Sunday, 9 February 2014

Thoughts on Ethical Collection of Coins...

Over on Peter Tompa’s blog, among the collectors fighting amongst themselves and with the distraction of provocation by the resident metal detectorist, the question was raised of what it means to be an ethical collector of dugup coins.

It is rather odd to see that question raised there, as Tompa’s own organization, the ACCG has a code of ethics written in 2005 (revised 2010) which surely should be his starting point for such deliberations. This code has just four principles (two affirmative, two prohibitory) for ethical collectors:
Ethical collectors
-will avoid purchasing coins reasonably suspected to be the products of illicit excavations in contravention of national patrimony laws.
- will avoid purchasing coins stolen from private or public collections
- will comply with all applicable customs laws.
- will protect, preserve and share knowledge about coins in their collections. 
 Obviously to be able to judge whether coins have been stolen from another collection or obtained in a manner which infringes local patrimony laws, one has to know where the coin came from and how it reached the market. One cannot simply assume, or shrug one’s shoulders when faced with an “unknown”. That is not a “knowing purchase” but blindfolded purchasing, and all that is logical implies that it is no-questions-asked dealing and collecting which is the root of the problem when dealing with the trade in illicit antiquities.

Obviously, in a market where there is, mixed in with legitimate objects, so much material which is the products of illicit excavations in contravention of national patrimony laws, the ethical collector has to be very selective what material they buy and what they refuse to buy. One obvious point is that one can only ethically buy objects from somebody who has taken the care to ethically obtain a supply of licit objects.

This all boils down to the way collections are documented. An ethical collection cannot be a loose collection of undocumented coins in a box. Each coin should be accompanied by the documentation showing how the licitness of its status was established by the purchasing collector (records of how it reached the market – e.g., PAS record, record of belonging to pre-legislation/amnesty collection, export licence). This ethical collector is obliged by the ACCG Code of Ethics to “protect, preserve and pass on” the documentation which provides the basis for knowledge about the origins of the object.

If no documentation is available which confirms how the object left the ground and entered the market (which may be the case for older finds) then the ethical collector would still be concerned to avoid buying coins resulting from the looting which has been taking place on an industrial scale on productive archaeological sites in regions like Italy, China and Bulgaria.

In such cases, the ethical collector would be on the look-out for objects to acquire that can be demonstrated to have been on the market at least before the flood of illegally obtained items. One way of doing this, even though details of provenance are missing is through the collecting history. An example of this might be ability to document that the object came from an old collection all of which was acquired before the spread of large-scale looting.

The chronological criteria will vary from region to region, depending on how the illicit trade expanded to an increasingly damaging degree. Obviously it is avoiding buying items originating from such activity that an ethical collector will most want to avoid. In the case of England, this would have to go back to the widespread use of metal detectors in the hands of looters of scheduled sites in (let us say 1970). If there is no verifiable provenance (for example a responsible detectorist reported the find to the local museum or archaeology unit before the PAS or the PAS after 1996 and there is a record of that which can be unequivocally linked to that coin), an ethical collector would avoid that item, unless it can be shown to have been in or come from a ‘sealed’ collection which dates to before 1970. In the case of coins on the market in Bulgaria, the cut-off date for ethical purchases could be considered to be later. Metal detector use on archaeological sites there dates to after 1989. So here a coin coming from a collection ‘sealed’ before that date has a much higher probability (though sadly only that) of having entered that collection by a means other than looting.

Obviously there is scope here for a group like the ACCG to work out guidelines for the help and better information of their collector members in cases like this for all the potential source regions. It'd be interesting to see them develop some guidelines too, in appropriate collaboration maybe with museum professionals and in consultation with the AIA, for collectors on how to document their collections in accordance with modern methods and ensure that these documents reach the next owner, together with the coins.

Vignette: Coin collecting for the next generation

1 comment:

heritageaction said...

Scope for? More like a moral imperative that should have been met donkey's years ago.

Anyway, if they wished to treat the British resource and the British people with a modicum of respect rather than a place and a group from which to extract money by any means they'd adopt this, tomorrow ....

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