Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Market Forces Shaping the Collectors' Market

Two numismatic trade associations have recently (or maybe that is now 'until recently') employed Bailey and Ehrenberg's Peter Tompa as their spokesman and lobbyist to fight for the interests of collectors. Mr Tompa has recently revealed that he believes that US collectors are in some way "discriminated against" by foreign laws which restrict exports of the artefacts which they want to collect from those lands. I disagree, I think US collectors need to see that they are just one of a number of interest groups for whom the heritage, and objects and ideas constituting it, are important. Since that point went right over the head of the people 'discussing' [I use the term loosely] the issue on Mr Tompa's lobbying blog, I tried to make it by analogy:
In any case, putting the boot on the other foot, let us imagine what would happen if collectors in China, Korea and Russia suddenly gained a huge interest in the colonial coinage and tokens of what is now the USA and were paying increasingly astronomical prices for whatever they could get with the result that in a decade and a half, 87% of the extant material was abroad and out of the reach and pocket of the majority of casual US collectors. In such a scenario, would the US numismatic organizations defend US collectors' rights and interests and urge some form of action should be taken to curb this? Or would they sit idly by shrugging their shoulders muttering "it's a free market"? What would US collectors like to see happening if it was US cultural property being drained out of the country to the pockets of foreigners? Would it be "discrimination" to protect access of US collectors to the early coinage of the territory of the US?
Frankly, it seemed like a pretty good argument to me. Precisely this had happened in the country where I now live when I arrived here. For a number of economic reasons a vast amount of small and portable collectables had been taken to the west and sold there for much-wanted hard cash (dollars). If you wanted to collect (say) stamps, you would find that most of the high value items (blocks, special issues, inverted overprints) on the Polish market were junk pieces, damaged, discoloured, stained. Yet if you went to a stamp fair in (say) England - as I did with my Mum who was a collector, you would find rows and rows of pristine ones, but at a price too high to contemplate buying them in the UK and taking them back to Poland, because nobody there would pay the equivalent. So the market was split, Polish collectors had to make do with junk, while UK collectors had the good stuff, but more than they really needed. It was the same with antiques. It was seeing this back in the 1980s which made me understand what export licences are for. A rich country will drain the cultural property out of the poor ones. I have written on this on this blog before. Peter Tompa collects ancient Greek and Medieval Hungarian issues. Even so, it was a surprise to read that the defender of collectors rights candidly reveals that he really does not care about the plight of fellow collectors (of other types of coins) if this were to happen to them.
On the colonial coinage issue, if foreign collectors get interested in our coinage, all the better. Happy to have them get interested in US history.
I really do think the lobbyist missed the point. But even more astoundingly, a dealer then jumped into the discussion. He calls the idea that one country could drain the resources of another "nonsense", which really sets the scene for the dealer's next remarks:
let me make it clear that in the USA, modern coins (including the colonial coinage and tokens of what is now the USA) are considered to be private personal property [...] in which the USA has no sovereign right of ownership. The USA is not a Socialist or Communist country, and its citizens have rights and freedoms which Mr. Barford evidently does not understand or realize the importance of. The answer to his question is, of course, that the US Government would have no right to interfere with the action of the free market in trading of these items, and would not attempt to do so.
Like it does not in the case of Hopi masks, Acona shields and all the rest of the collectables originating on the North American continent ('private property') now finding its way to European auction houses. I am sure the dealers who put these things up for auction say the same as Dealer Dave. Likewise if you have a gun ('private property') and sell it to somebody in Poland, say, Mr Welsh would probably say the US which is not a communist country does not require the a seller to obtain an export licence for it, and this is in no way dependent on getting an import authorization from the buyer's country. Documents are needed for the movement of certain animals and plants across US borders too. This is, of course, not "communism", but necessary documentation of the movement of certain goods across international borders. Since the 1970 Convention, antiquities have joined that list of items for which such measures are accepted by most civilized states. Mr Welsh deals in antiquities and calls the idea that there can and should be restrictions on just how they move in and out of countries "nonsense".

Mr Tompa decides this issue is not going to be discussed on his blog. Bailey and Ehrenberg's Cultural Property Observer prefers ad hominems submitted by assorted metal detectorists and the like to substantive discussion:
Dave, you are correct of course. Thanks all. I'm going to close comments on this one.
Dealer Dave may be "right", the question however was not whether sales of coins en masse to well-heeled Chinese or Russian collectors is legal. The question concerns whether US collectors, seeing this material disappearing from the US market (like the Polish collectables 1945-1989) would not be asking their trade associations to represent them and lobby for some means to curb this process to protect their (collectors') interests against the greedy dealers who see more profits in exporting the material out of the domestic market than serving their local customers (Dealer Dave, are you listening?) Yes, the commerce in antiquities is precisely about that, filling Dealer Dave's bank account. But then why induce the "whose culture" argument, if the answer is "it's the dealers, stupid"? "Whose culture" is an argument generally used most frequently by those who have the cash to buy whatever they want, but some pesky restrictions keep getting in the way of them fulfilling every one of their selfish whims. You will not hear it in the nations (African states for example), that have through colonialism, social conflict or corrupt practices, economic disaster lost huge amounts of their cultural property to foreign collectors. The total lack of empathy and the degree of smug entitlement from the US collectors, dealers and lobbyists can only be countered by inviting them to think about how they would see this issue if they were not the perpetrators but victims. Sadly, the world can see that this sort of imagination seems to be lacking in US collecting and dealing circles.

I would also draw attention to the Americans claim to "rights and freedoms" which trample on those of others. Perhaps the notion that it is "nonsense" that others could buy up US cultural property derives from a notion that the dominance of the US is impregnable. If they vote in Donald Trump they might soon have to revise their position.

It seems Messrs Tompa and Welsh have grounds for fearing that their beloved country is "turning communist": Langbord family loses appeal to regain ownership of 1933 double eagles ("in the USA, modern coins are considered to be private personal property  in which the USA has no sovereign right of ownership. [...]  the US Government would have no right to interfere with the action of the free market in trading of these items, and would not attempt to do so"). It just did.

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