Friday 30 April 2010

Where's the rest?

In his post Photographic Archives and Antiquities on Looting Matters, David Gill discusses investigation of the archives of just a few dealers caught with illegally obtained artefacts on their hands. These include the 4000 or so infamous photos obtained in the September 1995 raid on the Geneva Freeport premises of Giacomo Medici. These were presumably used by the dealer to advertise what he had on offer to interested buyers.
These images, some Polaroids, have been used by the Italian authorities to identify objects that have passed into public and private collections. By my estimate less than 1% of the items identified in the photographs have been returned to Italy.

So where are the rest? What kind of a business is it that has no records of the transactions beyond a pile of photogrraphs that might or might not have passed through the owners hands at one time or another?

I was reminded of a post on Moneta-L where a coin dealer is describing what he saw at the Chicago Coin Fair last week. While most of it concentrated on the aspects of the "shape of the market" like he was discussing the potato and wheat market in Wisconsin, there was one remark which gave pause for thought:
What I found to be very noticeable was a lack of Fresh hoards on the market. Thinking back, I don't recall seeing any significant new large groups of coins, and most of the smaller groups were remainders from groups that have been around for several years. The one exception would be a group of Alexandrian 1st and 2nd century tetradrachms, but even those have been around since at least late last year.
There are two points here, the casual mention of "fresh hoards" rather belies the oft-repeated (Petrarch collected coins) mantra that the majority of the coins on the market come from the splitting of old collections. Here we see that in previous years US coin fairs like this are the medium by which the coins from "fresh hoards" taken from "source countries" are introduced on the market. Secondly how can coin dealers say that they cannot provide provenances for the coins they sell because they never know where they come from? Here we have a case which shows this is a lie. The dealers selling and those buying coins from those "fresh hoards" know they were found in a group in a particular place. The provenance is attainable in thse cases. How many of the individual coins from that "group of Alexandrian 1st and 2nd century tetradrachms" are now identifiable as such scattered in ephemeral personal collections from sea to shining sea in the USA?

What is clear is that there are indeed cases where the provenance or part at least of the "collecting history" of individual objects could be traceable - the fact that isnot is because dealers do not care enough about this to make that information availble. Or perhaps there are "good reasons" (sic) to hide the information where an object actually come from. The way to curb the market for illegally obtained artefacts is for collectors to interest themselves in the hygeine of their acquisitions and make it clear to dealers that fudging the issue of the origins of the finds they offer no longer has a place in today's ethical and responsible antiquities market.

Drugs, Guns and Dirt

There is a revealing article by Samir Patel a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY (,'Drugs, Guns and Dirt', Archaeology Vol. 62 Number 2, March/April 2009) about the collecting of portable antiquities in the US. In particular it stresses how:
the locus of archaeological crime in the Southwest and across the nation is shifting into the world of drugs and guns. It is a far cry from the traditional, familial world of pot hunters and metal detectorists.
It is suggested that there has been a broad shift from the treasure hunters of the 1960s and 1970s to the profit-motivated commercial looters of the 1980s and 1990s (both still significant problems in the US). The meth connection represents a third phase, it is looting with no knowledge or regard to the objects being taken, the purest commodification of the past.

A case is discussed of a raid by federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service on a "trailer" (many Americans it seems live in caravan parks) outside Grants, New Mexico in April 2004 caught a dealer who traded in both meth and antiquities. The BLM case agent for archaeological crime in New Mexico had earlier received a tip about the theft of some illegally owned Anasazi items had been stolen from a private home. Officers quickly identified the thief and"flipped" him, that is, they got him to help catch the person who had bought the objects through a 'sting' operation. As the agents stormed the trailer in which the transaction took place, the suspect ran out the back. When stopped at gunpoint by the cover team waiting there he asked them, "what are you guys here for? Are you here for the meth?".

In the trailer raided in April 2004,
agents found a pound and a half of meth (with a street value of a few hundred thousand dollars, depending on how it was cut), at least five loaded firearms, and 16 pounds of marijuana. On the kitchen counter, where he cut meth for sale, and on shelves around the house were at least 30 or 40 intact prehistoric Anasazi pots. "You could seewhat he was doing his business in," says [Agent N]. "This was the perfect example of how the drug trade has overlapped with the illegal artifact trade".
The article states that most New Mexico cases "come from the poverty-stricken trailer parks of Farmington, Bloomfield, and Aztec in the state's archaeology-rich northwest corner". An agent identified only as "N" says that history buffs aren't his targets: "All I've been dealing with is tweakers," he says, using the slang term for methamphetamine addicts, who loot sites for artifacts they can sell or trade for more drugs". Law enforcement officials in the Southwest even have a term for those who combine tweaking and digging--"twiggers".
Blythe Bowman, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has been studying archaeologists' experience with looting and has found reports of the same drug-related archaeological looting in the US not just from the southwest, but reports came in from California, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oregon, Georgia, and other places. She surmises that
The energizing and obsessive effects [which meth produces in an addict] make it fun, almost pleasurable, for tweakers to do the tedious work of artifact hunting. They have the steam to wander sites and dig holes for hours, the focus to scan the ground closely,and the compulsive need to find more and more. According to those who have spoken to twiggers directly, the ability to sell artifacts seems almost secondary to the addictive thrill of discovery. It makes them the perfect, tireless looting workforce.
it also makes them sound like British metal detectorists, does it not?
"Because of their obsessive behavior, according to Glenna Dean, former New Mexico state archaeologist, they tend to "hoover" sites, pick them clean in ways that more discerning looters would not. Online auction sites then provide a market for any stray bits of history that turn up. Because long-term meth use leads to agitation and violent behavior, and because of the ubiquity of guns in the Southwest, the discovery and policing of looting has become more dangerous.
US portable antiquity collectors suggest that the way to "stop looting' is for archaeological authorities to guard archaeological sites more carefully and enforce laws more strictly. Convictions for archaeological crimes are difficult to obtain even under the best circumstances. Federal officers are spread extremely thin across the Southwest and there are hurdles to making a case, such as proving that an artefact was illegally taken from federal land. Once a suspect in drug-related crime is caught, looting offenses take a back seat to drugs charges - violators of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act face two years in prison, but only if the value of the artifacts exceeds $500, while drugs and firearms carry much steeper penalties. These factors all mean that in the US there is little additional risk for a tweaker or drug dealer to diversify into the antiquities trade. In addition many (including as we have seen judges) still regard looting as a victimless crime. In the Southwest, in the drug trade, antiquities are what a stolen car stereo might be in New York- an untraceable commodity of the criminal underground. As Patel observes:
Artifacts can be looted from remote public lands near impoverished communities with acute drug problems, and there is an infrastructure of shady galleries and trading posts that can "launder" them for sale.
Well, of course this is not just the case with Anasazi pots on the US market. The international trade in antiquities, including to the US, is one of the sources of revenue for organized criminal groups from eastern Europe, the Near East and Far East, and these goods are "laundered" through an infrastructure provided by the no-questions-asked market in unprovenanced antiquities which most antiquity collectors worldwide frequent. It is to preserving the anonymity and lack of transparency of this market that allows this to continue that US collectors' advocacy groups such as the ACCG are devoting their efforts and resources.

While in America's southwest, "a kind of strange synergy is developing with meth in particular that puts every archaeological site and collections at greater risk", elsewhere in the market the same kind of synergy has developed between dealers and the law breakers who supply part of the indiscriminate market with all manner of illegally dug-up and illegally exported collectable archaeological artefacts.

