Sunday, 24 August 2008

Export of portable antiquities from UK

The Reports of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art are reassuring looking documents with colour photos of the objects saved for the nation, and lots of tables. If one turns to the appendices it turns out that annually there are about 27 000 export licence applications processed. Of these, as many as 23 000 will be for British (and European) archaeological material. This high proportion is because archaeological material is not covered by the same conditions as antiques (where items below a certain value are not subject to such restraints).

If this export has been going on at that sort of rate for the last decade it means that in an HMCR archive somewhere there are records referring to some 230 000 exported items. In the same period the Portable Antiquities Scheme managed to gather information about only slightly more items found by metal detectorists (some 300 000 in the same period). There is no way of knowing to what degree these two records overlap, but this is an interesting comment on the scale of the activity. It would be very useful if the two were integrated, or even better the forbidding of export of archaeological material without it first having been recorded by the appropriate body, not only in Scotland and Northern Ireland (which is currently the case), but the PAS for finds from England and Wales. Perhaps PAS could in some way be more fully integrated into the export licensing procedure.

Another interesting fact that emerges from these reports concerns the licenced export of coins. Celtic, Roman and medieval coins are archaeological artefacts and are certainly being removed from the ground by metal detectorists in large numbers and a certain proportion of them exported from the United Kingdom. Despite this, it is interesting to note that the number of UK export licences issued for coins annually is usually only around the 400 mark. This gives the impression that coin dealers are simply ignoring UK export regulations, while sellers of other types of portable antiquities are abiding by them to a greater extent. It is odd that licences are applied for in the case of metal detected regimental buttons or Georgian buckles being sent to the States, but it the object of export is a Roman coin, or a bulk lot of them, it would appear that seldom is a licence being applied for. If we allow that the number of coins alone going across the UK’s borders is probably going to be something like that of other collectables (or maybe there is an even greater demand for them from foreign buyers), that is a pretty substantial drain on our archaeological record, passing away under our very noses without any record and without anyone looking over what is being lost to the national heritage. Is it too much to ask that numismatic dealers conform to these regulations to the extent that, it would appear, many other sellers do?

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