment.

One can understand the "art" trade's discomfort of having these links pointed out. Nevertheless it is going to take more than a single interview with a single FBI officer to "debunk" this issue. The no-questions-asked collecting of portable antiquities is deeply embedded in a network of links to all sorts of distasteful practices and groups which the money from indiscriminate collectors is going to finance.


Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole, Peter Wilson, 2000. Stealing History – The illicit trade in cultural material. Cambridge: Mc Donald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Gregory Elich 1994. Spoils of War: The Antiquities Trade and the Looting of Iraq
Centre for Research on Globalization

Frank Shanty, Patit Paban Mishra eds. 2007. Organized crime: from trafficking to terrorism part 1. ABC-CLIO.

Museum Security, Art, Antiquities and Organized Crime

On the Museum Security List appeared an online version of an interview with former FBI arts crime agent Robert Wittman published in 'Art & Antiques Magazine' which its author Jonathan Lopez states that "Mr Wittman thoroughly debunked some of the more fanciful theories regarding the methods and motives behind art theft that one sees floated by certain individuals". Ton Cremers remarked that it is:
Very good to read that Wittman demystifies (sic) the role of organized crime and art theft. There are too few instances of involvement of organized crime (apart from the role of Italian organized crime and tombaroli). Yet, again and again one can read in interviews that art theft is an organized crime specialty.

This comes down again to the rather broad scope of this thing called "art crime". Cremers is talking about Museum Security issues, art taken from known collections. It seems to me the clandestine digging over of archaeological sites to "recover" saleable bits and pieces is a different kettle of fish.

Certainly it is not just in the case of the tombaroli that we see a potential connection between archaeological looting and organized crime. In the case of eastern Europe there is a clear coincidence in the rise of the bulk trade of antiquities to foreign markets and the development of organized criminal activity on the collapse of political systems and economies in the wake of the dismantling of the Soviet Bloc. The appearance of this material on the western markets is falsely portrayed by western dealers as due to the "surfacing" of material kept in "old collections" forced underground before 1989 by the old antiquity preservation laws. They fail to acknowledge that the reform of these laws only took place well after the material had begun to appear on external markets. What had changed was the possibilities of those with a certain type of "business connections" to get the stuff out of the country without it being stopped. It is from this group of individuals that the supplies of material have been reaching western markets.

While a seller might get away with putting a few dugup ancient coins in a padded envelope, tucked in a piece of cardboard or otherwise disguised as something else and writing "collectors' supplies" (or whatever) on the customs form, when more than several kilogrammes of metal detected finds are involved, the problems are more acute. They are a little more noticeable. So how to get them through customs when many of the source countries have legislation forbidding such exports? Obviously it helps if the smuggler belongs to some group which has "connections" in the right places to get a blind eye turned.

It provokes thought that a writer for a US arts and antiques magazine might be concerned to dismiss the issue of the connections between the trade and foreign organized crime. Mr Lopez therefore asked Witman:

From time to time I’ve been told that most of the world’s biggest art heists are carried out by organized crime syndicates, who then use the stolen works as collateral to finance drug deals, arms trafficking or even acts of terrorism. I don’t recall seeing this system of underworld finance described in your book.
The answer was that "there are a lot of people who make things up to get their names in the paper". Wittman states that thieves are not stealingpictures (nota bene) to trade them back and forth as some kind of financial leverage to each other, though there may be isolated cases of this happening. The reason why this is the case is that the "street value of a stolen painting is nothing". As Wittman says:

The art of art theft is not in the stealing. It’s in the selling. You can sell cocaine on a street corner. A stolen Brueghel, you can’t [...] The easiest sales occur in cases of pilfering, which is a different category of crime from armed robbery. When you have an insider, someone like a museum guard or a janitor, moving things around in storage cases and pocketing a couple items, in some instances things like that might get sold to a partner in the trade, a dealer, who knows that he has a market to sell into..

With an armed robbery, where the circumstances of the crime are public knowledge and the artworks are immediately recognizable, making a sale is much more difficult.

