Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Reflections on Yet Another CPAC Written Submission from a Coiney on the Greek/US Illegally Exported Artefacts MOU

Rick Witschonke wrote to me yesterday about my earlier comments on his contribution to the CPAC meeting on the Greek/US Illegally Exported Artefacts MOU as reported by Peter Tompa. He says the full richness of his ideas was not represented by the lawyer and sent me the text of his written submission which had not been submitted electronically. It is over 2600 words in length, he said he only summarised the "key points" in his CPAC oral presentation, and invites me to comment on his text here but says "But I would prefer it if you would post the entire document, and not just quote snippets".

Having thought about that option, I decided it would be best if Witschonke made his own arrangements for the dissemination of the text of his ideas in full, maybe on one of the collectors' forums. I'll therefore share a few thoughts on the text as a whole and citing one "snippet". [UPDATE: well, of course I should have guessed who would be asked to host this text, Tompa called it " A Rational Proposal for the Hellenic Republic". How "rational" it is, the non-coiney reader can decide after reading it].

My feeling is this letter is wholly typical of the milieu, very similar in intent to all the other coiney submissions to the CPAC. The style in which it was written, like that of many of the others, did not seem to me appropriate to the occasion. It also immediately shifted the focus of the discussion - claiming (despite its name) that the purpose of the CCPIA is to "stop looting" [in Greece] and NOT "implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property" (note the word "looting" does not occur in that overly-long title). So then he discusses ways that Greece could stop the looting without increased vigilance at US borders preventing the import of illegally exported material (Witschonke like the rest of the coineys argues that this would not help anyway - though to his credit he at least did not winge about "discrimination against US collectors"). What he avoids discussing are any other benefits that would accrue from stopping the import into the US of illegally exported archaeological artefacts (or any other cultural property).

In effect Witschonke argues that the US should make US compliance with the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention dependent on Greece first altering its conceptions about what is and is not significant [archaeological] material, urging that it should adopt criteria more similar to those applied in the UK (he means England and Wales I guess). In the process he presents a warped picture of what the UK legislation consists of (which is a source of amazement to me as I know he has had it explained to him in great detail by his pal Roger Bland as well as myself - now why is this?). He hypothesises that until Greece does this, it may be considered by CPAC as having NOT taken measures consistent with the Convention to protect its cultural patrimony (and so- he carefully argues - the MOU request should be refused).

A moment's thought shows this is deceptive nonsense. The measures referred to in CCPIA are concerned with the "illegal import, export and transfer of ownership" of the Convention, aren't they? Also by what right would the US have to say a country is "not looking after its heritage" if the US itself does not apply the legislation to which Witschonke refers? There is no Treasure Act in the USA with a market-value reward system to ensure important finds are reported and preserved. There is no Portable Antiquities Scheme for finds made by artefact hunters, pot-diggers arrowhead collectors, Civil War Battlefield searching metal detectorists. So why should Greece be penalised by America on these grounds? That is just insulting and ureasonable. Mr Witschonke, you and your fellows set up a nation-wide PAS system and Treasure Act in the US first, before you try to coerce other countries into adopting one. The very idea!

I'm going to quote this snippet,
Why do archeologists oppose the UK approach? [...] In fact, even Paul Barford, one of the most rabid critics of the UK TA/PAS, admits that “the vast majority of British archeologists are ‘quite comfortable, thanks’ that they have PAS to ‘deal with’ the collecting problem” (see: Perhaps this is because they view it as a reasonable compromise, and the best way to maximize the preservation of archeological context.
"Rabid", eh? It is probably one of the symptoms of my madness that it seems to me that my criticism of the PAS as a means of preserving the archaeological record from looting is a wholly rational consequence of examining it from that angle.

I suspect the problem here is that in general Americans "don't do irony", and Witsconke has failed utterly to grasp the thought behind the words. I may be accused of many things, but failing to spell out in black and white in my own words what I think about the way British archaeology is dealing with artefact collectors is surely not one of them ! If Mr Witschonke were to look a little deeper he would know what I meant about the nature of the "collecting problem" the PAS shields English and Welsh archaeologists from. So is this deliberate coiney misrepresentation, or coiney superficiality and misapprehension? How can any archaeologist consider that encouraging artefact collecting (whether "responsible" or not) is the "best way to maximize the preservation of archaeological context"? Beats me, but then I'm not wearing any coiney-view-of-the-world glasses.