Bulgarian Raid on Antiquities Ring

It has been announced by the police directorate in the city of Sliven that Bulgarian police have identified a ring of men handling illegally excavated archaeological finds in an operation in Sofia and the eastern town of Stara Zagora (
Novinte: Bulgaria Police Capture Archaeology Treasures in Crackdown April 30, 2010). Officers from the Unit for Combating the Traffic of Cultural and Historical Items of the main directorate for fighting organized crime (GDBOP), seized a number of invaluable archaeological finds that the men had been hiding (Map Stara Zagora).
The police searched two locations in Nova Zagora where they found over 500 ancient coins, jewelry, medallions, ceramic figurines and vessels [...], a bronze head – all from the period of Ancient Greece, Thrace and Rome. In addition, the police discovered several artifacts dated back to the Middle Ages, “of high historical and artistic value”. A man who is known to be a treasure hunter and dealer of antiques has been detained...
Apparently in relation to this, the police searched at several addresses in Sofia where they seized two ancient ceramic vessels, 9 silver Roman coins, an ancient bronze application with a silver image of Medusa, and a metal detector.

The photo of finds seized in Zagora (from Novinte) shows the interior of a residence (not one would have though a hovel of a starving jobless peasant 'subsistence digger') with what seem to be seized antiquities and antiques laid out on a naff coffee-table by an even more naff late (?) communist period sofa [like my mother-in-law has in Poland] on which are polybags and other items. Is this the scene which the police met in a sting operation - goods laid out for purchase, or is this a photo of the police account-taking? On the table can be seen some rhytons, large oil lamps, the handle of a large metal vessel and othe items, but also a figure supporting a globe (surely not ancient) some militaria (sabre and odd spear-head, surely not ancient either) as well as the mechanism of a clock. I suspect that not all the 'ancient' items in the photo are in fact authentic dugups.

Photo: The archaeological treasures seized in Nova Zagora by the Bulgarian Police. Photo by Interior Ministry

Thursday 29 April 2010

Heritage action: Five years on, Where's the change?

In a thought-provoking and colourfully illustrated post on the Heritage Action blog, the question is raised how far liaison has got us since the diasterous 2005 "Near Avebury" commercial metal detecting rally ("a crass and vulgar grabfest dedicated to “self” and a denial of the existence of “society”...").

HA asks what has changed in Britain since that much-criticised event.
"After all, everyone was assured at the time that things would change. Both detectorists and PAS explained over and over that all that was needed was patience. Everyone needed to stop complaining about the damage, jump on the train to Liaisonville (as PAS put it) and trust PAS to offer detectorists understanding and education and outreach and liaison – and some more understanding – and definitely no criticism – as a result of which, very soon, more and more and more of them would see the light and become “responsible” rational citizens that recognised that their interests were as nothing compared with the interests of society and would start to regulate their own behaviour accordingly. In other words, they’d start to act like other people.
HA points out that five years on there are no fewer commercial metal detecting rallies in North Wiltshire. Those five years have seen the publication of a Code of Responsible Detecting.
Trouble is, although it’s centrepiece is the assertion that to be responsible you have to report all your finds to PAS, PAS’s own statistics clearly indicate most detectorists still don’t – despite PAS regularly re-jigging the basis of calculation to make things look better than they are. No change there then – after five years most detectorists are still not responsible as defined, they are still knowledge thieves, plain and simple.

HA points out that some Guidance on Rallies has been published, a belated acknowledgement that these events are extremely damaging
The problem is, the guidance doesn’t say what it should – don’t hold rallies, they are vandalism writ large – it merely offers some obvious suggestions that no-one with a conscience wouldn’t be doing already. Worse, some less-than-archaeology-friendly rally organisers are using guidance compliance as a marketing ploy. Crude bellicosity towards archaeologists and an endless succession of adverts for scores of rallies effectively saying “meet at the layby on the A1 and we’ll pilot you to the unpublished venue” hardly instills confidence in such rallies does it?

One other thing that has certainly happened over the past five years is that PAS staff
have spent 1800 days outreaching, educating and persuading detectorists so some of that must have rubbed off. Or has it? This very day, a few minutes drive from the place where the Near Avebury detecting disaster took place the Colchester detecting society is holding the Foxham Rally – which is depressing enough since it shows no progress has been made, but worse, they are holding it on pasture that has remained undisturbed for 100 years, this being in direct defiance of both the Code of Responsible Detecting and the Guidance on Rallies. Why? Because they haven’t heard it’s not acceptable? Hardly. The hapless taxpayer has spent millions of pounds and more than a decade trying to get that message through their skulls. Presumably then, simply because they want to and they can.

HA identify the profound flaw in the “persuasion, education and liaison strategy” that Britain alone has adopted, which they gracefully admit "might not have been obvious at the start" (hmmm)but forcefully point out "it certainly is now". Like all antiquity collectors, "You can inform the majority of detectorists what’s right till you’re blue in the face, but you can’t get them to do what’s right if they find it more self-fulfilling to do what’s wrong". The PAS database statistics, or looking in on collectors forums or talking with collectors clearly show the correctness of what HA are saying. An objective look at this evidence will show that attempts to deny this by labelling HA as "ignorant amateurs" by artefact hunters and collectors and their supporters in the archaeological world in Britain are just name-calling.

So is that it? Nothing has really changed over the past five years? PAS still liaising, most detectorists still helping themselves and North Wiltshire still subject to a self-serving pestilence? Pretty much. Except for one thing. Detectorists have used the extra five years provided by the liaison policy to lift another 1.44 million artefacts from the record, mostly without reporting them. How many is that? Well think of Wembley’s pitch. It wouldn’t be big enough to lay them all out. Britain is utterly barmy say know-nowt amateurs.
Vignette: commercial artefact hunters' base camp between a field of rape and a White Horse, says it all really.

From Torrington Place to Print


David Gill's October 22nd 2009 London lecture ( Looting Matters Goes Live in Torrington Place ) is now available in pdf for those who could not attend. It is called "Looting Matters for Classical Antiquities: Contemporary Issues in Archaeological Ethics" and is published in the journal Present Pasts volume
1, 2009, 77-104. It is a well-resourced and well-argued paper, nicely illustrated too. Well done David.

Present Pasts is the journal of the Heritage Studies Research Group at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

For Antiquity Collectors, Only "Size" Matters

Coineys are crowing:
The results are in -- The ACCG/VCoins free fax campaign comes in first with nearly 2,000! Well done everyone! Second place is SAFE's campaign which sent in half of that number: The gargantuan AIA with its 200,000 membership limped home in third place saying "Thanks to your response, the AIA sent in hundreds of letters...":
Obviously the ACCG thinks "size matters". The issue is whether 2000 barely articulate messages consisting of bits cut-and-pasted from a prepared script mean anything much to the CPAC when many (most?) are protesting against something that is not on the cards ("all Roman coins as Italy's heritage" as opposed to "ancient objects being exported from Italy"). Actually as any coiney who can actually read can check, the "1000" SAFE posts mentioned on the website are nothing to do with the 2010 MOU extension, they were from the 2005 campaign (the webpage is clearly dated)! In fact the AIA and SAFE gave the direct address to the CPIA, no need for any "fax wizard" (allowing the host to both count and vet any messages sent). Neither SAFE nor the AIA felt the need to count how many of their members were towing the party line, something this post suggests is so very important in coin-collecting circles.

Note the "VCoins" at the head of the post.

