Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Pssst... wanna buy this, Guv?

The Codes of Ethics/Conduct of dealers and collectors of portable antiquities speak in comforting but very woolly terms about not buying illicit or stolen goods. When one examines them closely however it can be seen that they do not restrict collectors overly since they have a very narrow definition of what falls into those categories and do not require the collector to actually ask penetrating questions of the seller like the "Advice for people buying archaeological objects from the UK” of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Any good citizen who receives an offer to buy illicit goods would of course refuse to take part in the transaction no matter how superficially tempting it is. They would also in many cases report the incident to the appropriate authorities so the culprit can be prevented from engaging in illegal activity and perhaps in some way harming the interests of others. Not so in the portable antiquities collecting world. Many dealers say they will not buy illicit items if offered, but how many warn those that would attempt this would be reported to the relevant authorities if they tried? A few years ago I was writing up old excavations on a site and contacted a major museum about finds from old excavations they had from it, “oh we’ve got some new finds of coins from there in our database!” they said. They had, information on finds which doubled the known finds of coins of that period from the site as a whole, but ripped out of context (no information on what part of this large and complex site they had come from) and now scattered in at least two private coin collections. The problem is that the remote site had been scheduled for several decades before it was visited by the metal detectorists whose finds I was now hearing about. The names of the miscreants? Oh, that’s secret says the museum numismatist, covering up for the criminals, so as not to scare off others bringing dodgy finds so they can be included in some coin typological database. No matter that they had trashed part of the site I was working on and no doubt as we spoke could well be doing the same to many more. But the numismatist got to hold briefly a few nice coins in his hand and ponder their typology. Ellis (1995, 223) notes that dealers also do not report dodgy offers to the police, in order not to jeopardise a potential 'source'.

Surely Codes of Ethics for dealers and collectors should include not only an obligation not to benefit from criminal activity but to actively fight it.

Ellis, R. 1995, 'The Antiquities Trade: a Police perspective', pp 222-5 in: K.W. Tubb (ed.) 1995, Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed, legal, ethical and conservation issues, London.

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