Wittman: Ransoms and rewards can be one way to profit from a big museum robbery. Also [...], some thieves are smart enough to know that they can use these artworks as a get-out-of-jail-free card for other crimes they’ve committed, bargaining for a reduced sentence. But basically there’s no way to reintroduce these things into the legitimate marketplace. If you bring a stolen Rembrandt to Christie’s or Sotheby’s, it will be seized. So if you’re trying to sell it, you’re limited to the criminal market, where the works will be worth, at best, 10 percent of their open-market value. And that’s only if you can find a buyer...

Of course the sellers of freshly dug-up antiquities which nobody has seen before they "surface" (from "underground") on the market is that much easier. Questions about missing provenance can be brazened out, indeed as we have seen, many collectors really could not care less about where the items come from.

The art of antiquities theft too quite clearly "is in the selling". While there is no buyer, a lump of stone or corroded bronze is just that. Where there are however people willing to part with cash for saleable ancient items without asking too many questions, then the theft of this material from the archaeological record and its illegal export to more lucrative foreign markets will continue to be commercially viable. Wittman is quite clear, in the case of "art crime", it is knowing that there is a market to sell into that encourages the pilfering. In the case of portable antiquities, then, it is the dealers and collectors who indiscrimately buy material, no questions asked, who are co-responsible for the looting that ensues. And, despite the protests of those in the "art trade" in general, there is every reason to think that somewhere along the chain of busibness relationships there are links with law breakers including those involved in organized crime networks.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Yahoo AncientArtifacts: Gotta have friends in the "right places"


So how to get antiquities through customs when many of the source countries have legislation forbidding such exports? Funnily enough, it seems that on the closed access Yahoo AncientArtifacts discussion list at the moment the gathered collectors and dealers are swapping information on precisely this, how to sneak stuff through customs without it getting stopped and opened. Perhaps that is the sort of information that should be kept behind closed doors, don't want that getting into the wrong hands do we? There are far more damaging things one can smuggle in and out of countries than portable antiquities. Still, that does not explain why antiquity dealers and collectors feel they are above the regulations which govern the activities of the rest of us.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bulgarian Metal Detectorist Arrested in Greece

Yesterday, Greek customs officers stopped a young Bulgarian at the border crossing in the town of Kastanies on theGreece-Turkey border, and he was found to be in possession of 130 ancient coins, police in the north-eastern Greek city of Komotinia announced. The coins have been deposited with the archaeological authorities in Komotini, while the Bulgarian has been handed over to prosecutors in the nearby city of Orestiada. The man's identity has not been revealed. Dimitris Hotzidis, head of customs in Kastanies, told Greek news agency ANA that the man stated that he had found the coins dating to the ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras detecting "in the Turkish countryside". According to police in Komotini ... theft and trafficking of archaeological artefacts has been on the rise in the last couple of months, particularly between Greece and Bulgaria. Presumably the stocks of coins in the soil of Bulgaria has been so reduced by a decade of exploitation to feed the illegal export market that suppliers of the Bulgarian market are now having to look to neighbouring countries for material.

Yahoo AncientArtifacts Sell Civil War (Grave?) Finds?


I have previously remarked that in much of the US-based discussion of "collectors' rights" there is a marked lack of reference to the "rights" of those collecting material coming from the soil of the United States itself, it is all about Americans' "rights" to collect objects looted from foreign soil. In contrast to that general tendency, I see that today, over on Yahoo's closed access "AncientArtifacts" forum they now consider uniform pieces from the American Civil war as collectable "antiquities" worthy of being bought and sold behind closed doors through the medium of the facility provided for them by the Yahoo corporation.

Dealer 'Relicslover' is currently advertising there (message #56192) :

A complete pair of excavated shoulder scales or epaulettes recovered 1990 in Williamsburg, VA. Typically, when excavated shoulder scales are recovered they are either in pieces or missingparts, in this case, this is a complete solid set. This set includes their brass back strap,brass holders, and brass locking devices. This very handsome and complete pair will enhance anyexcavated uniform accoutrement or general relic collection. Their deep glass top display case isincluded.