Vignette: In this photo by Andres Monory, Ms Amy Gullabel, ACE Latin Teacher at the Gengis Khan High School for Girls, Madison, WI shows how many faxes she sent through V-Coins ("the really ethical website") to show how she felt about Italy wanting help with curbing illegal exports of archaeological material.

Dealer SS wants to Bring Pressure on University Archaeology Departments

Following ACCG board member Dave Welsh's dismissal of the value of the archaeological record, on the "Unidroit-L" discussion list (which Welsh just happens to own), a fellow coin dealer calling himself "SS" suggests creating "an organized campaign to impact archaeologists, or at least AIA members", where they live. He surmises:
Perhaps officers or the most rabid retentionists tend to cluster at certain universities, or certain archaeology departments may have adopted anti-collector policies in some way, or are more involved than others in the political aspects of this. Is there a "worst case" institution that could be made an example of?
The University of Cambridge (McDonalds Centre) comes to mind. SS suggests
"Many alumni would be collectors of antiquities, coins, museum patrons, or simply intellectually honest and liable to be appalled at the radical archaeologists' actions and motivations, if they knew of them.[...] How practical would it be to launch a campaign against donations, or grant funding, or other sources of succor for a university as a whole, to bring pressure to bear on the political hotheads in the Archaeology department?

This of course has been tried, in 1922 onwards in Russia and in 1948 in Poland and other countries of the eastern bloc where pressure was brought on the political hotheads in archaeology departments. The ones who did not see the world in the black and white required by the group who persecuted them. This kind of suppression of academic freedoms of course well suits a group who calls itself the "Internationalists". We have seen how closely the rhetoric of no-questions-asked coin collecting so-called internationalists matches that of another group of Internationalists several generations ago, now it seems "SS" wants to follow them in more concrete action. What next? FEMA work camps for cultural property preservationists? Maybe a book burning (as here: world history goes up at 1:30)?

Coin Dealer Dismisses the Importance of the Archaeological Record

Let me just highlight a statement from that last post which seems to me to be very revealing. Coin dealer Dave Welsh submits that the preservation of the archaeological record is not necessary for preservation of national cultural heritage and adds that:
The argument that the stratigraphic record is somehow essential to cultural heritage has now been taken very far beyond its true merits, and it is past time to get back to reality and cease this unjustified attempt to disguise the interests of archaeologists as altruistic devotion to preservation of national heritage.
So let us get this clear, Mr Welsh says that the antiquitist study of ancient artefacts taken FROM the archaeological heritage is essential to the study of the ("internationalist", "cosmopolitan") heritage, but the actual archaeological record is not. For collectors and dealers like Welsh, it does not matter where the selection of aestetically pleasing and collectable decontextualised pieces of archaeological material come from, or what destruction was caused and information lost getting them on the market. The potential knowledge thus destroyed is, he argues, "not essential" to anybody's heritage, least of all the antiquity dealer I guess.

I think it would be hard to find a more explicit statement of commercial philistinism in the twenty first century.

Photo: relief believed to be an ancient Philistine, many antiquity collectors would add this to their collection if only it could be prized off the wall and taken out of the country - thus appropriating the Philistine heritage as their own.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

The ink had hardly dried: Coin Collecting "and that blog"...

Coin dealer Dave Welsh complains that "the ink had hardly dried upon my post about a letter from the Italian Numismatic Society opposing addition of coins to the existing MOU with Italy, before a sneering comment appeared in a certain fanatical archaeologist's blog". Since he gives no link for readers of his post to check what was being discussed and in what tone, I expect most coineys are at a loss to know what he is on about. As am I, because (as the link shows) this particular archaeologist was commenting on what Peter Tompa had made public on his blog rather than Welsh's clumsy repetition of it on a couple of collectors' forums. (Why not actually give a link to this blog Mr Welsh? Scared that coineys might read it?)

In his post, Welsh urges:
It's time for all concerned (including the US State Department) to understand that a degree in archaeology does not make anyone an expert in numismatics, cultural property law or the relevance of ancient coins to any nation's cultural heritage.

I think it is time for all concerned (including the US State Department) to recognised that having an accumulation of decontextualised bought-and-sold little pieces of ancient bric-a-brac does not make anyone an expert in numismatics, cultural property law or the relevance of the archaeological record to the cultural heritage in general. According to Mr Welsh, the preservation of the archaeological record:
is not necessary for preservation of national cultural heritage, nor is it part of the rationale justifying enactment of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Actually part of being an archaeologist (as embodied in the type of Code of Ethics discussed here earlier) does indeed require knowing the legislation concerning cultural property in the region in which they work (in my case the EU) or have dealings. I would have said that this applied to an ethical dealer and an ethical collector of archaeological artefacts. As Welsh observes, I am not an expert in numismatics, just as I am not in palynology, dendrology, malacology, petrology, metallurgy, sfragistics, the typology of Greek Red-Figure vases, nor can I read hieroglyphics. This does not mean that I, or anyone else for that matter similarly unskilled in these disciplines, cannot assess the relevance of the results of the work done by those who are on ancient material. The study of the past through its material remains is a multidisciplinary activity, and it would be a rash scholar that would suggest that just one discipline can take over from all the others. But that is exactly what the coin dealers and collectors are saying that "numismatics" (aka coin collecting) should be allowed to do. I simply cannot agree for a number of good reasons that this is a reasonable proposition.

Welsh adds:
If archaeologists want to address preservation of the stratigraphic record as something of vital importance to society, which justifies restrictive legislation affecting existing rights of detectorists, coin collectors and others whose activities they view as dangerous to their interests, the fair and right way to pursue that concern is to seek legislation addressing preservation of the stratigraphic record. The argument that the stratigraphic record is somehow essential to cultural heritage has now been taken very far beyond its true merits, and it is past time to get back to reality and cease this unjustified attempt to disguise the interests of archaeologists as altruistic devotion to preservation of national heritage.
I agree totally with Mr Welsh, that in the face of the many threats with which the surviving fragile and finite portions are faced from many quarters, there should be stronger legislation everywhere addressing preservation of the stratigraphic record, legislation such as Italy already has. I think nations such as the US should come to an agreement with other nations to help uphold the legislation that exists to protect sites and to punish unethical traders who do deals with law breakers. Will the Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild be willing to help these efforts, or will the no-questions-asked dealers within the organization not permit them?

Vignette: Logo of the Società Numismatica Italiana cocking a snook at the legal coin trade?

Italian Businessman Urges US not to Stop Illegally Exported Coins at Border

Just to prove my suggestion that there must be something in the corrosion products of dugup ancient coins (fungal spores or a volatile metallorganic salt yet to be identified by science) that affect their owners' mental capacities, we now this on Peter Tompa's blog: Italian Numismatic Society Opposes Potential US Import Restrictions on Coins. In a letter sent (we presume before the closing date for such public consultation - though this is nowhere stated and the letter itself is undated) by the Società Numismatica Italiana they have stated that they are opposed to the USA ancient coins in the Italian MOU. Tompa gives its text so there is no need to repeat it here. Most of it however is the usual stuff on "how wonderful the Società Numismatica Italiana is" (75% of the text, 315 of the letter's 490 words) and "how wonderful coin collecting is". There is not a mention even that the SNI regrets the looting of ancient sites in Italy to provide the market. It also talks most of the time of "coins" rather than specifically "ancient coins" - and there is of course a difference between collecting the pre-1860 coinage of Italian states like Genoa and Greek and Roman Republican etc. coins dug out of ancient sites.

