Monday 15 March 2010

What is wrong with the ACCG "Newcastle paper"?

The text I summarised in the post above perhaps really does not deserve much attention, and I am well aware that in discussing it I am drawing attention to it. On the other hand, perhaps we should be paying attention to material like this and analyzing what the writers are and are not saying. Perhaps drawing attention to it will prompt people to look more carefully into the real motives of the groups behind it.

This text was written for presentation to an international audience at an academic (archaelogical) conference. The title declares this text is about "Coin collectors" and "cultural nationalism". What neither it nor the introduction to the text says is that the article is actually not at all about coin collecting or coin collectors as a whole. It is all about US coin collectors, but then not even all of them, but the minority who collect dugup ancient coins derived to a disturbingly large degree from the illegal and damaging exploitation of archaeological sites in foreign countries. In this respect the title is wholly misleading. It is important to realize what a small minority this vociferous group is - both in US society as a whole, as well as in the US coin collecting community as a whole. There are many million coin collectors in the US, collecting for example wheat pennies and state quarters, but (ACCG estimate) at most 50 000 collectors of ancients, probably much less, in a country with a population of 309 million. The authors of this paper however presume to speak for all coin collectors.

It is a widespread stereotype of the average North American that their worldview is dipolar, "them and US". Despite the fact that the question discussed is an international one and the paper was written for delivery to an international audience, this comes over very strongly in this text, to a degree that is intensely annoying. The authors paint a totally "US"-centred picture. The double meaning is intentional, this is a chauvinistic view that the entire outside world should bow to the demands and interests of the US and each and every one of its citizens, and also a very self-centred view ("me, me! I wannit and by hell I'm gonna git it"). There is detailed presentation of US laws (carefully pointing out they oblige the US citizen to nothing), while all others outside are merely dismissed as unworkable. There is talk of US institutions (the writers' own ACCG central among them) but no mention of any outside groups working for collectors elsewhere. This is odd, given that this text was produced for an audience on the Continent. An audience which will by its very nature - the conference was attended by metal detectorists - have contained many collectors of ancient and medieval coins. This text contains zero acknowledgement of that fact.

Likewise the title suggesting the article was going to be discussing "cultural property nationalism" is equally misleading. Nowhere is the author's concept of what this entails is actually defined. This seems on the one hand somewhat lax of the authors who seem to get lost in their own verbosity. On the other hand it is a convenient ploy as it means the noun and adjective "Nationalist" (with a capital N) can be used pejoratively with impunity to cover all sorts of groups in opposition to the no-questions-asked market in dugup archaeological material whom this band of indiscriminate collectors of dugups do not like.

If we ignore such rhetorical use of the term and examine the text carefully, it can be seen that the whole text is in fact built around a critique of a single document and it is with reference to that which the term is defined.

The document in question is the 1970 UNESCO "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property". For a group of North American dealers, this forty year old document which most people in the international arena see as a beneficial (if not always very effective) step forward from the nineteenth century is what the fuss is about.

The text presented by Sayles and Welsh to a British audience at Newcastle make clear, if one supports the aims of the Convention, if one agrees to the application of the measures it outlines, then you are according to the ACCG a "Nationalist".

So who are the nationalists? Well, I guess US military personnel who stop local criminals from smuggling artefacts out of Iraq which is against international accords compliant with UNESCO 1970 must be "Nationalists" then. US museum directors who in a recent statement accepted a 1970 cutoff date in determining ethical (note that word) acquisition practices, must be "Nationalists". US Customs officers, Homeland Security and FBI officers who in the course of doing their patriotic duty recover smuggled items which are then returned to the places from which they were illegally removed (for example Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Iraq) are also "Nationalists" by the ACCG definition. It goes without saying that Members of the Archaeological Institute of America are also "Nationalists" to a man (or woman).

