Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Corruption Fosters Illicit Antiquity Trade?

Quite obviously, no-questions-asked trading US coin dealers have decided their best bet to fight measures intended to stop antiquities smuggling from source countries like Bulgaria is now to continually point out how "corrupt" the antiquity-source countries are. This is the "two wrongs make a right argument" that we observe is quite common in the antiquity-collecting world ("its OK for me to steal from the Wongawongians because they are all bad citizens anyway who do not deserve a heritage"), especially in the US. This however is the rhetoric of the playground.

Peter Tompa in a number of blog posts (here for example) and comments on other people's blogs (here for example) relishes in revelations contained in a report on organized crime in Bulgaria (a report which was being discussed by Nathan Elkins - who found it - and myself here several years ago) and blames the situation on that old McCarthyist bogeyman, "Communism". The topic has been taken up with much excitement by other coineys on their discussion lists and blogs. An example is Dave Welsh's post: "Perpetuating Corruption":
In these nations, import restrictions tend to postpone and perhaps even avert development of public outrage such as that which has recently toppled several oppressive and corrupt dictatorships. US import restrictions are not a solution to the problem of looting - they are in reality part of the problem.
[Of course the US backing some of these "oppressive and corrupt dictatorships" have received in the past is conveniently here forgotten, also they were not toppled by public outrage about looted antiquities - on the contrary.]

Certainly, seen from the perspective of our own political systems, "corruption" is a problem for much of the world's population. The Berlin-based NGO 'Transparency International' is dedicated to monitoring political and corporate corruption. Their famous Corruption Perceptions Index keeps track on (perceptions of) this problem.The 2010 Index shows corruption on a scale from 10 (highly clean) to 0 (highly corrupt). The results for 2010 can be shown graphically (red is bad, yellow better).
Readers may go to Transparency International’s website for full details of the list and an interactive world map. North Americans and Western European collectors obviously have grounds here for "I'm all right, Jack" complacency. These results indicate a serious corruption problem, nearly three quarters of the 178 countries in the index score below five. At the bottom are the most corrupt states in the world (like Somaila and Burma but also the puppet governments set up following US-led invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq). At the top of the ranking are mainly the Anglophone and Germanic language zone 'protestant work-ethic countries' of Western Europe and the Commonwealth. In this ranking, the UK came at 20th place in the list, while the US has been ranked as more corrupt, dropping to 22. Another notable result is Russia, rated as among the worst for corruption, in 154th place, antiquity collectors will notice no doubt that Italy, down in 67th spot, now comes below Rwanda.

So, let us have a look at where ancient coins are coming from in these terms.

Coineys claim they are reviving in their coin cabinets "the glories of Greece and grandeur of Rome" but it becomes clear that the legacy of that classical world today in the regions that were the core of their territories are governments classed by this index as 'corrupt'. Any familiarity with the places of origin and circulation of the majority of the coins offered through Internet portals such as V-coins, eBay and individual dealers' offerings (such as ACCG's Dave Welsh's Classical coins and Wayne Sayles' online shopfront) as well as bulk uncleaned lots will immediately recognise that the patterns match. It is suggestive that the largest quantities of ancient coins (and artefacts) on sale in the US today are most likely coming from the regions countries coloured red and orange on this map. Coins of the Greek, Celtic and Roman world from sources in Spain, Portugal, France, southern Germany and Austria and, what is most interesting, PAS recorded items from metal-detector-infested England and Wales are much less common (exactly the same patterns occur when you look at Medieval hammered coins offered by these sellers). That is despite major markets in Germany (Munich), Switzerland and London. So how are these coins - some of them being offered online still encrusted in soil and dirt - leaving those countries with high indices of corruption, and why are the coins from countries with low ones conspicuously much less common? Is there a connection between government corruption, at federal, state and local levels and smuggling for example? We have already noted that very few sales offers of ancient artefacts on the US markets (even from countries also party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention - see its article 3) make any mention of the seller possessing any export documentation whatsoever, should that not make the buyer somewhat suspicious in the circumstances?

Mr Welsh claims that restricting imports to the US to only items which have documentation of licit export is "not a solution to the problem of looting" but "in reality part of the problem". Surely this is wrong. If a person in a source country looking for a way to make money knows that he cannot get a valid export licence for looted material ("where did you get it from sir?") and that one of the world's biggest markets for this sort of thing cannot import it without one, he may well decide instead to abandon a life of culture crime and go into politics. It is only in the knowledge that there is a huge no-questions-asked market out there making such activity profitable, that criminal activity of this sort flourishes.

An impartial observer would be struck by the number of names of obvious Balkan , Bulgarian and Serbian most likely, origin in certain areas of the US (and UK) ancient coin and artefact trade. Some of these people are able to supply (and have been supplying) the market with huge quantities of coins to their clients - who often in turn sell them on to other dealers after sorting through them. One wonders about the nature of the contacts between these individuals and their own suppliers, purely business, family? From whom, and by what route are these kilogrammes of dugup artefacts coming onto the market?

Mr Welsh has changed the wording describing the bulk lots of coins on his website since I first discussed them on this blog . Nevertheless they are still on sale (they are the same coins, aren't they?). Where did they come from? How did they leave the source country, and how does that square with the high corruption index of all the countries now occupying the regions ("Moesia and Thrace" in the original more candid description) where coins like this circulated and were buried? If Mr Welsh is - as his blog post enthusiastically makes clear - so aware of this corruption, why is he buying and handling coins precisely from these regions of Europe?

Also, despite the high index of respectability given Mr Welsh's country by 'Transparency International', not all of us would see the 'holier than thou' US as a country completely free of corruption, not least citizens of that country [here too, but Googling "US corruption" brings an unedifying mass of material to light]. Mr Welsh himself as well as Peter Tompa accuse the State Department of corruption. On the day Tompa's blog article was published, it was announced that several US policemen had been arrested for corrupt practices, not involving antiquities like the Bulgarian cases mentioned gleefully by Tompa, but guns. Then we have believable reports of corruption in the US Customs service, apparently involving financial rewards and sexual services for turning a blind eye. I'd also question a system where 12 Congressmen and a New York senator can be induced (somehow) to lending their names to antiquity dealers' attempts to challenge the Administration's efforts to clean up part, at least of the antiquities market. That may be called "lobbying" in the US and perfectly acceptable, but it looks pretty corrupt to this European.

I think if US collectors are at all concerned about corruption, they should beware of transactions that may involve supporting corrupt practices. What evidence (export licences for example) does each have that their favourite dealer is taking active steps to avoid this?

Finally, through whose hands did Dave Welsh's "specials" from "Moesia and Thrace" actually pass?

PS. Let us note that two potential source countries of lots of illicit coins (Turkey and Makedonia) have corruption indices not much removed from that of the country where I write this. Both however have a severe looting problem. Poland has a looting problem though I myself (pace my local colleagues) would not describe it as 'severe'.

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