In general as far as Witschonke is concerned, his government should stipulate that those foreigners that have requested the US honour the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention can have what they want ONLY AFTER they push a substantial number of collectables onto the US market, and while they fail to do so, should allow artefacts illegally exported from Greece to pass freely through US borders without any additional ICE scrutiny. That is basically what his letter to the CPAC, however he may want to dress it up in carefully-constructed lengthy arguments, is saying.

To my eyes, the approach American collectors like Witschonke adopt is extraordinarily arrogant and neo-colonial. Treating other states as so-called "source countries" for a raw material the US needs to import in growing quantities while giving back very little in return is pure colonialism. To deceive, coineys call it "internationalism" but at its basis is good old fashioned American exclusionism and chauvinism, and indeed "cultural nationalism" (in the proper sense of the use of the word). This is not entirely his own fault; this seems to be a fairly general attitude among US collectors of somebody else's dug up archaeological finds. They see the Manifest Destiny of the US is to be a world-police in cultural property matters, ordering all the lesser nations about concerning what they can and cannot consider as their own cultural property, the only arbiter of what is good and proper in foreign sovereign states (whose own policies and opinions on the matter are to be overridden as mistaken and 'unenlightened'). If the foreigners will not play ball with US collectors and give them everything they want, then - these people are saying - they cannot count on any US support in their efforts to preserve their heritage. If they will not play ball, US collectors and dealers will continue to treat it all as 'up for grabs' for their unfettered use in identity-building or whatever they use this stuff for. That is basically the message that is continually pumped out by this milieu, including Witschonke's letter to the CPAC.

This is wholly contrary to the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Article 1 states that each nation has the right to decide what it considers as its cultural property and embody that in legislation, within the limits set down by that article. Coineys frequently misrepresent the meaning of Art. 1 but here Witschonke is ignoring its presence in the Convention totally. What Greece considers is cultural property falling under the 1970 Convention is for Greece and Greece alone to decide, not some distant eleven-member CPAC in some wannabe-Welthaupstadt-Washington. The states party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention have all agreed (by the act of acceding to it) to help each other deal with instances of illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.

All, that is, except the United States of America, where each nation wanting that help from the US has to 'ask nicely please', satisfy some committee - meeting in Washington who listens to dealers and collectors and their lobbyists, and after long deliberation and reporting to Congress and all that - decides whether or not to graciously agree to do 'just for now' what the 1970 Convention says we all should be doing all the time. This is craziness gone mad.

Let the United States do the decent thing and get out of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Let it admit that many of its antiquity dealers prefer to be cowboys, that the US government cannot regulate against this because the cowboys kick up too much of a fuss and even congressmen join in with opposing measures intended to stop imports of illegally exported material. Let the world see the US antiquity market for what it is, what it itself actually does not shrink from showing the rest of the world. Let the US continue "helping" the worldwide effort to prevent illegal exports of antiquities through its limiting 1983 CCPIA (merely renaming it), but let it stop pretending that the US trade in antiquities as a whole complies with the 1970 Convention as a whole, because in its current form it does not. After all, the US has nothing to lose, the country has very little archaeological material (or anything old much) that finds as large a market outside the country as artefacts from just about any region of the ancient world (including other American countries) have in the US. The US is not really in a position to demonstrate that its being "in" the Convention actually makes a lot of difference to what is traded by US dealers on a daily basis.

A final thought. While the sort of attitudes we see among collectors, dealers et al. in that country persist, should the day come when we all sit down and redraft the 1970 Convention more in line with the needs of dealing with the antiquities market of the 21st century (as we must), heaven forbid that the '1983' generation of Americans get anywhere near the table.

Alternatively they could have a look at their law written in the early 1980s and consider whether it really is a suitable US response to the form of global trade in antiquities which exists in 2010. After all it seems a bit dumb for the US collector to be calling on Greece to follow Britain's modern legislation (1996 and 2003) based on an outdated law from the times of Reagan.

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