A steal at 250 green ones. No doubt relic collectors will be asking him where precisely in "Williamsburg" (the site of a major battle in May 1862) these objects come from. Interestingly what seem to be the same set of items have been offered on several other artefact collecting forums, but the posts for some reason were deleted and can only be read in cache form. So we saw last week Armchair General: Shoulder Scales - Complete Excavated Set (thread no longer exists) and VIRGINIA CIVIL WAR RELICS civil war Relics (thread no longer exists) but the seller persists and has found a home for his advert on the "responsible" (sic) Yahoo site. Oh, and also at a very odd blog run by "", Indian Artifacts a hochpotch of cut-and-paste bits about state laws interspersed with items for sale (none of the adverts of which make any reference to the legislation). Is "RelicsWorld.Com" the same as Yahoo list dealer "Relicslover"?

The responsible collector of "antiquities" such as these might well consider where one would obtain a pair of such items in dug-up condition with all their mountings in situ and traces of uniform cloth apparently preserved in the corrosion products. The most obvious suggestion (and we note the absence of any specific information to the contrary up-front from the seller) is that they come from the digging up of a Civil War soldier's burial. Is the general findspot correctly reported? I tried to do a websearch to see whether there was any record of an official project in the area which could have been a licit source of such items, but without success. I know some Virginia metal detectorists read this blog, maybe they could fill us in who found this and in what circumstances, and why it is up for sale on an "Ancient" Artefacts discussion list.

It remains to be seen whether Tim Haines, the "moderator" of Yahoo's closed access ancient-artefacts-for-sale list, or any of the "responsible" collectors there, will confront "Relicslover" over the precise origins of these suspicious -looking items that are no longer being advertised on the open-access online venues. But of course since it all takes place behind closed doors, we will never see to what degree this "responsibility" is promoted or exercised by the collectors on that list. Obviously though list member 'Relicslover' feels he can get away with advertising there after his other adverts were deleted by other (open access) forum owners. Will he find a safe haven on the closed access Yahoo list?

Photo: Civil War period epaulettes dug up (apparently) in Virginia, quite likely from grave-robbing and on sale no-questions-asked behind closed doors to Yahoo artefacts collectors.

Mark Durney: Archaeological looting is the most Common Art Crime

On MSN are some general comments on the antiquities trade which seem worth highlighting. They were made by Mark Durney of Art Theft Central and the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) in an interview for an Indian newspaper. In line with the remit of the organizations which he represents, he treats the problem of archaeological looting as part of "art crime", which he defines as including: "archaeological looting, art theft, vandalism, iconoclasm, the illicit art and antiquities trade, forgery, and fakes, among many other fields". He points out that "the looting of archaeological sites is a global enterprise and quite likely the most common art crime".

I am not terriby sure how useful this categorisation of "art history" really is. Is the theft of a Monet sketch the same as the work of a minor twentieth century watercolourist of local importance, and is the theft of a picture from a wall really so much different from the theft of a vintage Bentleyor my sister's Ford Escort?

The main problem I have here is that treating the trashing of archaeological sites as mere "art crime" (ie, theft of the objects) ignores the real problem which is the destruction caused to the site getting the object out. It is the site which is ruined as a source of information about the past which is lost, it is the site and its information content that is taken away from the archaeological resource which should be used sustainably as a common cultural heritage, rather than something toi be commercially and destructively exploited by a few individuals. The collectable artefacts ripped from those sites are not so much lost (because once on the market they are often valued in mega-bucks). Rather the problem is that almost every single object on the collectors' market, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, has had any more complex layers of information they may have offered to proper study definitively removed by the item being decontextualised and treated as just "art". These layers of the record of which this object's continued physical existence formed part have been erased. Deliberately erased by the no-questions-asked antiquities market.

Asked how "art crime" can be prevented Durney was not very specific:
There needs to be a sort of call to arms to reduce the handling of illicit objects as well as greater disapproval for auction houses, galleries, and dealers who work with objects that are considered “dirty” whether they have been looted or are in fact fakes.
Not only a "call to arms" and "disapproval" (for we have the tut-tutting already) but effective steps taken to catch, investigate and punish culture criminals.

