Monday 12 April 2010

ACCG - US Collecting "Rights" Advocacy Group, What do they Stand For?

Since for reasons I have discussed above, I can no longer access the Yahoo group to which two days ago I sent two posts about something that concerned me to see whether they got an answer, and not knowing whether (in order to avoid the topic being discussed in any detail) the post was not in fact deleted from the archive, I thought I'd post them here here. I'm going to split the first into two. The first part illustrates quite well the sort of "discussion" the list moderator was allowing to appear when it referred to critics of indiscriminate collecting of archaeological artefacts but does not appreciate the persons faced with such comments actually replying to. This is the first part of my own post.

Dave Welsh asked here whether calling someone a "dishonorable liar" is not defamatory retorts:
"Not if it's true".

We seem to be in danger of getting into another slanging-match, but it seems to me that behind it is a challenge to define the truth, the true nature of what the ACCG are trying to force through on collectors under the rather general slogan of "defending collectors' rights" - "rights" to what precisely? Perhaps since this is a responsible collectors' list we could have a look at this question without the rancour bound to be aroused by statements such as:

> I don't know whether to dismiss that as mere
> sophomoric sophistry, or to characterize it as an outright lie.<>
There then follows a piece of text which raises some important questions about the Collectors "Rights" group, the ACCG (which actually represents the interests of the dealers in ancient coins more than collectors). What had happened was that a group member had been assailed by a number of people for stating some views about collecting which a couple of people had taken exception to. He then made a remark about said collectors' "rights" advocacy group to which Welsh, one of its board members had taken exception and written in huge capitals in a longer rather offensive message (10th April, 8:55):
(The Hell?) This apparently is the sort of behaviour of which the list owner and moderator approves, since it went unchallenged. Ramon replied tha since these activists insisted in referring to critics of indiscrimnate collecting "anti-collecting") then he felt justified in referring to those that supported indiscriminate collecting as "pro-looting" which is at least logical. This prompted the response from which came the "sophomoric sophistry/outright lie" quote cited above. There were a lot of accusations of deceit flying around on the responsible collectors list when the ACCG sent its minions there to foment discord and rouse the rabble to get them faxing the State Department in droves protesting the very idea of antiquity exporters supplying US dealer actually getting export licenses from Italy as Italian law requires.

So in the circumstances, this seemed a suitable topic to explore. Just what is it that this group represents, what is it holding out for? And what better place to discuss that more objectively than a ("responsible") non-coiney artefact collectors' forum? Especially since the advocacy group had turned to the 2000-strong membership of that forum to join its campaign against the US State Department. While some no doubt fired up by the alarmist rhetoric about the imminent descernt of the sky on their heads fired off a knee-jerk fax straight away, some of them might perhaps like to find out more about this group and what it stands for (and what its critics are representing it as standing for) before deciding to take up a position under its standard.

ACCG - pro or anti? Lets look at the ACCG Code of Ethics :
"1. Coin Collectors and Sellers will not knowingly purchase coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites or stolen from museum or personal collections, and will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country". That is it, right?

In my country, like many source countries for ancient artefacts (Egypt for example) there are no "scheduled sites". [Whether YOU like it or not], all archaeological material belongs to the state. Anybody taking a metal detector to an archaeological site without a permit and anyone selling ancient coins from it on eBay is therefore committing by the laws of my country an illegal act. These people are termed looters. Precisely like the Utahns digging up Anasazi sites in the Four Corners region of your own country - currently being charged with appropriating state property. More of them in a moment.

The ACCG code of ethics however does not prevent you or any ACCG dealer buying and selling ancient coins freshly dug up in my country (or any other like it) because they do not come from a "scheduled" site, neither were they taken from a museum storeroom or private collection. Thus according to the ACCG such dealings are entirely "ethical". Yes, or no? The ACCG also maintains that foreign laws do not apply to US citizens. So even if my country says your posession of ancient coins from its soil is illegal (because bought from somebody who had no legal right to sell property that belonged to somebody else - ie buying stolen goods), you and the ACCG refuse to acknowledge my country's right to declare that. This is also what some artefact hunters of my country say. The ones we call looters.

