Friday 7 January 2011

Selling Off More Antiquities, "a Way Forward"? Reply to Dave Welsh

On his Ancient Coins blog, Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh has publicised ('The True Way Forward: Cooperation') a scheme "which per best present knowledge would effectively control looting whilst preserving the rights of private collectors" which he claims is "a serious proposal, to which much thought has been given". It is instead a proposal which upon reading can be seen even on first glance to be full of serious flaws and has been drafted to serve the interests of the minority group of collectors disguised as something which will benefit all. I doubt whether - in its existing form - anyone really will be at all interested in discussing this with collectors. It is clear that much more serious thought needs to go into this proposal before it is presented for serious consideration. I suspect however that this is not the function of producing this "proposal". It seems to me that its main purpose is to put the "other side" in the wrong through their refusal to discuss a "serious proposition" coming from collectors for (a somewhat one-sided) "cooperation" in the reducing of looting. It is for this reason that, however insincere or well-considered this proposal is, it should not be ignored or dismissed.

We see here yet another case where antiquity collectors and dealers - instead of themselves taking responsibility for their actions and themselves cleaning up the market - expect somebody else to do it for them. They constantly suggest that those who criticise the current market themselves should make the effort to clean it up - and foot the expense. But then they would resent any outside (for example legislative) pressure on the antiquity trade to actually achieve this. Thus it is with this complex system suggested by Welsh.

The whole system is based on the premise that somewhere there are reserves of "redundant provenienced antiquities" which "should" be "released" (as if they were living beings "imprisoned" somewhere) by participating source nations so that collectors can have "provenienced" antiquities to buy and care for as well as if they were curated in public collections. Nowhere is explained where these antiquities currently are or will come from and what the benefits are to source nations releasing them onto the international market. What Welsh suggests however is every nation on earth must change its antiquity legislation system (before his is set up) to suit foreign collectors (his clients). Furthermore the "source" nations (which receive "quotas" to fill) will actually only receive half the value from their sale through the venue created by Welsh's system . The rest of the cash will be retained by some Global supra-governmental organization controlling the whole licit antiquities market and crushing the opposition. But the same system will impose the obligation on the source countries to pay the FULL market price to "finders" (and "seekers") who supply the "redundant antiquities" to be sold. This raises the question of why anyone agreeing to sell this stuff off would do so through such an unfair system.

If any nation does not see benefits in participating Welsh's system, he proposes that somehow they could "face withdrawal of international cooperation in enforcing their antiquities and export laws”. That is the extent of the clout Welsh thinks collectors of archaeological dugups should have on international affairs! I fail to see how such an action would contribute in any way to "preserving the archaeological record" and “effectively control[ing] looting”. But actually it can be seen clearly that this is not what Welsh's scheme actually aims to do.

What it postulates is that certain "licenced dealers" will corner the market in the newly-surfaced antiquities, will be setting source nations quotas to suit the needs of the market they control. They can only sell to "licenced collectors" who are prevented by terms of the licences from going to any other dealers. A nice little earner for the dealers involved (except those of Third World countries supplying the material coming on the market who cannot compete with the bidding of dealers from richer countries). All in the guise of being "for the public good". What is not explained is what happens to dealers and collectors who are not licenced, why are they not free to continue to buy and sell what they want? Who is going to check who has what in their shop or collection? In what way is this respecting "collectors' rights"?

I am not currently a member of any collectors' forums so am unaware what they make of this. There is much that is still unclear and perhaps there is a discussion going on elsewhere of which I am unaware. I have made a more detailed list of questions that it seems to me would have to be answered before we can even begin discussing the merits of the coin dealer's idea. I have posted them here.

I suppose it is worth pointing out that if Welsh is now proposing a scheme of supplying the market with objects with a known collecting history as a means "which per best present knowledge would effectively control looting", that looks like an admission of the opposite - which Welsh has until now strenuously denied - that the no-questions-asked trade in objects with no known collecting history is the reason why looting pays. It may also be noted that since the trade has no "tradition" of maintaining any form of provenance details, there is no guarantee that releasing objects with such information will not result within a generation in all of those objects losing that associated information. Let collectors first show they can curate such information associated with objects.

In fact, surely this whole elaborate and expensive scheme would be totally unnecessary if dealers and collectors would themselves take responsibility for curating the records of the collecting history of all the objects in their collections - in other words curating them properly and responsibly in a way that shows they were acquired ethically. That is all that is required to push the cowboy dealers selling looted stuff off the market.



Jee said...

Getting a license by taking an exam? I think not. Bill Sykes could pass any exam to prove his knowledge of his legal and ethical obligations as a trader if he put his mind to it.

No, forget all that, what's actually needed to qualify for a licence is a five year track record of ethical dealing, nothing else.

(As everyone knows perfectly well really).

samarkeolog said...

I think Peter Watson worked out that only about 5% of the antiquities market was visible. I cannot even conceive of how illicit antiquities would be legalised through Walsh's system.

The rolling amnesty would be a farce (in the classic sense, because predictably repeated antiquities amnesties have already proved a tragedy in Cyprus).

There would be massive (or, rather, even more massive) looting during the more-than-a-year-long amnesty, and a massive expansion in the numbers of dealers and collectors (soon to be legalised along with their collections).

Even after the amnesty, people would continue to collect illicit antiquities in expectation of further amnesties, or through the exploitation of the continual grandfathering scheme.

It would even pay them to hire or pay a percentage to "antiquities launderers" passing off parts of unsubtly large hauls of artefacts as things-from-the-corners-of-their-attics.

It is a terrifying idea.

Paul Barford said...

Not half as terrifying as some imperialist antiquitist slimeballs in Washington demanding Wongawongaland supply its "quota" of antiquities to sell off and threatening if they don't they'll authorise wholesale smuggling to take place to make up the shortfall.

I also want to know what the organized criminal groups making money from antiquity sales will be doing about it if Welsh's scheme were enacted.

samarkeolog said...

That should have read, "I cannot conceive of how many illicit antiquities would be legalised through Walsh's system"...

As for debating which aspect of his plan is most terrifying, I think we can agree that the entire effort is.

I presume organised crime would be rubbing its hands with glee while it waited for the don to open the champagne.

Paul Barford said...

It should also read "Welsh" as in the rabbits.

As I say, I do not think the "cunning plan" really was actually meant to be taken seriously.

There are a lot of dealers in the ACCG over there in the US who I suspect would have a lot of problems if collectors started asking them to say where actually they get all those coins from. The only reason it is being proposed is so they can shrug their shoulders and say "well, we tried"...

And the only reason I paid any attention to this nonsense is so we can say "... but not hard enough, did you?".

samarkeolog said...

Christ, I need to start wearing my glasses.

I agree about the intention of producing the plan - you might want to add in making archaeologists waste huge amounts of time on pointing out its stupidity as another aim (or perhaps rather as a very welcome side-effect).

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