Wednesday 27 May 2009

US collectors start a "fund to assist British Museums"

Following a comment on this blog on 19th April Canadian coin dealer Robert Kokotailo suggested on the Moneta-L discussion list which he moderates setting up a fund to help out British museums purchase treasure finds. It has now been announced that the coin trade lobby group the ACCG has established such a fund. It is to help provide funding up to 500 GBP to small museums in England and Wales that wish to purchase local finds of ancient (ie, pre- Anglo-Saxon) coins which have been declared Treasure in terms of the 1996 Treasure Act. As we all know, the ACCG wishes to propagate the “British system” of portable antiquity laissez-faire worldwide and this is apparently their way of saying "thank you" to the Brits for showing the way... The ACCG says their motive is that in Britain:
Many small museums have inadequate find purchasing budgets and although there are schemes such the Headley Trust which might award a portion of the price for purchases of ₤500 or more, amounts lower than this must be entirely raised by the local museum. If the museum fails to raise the money, the coins might be purchased by a larger museum and leave the area where they were found. Local museums will place such finds on display to be enjoyed by the local population. Many ancient coin collectors support both the Treasure Act and voluntary reporting systems in England and Wales and would like to express their appreciation by donating money to help keep some of these ancient coin finds in the area in which they were found.
What a shame the ACCG does not apply the same high-sounding ideals to the coins their members collect no-questions-asked from the Balkans, Near East and other regions and sold by ACCG-affiliated dealers. As for US collectors “supporting” the British system, we saw an example of this the other day… The true aim of the exercise is revealed by the statement that:
The Committee will post details of any awards and a link to the museum home page on the ACCG web site along with photographs of the museum and the finds.
This is clearly a propaganda exercise. The ACCG adds: "This fund will enable small museums to be able to display local finds without overtaxing their limited financial resources. It will serve the established goals of the ACCG to broaden its visibility among non-coin collecting groups and will provide a vehicle for collectors to "give something back in appreciation". Well, I suppose it depends whether small British museums want to be involved in “broadening the visibility” of the ACCG among non-coin-collecting groups in Britain and whether that would serve the museum's mission – particularly bearing in mind the ACCG's recent coin import stunt and its general and stated opposition to any heritage protection measures which may disturb the free access of US dealers to as many ancient coins as they want. (That's basically most of them.) Support of the US dealers’ lobby by British museums would therefore rather go against the 2006 ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums which sets out some principles regarding the market in natural and cultural property. Members of the museum profession (principle 8.5) are not allowed to support certain parts of it directly or indirectly. Basically while the ACCG has the stated attitude it does to coin imports and exports, British museum professionals cannot ethically participate in broadening its visibility. In any case principle 8.15 (Interaction with Dealers) of the same code states: “Museum professionals should not accept any gift, hospitality, or any form of reward from a dealer, auctioneer, or other person as an inducement to purchase or dispose of museum items...".

It's also a bit of a shame that in setting up this fund, the ACCG did not first find out more about the sequence of the Treasure process in England and Wales (if they find reading the material too much of a strain, probably one phone call to the British Museum would have been enough to sort it out). They ask for a document which is not produced at the stage when museums are being approached about their desire and ability to purchase a find, and they fail to realise that the small museums they want to "assist" are offered the finds after the larger national museums have decided not to acquire - so the stated aim of helping the smaller museum to prevent the big museums snatching them is a misunderstanding of the process. If neither big nor small museums express a need for the find, it is returned to the finder and landowner and may then legitimately appear on the market.

It is also interesting that ACCG members are asked to send their donations to the Executive Director, while the ACCG does in fact have a separate office of Treasurer, and it is to the Executive Director that applications for the fund are to be made. Odd. We are told that “Approval will be based on the availability of funds, the number of current requests and the importance of the find as described in the application”. The executive Director has recently announced that Robert Kokotailo, John Hooker and Zach Beasley have volunteered to manage the ACCG Museum Fund. So that's a dealer and collector from Canada, and a dealer from the US. Perhaps they could have co-opted somebody from the British Isles (perhaps from the museum world) to give more informed advice? But then of course they are not really doing this to further the needs of British society, culture or museums.

Nice though the gesture is, there is something vaguely neo-colonial about rich US private collectors providing funding for foreign institutions to help them realise their cultural mission. The sum offered is laughable, there are many individual coins (without provenance) listed on eBay and V-Coins (owned by the ACCG President) which are being sold for much more than 500 GBP. Many of the Treasure finds which museums are having to buy from treasure hunters cost much more than that. Britain is a comparatively rich country compared with many of those that current ACCG doctrine would force "the British system" on. Who is going to pay for the treasure rewards that introduction of a British Treasure act clone would engender in those countries? US collectors too? When all they can manage for Britain is "payments up to 500 pounds"?

Mr Sayles has no sense of occasion. Immediately under his announcement of the way the coin dealers and collectors of the US want to help Britain preserve its culture, he adds:
I'd also like to remind collectors and dealers that now is the time to send donations to the ACCG Benefit Auction. If you have a single coin or a group of coins, that no longer fit into your collectingscheme, this is the perfect place for them. All proceeds of the auction go to the legal expenses of challenging import restrictions that threaten our hobby.
That sort of talk will certainly not encourage British heritage professionals to feel comfortable beating a path to their door for some cash handouts, because those same restrictions protect the culture which museums are set up to curate and help protect, and it is the collecting hobby which wants these restrictions relaxed or removed that is the threat to that cultural heritage.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

That Heritagaction chap is a card:

"At least the US Dealers have effectively acknowledged that they realise Waynism DOES stink and reflects disastrously upon metal detectorists (and indirectly upon themselves)."

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