The ACCG furthermore now denies the right of anyone (least of all your own state in the furtherance of international co-operation in the fighting of culture crime) to consider that laws made in a sovereign state and concerning material originating from the soil of that territory should be respected by other states (or is that just the US? I am not sure which collectors you claim to represent).

ACCG supporter Alfredo de la Fe referred on your Unidroit -L to what people digging up archaeological sites looking for stuff as upholding their "fundamental rights". Do you agree with that? Is it the fundamental right of any who so wish to go out to any unscheduled (let's remember that is what the ACCG code says) archaeological site and just dig over it in search of saleable metal ? If your answer is yes, then why is that not in fact supporting what we call looting when it is mere "sophistry" (your word) to differentiate archaeological sites as scheduled and unscheduled when applied to countries which do not themselves employ such a differentiation? You are imposing your own value judgements ("well, I think they jolly well should") on others, and claiming the personal right to be arbitors of what is right and wrong in other countries. So is ACG "internationalism" not therefore an expreession of imperialist sentiments?

Now if you are following me so far, it becomes clear that it is not "sophistry" to say the ACCG Code of Ethics has been written to allow the trade in looted goods to fall between its definitions of what is and is not "ethical". In fact it is largely a meaningless piece of paper since to trade in "coins illegally removed from museum or personal collections" is dealing in stolen goods anyway and is not just subject to ethical sanctions but legal ones, even in your country.

And of course when one trades coins "no-questions-asked" it is very easy to avoid "KNOWINGLY purchasing coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites". Simply do not ask. That is the boundary of the requirements of the ACCG to qualify as ethical (not even a "will do their utmost to establish...." in sight in its text). Those Bulgarian coins you (Classical Coins) are still selling as special lots, you do not know which of them came from a scheduled Roman site (like much-looted Archar) and which of them were single finds in the middle of an unscheduled field. Do you? But you are selling them anyway, despite the impossibility of establishing where actually that batch physically came from. I guess in this business its "ask no questions dont get told no lies" eh? That is what I and others like me are referring to when we write of the "indiscriminate trade". It is this lack of (real) efforts to discriminate tainted artefacts from the rest that is the seat of the whole problem. The ACCG plays lip-service to the notion, but how many of your dealers have more than ten percent of the coins they sell displayed with any information to the potential purchaser that that particular coin has such-and-such a provenance? They are sold indiscriminately.

So, basically the ACCG Code of Ethics does absolutely nothing to allay any accusations that in its stance against measures intended to protect Italy's archaeological heritage, it is pro-looting. I see you have a fax counter going now and 149 faxes have gone off against the US exercising diligence on the import dugup coins from Italy. If that is not combatting the effects of looting, I do not know what is.

We have all read the The Medici Conspiracy, followed the later developments and then the sorry spectacle of humiliated US museums sending stuff back to Italy. Then there was the Sisto case last year. Yes, the US takes the moral highground and gives a lot of stuff back. Hip hip hooray…. But let us note one important fact omitted in all the jubilant press releases how wonderful the US is being.

Every single one of those objects (and probably much else not detected yet) passed through US customs INTO the US without a hitch.

Now obviously all those looted and stolen objects just passing through unchallenged is a bit of an embarrassment (if a Euphranios Krater can get through, what more dangerous objects and substances are getting through?). Surely a little added vigilance of art works and artefacts coming into the US from Italy would be in the circumstances a good idea for the peace of mind of collectors, museums and dealers.

But this is getting off the issue of the truth behind what Ramon (a coin collector) said on this list about the ACCG.

I then posed a question the answer to which seems to have the potential of revealing just what it is the ACCG stands for by putting what they say about dugup archaeological artefacts from the archaeological heritage of other countries into the context of objects from the archaeological heritage of their own. This second part of my letter I have placed in the post below this.

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