Sunday 12 April 2009

To all you young collectors out there

Mr Okkam S. Reizer has passed on to me some material produced by the 'Ancient Coins For Young Americans collectorship encouragement program' (obviously not to be confused with the ACE) which he came across and he thought might be of interest. It explains a lot about the background to statements such as this from Californian coin dealer and ancient coin dealers' lobbying group (ACCG) officer Dave Welsh who steadfastly maintains:

Paul Barford and his fellow travelers maintain that a trade in unprovenanced artifacts "obviously" encourages and abets looting. But there are few principles in science better established than that what seems to be obvious is not thereby proven. Causality has to be established. Accepting something as true because it seems to be obvious is in fact one of the most fruitful sources of error. Where is there any verifiable evidence that the acquisition of unprovenanced coins by collectors causes looting of archaeological sites?

The text I received from Mr Reizer is undated, but perhaps it is a copy of an older text on which the present generation of antiquity dealers and collectors was raised. Let us take a look at it, I reproduce it in its entirity in the original spelling.

To All You Young Collectors Out There.

Hello Young Collectors!
Uncle Sam, your jovial friendly coin dealer here. I want to talk to you today about a serious problem, so y'all pay attention. You might have heard what some grown ups are saying about nasty things like “looting” and our beloved and beneficial American hobby of ancient coin collecting. I want to put your minds to rest about this.

Now, “looting” is a nasty word for people taking things they should not. Now we don’t do that do we AC-ites? No, of course we don’t. We believe it to be a self-evident truth that the coins we look after for the world are our rightful heritage as American citizens, the true and only inheritors of the mantle of the ancient world, aren’t they? But just in case some of you were getting confused, I want to tell you today where these coins really come from to stop these stupid lies and the questions some of you have been asking your teachers and they have been asking Uncle Sam.

Now, we know that over in Europe in those quaint little countries with poor educational standards and corrupt un-American governments there are poor uneducated people who cannot afford soap and water and proper dental care that are so impoverished they have to grub around in the dirt to find things to feed their families. You've probably all seen them on the television and in the movies. Well, these are what some grown ups call “looters”. But don’t you believe what these grown-ups say about them. Of course they are not really digging up the coins we sell to you! No! That is a nasty lie! What really happens is that these poor people take what they find in the soil to the museum-pixies. Yes! They place the things they find in sacks under the village maypole and overnight the pixies come take the things away to pixieland and leave bread and deodorant in their place. One day when the poor people have decent education, the pixies will bring back all the old things they looked after for them so they too can enjoy learning about their land's history like you do now. Isn’t that nice?

And where do the coins come from we sell you? Well, many many years ago, far far away a race of Elves lived in caves under the Magic Mountains. They made these coins and put the faces and names of the old emperors on them for people to use, and when the people did not want them any more, they gave them back to the elves. The wise old elves kept them in their secret vaults for a while and then put them in great sacks and sent them through secret tunnels to the old coin emporium in Europe. That’s a magic shop run by some good friends of mine which collects together all the old coins people do not want any more so they can be sold to enlightened people like you and me to collect. The wise shopkeeper knows what bright kids you are, and sends them to us across the sea as presents for American children ! Yes. That’s where we get all the coins we use in our program from, they are from the quaint old European magic coin shop!

Now, why would the pixies be giving coins to the old magic coin shop? We all know that pixies don’t like elves, so obviously it is all unfounded lies what some grownups say that the ancient coins and things you buy from your Uncle Sam and all my jolly dealer friends all over our great country are taken from archaeological sites over the sea!

I hope you can see now that this is obviously just a made-up fairy story by some mean grown ups to scare good, decent, bright, educated coin-collecting kids like you. Those bad people we grown-ups call "cultural property nationalists" (Uncle Sam will explain that term in the next ACCE newsletter) are obviously subversive communists and what we call their fellow travellers. If you hear people talking like this, you should never listen to them, and tell your parents. One day perhaps they will have to answer before an Un-Americal Activities Tribunal for such talk.

Children, remember, there is no verifiable evidence that the buying of unprovenanced coins by constitution-loving American collectors causes looting of any archaeological sites anywhere in the world. So ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

Until next time, keep collecting kids !
Yours jovially
Uncle Sam the Coin Man

Now I do not know if the current adult generation of collectors over in the US still believes in the pixies and elves as a mechanism to explain “where coins come from”, it is difficult to say, they offer no other sensible explanation. Mr Reizer asks if there is a more adequate resolution of the problem , artefacts are taken in large numbers by looters from ancient sites in Europe, increasing quantities of fresh artefacts arrive in the dealers' shops of the USA. Mr Reizer asks why some bend over backwards to deny that there is any connection whatsoever between them, and suggests logic suggests a simpler explanation than one involving pixies. I am inclined to agree with him.

These "no verifiable evidence" type arguments from special pleaders leave a very unpleasant taste in the mouth. After all we’ve heard them all before (and in particular from the United States) – about gas chambers and the disappearance of vast numbers of individuals from the townships and ghettos of central Europe between 1941-5. This portable antiquities collectorship “Looting revisionism”, this Looting Denial, is a shabby and unworthy argument to come from the ranks of collectors who claim to be erudite and concerned people “passionately interested in learning about the past”.

