Sunday 16 May 2010

More False Claims About the PAS: From Canada this Time.

Robert Kokotailo presents the Treasure Act of England and Wales as the best thing since sliced bread to wide-mouthed coineys on the Moneta-L list. This allows a free market so collectors can buy tonnes and tonnes of artefacts, "as long as hoard finds are reported to the treasure trove system first". I wonder how many years have to pass before these people comprehend the significant differences between the English Treasure ACT which as collectors they support and the Scottish Treasure TROVE system which they do not? The former came in 14 years ago.

Anyway the dealer goes on to tell his coiney audience about how he thinks the "Treasure Trove system" works, the usual simplifications leading to the conclusion: that this kind of state-supported treasure hunting including on archaeological sites is a win-win solution for everyone, especially dealers and collectors. Personally I disagree, for reasons which are (as far as I am concerned) adequately explained elsewhere in this blog.

Kokotailo claims "No illicit hoards means virtually no illicit digging [...] and what they basically have in England". No illicit digging in England. Two points, the digging over of known and newly-discovered archaeological sites in search of saleable collectables may not be (through an unarchaeological quirk of British law) illicit per se, it certainly is not from an archaeological point of view at all desirable, whether or not the treasure hunter reports some of what they take away. This is what I assume any archaeologist not working in partnership wth the PAS will tell you, I assume even in Canada too. This is what the laws which the "collectors' rights" lobbyists would like to see scrapped are instituted to guard against, the erosion of the archaeological record by uncontrolled digging in search of something to flog off. Instead of all nations on earth with an archaeological record worth preserving from this activity stooping to Britain's level and scrapping such protective leislation (and thus sanctions against it), perhaps it is England, Scotland and Wales that need to extend better preservation to what is left of their total archaeological record, rather than just a few localised bits of it? Rather like both Irelands do.

Secondly, how true is it that there is no "illicit digging" in Britain? The first point that need be made is that the problem does not begin and end whether it is (coin)"hoards" which are illicitly disturbed in search of saleable goods. All types of site, settlements, graves, temple sites, wrecks, are threatened. Any site that contains something that can be flogged off. Actually these days that virtually means any site, as most contain the sort of so-called "minor antiquities" that people at the other end of an internet connection will buy no- questions- asked (beyond "how much?"). Are there really no hoards being illegally dug up and illegally exported from Britain? Actually I do not think that is strictly true, I have seen coin finds on sale here in Poland for example, which on closer examination seem to have been from an unreported 'celtic' coin hoard.

The reason why Robert Kokotailo thinks there is no looting is because:
The finders are compensated for the finds no matter if they end up in the hands of the state, or of collectors. In theory a hoard might be sold illicitly, but the seller will gain nothing over what he would get by playing the rules, so there is no point in doing so, thus in England the problem of illicit hoards nearly does not exist.
Hmm. The first point is that there is the opinion in British metal detecting circles that the Treasure Valuation Committee does not always assess the value of Treasure finds adequately to the expectations of the finder. Whether or not that is so is immaterial, it would affect the degree to which a finder is willing to surrender a find to them rather than attempt to sell it. The second thing is the Treasure award is a long time coming, while Treasure finds can be cashed in by illicit means more immediately. Thirdly, the process involves going into court and answering questions on the circumstances of the find. Some metal detectorists - a milieu, like collectors in general, jealously guarding their identities and private doings from outside scrutiny - might have objections to this. Fourthly, and most importantly, going through the Treasure system means the finder sees only half the value, because the proceeds are customarily split with the landowner. This fact is almost never highlighted by the "Collectors' rights" lobbyists when they talk of finders receiving market value. They do not. Fifthly, going through the official channels, the finder pays taxes on this income (or if they pay alimony, these earnings may be taken into account in assessing payment rates). Selling finds off by other means gives the possibility of hiding this income from the authorities. Sixthly, artefact hunters are collectors, they delight in the find itself, and may not want to lose it, no matter how much cash they would be offered in recompense. That's six reasons which Kokotailo seems to ignore why some finders might feel they lose out if they go through official channels, and which would provide a temptation to bypass the Treasure process if they find an item which falls within its remit, even in England. So far in those 14 years there has been just one case of a prosecution for not reporting a Treasure find, and that was a case within the past year (discussed on this blog). In reality British law is pretty toothless against those involved in illicit activities with antquities.

Mr Kokotailo is stretching things when he says that all these hoards reported under the Treasure Act have meant that "British numismatic studies have reach the highest point ever under this system". In fact most of the hoards that have been reported under this system, whether acquired by a museum, or dispersed on the market subsequently, have never been properly published. The gain to knowledge is thus not actually so great as collectors try to make out.

But of course it is not the facts about teh PAS and treasure system that count, it is the myth. The myth of some collectors' shangri-la, a paradise which the dealers and collectors of the ACCG are trying to build on Earth by fair means or foul.

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