The president of the SNI, Ing . Ermanno Winsemann Falghera writes that they urge the CPAT to "reject the restrictions to the importation of Italian coins in the name of the free trade principle that regulates trade flows within the EU as well as most countries in the world".

This is very odd, and what makes me wonder if numismatists generally (or just those interested in dugup ancient coins) have a problem with assimilating and collating facts. The SNI is not, it is true, a trade association like its American counterparts, but its members should be aware of the law concerning artefacts excavated in their own country. The INS confuses trade within a territorial and administrative region and movement of items between them. So of course the SNI should be aware that by exporting coins to the USA, their members are not exporting them "with the EU", but outside the EU. It may come as a surprise to some of its members and affiliated groups, but the United States of America are not part of the European Union. Thus the numismatists are at best mistaken thinking that this comes under internal agreements about free trade within the EU. The requirements for export licences of cultural property are set down in Council Regulation (EEC) N°3911/92 which deals with the export of cultural goods ensuring uniform controls at the Community's external borders. The Guidelines for administrative co-operation between the competent authorities lists (in Annex I, here) the categories of goods covered by Community Legislation for which an export licence is required. Archaeological material is at the top of the list -regardless of financial value.

The Società Numismatica Italiana seems to have been misinformed about what the MOU will cover. Their President writes at the end of his letter: "It is precisely with the free exchange of goods, of ideas, of initiatives and of cooperation between institutions, that the cultural progress of numismatics has been made possible and that it has grown to today’s sophisticated standards and reach". Nobody is restricting the free exchange of ideas, initiatives and cultural cooperation between institutions, nor goods as a whole. What the MOU already restricts is the movement of illegally exported items. I really do not see how any "discipline" can pride itself on achievements gained at the expense of working with law breakers and on the basis of illicitly-obtained material. Surely Ermanno Winsemann Falghera s.r.l. in their international activities in the textile industry both within and outside the EU abide by export laws? Why should the trade in antiquities in fact be any different?

He then ends by reminding the CPAC that "most of the public collections that we can today admire and study in museums" derive from private ones. "Had a ban on the commerce of ancient coins been raised, that would have, de facto, hindered their making with a fatal detriment to the cultural treasures we can share and enjoy today". Italy of course since 1939 has had a law which makes archaeological artefacts state property, yet this seems not to have prevented Italian museums acquiring enough coins for its display and study needs. As for the US, the Metropolitan Museum sold off its "shared and enjoyed" ancient coin collection donated by private individuals to buy some looted antiquities from Italy.

What is difficult to comprehend is that coins illegally excavated and illegally exported to the US are being removed from the Italian market. Why would the SNI condone that when it represents Italian collectors? The only thing I can think of is that with the low value of the dollar recently, Italian collectors may be buying coins originally illegally exported from their country of origin (including Italy) from US dealers, thus having them conveninetly 'laundered' for collection by the porous border control system over there. A receipt from a distant US dealer is enough to make the goods legally collectable in the EU, even though they were originally obtained illegally. Obviously any move to restrict illegal exports coming into the US will adversely affect the number of illegally obtained coins available from there. If this is the reasoning behind this letter, this is really a less than honourable reason for the SNI to oppose the US tightening up antiquity imports.

UPDATE: I wrote to the boss of Ermanno Winsemann Falghera s.r.l. posing these questions and asking whether he applies the same approach to his own dealings in the textile market towards measures intended to support Italian interests against exploitation by unscrupulous business practices. He declined to reply. I guess we can take that as a "no". So why should the ancient coin industry be any different? I guess that is a question he could not answer.

Vignette: Aequitas gives the world the finger: logo of the Società Numismatica Italiana. Reminds me of something, but I cannot quite put my finger on what...

Bonhams: Anglo-Saxon Stone Withdrawn

Looting matters: Earlier this week The Guardian carried a story drawing attention to an Anglo-Saxon stone that was due to be auctioned at Bonhams today (lot 286). Now the following statement has appeared.

Lot No: 286W "This lot has been withdrawn".
Good. Along with the privilege of owning ancient objects come responsibilities.

There was a lot of public pressure and also from the Council for British Archaeology and the Church of England.

Bonhams is getting a lot of adverse publicity this week.


Tuesday 27 April 2010

Guardian: Roman sculptures withdrawn from auction

Bonhams has been getting a lot of attention this week in connection with today's sale of antiquities. Dalya Alberge ( Roman sculptures withdrawn from auction amid fears they are stolen , Guardian Tuesday 27 April 2010) has an article in the Guardian about it. "Archaeologists remain concerned about illegal trading of antiquities and some believe insufficient checks are carried out into their provenance" - only "some"? I think the lack of transparency in dealings in all kinds of dugup antiquities is a fairly general concern these days. As Lord Renfrew, the eminent Cambridge archaeologist, warns "such sales are maintaining London's reputation as a clearing house for looted antiquities". He called for auction houses to identify the vendors of antiquities. "That would be a step towards clarifying the problem," he said.

The piece is about the four statues spotted by David Gill which have recently "surfaced' on the market and look to be of eastern Mediterranean origin (possibly dug up in Syria or northern Greece). The auctioneer Bonhams soothes that:
"Whenever a serious question is raised about an item's provenance we withdraw it from sale pending an internal investigation. We take rigorous care to ensure that we only sell items that have a clear provenance".
Perhaps since Britain has legislation covering dealing in tainted cultural property, the investigation should not merely be an "internal" one, but the relevant authorities should actually come into action.

The use of the adjective "rigorous" to describe the "care" taken to ensure that the vendor only handles "items that have a clear provenance" is questioned by Gill in several recent posts on his Looting Matters blog. If the provenance is established with suich rigor, why are items such as these statures now being withdrawn if it was an easy matter to establish that they do NOT have a good provenance - and why is the information ascertained not made public? In fact Bonhams reveals the depth of its "rigor" in the statement of their spokesman who said that the firm sends its catalogues for scrutiny to the Art Loss Register to ensure that only items with clear provenance are sold and "if they raise issues, we also withdraw items" (also?). But then as any undergraduate knows, the Art Loss Register only deals with stolen items, and does not list previously unknown items that have freshly arrived on the market from illegal excavations on archaeological sites.


Taking the Fight "to The Other Guy's Turf"?

Vaseline supplier to the ACCG Richard Giedroyc makes some astonishing claims in Coin News this week (" ACCG Addresses Antiquities Group ). Apparently there is an "ongoing effort to protect coin collectors and museums in which coins are stored from being forced to give up these items to foreign governments under the premise the coins are the cultural patrimony of the claimant nation". Shockingly: "there are organized archaeological groups" (so a sort of archaeological mafia I guess) "that are against the private ownership of all such items, supporting the concept all antiquities including coins should be returned to their place of origin or discovery, but to date the United States has yet to become a signatory to any agreement that would destine many coins now in private hands to be returned to such countries as China, Cyprus, Italy, Greece, and Turkey that have actively made such demands" (Phew, eh?). What an odd thing to say, when all these countries require is that objects are legally exported. Giedroyć omits Egypt which unlike the countries he names really does want (almost) "everything" back. I guess scare-mongering is in the blood of coin dealers these days and a disregard for the truth of the matter too, never mind, no ancient coin-collector reading that will challenge the statement.

Giedroyc soothes that the "museums and collections" have a protector. It is the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild which "has become a driving force in the ongoing effort" (yaaaay!).

