Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Roger Bland is not coming into this list telling collectors what they must do to collect "ethically".

ACCG agitator and dugup antiquity dealer Dave Welsh wants to use the Near Shrewsbury (England) hoard as some kind of test case and “and inquire (sic) into whether Mr. Barford's perspective regarding provenance is reasonable or sensible”. Of course it is.

It makes no difference that “coins such as these are likely (in most cases) to sell for £10 each or less on the average”. So do some meteorite chunks, and collectors of those manage to keep their provenance intact (some like Polish Pułtusk going back to the 1800s).

What actually is the significance of the “cost” here? Firstly a dealer sets the cost of an ancient coin or object. Its just a lump of (corroded) metal so if he wants to cost in another 25p for printing out a copy of the export licence and another 35p for the documentation of provenance, then the coin costs a 60p more. So what?

I think this has relevance also to Welsh’s insistence that any provenance registration be impervious to “counterfeiting or misrepresentation”. He maintains it is “not worth a dealer’s time” to place on record the provenance of a ten-pound coin. Obviously then replacing a less-than-ten-pound coin recorded as 1-GB-X-AJK 2139-0876 with the little nick in the flan between the M and P of “...TEMP” and the slight scuffing by the emperor’s nose by another illicitly obtained coin that looks roughly the same would be so much less cost effective. In any case, is Mr Welsh suggesting that a fellow dealer or a fellow collector would falsify such documentation? Why would they do that if the coin was from a legitimate source? Obviously this kind of manipulation and falsification is a matter for the trade associations who monitor the behaviour of their members (do they not?) it is not a problem that archaeologists should have to deal with.

Far from it being the case that “Mr. Barford has consistently refused to engage in any meaningful discussion of practical details” as Welsh alleges, there are numerous posts on various forums where in the past I have rashly attempted to do precisely that. As an example we might turn to Welsh’s own Unidroit-L forum where on a rainy Sunday Sept 30, 2007 I answered his “challenge” to present some practical details of such a record. Welsh obviously has a short memory, for at the time he obsequiously announced: "The detail is instead commendable, and is exactly the sort of thing needed for serious review and discussion”. I invite the reader to scroll down to the rest of the thread to follow how it quickly got out of hand with talk of soil acidity and other totally unrelated topics. This is always the way with the collectors and dealers when you try to talk to them sensibly and openly about difficult issues. Always the sidetracking. It certainly is not my fault that this discussion on the list Dave Welsh moderates (and of which he is the chief contributor) did not get anywhere meaningful.

But of course for coin dealer Mr Welsh, the practical details are not actually as important a problem as something else entirely. The only reason such discussions have got nowhere is the refusal of antiquity dealers and collectors to budge from the position that they have NO responsibility for the objects they trade in and collect. So, for them, the problem is that Barford’s:

approach has instead always been to attempt to thrust the entire burden of proving provenance back upon the collector and the trade that supplies collectors.
Welsh's standpoint is that since it’s the “archaeologists” who want this documentation of provenance, then its archaeologists who must provide the mechanism by which that provenance is recorded. Of course his clients the collectors agree with him, as he claims merely keeping track of where the items in his stockroom came from will make his prices skyrocket. (nota bene: my local grocer can tell me where the onions I bought were grown with no additional cost - can Mr Welsh's?). Anyhow Welsh concludes:
It seems to me that if the archaeological community cannot propose a sensible and practical approach to proving provenance that collectors and dealers should follow, which is economically feasible in the case of coins valued at £10 or less, they really have no right to criticize the collecting community for not being able to prove provenance.
This ignores one fundamental fact. This is that the ancient artifacts (in his case coins) coming onto the market pass through the hands of dealers and collectors, and not of archaeologists. It is usually the dealer that has first contact with fresh dugups from metal detecting.

It is also plain nonsense to say that the archaeological community have no right to criticize the collecting community for not being able to prove provenance. The global community as a whole, not just archaeologists, has every right to criticise the current no-questions-asked trade in antiquities which shields the trade in illicitly obtained artifacts. Every right Mr Welsh.

I mentioned that I wanted to ask Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, about what Welsh had said earlier. The coin dealer retorts crossly:
I do not believe the reason is that it is Roger Bland's responsibility to make such recommendations. Roger Bland is not coming into this list telling collectors what they must do to collect "ethically." Paul Barford is doing that.

Yes, I am. I think many of my colleagues simply don’t have the time for (or want the bother of) tangling with the likes of David Welsh in interminable word juggling all aiming to show that the no-questions-asked dealer in antiquities is the innocent victim of a nasty archaeological conspiracy against "collectors" ("out to ban them" of course).

Actually, making recommendations to artefact hunters and collectors about best practice is indeed one of the tasks of the PAS and has been since its inception. The PAS is not concerned about portable antiquities divorced from their context, but their value in their context, which is why in recording them, findspot is so important. I think if Roger Bland, busy though he is, were to come on any artefact hunting list and give recommendations about best practice in collecting, he would concentrate on exactly the same issues I raise. That is the issues of where the objects come from, establishing the vendor’s title to sell, and the legality of the transaction (see the PAS Advice for people buying archaeological objects from the UK and his advice would concern labelling and cataloguing the individual finds in a collection. Here is a fragment of the PAS website with such recommendations about labelling and recording provenance.

Everything in your collection should be labelled in some way, so you know when and where it was found. […] catalogue your collection, either in a loose-leaf file or using a computer database. Whichever you use, it is important to include a good photo or two. Then you can add notes on identification, find spot, conservation details, other examples etc. If you want to learn more, speak to your local FLO.
Any finds that have been through the PAS system have been registered (and by archaeologists), there is a unique number, at least one, often several photos and a description of the object. There seems to be no reason why a responsible collector should not give priority to acquiring such an object with documentation that it was disposed of only after responsibly reporting it to the relevant authorities. There seems to be no reason why a responsible collector acquiring such an object should not want that information to be retained in the documentation of their collection, and accompany the object in any future sale. The information is documented in two places, a secure database, and a printout in ‘certificate/report’ form of the details.

The suggestions I made two years ago in the posts that Welsh denies exist envisage just such a system of paper records deriving from a secure database of a similar nature to the PAS one, the entries of which would be made as an object newly enters the market from an old collection or is recorded in a registered collection, or is a documented (eg by the PAS) find. That seems a perfectly reasonable proposition, not inconsistent with standards accepted by organizations such as the PAS and not inconsistent with responsible and ethical trading. So where are the objections coming from?

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