Wednesday, 27 August 2008

"Collectors' Responsibilities" as seen in Ohio

The Portable Antiquities Scheme exists to promote a responsible attitude towards collecting of portable antiquities in England and Wales. It helps ensure that collected items and those offered for sale come from a known and licit sources and have been recorded. This aims to curb the market in illicit goods without unduly hampering legitimate collecting. The US portable antiquity collecting lobby has until now openly expressed admiration for this scheme. It has been one of the kingpins of its lobbying ‘program’ that creation of similar systems of dealing with collecting would greatly benefit collectors.

In the past few weeks, ACCG officer Dave Welsh has recently been regaling members the Council for British Archaeology’s Britarch discussion forum with his assorted thoughts on collecting and how bad it is that certain “extremists’ have unreasonable ideas that responsible collectors should stop buying artefacts of undocumented origin. In his opinion, indicating that the responsible collection of artefacts would be to stick to those that are properly provenanced and have a documented licit history is “an extreme, completely impractical and unreasonable approach."

The Chairman of Heritage Action, Nigel Swift asked him recently about his attitude as a dealer to the PAS "Advice for people buying archaeological objects from the UK”, pointing out that they propagate a similar approach to provenance as those who Welsh labeled as “extremists”. The self-appointed spokesman for US collectors stressed his "support" for the PAS and made his position clear "I regard a "full provenance" as essential insofar as that term applies to acquiring objects which British law requires to be reported". One presumes he has in mind the Treasure Act. This completely ignores the fact that the PAS and their advice are independent of the Treasure laws, but are to do with encouraging voluntary responsible behaviour in accordance with best practice. Ignoring the fact that this is the primary aim of the PAS really does not qualify one as a “supporter of PAS”.

Pressed for an answer, Mr Welsh then said "I do support PAS and its advice. However, there is an essential difference between that which applies to British subjects governed by the Treasure Act and PAS, and that which applies to all buyers in other nations". That is simply not the case. The PAS is entirely a voluntary scheme for responsible collectors and does not "govern" anyone. It asks collectors them to act in a particular way as a matter of personal responsibility - nothing to do with the law. The text of the “Advice” was however addressed to buyers abroad too requesting the same degree of personal responsibility as British citizens.

In the course of this discussion, Welsh revealed that as a US antiquities dealer he regards himself exempt from any compunction to follow PAS advice for responsible buyers of portable antiquities on the entirely spurious grounds that he is not British and therefore postulating that the advice wasn't meant to refer to him and his fellow collectors abroad. According to this view, Britain cannot possibly have any opinion on or wishes about what others should do when acquiring ancient objects of cultural interest from its soil. Surely this is something that Britons do have a right to decide themselves and not, Mr Swift correctly argued, a subject of negotiation over the other side of the Atlantic. There is no question of the foreigners having a different relationship to portable antiquities coming from British soil than Britons. Either buyers agree with PAS's advice about responsible purchasing of portable antiquities and conform, or they don't.

Referring this discussion over the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the "Advice for people buying archaeological objects from the UK” on the Unidroit-L list, Welsh was greeted by fellow antiquities dealer Eftis Paraskevaides with the words “Congratulations for exposing this verbal excrement”. Iranian chemical engineer Farhad Assar asked “Who is this "Mr. Swift"? Is he part of human race?”. John Rieske a collector who hails from Ohio (calling himself ‘Lysimachos’) however was more forthcoming about his attitude to PAS urging to collect British artefacts responsibly:

Mr. Swift (via Unidroit-L) So you think that everybody, no matter where they live should abide by your laws (British, I presume) even though I live in different country from yours. Oh! how wonderful! Now I guess we must abide by your traffic laws (driving on the left? How reprehensible!) and your court
system (which sucks BTW, [not that ours is great.]) It is the job of the citizens of a country to enforce their own laws through the establishment of responsible law enforcement, rather than shifting the onus upon citizens of other countries. You are in violation of many of my countries laws, possibly including libel and certainly in driving left of center. Do I have the right to demand that you cease and desist because I and my nation disagree with your laws? Of course not.
So keep you laws to yourself and place your blame where it truly lies: with the criminals.

So there we have it, according to the Ohio collector addressing Nigel Swift's remarks, there is no reason for the PAS to try to encourage good practice among buyers of portable antiquities. He says if the British cannot stop sales of illicitly obtained artefacts through responsible (sic) law enforcement, the US collector is entirely justified in buying any of it they want because it is the fault of the British for not looking after it properly. This collector too seems unaware that the PAS is not a "law".

Does the blame for irresponsible collecting lie as Mr Rieske asserts “with the criminals” or those that aid and abet the criminals by buying illicit property from them without asking any questions?

The PAS advice seems quite straightforward to me:
Five things to ASK :
Have you legal title to sell? Where was the object found? When was the object found? Was there a legal obligation to report the find? Has the object been recorded?If a seller cannot satisfactorily answer all or any of these questions or if you have doubts whether an object is illicit or not, then our advice is do not buy it”.
Oh and they remind foreign buyers they need an export licence to legally export archaeological finds from the UK.

What actually is so unreasonable about that when seen from Ohio?

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