Giedryć says that the presentation of the paper "Coin Collectors and Cultural Property Nationalism" at the Portable Antiquities: Archaeology, Collecting, Metal Detecting conference in Newcastle upon Tyne was done in order to take the fight to the “other guy’s” turf" (the CBA and University of Newcastle are the "Antiquities Group" mentioned in the title of the piece I presume).
The big question now is if the groups opposing private ownership of antiquities who were at the conference took the ACCG paper seriously enough to consider its recommendations.
Certainly if Welsh and Sayles of the ACCG were expecting to have been taken seriously at this British meeting, they should have thought harder about the format of the text they prepared and its message to the intended audience. This turgid Americocentric anti-CPIA rant really cannot have been calculated to interest a single British artefact hunter or any of their British archaeological "partners". In particular US claims to bits of everybody else's heritage jangled with the ideology of British artefact hunting which is that what is being "recovered" is "Our Heritage" - so no less "nationalistic' in its fundamental principles than what the ACCG is criticising (indeed many artefact hunters turn out to be fiercely nationalistic in their outlook and politics, not a few of them on the forums give the impression of being fully paid up members of the BNP). Likewise while the text opposes nations instilling export controls over antiquities, there is not a single argument there which addresses the issue that Great Britain has export licence controls just the same as any of the other source countries which "internationalists" Sayles and Welsh say should have none (to facilitate free flow of artefacts onto the US market). Sayles did not address the question of why Britain should abandon this requirement for finders of archaeological artefacts wishing to sell them abroad. Likewise the paper wholly skips the implications for its general thesis of the question of the difference between English and Scottish law, which is odd because it speaks of the "UK approach" as a model the US and other countries should follow.
Vignette: Collectable cowboy, a Louis Marx figure.

New Code of Ethics for British Archaeologists

The Code of Conduct of the British Institute for Archaeology (former Institute of Field Archaeologists) amended at the EGM held during the IfA's Conference in Southport on 14 April 2010 and the revised version has been published. This is of interest as it was Rules 1.6 and 1.7 of Principle One which are those which were altered, and these refer to the sort of situations which arise when archaeologists are working with artefact collectors.

Anyway their original form [update of 10 February 2009] was as follows.
Principle 1
The member shall adhere to high standards of ethical and responsible behaviour in the conduct of archaeological affairs.

1.6 A member shall know and comply with all laws applicable to his or her archaeological activities whether as employer or employee, and with national and international agreements relating to the illicit import, export or transfer of ownership of archaeological material. A member shall not engage in, and shall seek to discourage, illicit or unethical dealings in antiquities.


(a) The member should also consider his/her position in respect of seeking or accepting financial benefit on his/her own behalf or that of relatives in relation to the recovery or disposal of objects or materials recovered during archaeological work.
(b) A members (sic) must ensure that:

1) they do not knowingly permit their names or services to be used in a manner which may promote the recovery of archaeological material unless the primary objective of their work is to preserve the scientific integrity of the total site archive in a permanent professionally curated and publicly accessible collection, and unless provision is made for its study, interpretation and publication
2) they do not enter into any contract or agreement whereby archaeological or curatorial standards may be compromised in deference to commercial interests
3) so far as excavated material is concerned, they do not encourage the purchase of objects in any case where th
ey have reasonable cause to believe that their recovery involved the deliberate unscientific destruction or damage of archaeological sites, and that they discourage the sale and consequent dispersal of excavated material
4) they do not encourage the purchase of objects where there is reasonable cause to believe that recovery involved the failure to disclose the finds to the proper legal or governmental authorities.

1.7 A member shall abstain from, and shall not sanction in others, conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation in archaeological matters, nor knowingly permit the use of his/her name in support of activities involving such conduct.
Note that 1.6 talks about encouraging the "purchase" of objects without mentioning "collecting" which surely is the point. This version of the Code seems to be still embedded in the 1970s when most artefact collecting was by purchase rather than going out in the muddy fields with a metal detector.

In the updated version some quite substantial changes have been made.

In place of the original text of 1.6 we now have:
1.6 A member shall know and comply with all laws applicable to his or her archaeological activities whether as employer or employee, and where appropriate with national and international treaties, conventions and charters including annexes and schedules [deleted: " and international agreements relating to the illicit import, export or transfer of ownership of archaeological material. A member shall not engage in, and shall seek to discourage, illicit or unethical dealings in antiquities"].

The notes have all been deleted and in part incorporated into principle 1.7. The new 1.6 now widens the scope of international charters, treaties and agreements, such as the 1954 Hague Convention, but also therefore the Valetta Convention - some of whose principles the UK has rejectd (Article 3 for example - but then "where appropriate", so you have to comply, but you don't really have to comply I suppose).

1.7 A member shall not knowingly be employed by, or contract with, an individual or entity whose purpose is the sale of items excavated and/or recovered from archaeological contexts and where such sale may lead to the irretrievable dispersal of the physical and/or intellectual archive, or where such sale may result in an undispersed archive to which public access is routinely denied.
Note: Members may be employed by or contract with, or participate in, projects approved by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The bit from 1.7 about dishonesty/fraudulent claims (a la "Tomb of Jesus" type nonsense) deleted from the original text is now 1.8 ("A member shall abstain from, and shall not sanction in others, conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation in archaeological matters, nor knowingly permit the use of his/her name in support of
activities involving such conduct").

The new 1.7 puts the archaeologists who get involved with treasure hunting firms like Odyssey in their place. It also however is a real kick below the belt though for anyone else working with metal detectorists on commercial artefact-hunting rallies, where artefacts are sold off by the landowner to all comers. An archaeologist's agreement to come along and facilitate the legitimisation of this artefact hunting by recording the finds of any detectorist who feels like showing them is indeed "contracting with" the entity doing the commercial artefact hunting. The IFA code codifies what I have been saying for a long time, participation in this activity is against archaeological ethics. This seems to me likely to be a direct result of the fuss that blew up over the Water Newton rally, a dispute the IFA were called upon to adjudiate. I'd still like to see something more explicit about collecting of antiquities - can a British archaeologist legitimately be a collector (of dug-up ancient coins from Bulgaria bought on eBay for example)? In the current pro-collecting climate in the UK, this seems to me to be a question well overdue an answer.

But hey, what is this? If John Brown MIFA, fictional archaeologist from Newcastle polytechnic was to agree to go along to "record finds" on a metal detecting rally, he'd be unethical according to the IFA Code of ethics. But if he first signs a contract with the PAS (or participate in a "project approved by the PAS"), the same activity is somehow not as archaeologically unethical? What nonsense is this? This recognises that what the PAS does is de facto outside archaeological ethics.

This is very odd. In any case, what are these "projects approved by the PAS" and on what basis does the PAS suddenly become the arbiter (through approval or witholding approval) of ethics binding on IFA members although it is itself outside them? We seem to be coming close to that thorny question of so-called Responsible Artefact Hunting. Also, does this mean that the PAS should now be seen as arbitrating good practice of projects in Scotland and Northern Ireland or anywhere else an IFA archaeologist may be working, but where the PAS has not so far actually had a remit to cover?

Monday 26 April 2010

Egyptian Archaeologists dig up Fake Coins?

ArtDaily carries an Associated Press article of 23rd April 2010 (Egypt Finds Hoard of 2,000-Year-Old Bronze Coins) which states that: Archaeologists unearthed 383 bronze coins dating back to King Ptolemy III [...]. The coins were found north of Qarun lake in Fayoum Oasis 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Cairo. [...]The objects will all be displayed in the new Egyptian museum under construction near the pyramids of Giza. The rest of the text is gap-filled by telling the reader what the word "Ptolemaic" means.

