Thursday, 28 August 2008

Yet Another Discussion List for Portable Antiquity Dealers and Collectors

Portable antiquity collectors interested in questioning the need for further legal regulation of the antiquities trade already have their increasingly monologous Unidroit-L discussion list devoted to “ the Unidroit Convention and related legislation […] anything to do with the law as it applies to trading in and collecting stamps, coins and ancient artifacts”. Now a group of nine of them (mainly one suspects living in the US) have deemed it necessary to create another discussion list. This new one, the UNESCO-L Discussion List has been set up to examine the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. An introductory text (very similar to that of the Unidroit-L discussion list) proclaims the aim is to provide a forum for discussion of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and related legislation”. Personally I cannot see the difference, where one set of 'related legislation' differs from the other. But this discussion list, we are assured will be different.

The organizers of this initiative assert:

The UNESCO Convention (1970) […] includes among the items defined as "cultural objects:" (e) antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals (i) postage, revenue and similar stamps, singly or in collections […] The definitions of stamps, coins and antiquities are so broadly stated that any collector or institution acquiring a stamp, coin or minor antiquity (such as a scarab or oil lamp) more than one hundred years old, originating in another country than that in which the collection resides, could be prevented from importing it to his nation of residence, and may be required to return it to the country of origin in the absence of documentary proof that the object was legally exported.
Ah, here's the rub. They obviously expect the collector of so-called "minor" pieces of somebody-else's-archaeological-heritage such as coins, scarabs or oil lamps to be worried by that latter phrase. Simply “acquiring” an item is not enough to fall foul of the legislation which this convention requires the international community to honour (clue: “export licences”).

The authors of this text are misleading the reader about what the convention defines as cultural objects. They neglect to draw the reader’s attention to the most important element of Article 1, which reads: “the term "cultural property" means property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories…”. So for example as we saw in the case of Great Britain the other day, the category of “postage stamps and other articles of philatelic interest” is specifically excluded by state legislation (The Export of Objects of Cultural interest (Control) Order 2003, Schedule 1 Article 1 [a]) as objects of cultural interest. My guess this omission is deliberate, as is the selective presentation of categorises that might be included seems to be a cynical attempt to make stamp collectors feel threatened in an attempt to gain their support in the questioning of this Convention (they tried it in the case of Unidroit-L too). I think we can safely assume philatelists outnumber the 50 000 collectors of ancient coins in the US. One presumes however that most stamp collectors can read the Convention themselves and probably will conclude that an attempt is being made to manipulate them.

In fact, if one examines with attention the FAQ of this list, it becomes abundantly clear that its author(s) completely misunderstand (that is more charitable than misrepresent) the nature of the Convention, its scope and purpose, as well as completely ignoring its relationship to the national laws of sovereign countries that the US of America.

A second objective of the list will be discussion of whether:
in view of the […] now well established, rapidly growing and
serious extent of controversy and social conflict that have resulted from its implementation, continuation of this Convention is beneficial to mankind.
Let us get this straight, a bunch of US collectors is questioning whether international co-operation in the field of fighting the trade in illicit antiquities is “beneficial to mankind”. I wonder if equally under discussion will be whether the unregulated continuation of illicit trade particularly beneficial to mankind, or just North American collectors of portable antiquities which are not found in the soil of the USA?

Let us also bear in mind who it is that threatens "turmoil" until the archaeologists cave in and agree to forget about archaeological context when talking with collectors of archaeological material taken from archaeological sites. Precisely who is stirring up social conflict over a comparatively simple issue of morality and responsibility towards the use of a finite and fragile resource?

These collectors presumably want to discuss on the new list whether disregarding Article 2 (opposing illicit trade) of the Convention is “beneficial to mankind”, and likewise Articles 5 and 14 (heritage protection). From past experience, we may be sure that in their discussions they will be dead against Articles 6 and 8 (clue: export licences), what about Article 7 (museums)? I am sure they will say “Nine (international co-operation) – nine is right out”, (that’s what the Cyprus MOU bru-ha-ha is about). Article 10 (education), well, that must be real uncomfortable for some collectors. I’d like to see what US collectors make of Articles 11 and 12 (military occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan etc.). We can see from their introductory texts, the members of this list also intend to usurp for themselves the duties alluded to in Article 16 and part of 17 (reporting).

One of the stated agendas of the discussion list is:

To define the impact of the 1970 UNESCO convention on collectors of coins, stamps and antiquities […]and whether it may create uncertain or unfavorable market conditions that would impact collectors and the sale of collections.
How about favourable conditions for the prohibition and prevention of the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property? In what way would (we presume continued) complying as the Convention requires with legal export requirements "impact" the current market, one wonders?

The Convention as befits an agreement of significance to the international community (Article 18) was published simultaneously in four languages (English, French, Russian and Spanish) “The language used in all posts [to the UNESCO-L list] shall be English” as befits what seems to be little more than a unilateral attempt by a minority group of Americans to exert what they see as their "rights" at the expense of the cultural heritage of members of the international community.

Let us hope that the international community pays very close attention to what these US collectors want, understand and have to say about their relationship to the ideals that the Convention is intended to uphold.

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