Tuesday 13 April 2010

Collector's View: Who Owns the Cultural Property From Italy?

To get an idea of the sort of frenzy that the current spate of ACCG misinformation is whipping up among collectors (see my earlier discussion) a good example is the reaction of one coin collector entitled “Who is the owner, who is the looter?” on the Moneta-L discussion list which I wanted to discuss at the time it was published a few days ago, but was otherwise distracted.

Anyone who has followed debates on heritage, collecting versus preservation will be aware of a whole load of books and articles with the theme "who owns?" Interestingly those written by archaeologists tend to conclude that "we all do" meaning it is a collective heritage which we collectively must take responsibility for, ensuring that it is preserved and studied by appropriate means for all to benefit from. For these writers, the heritage should be exploited wisely so that wide groups to benefit from it for as long as possible. Those "who owns" texts written by collectors tend to produce answers which basically come down to "WE do" - what belongs to everybody must belong to me too, can be (should) be acquired by individuals who are best entitled and equipped to "look after" it (in the sense decontextualised objects alone) - which of course is "me". Anyone who wants to preserve it in any other way than flogging it off on ebay or V-Coins is evil. For these writers, the heritage is there mainly for individuals to benefit from here and now, hang preseving the context of the archaeological record for posterity.

Anyway, the text under discussion is written by a Rabbi Tsvi Rogin, who is somewhat strident in his defence of property rights which is a common theme in much of the collectors’ writings. They bought it, it is theirs, no matter where it came from. A government that claims archaeological items which a collector like this one wants to collect they regard as a “thief”. According to Jewish law, “Buried treasure belongs to the person on whose land it is found or the one who finds it” (well actually that is not what it says in the Bible, but let us defer to the Rabbi). He then likens “these stupid laws” to gun control laws (another theme brought up time and time again). “Do not stop me, the innocent person trying to protect himself”, but stop the criminals “authorized by government fiat”.

The collector seems utterly confused about what the MOU regulates (though of course with the misinformation that is being put out by dealers, he is not alone in that). He seems to think that it is the “innocent collector” who is somehow having articles taken from their hands by these proposed measures. In fact what is proposed is that collectors should be able to acquire items from a pool which have verifiably been imported into the US by a process in accord with all applicable laws. The aggressive pose struck up by this author towards “the heavy handed governments and the leftist do gooders and all bleeding hearts everywhere” is therefore incomprehensible. The MOU has no effect whatsoever on “objects which I have bought innocently”. On the contrary, if applied, it would facilitate wholly innocent purchasing of this type of collected object, why can't collectors appreciate that?

The collectors’ community are rather sceptical about the notion of “cultural property” and deny that anyone should have greater ownership rights to certain types of it than the specific group to which they belong. If they are Spanish, but live in America, the artefacts dug up in Spain are somehow, some reason, their own especial heritage. If they have more money than a local purchaser, then it is their “right” to use that money to get what they want (so it is more profitable for a middleman who can get them there to sell ancient coins dug up in India in the US than at home). They also deny that groups inhabiting an area now have any rights to the artefacts found in that soil (here let us note the biblical parable that actually sanctions the opposite) because they see this not as a matter of power of place but blood kinship. The latter argument of the collecting community of course is a concept derived in a direct line from the ('volk') reasoning of the Nazis, the roots of the Ahnenerbe movement. Modern heritage management has for several decades rejected this approach in favour of the approach connected with regional heritage, a pocess wich has acceleated in the runup to the creation of the EU and its subsequent expansion. After all none of us are descended from Neanderthals, but Neanderthal sites should be covered by heritage protection measures and not bulldozed without record.

In accordance with the general collectors' attitudes toward dugup cultural heritage, in his discussion of the proposed Italy MOU renewal, Rabbi Tsvi has a long and somewhat controversial diatribe about why Italy cannot legitimately decide for itself what items dug up from Italian soil should leave the country:

As for cultural property and who is the owner: The thieving so called Palestinians have filed suit in Canada claiming that the Dead Sea Scrolls are their cultural property. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence knows that the Dead Sea Scrolls have nothing to do with so called palestinian culture. The Italians may be the heirs of the physical remains of Rome, but rome fell to invaders, and the current italians are the cultural heirs of the people who destroyed Rome, and therefore they have nothing to say in the matter. In the same way, the Taliban were not the cultural heirs of the Buddhists, whose statues they destroyed. The Arabs, who conquered Egypt and used the Sphinx for target practice are not the cultural heirs of the ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids and the sphinx. One could go on and on, but in most cases, even the concept is total balogne (sic).
Pretty astounding stuff. But also surely there is an illogicality here, the collector admits “the Italians may be the heirs of the physical remains of Rome”, but even so “the current [I]talians […] have nothing to say in the matter [presumably: of their export]”. It is precisely the fate of the physical remains which is in question. The Italians would like to be asked first if certain items (physical remains) from their territory can be taken away and sold abroad, while dealers (and it would seem some collectors) insist that it is their “right” to decide what dugup artefacts from different foreign countries they can and cannot buy, even if it is against the will of the people and government of those countries.* This is what they mean by collectors’ “rights”.

