Monday, 1 September 2008

US Dealers' New Cunning Plan?

American portable antiquity collectors are desperately trying to convince public opinion and lawmakers of their message that they are doing „nothing wrong” buying unprovenenced ancient artefacts without documentation of licit provenience. In fact they even have the nerve to try and persuade us that what they are doing is for the “good of mankind”. The fact that the US State Department along with the rest of the world disagrees with their illogical assertion that “ancient coins are not archaeological finds" and included them in the Cyprus MOU has been the basis of their allegations that there has been some secret government conspiracy against them followed by an attempted 'cover-up'. They try to represent efforts by conservationists to stem the flow of illicit artefacts as an attempt to stifle their “avocational scholarship”. They allege that conservationists trying to stem the trafficking of illictly obtained artefacts are mere mouthpieces of an ideology of “retentionalist nationalism” and worse. They assert that collectors of unprovenanced artefacts are having to struggle to “preserve, study, display and enjoy” cultural artifacts” in the face of what they call an oppressive "Archaeology Uber Alles" perspective. They so far seem mainly to have succeeded in deluding only themselves. It seems to me that perceiving that they are not going to get very far with their current efforts, they’ve recently changed track and apparently hatched a new “cunning plan”.

If one reads the introductory material of the antiquity dealers’ new action group set up to debate the US application of the UNESCO 1970 International Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property it seems fairly clear what the thinking behind it is. It looks for all the world like (though of course they deny it) these dealers are trying to gather material and arguments to attempt to persuade a future US government to denounce the UNESCO convention. In effect putting into action on a nationwide scale the Wisconsin “Collectors Rights Resolution” hailed as a “collectors’ victory”. Why would they do this? Well, it would seem that they probably plan to argue that regulating the movement of illicit antiquities is not in the interests of many “fine American small businesses” (and not a few rather big antiquity dealing businesses either). They probably intend to argue that the accession to the 1970 Convention a number of years ago of a major antiquities market country like the USA “has not stopped the looting of the world’s archaeological sites”. So, it seems extremely likely that their new “cunning plan” is going to be to lobby that the USA denounce the Convention and all those fine American traders and collectors can carry on collecting items without documentable licit provenance in the knowledge that if they get caught, any illicitly exported objects will not necessarily have to go back to their rightful owner. I think these traders and the American people should look closely at what the title of this document is and what it actually is intended to regulate. [Clue: “illicit”, the convention is no problem whatsoever to those who trade in objects of documentable licit provenance, and this surely is what dealers and collectors should be striving for.]

Part of this new plan on has been to set up another action group. This one is to debate what its organizers call the “Renfrew Hypothesis on Looting(sic). This is connected with somebody (they say it was Colin Renfrew but it was not) formulating the epigram of the truism “collectors are the real looters” – referring to collectors of ancient artefacts without documentation of licit origin. The US collectors’ lobby feel uncomfortable with this and denies strenuously that this is true. This group has been set up with the obvious aim to prove the case. The arguments are weak and specious, but no doubt the Renfrew-L chapter of ACCG and its hangers on will be trying in future to persuade us that everybody has got it wrong. Oh, and its another pro-collecting discussion group with an ambiguous name. There already is a “Renfrew-L”.


Phil Davis said...

Oh come on Paul. This entry is remarkably disingenuous. I would have thought it was beneath you. There is no nefarious plot such as you describe. You know perfectly well that Dave Welsh is no one's "spokesperson". His posts, and his groups, are his own.

Paul Barford said...

Well, let us see. I would have thought that the reaction of a group of ethical people concerned about protecting the remains of the past for everyone would be to set up an action group to discuss how they could work with UNESCO and local conservation services abroad to STRENGTHEN the UNESCO convention, rather than question it. The Wisconsin Collectors' Rights Resolution shows very clearly where this merry band of dealers and their supporters is aiming to lead US collectors. If you as a collector are unhappy that people will see collecting as a whole through the prism of what the ACCG tell people and what people say about the ACCG, then perhaps its time to have a word with the ACCG and make sure your voice is heard too.

Paul Barford said...

"A second objective of the list will be discussion of whether, in view of the uncertain effectiveness of this Convention in suppressing illicit excavation or other removal of antiquities and other cultural property from their place of origin, and 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.
It seems appropriate that after enough time has passed to judge results, legal measures whose effectiveness is at best questionable and which have proven to be controversial and a source of social conflict, should be reviewed. If it is found upon review that the benefits to society from such legislation definitely are not worth the associated social costs, as in the case of the Volstead Act, that legislation should be repealed. If it is found that the benefits to society probably or possibly are not worth the associated social costs, then the legislation should be carefully scrutinized with a view toward modifying its provisions to reduce social costs by eliminating as many points of controversy and social conflict as possible".

These points of controversy would not be those relating to the trade in unprovenanced artefacts would they? Oh, well, lookie-here:

So strengthen measures to allow nations to help each other combat illicit movement of cultural property, or repeal or weaken them? In whose interests?

Phil Davis said...