Personally I am not so concerned about the fake-peddling con-men. If people are so stupid and greedy as to buy something without ascertaining precisely where they came from, then they deserve to be caught out by those that exploit precisely the no-questions-asking that facilitates other types of illicit trade in antiquities. These people hope to buy real looted artefacts, so they deserve to be caught out by their own greed and carelessness. Also, a case can be made that from an archaeological point of view, the more collectors are satisfied they have "filled a hole" in their domestic displays with something the aesthetics of which they are happy with and evokes whatever feelings the antiquity is suupposed to evoke, but which in fact is not an ancient dug-up at all, then all the better for the remaining undug bits of the archaeological record.

Durney concludes:
Art crime is one of the few crimes that people consider to be sexy and elegant [...] Art thieves tend to be more successful than other criminal endeavours. Only 7-10 per cent of art thefts are ever solved. Unfortunately, art’s portability, high value, and the lax security protecting it, motivate criminals to steal it. Although these elements certainly prove the uniqueness of art crime, I think it is best to view art crime as another part of the ecosystem of illicit industries, which include the drug and weapons trade, money laundering, and human trafficking. Art crime has very clear connections to the drug trade as it has been frequently used as collateral in exchanges.
Are Internet sellers of dug-up antiquities "sexy and elegant"? Some of them have photos in the internet...
Photo: Mark Durney.

The Carabinieri Art Squad on BBC Radio 4

From MSN: 'The Carabinieri Art Squad' review:
Radio 4 painted a dramatic picture of Italian detectives who specialise in catching art thieves. They say that if you dig a hole in the ground in Rome, you are almost certain to find a historical artefact of some kind. In The Carabinieri Art Squad (R4), Alex Butterworth accompanied detectives to a field outside Rome where a criminal gang had dug a 30ft hole in a field in the dead of night and looted the treasures from a vast Etruscan tomb. The "tombaroli" (tomb raiders) are part of a larger organised crime network linked to drugs, arms and even human trafficking. They sell their stolen treasures to art dealers who, in turn, sell them to museums. "As they journey up the crime pyramid, they attain further layers of respectability", explained Butterworth, taking us into a fascinating world where detectives, through the painstaking nature of their work, have become art experts. Last year, there was a 75% fall in thefts of art treasures from galleries, churches and tombs. We heard the story of a Madonna and Child altarpiece recovered in three separate parts from three different private collections, and of the thief who stole a chalice from one church in order to donate it to another, insisting his name was carved on it. His priest turned him in to the police. Listening to some of the detectives of the art squad, you sensed that they, too, were following a calling that was almost religious.
Listening to the (so-called "internationalist") dealers and collectors in the US opposed to the imposition of restrictions on the import of illegally exported items from countries like Italy, you will sense that the ancient artefacts and artworks are being treated more like potatoes than items revered for the insight they bring to our views of the past. By demanding the "right" to allow themselves to be involved in the illegal internationalist movement of artefacts these dealers and collectors are demanding the "right" to retain the contacts between the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities and the organised crime networks linked to drugs, arms and human trafficking.

[Before getting her kids involved in the purchasing of ancient coins from the "nice gentlemen" who stand behind the youth-ensnaring Ancient Coins for Education programme, perhaps teachers like Ms Carter mentioned in an earlier post really should open their eyes to who stands behind the antiquities trade and the engineering of the international movement of antiquities which supplies the project with the raw material.] Just what kind of business are "collectors' rights" lobby groups trying to protect from closer scrutiny and regulation?

Vignette: From Monete romane autentiche a Porta Portese, nei guai "lo sceriffo".

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Another Secretive Dealer of Antiquities on the Yahoo "Ancient Artifacts" List (Ancient Resources)

The 2000 or so antiquity collecting members of Tim Haines' Yahoo Ancient Artifacts group are currently busily discussing this ongoing online sale... that includes the "moderator" of this supposedly "responsible" collecting group, Tim Haines (Tuppenyblue) himself. This represents presumably one of the "many highly experienced and qualified members" the list has, "including many of the best antiquities dealers on the net". Well, let us have a look at what the antiquitist Yahoos are so interested in, and to what degree what this seller is offering corresponds to the Code of Ethics which that group purports to apply to its use of ancient artefacts. Or is the latter just empty words?

