Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Enhancing the trade in ancient artefacts between Cyprus and the U.S.A.

Peter Tompa draws attention to a 2007 “proposal for the regulation of the trade in coins between Cyprus and the U.S.A.” sent to the US advisory committee, the CPAC by Princeton numismatic scholar Alan Stahl. This is intended to provide for a mechanism “so that American collectors who esteem the cultural heritage of Cyprus can buy coins minted or found there”. Well, since our attention has been drawn to it, let us take a look at it.

Obviously nobody would have anything against artefact reporting, recording and registration if they are from accidental discoveries (or archaeological excavations as Stahl suggests). That is after all what ratification of the Valetta Convention (Art. 2 iii) also requires. Cyprus has ratified the convention (April 2000).

Neither would anyone have anything against legal exports and legal imports of archaeological material which has previously been assessed as not comprising a loss to the regional archaeological heritage. That again is what is required by the Valetta Convention and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Art. 6)

What I simply do not understand however is why Stahl’s proposal suggests such a system should apply ONLY to “coins” (if not – according to the title of the document - only to coins sold to US dealers and collectors).

Neither do I see any mention of how Stahl (who has worked in Cyprus) envisages the legal basis of the measures he proposes. No reason is given why Cyprus should in this regard accede to the interventionist “needs” of US coin collectors (still less of the US advisory committee to whom this proposal was addressed).

More to the point, Stahl does not enlarge on what sort of “incentives” he thinks the Cypriot government would provide “finders”. He does not specify whether these incentives would be paid only to accidental finders, or whether artefact hunters and looters would also be rewarded. This is the key question, whether the measure is to provide a means of conserving the resource, or whether paying artefact hunters simply results in the acceleration of its exploitation as a source of state cash handouts.

Neither is it explained whether in Stahl's conception it is only “finders of coins” who will be rewarded, or whether finders of pots from tombs, diggers up of statuary, mosaics and frescoes also.

More to the point, in making this “proposal”, Alan Stahl does not state where he envisages this money coming from, perhaps from the “licensing fee” American collectors would pay to buy coins with documented provenance and legally exported? How high would that have to be to cover even part of the payouts then?

All in all, as a workable proposal, Dr Stahl’s suggestion is poorly constructed and in any case addressed to the wrong body. It is thus totally unclear why Peter Tompa regards it as so noteworthy.

The odd thing is that it has at the basis the notion of coins being exported with export licences, which Stahl suggests US coin collectors would be respecting. So what is the difference between that and the current imposition of import controls which mean that only coins from Cyprus with the requisite documentation are imported legally in the US? On the other hand, we have seen that in fact not all US dealers and collectors give a hoot about such things even when such systems are operational, as the “English dugups” on sale over there showed.

Proposals like this from collectors and dealers of portable antiquities and their “partners” and supporters suggesting how others (“archaeologists”, the governments of source countries) “should” deal with the problem of looting and smuggling are a substitute for action by the milieu actually responsible. The problem actually results entirely from the fact that large numbers of collectors of portable antiquities (US collectors especially, and US collectors of ancient coins notoriously) are for the most utterly careless about establishing the legitimacy of the “dugup” objects they purchase and possess. Even if all foreign governments set up systems like that Dr Stahl proposes, there is no guarantee that all collectors would respect them, indeed we have seen there is ample evidence they would not. Proposals like this are however a smokescreen for inaction within the artefact collecting community.

But there is something here I do not understand. Since Dr Stahl says he has worked as an archaeologist in Cyprus, he may be expected to know the legislation involved. There is an English translation of the recent antiquities legislation of the Republic of Cyprus here. From it (Articles 3, 4 and 5) it turns out that Cyprus already has a system for dealing with accidental finds (including licences for the finder to retain objects not needed for museum collections and payments for those that are) which is similar to that which Dr Stahl suggests Cyprus "should adopt". It has had it for some time. I presume the CPAC (as part of investigating the Cypriot request) would actually know this, the question is, why did Dr Stahl suggest otherwise? Why does lawyer Tompa think it is so noteworthy that Dr Stahl suggests Cyprus adopt a system that is already embodied in Cypriot legislation?

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