The post cited here is just one of a number which is typical of the primitive “take it from my cold dead hands” attitudes that one can find so frequently expressed in coin collecting circles, whenever the issue of coins as cultural property or provenance and looting are raised. For the record, its author was criticised on the collectors’ list but not in fact for the features I have commented upon. There have also been a number of more enlightened comments and questions raised by collector members of the same community, one of which I discussed in another post here today.

Here it is worth noting the admirable frankness and openness of the moneta-L list that it has opened its archives to all so that we may explore and debate what coin collectors think and say about their hobby and how it relates to the outside world and the real stakeholders of the items they collect – the general public. These collectors are proud of their hobby and want others to share in their enjoyment and treat their contributions as a source of nowledge. This warts-and-all transparency is not typical of the artefact collecting community as a whole, for example one of the largest groups, the Yahoo Ancient Artifacts community, like many UK metal detecting webgroups, closes its activities off from general public scrutiny so members of the general public who do not want to run the gauntlet of registration can only imagine what goes on in there.

How typical this sort of reaction will be found to be in the transatlantic collecting community after the frenzy of the first few days gives way to deeper reflection will be seen.

* By the way, if the ACCG deny that preserving the historical heritage of their country is not the will of the people there, let them publish a text on their website in Italian saying why they oppose the respecting of Italian export licences in the case of ancient coins.

Vignette: US poster arguing against gun control, similar 'arguments' are frequently applied by antiquity collectors against heritage preservation laws. [One's perception of this poster - like antiquities - depends on whether one owns one or not. For the record, where I stand, Do I want the right for me and my neighbours to own and cary firearms? No, the way people drive their cars here, I am glad they do'nt have guns too!]


Anonymous said...

The good Rabbi inadvertently raises a central issue:

“objects which I have bought innocently”.

What does that mean, to him and to most collectors? I'd hazard a guess it means "objects I have no reason to think are illicit" - and this, is it not, is the crux of the trade and the reason it's participants, even Rabbis, can tell themselves they are doing nothing wrong and causing no harm to others.

As we see it however, every collected item carries a risk it may have been looted and consequently an "innocent purchase" cannot take place on the basis merely that the risk is not evident, only that the risk has been investigated and eliminated. In other words, documentation and proof of provenance are essential, whether the supplier is a main dealer, an intermediary or a man with a spade.

Are the Rabbi's "innocent purchases" exclusively of the latter variety? Let us hope so else we at Heritage Action will be running an article next week titled "Rabbis are the true looters"

(Oh dear, will that prompt more accusations that conservationists are anti-semitic?! Probably!)

Paul Barford said...

Almost certainly, "extremist" too. Never mind, tell them you have dyslexia and meant to write "rabbits".

Alfredo De La Fe said...

Heritageaction- Everyone runs the risk of purchasing stolen goods everytime they shop at the market, go to a garage sale, buy from an electronic goods store, jewelry store, etc. Do you lose sleep every time you purchase a new watch or if you buy a digital camera from a less expensive retailer that may have purchased "grey market" goods from Canada or the Orient instead of through the distributor sanctioned local channel?

There are laws in existence to deal with these issues. If I purchase a digital camera from a store in Times Square NYC and it turned out to be stolen, they go to jail. I dont see anyone calling for a banning of all retail sales from anyone smaller than the major stores or chains. I can see it now- Mom and Pop Camera must close, only Best Buy, Macy's and Circuit City are allowed to be in business because there is a "chance" that they may be selling stolen goods.

The idea that the burden of proof must fall on the purchaser goes against all reason. Sure, if you are buying goods out the back of a truck at 1am you should know better. There ARE dealers that openly deal in the "dark" but these dealers are subject to the same laws that would put the retail store owner in jail for purchasing stolen goods and they often get caught, proving that the laws do work.

Anonymous said...

Antiquities are not equivalent to cameras as stealing them creates massive cultural damage so the trade in stolen ones is more reprehensible and the responsibility to avoid buying them is commensurately greater.

So do I lose sleep every time I buy a new watch? No. But would I if I bought an unprovenanced dugup? You bet! I have seen where a lot of them come from. The boys will be out again tonight. How long before the fruits of their labours will be on display over the pond?

“The idea that the burden of proof must fall on the purchaser goes against all reason.”

But no-one has said such a thing. The burden of proof lies with the supplier and the burden of responsibility to ensure it is forthcoming lies with the purchaser, whether dealer or collector. No proof, no deal. The widespread failure to acknowledge that responsibility and to buy regardless is the basis of why collectors and dealers really are the true looters.

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