The series of auctions in question is being run on behalf of the California firm "Ancient Resource" (Gabriel Vandervort, Glendale, CA 91208). Note that use of the word "resource", no notion here however of the archaeological resource being at all finite and damaged by mining for such collectables for Californian dealers to make money from. Google-Earthing the firm's address (given on the auction site) and particularly going to StreetView shows the address to be one of a series of shoddy buildings in one of the most depressing industrial estates that you can imagine. Dirty litter-laden cracking-up streets, some kind of effluent running down the gutter, piles of litter behind the portable loos on the street. A slight difference from Christie's eh? [Generally Glendale is a bit of a dump, outside the indstrial shack area are sprawling housing estates with one house on top of another with in most cases no garden whatsoever around them. Not enough space between the houses even to grow an outdoor bonsai. Really depressing.]

Anyway, what is Mr Vandervolt selling from his Glendale market building? Well, lots of unprovenanced ancient stuff. Coins, scarabs, the usual knocked-off bits and bobs. My eye was caught by a mummified human foot for starters. Just the kind of "ancient art" collectors love, really evokes the period and culture and can be used for scaring the neighbour's little girl (what fun ancient artefact collecting must be). Totally unethical and would be against the law in most civilized countries, obviously in California and on LiveAuctions "anything goes".
Ancient Egypt. A mummified human foot of a youth, Ptolemaic, c.4th - 2nd Century BC. Nicely preserved with most of the skin and nails intact. Second toe missing and ankle bone visible. On the bottom of the foot a thick layer of resin soaked leather, perhaps the soles of a sandal. L: 6" (15.1 cm). From an old Midwest collection. Foot had been wrapped in a 1948 Ohio newspaper which had been attached to the layer of resin.
So the Ohio newspaper is the "provenance"? Maybe there would be a market among US dealers for Polish newspapers of the 1930s and 1940s, there is a shop just down the road from me has piles of them for sale to collectors. Instant "old central European provenance".

Then we have "wearable numismatics", dugup ancient artefacts made into costume jewellry ("Real Roman coin on a rope" type stuff) such as this one (coin of Otacilla Severa) or what might be a Holy Relic on a string (so-called widow's mite, this one is apparently "THE widow's mite from the Bible" no less, yours for 70 dollars). The wearable Constantine the Great coin is on a manly (?) thong. How twee.

Then there are fake coin hoards:
Lot 152 36 Greek and Roman bronze coins in ancient bowl
A group of 36 mixed Greek and Roman bronze coins in a small black slipped bowl dating from the 1st Century BC. The coins date from 1st century BC to the 4th century AD.
Lot 153 Ancient dish with 38 Roman bronze coins A small terracotta dish containing a group of 38 Roman bronze coins dating from the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD. A fun study group!

The dish is not "terracotta" and the coins have been heavily wire-brushed, so I am not sure what the buyer would have there to "study", probably how not to buy ancient artefacts. Making up fake assemblages to use up items unsalable in themselves is unethical dealing (as would be splitting real assemblages).

Lots of complete 'Roman' glass vessels, these of course almost never are found in such a condition in settlement sites, the "best" place to get them in this state is grave-robbing. The same goes for this seller's lamps and pots.

Lots of pre-Columbian imported stuff, notably very little that looks like local Native American cultural material on sale in this eclectic assemblage of artefacts from all over the ancient world. Are the ancient cultures of California not part of the ancient world (not "ancient resources")? Or would their undocumented sale from a Glendale market stall be more problematic in the USA than items removed from far-off source countries outside the purview of US law?

Not a single item at which I looked had any up-front mention of any documentation confirming licit origins, provenance or export licences referring to that specific object.

Do take the time to look at what this guy has on his website and consider how some of those items came onto the market (of course the seller does not say). Balkan metal detected items (others "found near the Danube River in Eastern Europe"), shipwreck items, cuneiform tablets and foundation cones (website section currently empty), "Viking" (sic) artefacts from the Baltic states etc etc. In other words this Glendale dealer offers a fairly full selection of the sorts of artefacts on the no-questions-asked market of current concern. Most of them are sold with no up-front reference whatsoever to provenance. So why is it being promoted by and presumably patronised by the so-called "responsible" Yahoo group?

Vignette: Mr Vandervort uses a coin like this as his company's logo. The one here is from a teacher's resource created by Florida's Center for Instructional Technology I wonder if Ms Carter, who prefers to use real dugups, knows about it?
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