Monday 15 March 2010

ACCG "Newcastle paper": US Collectors Versus the rest of the World

Ancient coin dealers Wayne Sayles and David Welsh have edited a 61-page documement about "Coin Collectors and Cultural Property Nationalism" which was specifically prepared by the US Ancint Coin Collectors' Guild (ACCG) lobby group for the Newcastle Conference on "Portable Antiquities: Archaeology, Collecting, Metal Detecting" held last weekend. To judge from subsequent discussion on UK metal detectorist forums, the paper did not create the best of impressions. It has to be said that as texts go, this is a pretty awful example of how not to present an argument. When we teach kids to write we tell them to first identify the audience whom they are addressing, think through what they want to say and how, and then to plan the text carefully. The character of this text shows that Sayles and Welsh (henceforth S&W)have done none of these things and produced for their audience a rambling text full of duplication and superfluous detail - not to mention the crooked reasoning one expects from them.

The authors claim this is their own work though the style and content of one section quite clearly is written by John Hooker. Other bits are culled directly from the internet without being sourced. Typical schoolkid essay stuff then. So much for the scholarship of the "professional numismatists". The organization of the text could have done with a much firmer editorial hand, for example referring the reader to readily available information (the US CPIA, the story of the PAS etc) would have cut its volume considerably.

I expect I will return to this text in the future, I've made a list of "quotable quotes", but here I thought I'd like to just run through its structure, while keeping my own comment to a minumum. This is what I make of it, the reader can of course plough through its turgidity themselves.

The purpose of the paper (p. 3) is stated as to “highlight [two] divergent points of view and explore the political background that has brought adherents of those viewpoints to a sphere of open hostility”.

The first section purports to “define culture” (but actually fails to do so), and Contains the “Article 1 lie”. S&W strenuously deny however that there is such a thing as national culture. Their text identifies two groups called (after John Henry Merryman 1986 “Two ways of thinking about cultural property”, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 80) “Cultural Property Internationalists” and “Cultural Property Nationalists” (with a capital N). One is good (because the authors claim they are in this camp) the other we are led to understand is evil (but it is never defined why). Cultural Property Internationalists include advocates of the encyclopedic (“universal”) museum, question-free market in antiquities and unregulated private collecting. The “Nationalists” “include retentionist states, nationalist leaning archaeologists and ideologically inspired “preservationist” groups". (Incidentally the term "retentionist states" is not defined for the reader. Are not all preservation groups inspired by some kind of ideology"?)

The prevention of theft, clandestine excavation and illicit export seems innocuous enough, until one places the concept within the framework of a nationalist state with retentionist laws where all cultural objects can be, and sometimes are, declared property of the State. Through the repression of personal property rights, any export without a state permit is thereby rendered illicit and any private possession of cultural objects without a state permit is considered theft".
I'd like to return to that fragment of the text in my next post as it is quite crucial to putting S&W's arguments in their wider context - one they themselves ignore.