Well Paul, I've actually never claimed to be an "ethical" collector in the sense you mean, nor do I have any interest at all in strengthening, or weakening, UNESCO. That's irrelevant to the point I was making anyway, which is that there is no cabal of collectors & dealers lurking behind the establishment of these new groups, any more than your blog is a front for an equivalent cabal from your camp. I'll address the issue of "greedy" collectors just as soon as you've honestly engaged the notion of greedy, acquisitive nations. Consider Italy, so I'm not always "bashing" Turkey or Greece or Bulgaria. By the standards you uphold, the various treasures recently repatriated to Italy (not, I note, "reculturated") are unprovenanced and of no scientific value. Why then would Italy want these worthless baubles, and gloat at their return? Why would you, interested only in truth and justice and advancing knowledge, gloat along with them? Isn't the Italian attitude, mine mine mine, just the "greed" of collectors writ large, and backed, ultimately, by the armed might of the modern state?

Phil Davis said...

...and yes, before you pounce, I should've coined "reheritagated", nor "reculturated". The dog was clamoring for a walk, and I rushed. My bad.

Paul Barford said...

Phil, I have answered the second part of that in a further post, it was a little off-topic with regard the point I was making here.

You said:
the point I was making [...]is that there is no cabal of collectors & dealers lurking behind the establishment of these new groups,
well, "cabal" is your word for it. Nevertheless the ACCG does exist and its aims do indeed proclaim that it will speak for all (coin) collectors, [in fact it does not restrict that even to "in the United States" but that's another story].

As I said, it is only your (plural) own fault if the ACCG voice is the only one heard by the wider public and lawmakers at the moment. At the moment the ACCG is going in several directions (lawsuit over Cyprus, now this initiative) and this should not be ignored. It is perfectly justifiable to judge the milieu as a whole by what is being said by its public spokesmen, especially as i see very little evidence that anybody in the milieu is saying, "no, wait, hang on a minute chaps, don't you think..". An analogous situation occurred in Britain with the NCMD (Google it) which became treated by British administrators as the official "spokesman" for metal detecting and collecting and which now quite a lot of people in the hobby see more as a hindrance than a help. Either collectors are happy with the ACCG taking the reins, and follow their lead, or they are not. As can be seen in this blog, I personally think they are leading collectors (not just of ancient coins) in the wrong direction.

Phil Davis said...

I think you need to slow down Paul; you're losing track of your own points. Your blog post "US Dealers' New Cunning Plan?" ridiculed the establishment of the new Yahoo groups "Unesco-L" and "Renfrew-L", and suggested that these groups were part of a "desperate plan" by antiquities' dealers to convince public opinion and lawmakers of their message. (I thought "cabal" was a reasonable extrapolation from your post, but since you've objected to it, I've tried to use only your words in this response.) I made the obvious point that these new groups were not part of some larger coordinated effort but were reflective only of their founder and of no one else. It was you who segued into yet another discussion of the ACCG. That group is membership-based and is indeed an outlet for the voice and opinions of a sector of the coin collecting public. The ACCG however was not the subject of your post or of my response to it. Nor was it the elephant in the room, at least in my mind; I gave no thought at all to the ACCG in my response. Why would I, since you hadn't mentioned it?

Paul Barford said...

The word "desperate" refers to something else.

The ACCG however was not the subject of your post
Perhaps you will allow me to be the judge of what or who I meant writing what I did. There is an active organization which speaks and acts on behalf of the whole hobby, both collectors and dealers. A lot of people are affiliated to it, a lot of people have given them money for their activities (recently in a benefit auction), and I see very little objection in the milieu to its policies or tactics. That means it is not unreasonable to assume that in general it has the support of the milieu.

You suggest that the initiation of these two new groups was not part of some programme; I think it was intended to be.

Their initiator is the Chairman of the International Affairs committee of the ACCG and it is inconceivable that he would engage in activity concerning the international context of collecting (which both these groups do) without the explicit approval of his own committee, and one assumes also the all-powerful Executive Director of the ACCG.

Note in this context the interesting exchange on Looting Matters over Welsh’s postings of comments lifted from their context on that blog and scattered all over the forums. Who answered the comments? The Executive Director of the ACCG and Welsh himself kept in the background. That suggests to me that in all his agitation, Welsh has the full backing of the ACCG – confirmed of course by the award he was given recently precisely FOR his work of this nature.
Looting matters: (“as Executive Director of the ACCG I support Dave's post — you can consider it an ACCG post if you like” etc.). There is of course no difference in that post from any others (including the ones on the two new groups).

Also, if you look at the tasks the owner of both lists wants members to sacrifice time for, do you really want to believe that the only reason they would do this is Dave Welsh’s own personal entertainment and satisfaction or to improve his prestige in the collecting world? Or do you think the FAQ suggests there is another purpose in collecting this information?

(I’d like to draw attention to the fact which may or may not be of significance that the FAQ of UNESCO-L was on Dave Welsh's own “Classical Coins” website which could perhaps support your suggestion that this was a private initiative, but now it seems that it, as well as message 2 of the Unesco-L list which I recall referred to it have been removed. This seems no longer to be on the “Classical Coins” website, while that of Unidroit-L [which precedes the ACCG] still is. Significant? I don’t know. Maybe he deleted it by accident.)

Let us wait and see where these two new initiatives go which will no doubt in the fullness of time reveal their intended purpose and who is behind the notions contained in the material produced so far.

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