Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Collector's idea to "stop the looting"

Phil Davis (volodya2_99) wrote on a coin collectors’ forum what he calls an Open Letter to Nathan Elkins, Paul Barford et. al. and invites a response. He makes two main points, this is a response to the first.

Mr Davis writes:

I understand your dismay at what you see as "looting;" to a great extent, I share it. As a serious collector/part-time dealer with a lifelong (well, since 4th grade anyway) fascination with antiquity, I also mourn the loss of knowledge when unrecorded hoards appear on the market, although I won't pretend that
prevents me from cataloguing or purchasing such coins.
It seems to me that comment is superfluous. It does not even need an analogy to point out that there is a difference between cheap words of disapproval and deeds. Typical of the milieu Mr Davis also expresses the view that:

the only solution with a chance of actually succeeding is a change in the laws of the so-called "source countries" to more closely reflect those of the UK, and a policy to de-acquire redundant artifacts and coins.

The second of these is the old argument about stuff “rotting in museum basements”. In principle, if there really are truly redundant items in museum collections which are not needed by any other public collections for research, handling collections and educational material etc., then I personally would have no problem with them disposing of unwanted material in this way. I do however think such arguments from the portable antiquity collecting milieu are based to a considerable extent on misconceptions (and perhaps even misrepresentations) about what museum stores hold, and why this material is held there. There is in addition a further point, there is no guarantee in the current state of portable antiquity collecting (see the first comment to the ethical collecting post here) that if well provenienced objects like this were released onto the market, that after passing through two or more personal collections, this information would not be irretrievably lost. In such conditions such items are probably best kept where they are until collectors get their act more together in terms of preserving provenance information as a matter of course.

Now we come to the idea that "source countries" must change their antiquities protection legislation. Again, this is one of those traditional and repetetive mantras of the portable antiquity collecting community. Althogh he is not very precise here, we are led to assume that Phil Davis is suggesting creating new laws that are clones of English and Welsh legislation (and not legislation of Scotland or Northern Ireland ). I am not at all clear to what Mr Davis thinks this is actually a solution. What would it mean? In such countries, individuals or groups of people armed with shovels and maybe metal detectors would now openly go out into the countryside to known but unprotected sites, dig them over ("it's legal innit?") to obtain artefacts. They would be under no obligation to show anybody what they’ve taken. By this clone-of-English law though they would have to show the state the shiny bits of gold and silver, and the state if it wants to add them to a museum collection in effect buys these items from the treasure hunters at full market price. The rest the finder together with the landowner can sell to dealers who can then sell them on to Mr Davis and fellow collectors in the USA for crispy green dollars. I would like to ask Mr Davis and those who go along with this idea, how does that actually protect the archaeological heritage of those countries from being dug into indiscriminately in order to produce “collectables” at the expense of losing any associated archaeological information?

Neither have the collectors advocating that foreign states should adopt this England-clone-legislation defined what would be the value for a country introducing such a law in having the most accessible parts of its archaeological heritage completely trashed in order to satisfy the needs of collectors. Unless they think the exporting nation can impose an “antiquities tax” to generate revenue by selling off national assets derived from the willful destruction of the archaeological record in their territory. That is not a very responsible way to treat the archaeological heritage of any country is it? I’ve already discussed some aspects of this a bit here; Holes in History, here and here .

In order "to work constructively together towards at least partial solutions" of problems, it seems to me vital to first actually define the problem being faced. As a means of preventing damage to the archaeological record, I find the England-clone-antiquities-law argument of US (and other) collectors totally illogical and completely unconvincing. Its repeated use by these collectors also suggests to me that basically these people have not even taken the trouble to identify the problem that is being discussed before supplying their own glib “solution”. How actually would these collectors define the notion of the “looting” they say they are opposed to? What is it in fact that they are declaring themselves opposed to? Perhaps again the problem is an inadequacy of terminology. Whatever one wants to call it, what it is that is deplored is the indiscriminate digging of holes into the archaeological record by artefact hunters seeking only “collectables” – most often for sale – with a consequent loss of huge amounts of archaeological information every time a hole is blindly dug or an artefact removed from a site without proper record. Suggesting all nations should adopt the British laws does nothing whatsoever to prevent this happening, the effect though would simply increase the number of antiquities on the market, no doubt to the great delight of collectors but at what cost to the rest of us?

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