The second section (pp 4-14) is labelled “Cultural Interests” and starts: “there are essentially five basic groups that intersect through an interest in cultural property. They are “Nationalist States and Institutions”, Museums, Dealers, Collectors and “Independent Scholars”. The fundamental thesis is that “these groups have a long history of cooperative effort, but that scenario is gradually changing, due, it is suggested to the “development and growth of cultural nationalism”. A potted history of the latter is given on p. 4 ( but this seems to be cobbled together from several online sources such as Pulimood 1986) Then there is a bit about “universal” museums (but of course since it does not fit the agenda, omitting mention of the original highly nationalistic motivation for their creation and maintenance, but totally and anachronistically misrepresenting it on p. 5). S&W then go on to mention “the Licit Market” (pp. 5-10). Of course there is nowhere any mention of the market in illicit artefacts as being one of those “basic groups that intersect through an interest in cultural property”. So it is that the authors attempt to lead their reader to believe that it is the licit market for portable antiquities which “is the most directly and aggressively challenged component of the varied cultural interests”. Here there then follows a trotting out of the usual lame arguments, lots of coins around (p. 7; Cf pp.16-7), they travelled far in antiquity, all that same old stuff followers of the debate have heard trotted out so many times before. This however avoids the question of how this alone makes any market "licit". There is something missing here, and it is a feature of the whole article that it is object-centred, rather than recognising the destruction of context is the issue. This is hardly touched upon. Of interest is a statement to the effect that no law compels the market to be more ethical than it is so it will not be (I expect I will be quoting that one later). Then S&W pass on to “Ancient coin collecting”. This is seen in terms of “ownership” and “pride” (“Is that a human trait to be denigrated?”). They tell us Petrarch collected coins, that collectors take great pride in displaying and publishing their collections and taking care of the coins in them. The leitmotif is that “one historically consistent thread in the evolution of numismatics […] is the mutually beneficial interaction between professionals and amateurs” this leads into the next section on “independent (sic) scholars and symbiosis”. This is pure John Hooker. In some golden yesteryear coin collectors “all had a very friendly relationship with other collectors, coin dealers, museum staff, archaeologists, finders of coins and land owners”. Some examples with much name-dropping are quoted. Apparently “most of the animosity against collectors comes from archaeologists who have little knowledge of numismatics” (p. 13).

This brings S&W to their third section Symbiosis in Jeopardy (pp. 14-7). This is caused by the fact that “some nationalist leaning advocacy groups have tried to repress cooperation between their members and private collectors or the associated trade”. Preservationists “led by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)”, claim the current form of the market encourages looting, which the authors hold is a view held only by a few “young zealots” while advancing the conspiracy theory that it could be the case that most archaeologists do not contradict this “for fear of professional sanctions by nationalist industry leaders” (p 14) [Eh? "Young zealots" or "industry leaders"?]. In any case, S&W argue that considering the sources of the coins on the market today and what processes brought them there and to what they may be linked is “an unproductive diversion from the real issues” (!). Ancient coins are not “an endangered element of cultural heritage” (p. 16).

The fourth section of the paper is a very long one about “Protection, Preservation and regulation” (pp. 17-35) which basically trots out some of the laws which stand in the way between the indiscrimiate collector of dug up ancient artefacts and his prey. [Interestingly the Archaeological Resources Protection Act nor the NAGPRA legislation very much in the news thse days are not discussed. Presumably, being US laws, these are not "Nationalist" enough to merit inclusion.] S&W write: “the philosophical notion that the past is owned by everyone comes into direct confrontation with the philosophy of individual property rights when the subject of controls over tangible objects is brought to a debate”. The authors (“Ownership or Stewardship?”) exhibit a totally object-centred perspective on what the preservationists are attempting to preserve: “coins and other common utilitarian objects have been wrenched out of their archetypal role in society and redefined as endangered cultural property”. S&W claim ownership rights trump any others, and anything which stands in the way of indiscriminate collectors establishing these rights to something dug out of the archaeological record of a foreign country and illegally exported to the US for sale is evil because “there is no law in the United States that prohibits the ownership of objects based on where they were found or how old they are”. From a US point of view, utilitarian objects like coins are not “culturally significant objects”. Anyway anecdotal archaeologists have buckets of coins “sitting in the dank basements of archaeological museums”. State institutions neglect custodial responsibilities. Spreading portable antiquities among collectors is claimed to be a solution. Private collectors produce reference works about the objects they collect. The “scrap metal recovery” mantra (p. 20) is trundled out.
Section B of this part of the text covers “Cultural Property Controls” and suggests that international efforts to regulate the movement of illicit cultural property in UNESCO became marked by the confrontation between “liberal democratic concepts championed by the United States and its allies” and “nationalist political perspectives championed by the Soviet bloc and supported by many newly independent post-colonial states” (p. 22). The wording of the authors conveys a lack of sympathy for post-colonial states seeking return of cultural property stolen from them - which given the origins of their own country is a bit odd. There then follows a long discussion mainly from a US point of view of the 1970 UNESCO Convention… (pp. 23-6) and its “implementation within European nations” and the “US Instrument of Ratification” (pp. 26-8). There then follows (as section C) a presentation of “American (sic) Laws Regarding Cultural Property” which they admit with evident relief is currently symptomatically “a confusing amalgamation of statutes and case law” (pp. 28-35). The CPIA is presented for some reason in great detail which seems totally superfluous. Section D is entitled “Stealth Unidroit” (pp. 35–37) [see here and here]. Section E (pp. 37-40) covers “American (sic) Case law”.

