Tuesday, 6 September 2016

You've Got to Get That Feeling: Allegedly, the "Right Way" to Collect "Artefacts with Limited Provenance"

Feeling up the Goods
According to some material sent by an amused reader, a spokesman for the ACCG dealers has recently published a statement on "the right way" to collect "Artefacts with Limited Provenance".  It's a hoot. Dealer Dave sets out "what, in my experience as a coin dealer, is appropriate and practical discrimination that every dealer and collector can and should practice" - discrimination in order not to be buying illicit material.

Firstly he lamely suggests that: "Every artifact does come with provenance, at least to the source from which it is acquired. That should be recorded, and when appropriate, disclosed to the next owner". Yes it should, but on its own, that is not enough. "The Philip Boggins collection, acquired in 2012 from Messrs Grebkesh and Runn" is not a collecting history which is capable of legitimizing an artefact that, for example, was probably dug up somewhere in the Middle East. To be unequivocally legitimate (licit), that collecting history has to go back beyond the date when legislation was introduced regulating the handling of such material. That everybody agrees to. If the collecting history goes back only to (say) 2012, then the collecting history of that object does not, and cannot fulfil that function. If any other part of that collecting history is lost or has been discarded, then that object cannot be legitimated and should not be found in any truly legitimate trade. It is as simple as that. As we see from a number of dealers' sales offers, there are artefacts which have collecting histories which show they were in the market before regulatory legislation was introduced in its source country, and for most people there is no generally problem with museums and private collectors having them (see my 'Repatriation' blog for the cases when there is disagreement over that latter - and quite separate - issue).

Dealer Dave however wants civilized society to make an exception for him and his commercial partners. He postulates (though his reasoning seems to be no better than "I want")  that "partial provenance" should be "enough" to legitimate artefacts on the market. It is less than clear what he understands by "legitimate". I get the feeling that what he means is can't-touch-yer-for-it-legitimacy, which of course is no legitimacy at all. Anyway, here are his ideas about why the collector should believe their dealer really, really, really has only licit material in his stockroom.
1) First by a long chalk, is to know your sources. Buy from reputable sources in whom you have good reason to confide [sic] in their honesty, judgement and willingness to stand behind their goods in the rare event of a problem.
If the problems  (what kind of problems?) are "rare", on what (and how extensive experience) does one base the conviction that a certain supplier will "stand by their goods" (how?) when one is encountered? What is meant here by "honesty"? Is this just that they honestly "believe" that there are no conceivable issues with the goods they have - even though they in fact have no more idea than, and selected the material they handle by the same methods as, Dealer Dave (see below)?I think that behind such a glib suggestion, a whole range of unasked questions lie - and Dealer Dave probably is hoping that none of his collector-readers have the gumption opr nous to ask those questions of him. He continues:
2) Avoid "anonymous venues" such as eBay, unless you are a real expert who can navigate such dangerous waters with relative safety - and even experts will be deceived from time to time, and must be prepared to accept that, take the loss and not pass on fakes and tainted material to others.
Aha, so a "real expert" can frequent the "anonymous" eBay dealers? Is Dealer Dave claiming to be such an "expert"? So a British nighthawk selling coins in collectable condition from his girlfriend's house in Solihul can be detected by Dealer Dave by what, precisely, if the fundamental question not being asked is "show me the documentation that proves you have title"? If Dealer Dave buys tainted material from Johnny Putrid the nighthawk, how will Dealer Dave or Dealer Dave's clients  actually know that? This is can't-touch-yer-for-it legality, once they've left Mr Putrid's hands and in Dealer Dave's, nobody can show they were 'tainted'. Of course, in the discussion of the issue of using documented collecting history to exclude looted and/or smuggled material from the market, nobody is concerned about fakes. That's the collector's problem. But how does Dealer Dave know that Mr Putrid has sold him kosher (untainted) objects? This one is a killer:
3) Learn the "look and feel" of old collection artifacts. In the numismatic trade, that "look and feel" is rather distinctive, and not easy to deceptively simulate
How is the collector to judge for themself that their preferred dealer has in fact 'learnt' this 'feel' if the characteristic are nowhere defined so we can assess for ourselves how well the objects he shows fit those criteria?. I guess we are to understand that all of the coins shown on Dealer Dave's clunky 1990s-style website have this 'feel'. But then, what is it?  This one for example, is it "old collection' because it looks as it it was cleaned in Harpick toilet cleaner? Or this pitted one?

What is really, really interesting is that Dealer Dave gives one example of a coin which has this 'feel' (and what appears to be an early modern modification suggesting it was out of the ground in a specific collection a long time ago) and the 'cabinet toning' - but this one is NOT from his own stock, but somebody else's. Is it the case that he has not a single coin in his own stock that he could use to demonstrate the characteristics he allegedly used to select all of them? Odd that.
Collectors also often wiped down the surfaces of their coins with a soft cloth to remove dust. The above coin has surface characteristics suggesting such periodic wiping on the obverse, and its reverse shows distinctive wear on the high points which appears to be noticeable cabinet friction.
But there seems to be a misunderstanding, wear does not indicate legal sourcing or export. It indicates wear. Like if it travelled from Turkey to Munich in the dusty space between the floor of Mustafa's car and the grimy carpet which hid it from view. Or shipped, sandwiched between planks of wood in a container tossed around in the Bay of Biscay. Cabinet toning can be and is faked. Dealer Dave will tell you 'he' can tell the difference, what empirical tests have been done to show he can? (And again, how do you 'date' the beginning of the process?)

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