Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Ethics codes and their application by dealers

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has postulated that the codes of conduct of museum professionals and archaeologists “ought to include certain issues like conservation, publishing responsibilities, respect for private ownership and public access”, and they announce that they will be communicating these concerns “to the appropriate organizations or associations in the form of an ACCG petition for consideration”. They seem to be unaware of the fact that the codes of conduct/practice/ethics of a number of archaeological bodies already include these elements.

More interesting from our point of view is that this body, a self-appointed spokesman for the entire international http://www.accg.us/ (it would seem) milieu of ancient coin collectors has proposed its own Code of Ethics for Collectors and Sellers of ancient coins.

It is interesting to note that this was adopted, not as a result of wide consultation in the collecting and cultural heritage protection world, but as the result of a “formal meeting of the Board of Directors at New York, NY on January 15, 2005”. The majority of the officers of the ACCG are dealers, so it is not surprising that this uniform “Code of Ethics for Collectors and Sellers of ancient coins” concentrates mainly on the selling of coins.

Somewhat conventionally the second principle states “Coin Collectors and Sellers will protect, preserve and share knowledge about coins in their collections”, though it would seem it was not thought advisable to add to this Code that information on provenance is an extremely important element of the “knowledge” about archaeological finds (as ancient coins are) which also should be preserved by sellers and collectors of this type of material.

The last three of the five principles refer to the ethics of selling coins “Coin Sellers will not knowingly sell modern forgeries of ancient coins, and all ancient counterfeits or Renaissance type copies will be clearly identified as such”, “Coin Sellers will disclose all known defects, including tooling, re-engraving or reconstruction of coins they sell.”, “Coin Sellers will not misrepresent the value of coins they buy or sell.”

From our point of view however the first principle of this code of ethics is completely inadequate, as has previously pointed out by David Gill. It states
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.
In the same vein the ACCG advises collectors that the way to help protect archaeological sites from looting is for collectors “refusing to purchase any coin known to be removed from a scheduled archaeological site or stolen from a private or public collection and by complying with all cultural property laws in their own country.” It is not however stated how this is to be achieved, it is unlikely that any dealer selling such items or in contravention of domestic would be openly advertising that fact.
We note the wording “knowingly purchase”, this is a far different matter from “will take steps to ensure” (which actually involves asking the vendor to demonstrate the licit origin of the portable antiquities on offer). The same goes for the manner in which the ethical collector will ensure that a coin has come from an old collection because its owner has passed it on willingly or whether it was stolen. As for where the coins ultimately come from, the problem is not whether any archaeological site which has been riddled with holes to extract collectables for foreign markets is scheduled or not (or even known to the authorities), it is whether the irreversible extraction of archaeological evidence from it was recorded or not. Obviously most collectors will feel they are helping to prevent culture-crime by buying coins but not asking where they came from, that way they are not "knowingly" buying looted or stolen material.

The clause “will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country” would be laughable if we did not know that this is actually the self-justification some portable antiquity collectors actually do apply to what they do. “No law was broken in my country” they say and the antiquities protection laws of the countries where this stuff comes from are "unwise” and “unjust” and therefore there is not only no legal obligation to respect them, but (these people claim) neither is there any sort of ethical conflict in not doing so, nor in financing those who deliberately break the law of their own country because there are foreign buyers greedy for the products. This rather reduces the value of the ACCG document as a code of “ethics”. This is merely the “its legal innit?” argument taken to extremes.

More important however than what the wording of a code of ethics says, is how its principles are reflected in action. In particular by dealers who at the same time set themselves up as authorities speaking for the whole collecting community. Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh, an ACCG officer and pro-collecting activist has obligingly supplied some information on this in reply to my queries about the manner of determination of the actual origins of some of the unprovenanced items on offer by his own firm (Classical coins) Yesterday he was assuring British archaeologists that in his own business practices

I take all available measures to avoid anything illicit. No one could possibly carry on my business with more attention paid to ensuring that only trustworthy sources are dealt with.
Mr Welsh therefore holds out Classical Coins as a real paragon of virtue. So it is with great interest that we learn of the methods applied to prevent illicitly obtained archaeological material being among that offered by this firm. In one case he tells us that a group of Parthian coins:

were received from a Spanish dealer who is among my trusted sources. Spain is not a path through which illicit coins are known to flow to the market, and there was considerable commerce in antiquity between Spain and areas where Parthian coins circulated.
Is this unnamed dealer trusted mainly because he is Spanish and “Spain is not a path through which illicit coins are known to flow to the market”? Is that enough to make this dealer a “trusted source"or was any other verification of what he has on offer applied? Especially important when (as in this case) the coins concerned were not of Spanish but of Parthian origin, and so of types in circulation in the region of modern Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, countries where looting of archaeological sites is rife.

My questions in another case which I discussed, coins apparently coming from the Balkans and adjacent areas (another region where archaeological sites are notoriously targeted by looters on a massive scale), was dismissed with the words:
They were acquired from a long established, reputable dealer in Canada. Canada is a signatory to UNESCO 1970, and I had observed that Revenue Canada was very scrupulous in enforcing Canadian import regulations. I did not doubt that these coins were licitly imported.
The unnamed dealer from which these were bought has been in operation over a longish period, has a “good reputation” (for what?) and furthermore operates in a country where Mr Welsh believes the customs service rigorously enforces the export restrictions of other countries (really?)

In neither of these cases is it stated to which of the several numismatic trade codes of ethics/conduct these unnamed dealers subscribe, nor what assurances had been sought and received in addition to the (rather weak) justifications for “trusting’ these sources offered in the pro-collector advocate's description of his own business practices .

Is this typical of what is happening? Mr Welsh claims that nobody else could carry out this business with more attention paid to the sources of the objects he deals in, and yet what he describes seems to me to be barely sufficient - in fact, insufficient. This raises very real questions about how dealers in portable antiquities actually do ascertain that the goods they buy and sell have not come from the looting of archaeological sites in the source countries and illicitly exported from that country. If they cannot actually show - even when they are trying so hard as Mr Welsh seems to be - that they are able to ascertain that, how can they claim that they uphold any sort of ethics at all? There is a difference between legality and ethics.

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