So what about the member of the US military who ships his “souvenirs” of “ancient art” home from Iraq without paying any attention to the requirements to do so by the book? An “Internationalist”? Museums that buy freshly dug up Greek vases in pieces with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink and the earth still on them? “Internationalist”? Or (if such things exist) bent US Customs officers, Homeland Security and FBI officers who would turn a blind eye to an illegal shipment or two of antiquities for a “friend”? Why, “Internationalists” of course. Nice company ACCG coin collectors would like to keep!

Sayles and Welsh argue there is no need for any kind of treaty about giving back “stolen” cultural property when the very definition of what is cultural property can be challenged, and the notion of what is “stolen” is relative. The main challenge to whether dugup ancient coins really are cultural property however comes only from self-centred intellectually challenged transatlantic coin dealers and collectors, and the notion of what is “stolen” seemingly is relative on whether you are a victim of the theft or the seller of the items in question.

Let us be clear. People who break laws are not "internationalists", they are criminals. People who willigly or unwittingly do business with those who break laws are not "internationalists", they are people who do business with criminals. People who sell illicitly obtained goods mixed up with those obtained from more legitimate sources are not "internationalists", they are at best careless, always somewhat lacking in ethics and at worst complicit in criminal activity, whether or not they "agree" with the laws broken between the initial supplier and the shop counter.

Sayles and Welsh indicate why their Coin Collectors’ Manifesto is against measures taken to prevent the sale of stolen cultural goods:

“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".
The notion of “retentionist laws” are nowhere defined in the text of their Manifesto, such labels hark back to the rhetoric of the ACCP. What is meant are laws which vest in the state the option to determine the degree to which resources within that state's territory of certain types of material (cultural property is one kind, natural resources such as endangered species are another) may be depleted in order to manage them in as near a sustainable manner as possible. The ACCP and following them the ACCG regard states adopting such measures to take responsibility for the management of certain resources as in some way evil. The logic behind adopting such a position while glibly professing to be interested in advancing “preservation” is unclear.

At the end of their article Sayles and Welsh state explicitly “Philosophically (sic), the Guild [ie the ACCG] is global in perspective, yet respects the right of every nation to impose and enforce cultural property laws within their limits of jurisdiction”. So if the United States declares certain archaeological finds state property to protect them and the information they carry, then the ACCG respects that, and presumably would condem the looting of Native American collectables going on in various parts of the USA today. If England and Wales or Scotland impose state ownership on certain categories of cultural property (for example hoards of Bronze Age tool fragments in pots) to protect them and the information they carry the ACCG recognises the right for them to do so. If however it is Bulgaria, Greece or Egypt that wishes to protect archaeological finds in the same manner, for the coin collectors they are evil “Nationalists” and nasty “Retentionists”.

Sayles and Welsh however consistently throughout their article represent the problem as concerning protection of “objects”. This is typical of course, it is what they both sell as dealers. Ignoring their original context is part and parcel of the no-questions-asked market in dugup antiquities.

The concerns of the preservationists regarding the scale of the market in illicitly obtained artefacts is not so much whether or not the objects are sold on illicit markets within a country or wander to markets outside it, but the fact that the existence of a market for illictly obtained artefacts exists at all. The problem is that it is the existence of this market that renders viable the wholesale digging over of archaeological sites to exploit the archaeological record as a source to supply collectables. This is the problem which sixty pages of turgid antiquitist drivel fail to address properly even once, except that “coins come to the surface by themselves” so they do not really come from archaeological contexts. This seems a fairy tale as dubious as the one about the Coin Pixies, Coin Elven and Tooth Fairies.

In reality, all this talk about “Nationalists” is just a smoke screen. The American Council for Cultural Policy used it, James Cuno uses it, and now antiquity dealers Sayles and Welsh are using it as a convenient bandwaggon which they think will carry them across the muddy areas of the debate on the current state of the antiquities market. Their waggon however has encountered problems, that market is not the patch of brownish mud they would like us to think, but a big black dirty swamp in which these two writers up to their necks in. Together with them, so is every single collector of ancient dug up coins which they claim to represent.

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