Saturday 24 April 2010

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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