Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Soft Underbelly of American Democracy: Ninety Philistine Opinions Not on Topic

The "Public Submissions" on the "Notice of Receipt by the US State Department of Cultural Property Request From the Government of the Hellenic Republic (Docket DOS-2010-0339)" which are available here* make for eye-opening reading. I've been reading through them. Most of them are from coineys, most of them assume the question they were addressing was "do you want to see imports of ancient Greek coins restricted?" (not realising that the full question in any case would have been "ancient Greek coins from the territory of the Hellenic Republic of Greece restricted to those that were licitly exported?"). One guy (from India) says "yes". Just one guy, one percent of respondents.

Most of the submissions are depressingly off-topic and repetative as well as badly written. So I thought I'd have a look through what was submitted by people representing academic institutions. There are at the moment only a few. There is also the guy (one Jan Pallares) who claims he represents the US Cultural Property Advisory Comittee, but he is either an imposter or cannot work out how to fill in a simple form, so let's ignore him, he mostly repeats the Tompa-version of the "instructions for collectors". (For this, see here.)

Fred Mench from Richard Stockton College in New Jersey has made two submissions, one pictorial. He is anti-preservationist using the "blocking illegal exports of ancient coins to the US deprives my students" argument. He does not seem to see anything wrong with students of Richard Stockton (apparently he was a signatory of some Declaration or other) College using illegally obtained antiquities in their learning. Then he says: "By all means, make people accountable for materials sold out of the countries of origin, but do not otherwise restrict legitimate transactions". Eh? But is that not EXACTLY what the CCPIA if applied here is going to do? Obviously logical thinking and fact checking are not a characteristic common to all US educators.

Let's have a look at another one. Avery Springer, Chairman, Classics Department, John Burroughs School also applies the "blocking illegal exports of ancient coins to the US deprives my students" argument and then adds a notable six-point justification: {Coins not culturally significant/ minted in the millions/ widely travelled in past ("why should Greece have any claim on a coin found outside greece?" - fiction alert: it does not claim such of course)/ US Customs officials without special numismatic training cannot tell if a piece of metal in an undocumented package from Greece is a coin or not/ Ancient coin collectors respect archaeological sites (!)/ Coin collectors save coins from the melting pot/ ancient coins are found in isolated hoards outside of other archaeological context/ The US is being singled out and its a waste of money and resources}. Wow, congratulations John Burroughs School, for fitting in so many coiney cliches into half a page of text !

But looky-here: George Mutter of Harvard University (Medical School) has almost exactly the same text. He starts off "As a member of the ancient coin collecting community, I support contined unrestricted importation of ancient (pre-19th century) coins and monies into the united states". Continued unrestricted importation of illegally exported ancient artefacts? Would he use drugs and equipment illegally exported from foreign source countries in his medical practice or teaching maybe? Would he argue that there should be unrestricted flow of such commodities from India, Bulgaria and Albania (where they are cheaper) for example? Odd. Anyway he too has the same six points almost verbatim. Both he and the John Burroughs guy could not think up an original text of their own, so they lifted verbatim Ed Waddell's "Time to Speak Out" text (about Italy) without sourcing it - which anyway I presume the Department of State has already seen numerous other copies of. Does Harvard University support plagiarism?

Another university is represented Dr. Warren Esty, Professor of mathematics at Montana State University. Esty uses the "not culturally significant" and the "produced in many millions" arguments. He does not mention that their digging up in many millions leaves many millions of holes in archaeological sites. He modestly informs the CPAC that "I am the greatest expert in Montana on the scholarly use of ancient coins and I have published numerous professional articles in the most prestigious journals", adding "My work could not have happened if legislation restricting the import of coins were on the books -- museums and collectors who assemble the material for study would be unable to do so". The CCPIA if applied to ancient coins from Greece will only curb import of illegally exported items. So, is he admitting that his scholarly work so far has been based on material which has been illegally exported? Maybe it is time for ethical scholars to stop working with illegally obtained data?

Then we have an archaeologist (so far just the one). "Robert Deutsch Archaeologist" represents something called the Archaeological Center in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Mr Deutsch surprisingly for an archaeologist sees no difference in the origins of "a Greek Coin, a Roman ceramic oil lamp or a Spanish 19th century painting by Picasso" except their monetary value. He seems to confuse repatriation issues with curbing illegal export, and this archaeologist concludes: "no one has the right to ask to restrict the export/import of coins which were minted in 10 and even in 100s of million of examples. Greek or Roman coins were spread all over the world in ancient times and no one has ownership on them, but only the finder". And the dealer who buys them no-questions-asked from the finder, eh? Mr Deutsch deals in antiquities both from his Archaeological Center website and a V-Coins shop. Note that very few of the items he offers have any form of provenance or collecting history. I wonder when he exports his antiquities and coins from Israel, does he comply with the reestrictions he so clearly here opposes? Are they accompanied by a valid export licence or not?

Another one here: Dietrich Berges of the Archaologisches Institut der Universität Hamburg enters the fray. He too sees nothing wrong in the circulation in US markets of illegally exported archaeological artefacts. This is because ancient coins of Greek type were widespread in the "whole Mediterranean area" (in which he includes "Russia") and thus: "It is impossible to say where the millions of ancient Greek coins originally were found. Therefore the Greek goverment can not proof that ancient Greek coins which actually are on the market where found in and exported from today Greece and belong to the Greek state". But of course this archaeologist completely misunderstands to what the CCPIA applies. A US customs officer inspecting a package sent to a Wisconsin dealer from Greece full of undeclared ancient coins should, if the law is applied, stop the transfer of these coins until (at least) their origins and nature are ascertained. Of course that process would be simpler if the exporter had included all the relevant paperwork in the first place. Those packages where the paperwork are in order will not be detained. Where is the problem?

The CCPIA will not be applied to Greek coins exported (with or without papers) from "Russia" or Japan. It is an agreement concerning what the US will allow in which has been exported from Greece. Why is that so difficult for people to understand? Why is it that we see even academics swallowing the Black Myth about cultural property sprerad by coin dealers to try and fend off the proper docuumentation of the legality of transactions? Mr Deutsch I can umnderstand, he's gone over totally to the Dark Side and sells antiquities which he himself authenticates and narrativises, some might argue that the mathematics professor, gynacologist and schoolteachers can be excused not fully understanding the issues. But is that actually an excuse for educated folk not taking the trouble to actually READ the CPIA before passing comment on it?

I did not spot a single person who had actually addressed any of the four points that the public submissions are clearly requested to addreess, but maybe somebody else did?

What we see here is the soft underbelly of the American democratic system, the vox populi is that of of a group of ninety or so ill-informed (indeed intentionally manipulated) oiks bent on defending only their own interests and refusing to look at the wider implications or even find out what this is about.

* Tip: you have to tick the box to see "public submissions", best then to set it up to see 100 or 250 on a page, you'll see why if you do not and start reading in any depth.

Photo: Dietrich Berges.

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