The article is accompanied by a photo of "Some of 383 recently-unearthed bronze coins. AP Photo/Supreme Council of Antiquities". What is odd about this, apart from the way these finds have been stacked in a finds tray rather than being bagged by position in the hoard, is that the coins are all the same, and... fake. This is a box of tourist fakes.

So has the Supreme Council of Antiquities made a supreme idiot of itself, demonstrating that "archaeologists do not know anything about coins"? That is what the coineys over on Moneta-L believe. The most charitable suggestion over there was that fakers had buried a hoard to get a "realistic patina" and the hapless and ignorant archaeologists did not recognise it was a modern hole and thought they were dealing with authentic ancient coins.

Another explanation becomes much more likely when we look at a second article published by the Associated Press a day earlier (Hoard of 2,000-Year-Old Bronze Coins Found in Desert Oasis, Fox News, 22 April 2010) , also accompanied by a photo captioned "Some of the 383 recently unearthed bronze coins, [...] AP Photo/Supreme Council of Antiquities". These also show cast fakes of Ptolemaic coins, this time imitations of coins bearing the portrait of Arsinoe, the wife of Ptolemy II, and quite different from the homogeneous array of coins shown in the other photo also purporting to be photos of the coins from this hoard supplied by the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The article seems to be illustrated with stock photos of "some" ptolemaic coins (or what the people supplying them said were ptolemaic coins). I doubt whether they really were suupplied by the Egyptian SCA, and it is quite clear that those putting the articles on the internet have no idea what the coins from this hoard look like, they merely wanted to fill in a space on the page with some pictures of coins.

Anyway that is 238 ptolemiac coins dug up that will be kept together as a group and will be available for study by real numismatists in the future instead of being scattered by the indiscriminate market with all the fakes bought as authentic to geegaw collections in Wisconsin sitting rooms.

Photo 1: "Some of 383 recently-unearthed bronze coins. AP Photo/Supreme Council of Antiquities". Photo 2: "Some of the 383 recently unearthed bronze coins, [...] AP Photo/Supreme Council of Antiquities".

Portable Antiquity Not Glittery Enough to be a National Treasure

Those collectors and dealers who claim Britain has the "most sensible antiquity protection legislation in the world" would do well to look at another item in the controversial Bonhams antiquity sale. St Pega's Hermitage, Deeping Road in Peakirk, Northamptonshire is a grade-2 listed residence converted from a chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew (as often happens in the case of redundant historic places of worship in Britain) . This stands on the site of the cell of a seventh/eighth century saint St Pega (d. 716, a contemporary of the Venerable Bede). When the chapel was converted to a private dewelling along with the property came a loose fragment of stone. The new owner Nick Evered has for the past eight years kept it in his sitting room:
"It's attractive," he says, but not the sort of thing he would go out and buy; and he could do without the responsibility of looking after it, insuring it and showing it to the occasional visiting scholar. Selling it seemed a good idea.
He assigned the piece to Bonhams – where it is due to be auctioned on Wednesday – and was 'surprised' by the storm that would blow up (Mike Pitts, 'Save Our Saxon Cross Guardian 25th April 2010).

This artefact is now 'Lot number 286W', a rectangular block of limestone covered in winding carvings of beasts and foliage, which is part of a free-standing cross that once stood to commemorate St Pega, England's first known female hermit. This is a good example of the work of the important Peterborough school of Anglo-Saxon art, and one of very few sculptures of this school that can be linked to a place whose significance in Anglo-Saxon times is known.

Graham Jones, an Oxford University researcher and student of early Christian saints, says the stone is "part of the core historical heritage of the country". The property from which it comes is however not a scheduled site, the object is not made of gold or silver or part of a metalwork hoard, so does not fall in the rather narrow definition of national "Treasure" of the current British legislation. The act applies to metals, not limestone. This object therefore is not offered any kind of protection by British law and the owner is at perfect liberty to do as he wishes with it, including breaking it up and making it into hardcore for his new greenhouse if he so desires. Nevertheless, it does form part of the complex of monuments - though is not (now) fixed to the ground, it is a "portable" antiquity, and thus up for grabs.
So what is it doing in a saleroom – from where it could in theory end up anywhere in the world, and, as academics most fear, disappear from public view? [...] The best that we can hope, says Story, is that the buyer will keep the cross locally and make it accessible. However, Peterborough museum is unlikely to be able to afford it. The stone has a guide price of £7,000 to £9,000, but telephone bids have already exceeded that estimate. Evered, who finds himself cast as the villain, says he had no idea of the level of interest in the stone, "was never selling it for the money", and has inquired about withdrawing it from the sale. But to do so could lead to a consignment fee of more than £9,000.
Private ownership of antiquities as a form of curation has one large pitfall, the present "carer" will not live for ever, the present "carer" may after a while tire of the geegaws in the sitting room and stop "caring" about them. Mr E claims he's "not interested in the money", but neither it seems did he think too hard about putting the object in the curation of a public institution, such as the local museum. Thus it is that another privately owned artefact another antiquity that is portable enough to make it to the saleroom, is threatened with going off on some more wanderings through the shady underworld of the market in "ancient art" when it properly belongs either in the monument of which it formed part, or a public archive where it is accessible for study by all.

See also: David Gill, Save the Anglo-Saxon Stone! So what is it doing in a sale room? and vote in his informal poll.

[Now this has worked before], maybe the ACCG as part of its propagation of the benefits that accrue from the private ownership of pieces of the common archaeological heritage should start up a fund to save this piece from disappearing into a foreign collection. About 16 000 dollars should be enough.

Vignette: the house which Mr Evered does not want to keep an Anglo-Saxon cross fragment.

"Not About the Money"

There is a Telegraph article, in the News Topics, "How About That" section, about former bricklayer Peter Beasley who quit his job in 2003 to spend more time searching for ancient artefacts. The keynote of the article however is how much money he has made from it. According to the newspaper, he has uncovered more than £500,000 of treasure with his metal detector."He has sold a Roman pendant worn by Caesar (sic) for £30,000 and is selling a Norman ring later this year with a guide price of £80,000. His biggest sale was a haul of 250 Roman coins found in fields near Petersfield for £100,000 to the British Museum in 1996".

But of course "it's not about the money" is it? Mr Beasley told the reporter: "I just love exploring and it is all about the discovery. I came into this business as a hobby to keep me out of the house but it is serious. I am fascinated by the history of our land and it is the buzz of finding something it is a great feeling to dig something up that you know is hundreds of years old".

Obligatory mantra number two is then duly trotted out: "Of course I have found an awful lot of tat down the years, moles' teeth and countless pieces of scrap metal, but you have to keep going – it is an obsession."

Beasley began the hobby 1979 when a work colleague sold his metal detector to him for £80 ("after he fell down a well on a dig"). "Within two years he was regularly finding coins and other artefacts dating back to Roman and Norman times, most of which have been given back to the farmers who own the land as a thank you present".

Apparently he digs for six hours-a-day, three days-a-week on fields close to his home in Waterlooville, Hants. That's some 930 detecting hours annually. We are not told how many of those finds he has made have been reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Searching the name Waterlooville on the PAS database produced no results, from the surrounding district (Havant) we find 212 records of reported finds, but 189 of which are coin entries imported from the "Celtic Coin Index" and mostly from metal detecting on Hayling Island. So apart from these, the PAS database has been enriched by 23 items from 930 detecting hours a year since 1979. Oh, and Mr B. has pocketed part of the 500 000 quids worth of coins and other bits the state has forked out to have stashed away.