After that lengthy excursus into the nitty gritty of (part of) the legal situation of indiscriminate artefact collecting in just one country, the writers return to the main theme with an all-too-brief stand-alone fifth section (pp. 40-2) which purports to present “Nationalist Cultural Property Laws”, but in fact restricts itself to a selective summary of the legislation of two countries Greece and Egypt (the latter of which was in any case not a coin-using society throughout most of its civilization - why not Bulgaria and Iraq or Iran, since many coins on the US market come from these regions?) S&W conclude that punishment alone has not sufficed to prevent looting and postulate that it is unlikely that stiffening this repressive approach will succeed in doing so. [Actually I think there is evidence that they are wrong, but do not personally think this is the way to go anyway.] They also point out the “Failure of Nationalist Laws to reach the Man in the Street” claiming laws investing ownership of archaeological remains in the state alienate the public from its heritage (pp. 42-3), they claim “repressive laws” promote “Destruction or Intentional Concealment of Antiquities” (pp. 43-4). [These actually are not problems restricted just to countries with the legislation of the type descreibed by S&W.] The authors sum up their position on pp. 48-9:

Repressive laws that deny private ownership and personal rights may serve nationalist political objectives, but they are counterproductive in terms of preserving the very objects that they purport to protect. The cloistering of history and its remnants is essentially a reversion to feudal thinking where knowledge was considered a weapon. Public participation in study of the past and preservation of its artifacts is essential not only to the well being of society but to the success of scholarship on a broad range of topics as well. Preservationist efforts must be inclusive of differing perspectives and programs should be results based rather than ideology based. Preservation of the past is too important to be driven by parochial interests.
Totally incomprehensible in the structure of the argument is the (over-)long section on the “Ancient Coin Collectors’ Guild” (pp. 44- 9). It would have been enough to refer the interested reader to the website. [That is what they are for!].

As an example of the “public participation in the preservation of the past” the authors give a lengthy summary of England’s Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme (“A Viable Model, pp. 49-59). Given that in the conference at which this paper was delivered, this followed a whole morning of presentation of the these topics, it seems totally superfluous for a group of US collectors to come to the UK to describe British institutions when the people running it are sitting in the audience! [In any case the ACCG has shown time and time again in the past that it really has some confused ideas about what the PAS is and what it does, and what it says. It is nice to see however that Sayles and Welsh have at last sat down and read up about the latter in order not to make further gaffes.] They start their text off with a presentation of the old Treasure Trove laws which is basically an unsourced crib from Wikipedia unsourced crib from Wikipedia. The rest is the usual sycophantic stuff about the PAS which can be found everywhere.

Passing on to the “Conclusion” to this text, we find S&W suggesting once again that "the archaeology lobby" has a long term goal that would greatly restrict, perhaps even abolish, all private collecting of antiquities. The U.S. State Department was “by no means a fair or neutral body capable of evenly balancing the interests of U.S. collectors and the trade with those of the archaeology lobby and foreign governments” and had instead effectively become an ally of the preservationists which S&W find disgusting. This is what, they say, led to the formation of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild to lobby and advocate for collector rights.

Sayles and Welsh assure the British audience that “the collectors rights movement does not seek a confrontation, it seeks a solution”. It claims that the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme form a proven, well working system which “offers promise for a better future not only to threatened coin collectors of the United States, but to all the world. What has worked so well in Britain can work just as effectively elsewhere”.

I have already discussed this idea in this blog on the basis of Derek Fincham suggesting a similar thing, but will no doubt return to the topic later. simply disagree with such a notion which is highly simplistic and stuill fails to take into account the specific British social context within which the PAS "success" (if such it is) is situated. This cannot be ignored. Enough.

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