The pro-collecting lobby would be well-advised to abandon this tactic of attempting by such means to deflect attention from their own responsibilities in the wholesale no-questions-asked acquisition of archaeological artefacts from dealers unwilling to provide material with securely documented legitimate provenances in accordance with the principles of ethical trade of such material. The sooner, the better all round. As one collector, Voz Earl, recently put it:

I can only speak from my own experience which leaves me with little doubt that looting is a problem and that much knowledge has been irrevocably lost. We do ourselves no favors by pretending otherwise.
and Voz Earl again:
I think Reid makes an excellent point: "Attempts by some here to downplay or ignore the smuggling/loss of provenance problem just come across as disingenuous as well as extreme." One might also add that taking such a tact simply helps our opponents to marginalize us and dismiss our entire point of view.
Absolutely right. While this tactic remains the principle one offered by the pro-collecting lobby as a whole, quite frankly, nobody is going to take them and their other arguments at all seriously. Unconcerned collectors in collective denial are clearly not partners for discussion.

As for the “evidence” Dave Welsh claims is absent, a few months ago several people were drawing attention to a 2007 report by a pro-democracy group (so outside archaeology) on organized crime in the Balkans, Bulgaria specifically, which very clearly shows the links between the US collectors’ market and the looting of archaeological sites – and a good many other things besides. In case the Ancient Coin Dealers’ Defence Guild missed it, the document can be accessed here. So far the 'Collectors in Denial' have not addressed that report. [when can we expect a full review and rebuttal from the collectors and dealers, citing references?]. A discussion on it on Moneta-L was however broken off by the moderators abruptly when it got too close to "dealers' issues" (as indeed such a discussion cannot fail to do - so presumably as far as dealers are concerned must remain taboo).

A high proportion of ancient antiquities on the US (and British) market at the moment (ebay and Vcoins) explicitly or apparently come from Balkan sources, indeed in many cases Bulgarian ones – including as I pointed out here some time ago some bulk lots which Dave Welsh’s “Classical coins” has been selling. If Mr Welsh and his fellow antiquities dealers and collectors wish to claims that the Resource Preservation advocates "cannot provide any evidence to support their claim", by ignoring this report by an outside and unbiased institution with no axe to grind against collectors, they are simply turning their back on at least one element of what we have shown.

The day that antiquities' dealers dealings are totally transparent and we can see exactly where every single one of the items in their stock are coming from, that is the day we will be able to test the model properly. It is not a little suspicious that the dealers who claim "there is no evidence" are the very individuals who are actually actively concealing the evidence that could be used to determine the truth. Challenging us to provide the evidence while denying us access to it is simply the sort of weasel-tactics one can expect from this band of Merry Men.

Collectors awake?

Over on the Moneta-L forum Voz Earl has now given the link to a "report by the Center for theStudy of Democracy, entitled--Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends" which he found mentioned on this blog... though of course studiously avoids giving the link to the actual post here (or blog) concerned. He could have saved himself the potential embarrassment of admitting he reads such heretical contributions to the discussion on portable antiquities as mine, since the report was brought up on their very own coin-collectors' forum on January 14th by Nathan Elkins. This was in a discussion on looting (the one that was infamously abruptly cut short by a coin-dealing moderator who said they'd be accepting no more posts from me there) so perhaps its not surprising that it was not properly discussed there and uninquisitive coin collectors obediently did not look at it. This rather reinforces the point I am making that collectors and dealers can shout loudly that "no evidence has been provided" while turning their backs on one that has been put right under their noses.

Well, now Mr Earl has again brought attention to it, let us now see the ACCG (and in particular Dave Welsh, dealer currently with coins from the region that is now Bulgaria in his stock and the head of its International Affairs committee) write a review of this report and say why the report's conclusions are untenable and thus of no relevance to the material US dealers sell. No more pixies and elves and dodging the issue, but discussion of the facts behind the flow of Balkan material onto the European and US market please.

Vignette: One of Hugh Thomson’s illustrations from Eric Parker’s (1908), Highways and Byways in Surrey.


Marcus Preen said...

Love the pixie story!

Nice piece about the pixies!

I see Mr Welsh is committed under the ANA Dealers' Code "to refrain from making unjustified and/or false statements or misrepresentations in my relations with others" and that "any violation of this code will be grounds for expulsion from the American Numismatic Association."

Maybe some of the more enlightened ANA members, who see him as less than helpful to their cause, should demand he is disciplined.

Either the ANA agree with him that there's no proven connection between looting and dodgy collecting or they will discipline him for making unjustified and false statements. It seems an ideal opportunity to wrest control of the organisation from the grasp of those that so damage its reputation.

Paul Barford said...

Perhaps the ACCG can send him on a fact-finding mission to locate the elves' cave rather than spreading misinformation about artefact-hunting.

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