Beasley admitted to the reporter that he still rues the find that got away when he unearthed a Saxon shield, spears and a skeleton while roaming fields at Clanfield. "After a dispute with the landowner he was banned from the 15-acre site, which he believes is home to a Saxon haul of jewellery and up to 3,000 graves worth millions". Grave robbing certainly pays in Britain eh?

Oh but there are compensations, Mr Beasley claims he has since stumbled upon another prize find,
"a six-inch square piece of lead discovered at the site of a Roman villa near Winchester with a grid pattern etched onto it. He believes it acts as a map for locating estates of Roman soldiers who retired to the south of England after fighting for the empire. "I have a theory that it can help me find anything, anywhere in Europe. "If it was to get into the wrong hands it could have devastating effects but I am determined to use it for the good of history."
Phew, eh? So that will not be being shown to the PAS then, in case they put the "map" in their database and others can see it and get there before Mr Beazley? (I can't find it in the database; so "using it for the good of history" means using it to get all the Treasure out himself perhaps?) Anyway, what's he doing metal detecting the site of a known Roman villa near Winchester. Does the Portable Antiquities Scheme encourage this? Why?
Photo: Peter Beasley, from “Portsmouth News” of 25 September 2008 ,

Antiquity Collectors Want to Recommend Changes in US Law

I reported here moves in the internationalist collecting community aimed at reviewing US accession to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It now seems that to ACCG board members Dave Welsh and Wayne Sayles, we should add Peter Tompa as being interested in conducting such a "review". This is of course taking the so-called "internationalist" position in antiquities collecting (otherwise known as the "what's yours is mine and what's mine is mine" position) to its logical conclusion. Withdrawing the US from the UNESCO 1970 Convention would not only be a public relations disaster for the country's antiquities trade, but the international position of the country as a whole. Not only then is such a move to bring disrepute on the US and its people and government potentially unpatriotic, but is a move calculated to weaken the concerted international response to looting of which the US is a part. Welsh however begs to differ. He says:
Despite the impression one might get from credulously reading a certain "toxic blog," the true goal of this review is a balanced and objective reappraisal. It is hoped that the result will be recommendations for legislation that would eliminate the problems that presently exist in US implementation of this Convention: - management of the CPIA by the State Department - unresolved conflicts between the CPIA, the NSPA and ARPA.
Well, he should really have included a link to the specific toxic blog he has in mind so readers can see the comments to which he is replying, it seems to me that there are so many to choose from that he is just trying to confuse his readers. But certainly this blog is 100% against any form of credulous reading. This is not a blog for credulous readers, this is a blog which throws down a challenge to credulous reading.

So for the incredulous reader there are two more "essays" by Mr Welsh to peruse now madse available on the Internet:
UNESCO 1970 Review III: Implementation of the 1983 CPIA and Bureaucratic Bias and
UNESCO 1970 Review IV: A Viable Model - Origins and development of the British legal regime
Now actually as anyone who has ploughed through its redundant turgidity and special pleadings will know, these are not so much "Dave Welsh's essays" as edited extracts from the ill-organized text "Coin Collectors and Cultural Property Nationalism". In fact these four essays comprise a large part of that text in fact. What is odd about this is that the latter is ascribed to "Wayne Sayles AND Dave Welsh" ("Ed."). So it is a bit unclear who is the author of which bit. Anyway the fourth "essay" (on Britain) includes huge chunks on Treasure Trove copied out of Wikipedia without any acknowledgement, and really should have said more about Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The ACCG dealers say they are only interested in making "recommendations for legislation that would eliminate the problems that presently exist in US implementation of this Convention: - management of the CPIA by the State Department - unresolved conflicts between the CPIA, the NSPA and ARPA". Well, as for the first of those problems (if such it is) the Convention itself (Article 5 and 14) has an answer - one the US ignored, but certainly one which would remove some of the inconsistencies in the US system and who would e a more appropriate body to be making legislative recommendations to the federal government than a group of ranting coin-dealers.

As for the gripe about the US being exceptional in its battle against cultural property theft, that really is a bit far-fetched, as Patty Gerstenblith noted:
given the accession of so many countries to UNESCO, the concerted international response requirement has been met. She also argued that the concerted international response requirement does not anticipate that other countries will apply restrictions in the same way the US does. Indeed, Switzerland is the only country that applies the UNESCO Convention in a similar manner as the US does.
Though other nations, including dozy old Britain could do a LOT more, to fight archaeological culture crime, it is actually a bit insulting for US collectors to claim they are the only nation to be out there doing this all alone. The Convention's articles 2-15 oblige all states party to co-operate in this field. Be it noted that the convention has an article 8, an article 10 and an article 13a and the US has signed up under each of them.

But then, let us see the ACCG "recommending" the US government that it should remove the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and replace it by new legislation modelled on the United Kingdom's nineteenth century laissez faire archaeological resources "protection" legislation, with its PPGs and all. Is that really the way US cultural resources management should in fact be going?
Vignette: cowboy collector ready to fight for his "rights" and "recommend" how the system should be changed.

Sunday 25 April 2010

European Pre Celtic Bronze Age Tea Cup 600 BC!

The no-questions-asked antiquities trade is a frustrating place, on the one hand one's blood boils when we see archaeological artefacts obviously freshly ripped from their contexts on sale to anybody who is not too concerned about the damage caused and selfish enough to want to buy them. On the other one's blood boils when faced with some pretty bare-faced cheatery and total ignorance among sellers and buyers.

I'm not sure which of the latter two categories to place this one. A British seller has an item on sale in his online gallery, he calls it a "European Pre Celtic Bronze Age Hand Made Pot 600 BC!". Now "pre-Celtic" is an interesting concept, sort of makes the primitive wonky pot on sale sound primevally attractive. I also had words in the past with this seller about some central European pot he was selling as "Bronze Age" which was Iron Age (or was it the other way around?), so "pre-Celtic" could be fluff term to avoid being specific.

The sales spiel is wonderful, conjuring up a vision of primeval forests and the noble savage struggling to control the environment. In the work on artefact hunting which I wrote with Nigel Swift we call this "narrativisation" and its an important part of collecting, but also marketing the goods.

So where does it come from? It was, the seller assures us "found in Germany near the Danube river", so that's anywhere along a 400-km long line... It also apparently was "Formerly in the collection of an English gentleman". Well, how could it be otherwise? (Are all collectors automatically "gentlemen"?)

The seller assures customers that his firm "employs a number of experienced consultants who specialize in authenticating ancient art to offer you the necessary protection". I think we all should know the name of the experienced consultant that authenticated the object shown in the photos as a "very rare, late bronze age Cremation pot or cooking pot", as it is clear they know next to nothing about Late Bronze Age pottery of central Europe.

The photograph shows a handmade vessel, yes. The vessel has clearly been bonfire-kiln fired, yes (it still has the ash on it). The form however is an imitation of a teacup on a raised footring. The fabric of this piece is nothing like that of ancient ceramics of the period and region suggested as its origin before it got to the "gentleman's collection". I challenge the seller and the consultant to show us a similar form vessel from an excavated Late Bronze Age settlement or cemetery with the same surface finish and fabric.

Any archaeologist who has handled any ancient pottery from central Europe will be able to see that this is a modern piece, it still has the ash on it, and clearly has never been buried in the ground, probably this was produced as "experimental archaeology" (maybe during an excavation as many archaeologists have had the opportunity to partake in). As such there is no reason why it cannot be collected, but it should not be being sold as an authentic Late Bronze Age artefact. With three days to go, seven people are bidding on this.

The seller is a well-known antiquities dealer from Cambridge and a frequent contributor to artefact discussion forums. He also has a large number of objects on sale which in one way or another I would categorise as "dodgy", misdescription being just one of the problems.

There is an awful lot wrong with the no-questions-asked antiquities trade in Britain and elsewhere, while dealers are unaccountable for the proper description of what they sell, and there is a total lack of transparency, they can get away with a great deal, like selling illicitly-obtained items, or outright fakes.

Photo: Eftis Paraskevaides' "Bronze Age teacup". Although he says the images on eBay are his "copyright" I'm putting them up here as a public service, and if he wishes to challenge it we can discuss how he ascertained that the object(s) he bought from the gentleman as antiquities left Germany legally, has he seen an export licence for this? Otherwise he could be culpable under the 2003 Dealing in Cultural Property (Offences) Act. Not of course if he knew it was a fake when he bought it, but then why is he selling it as something else?

Just Dealing with the Symes Stuff in Britain?

David Gill announces that he has been told by the Home Office that the UK Ministry of Justice has taken over responsibility for handling the assets seized from the stores of Robin Symes rather than it being sold off by the Home Office.

UPDATE 30/4/10: It seems Mr Gill was misinformed by the Home Office, the sale of this group of artefacts of dodgy origins is in their hands.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Iraq Museum Looting Remembered from Afar

Lawrence Rothfield discusses the systematic and well-organised looting at the Iraq National Museum in 2003 on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Artworks Feature: “Looting Iraq's treasures”. Here Michael Gurr interviews Lawrence Rothfield author of The Rape of Mesopotamia on the looting of the Baghdad National Museum. The programme also contains some robust comment from Donald Rumsfeld. More than 15,000 artefacts vanished from the museum collections onto the black market, going to the dealers and buyers who are desperate to own some of the world's most ancient artefacts. And no-one, it seems, lifted a finger to stop it. Seven years on, while the Iraqis may well remember, around the world, the media has a short attention-span. This, combined with our own 'disaster fatigue', means that by now the sacking of the Baghdad Museum is pretty largely forgotten. Although the programme focussed on this, in fact looting on the archaeological sites scattered across the whole country in the aftermath of intervention aimed at destabilising the country and toppling its regime was arguably many times worse than what happened at the museum. It's estimated that perhaps 100,000 to 400,000 collectable artefacts have been ripped out of the ground, mostly between 2003 and 2006. To put that in context, the total holdings of the museum, which inventories everything excavated since 1924 until 2003 was only 170,000 items.

You can listen to the programme [here].

There is an interesting comment on the evacuation of the Kuwait Museum by the Iraqis in the face of the US-led invasion of Kuweit in 1991.

What the looters are looking for

From an article I am writing for a volume of collected texts on treasure hunting (anti- of course!) which is taking me a long time to finish, I thought I'd just post up a little bit which might be of wider interest:
The commercial diggers are clearly interested in specific types of material. Typically of the antiquities assigned to European cultures in antiquities section of the US-based eBay for example most are Roman. On 1st April 2010, 7121 European antiquities were being offered for sale, 66% of them were listed as “Roman”, 11 % were listed as “Greek”, and 18% as medieval. There is a tendency for the artefacts sold to be those of decorative type, in particular those to which ethnonyms can be applied (apart from "Roman" and "Greek" we commonly find “Anglo Saxon”, “Viking”, “Frankish”, “Avar”). The figures for the ancient coins being offered on the same day were similar, 69% were Roman coin lots, 15% ancient Greek ones, 6% medieval coins and 4% Celtic coins. Many of the Roman category were “bulk lots” of lower grade Roman coins (sometimes mixed with other artefacts) which are clearly the products of the selection of the better finds from the large-scale stripping of metal objects from targeting Roman sites.
This is of course what last year's Nighthawking survey in Britain found, illegal artefact hunting was targetting in particular Roman sites, full of whole or broken ("partifacts") metal objects, personal ornaments galore, coins and other such commercially viable, because collector-attracting, geegaws.

I suppose it is not so much "what the looter is looking for" but "what the dealer is looking for because it sells well".

The US Antiquity Market to become a Den of Thieves?

As I have discussed on this blog, the US-based Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has been strenuously attempting to fight the extension of the US/Italy Memorandum of Understanding restricting the import of illicitly exported cultural property from Italy into the US.

This mechanism of combatting the flow of stolen cultural property into the hands of US antiques and antiquities dealers is based on the (Convention on) Cultural Property Implementation Act of 1983, which is intended to implement the measures of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

It has been an uphill battle for the ACCG, as we saw here the only way they could drum up support for the opposition to the extension of the MOU was by deceiving collectors about what was on the cards which was - they must surely be aware - counterproductive.

Having perhaps realised they had lost that skirmish in what the ACCG has declared as the "cultural property war" the antiquity traders that run the ACCG, Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh and Missouri coin dealer Wayne Sayles are in agreement that there should now be a reviewing of US accession to the 1970 UNESCO Convention itself. Since laws created on its basis are proving uncomfortable for the no-questions-asked coin trade, they are contemplating persuading the US government (the one they are in the process of suing) now to abandon any attempt at "Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property". This suggestion has already received support on at least one artefact hunters' discussion list.

In order to aid the upcoming discussions Welsh is even preparing "a series of essays setting forth the present situation". The first ("UNESCO 1970 Review I: Overview of US Cultural Property Law") attempts to show that US laws on cultural property are a "shambles" and actually work against what "congress intended". The second text published this morning ("UNESCO 1970 Review II: History of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, its ratification by the United States, and enactment of the 1983 CPIA") gives a potted history of the US accession to the 1970 Convention (repeating in part what it says in the ACCG manifesto on Cultural Property Internationalism, suggesting what the original destination of these texts was intended to be). In this text Welsh argues the case that the manner in which the US implemented the 1970 Convention went against what Congress had intended... (see a pattern emerging here?).

What Congress intended, according to the ACCG is that only "significant" archaeological finds were supposed to be covered, but the type of "common and inexpensive" archaeological objects traded in their thousands by ACCG affiliate and V-Coins dealers in the US were not intended to have any protection whatsoever. The ACCG claim that there has been a conspiracy of those nasty law enforcement agencies in cahoots with archaeologists to subvert the original intention of Congress to include any looted, stolen and smuggled archaeological artefacts. This is why, the two ACCG conspirators now feel time is right to discuss US withdrawal from the convention (let us recite the title again so everybody is quite clear what it is that they want to get rid of and consider why that might be: "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property"). This is just a nationwide extension of the scandalous Wisconsin "Collectors' Rights Declaration".

What kind of "rights" are being claimed by what sort of "collectors"? What about the 90% of US antiquity collectors who are not members of the ACCG are they going to stand idly by as the ACCG attempts to lead US antiquity collecting into increasing international disrepute?

I think part of the problem is that the US of these collectors has no ancient culture of its own, they seek bits of culture from far-off lands to call their own. Nevertheless the land where they now live does have ancient cultural roots, and the traces that are witness to it are protected by laws (as well as the UNESCO 1970 Convention) so it is very odd that Welsh in his essay on cultural property legislation cited above mentions none of it. And yet it is an integral part of the US response to looting and illicit trade. One which these dealers choose not to recognise. Nevertheless, in any proper public debate on cultural policy, these measures should also be included to put other countries' attempts to protect their heritage among other things by international agreement into context.
Vignette: Clearing the Den of Thieves (Rembrandt)
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