Thursday 17 February 2011

We View Arguments of US Dugup Collectors with Mistrust

The President of the US dugup numismatic artefact lobbbying group the ACCG, coin collector Kerry Wetterstrom has joined the debate on looting and the antiquities trade . The somewhat muddled PRNewswire text "American Collectors Eye Events in Egypt with Mistrust", highlights his views on the matter. Let's take a look at them.
According to Kerry K. Wetterstrom, President of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), the reason for concern among collectors is that import restrictions like those sought by archaeologists have typically been applied far and beyond the scope of authority vested under U.S. law. [...] This tendency toward bureaucratic overreach is discussed introspectively in Archaeology Under Dictatorship, Michael L. Galaty and Charles Watkinson, eds., New York, 2004. In the final chapter: Dealing with the Devil: The Faustian Bargain of Archaeology Under Dictatorship Bettina Arnold says: "Financial dependence on the state makes archaeology especially vulnerable to manipulation by political entities, including individual leaders, whose interest in its research potential varies but is always expedient."
So who, according to Mr Wetterstrom, is "manipulating archaeology" in the US? Surely until now the ACCG mantra has been that it is archaeologists manipulating the State Department (?) So US archaeologists are manipulating the US government who is in turn manipulating US archaeologists through entrapping them in financial dependence? (Really?) What a mess, but I rather think it's in the logic of Wetterstrom's thinking than the politics of archaeology in his country. The new guy Mr Wetterstrom really ought also to sort out what it is the CCPIA regulates, it is not as he suggests "provenance" but documentation of legal export from the "source country" (!).

Anyway, passing on from that tangled tale, let's have a look at the next.
Coin collectors see the driving force behind import restrictions as stemming from a belief that legitimate markets for cultural objects fuel clandestine excavation or theft in source countries.
Let's just stop him there. Whose "belief" is that supposed to be? This is equally lacking in logic. The legitimate market obviously consists of a market in objects that are legitimately on that market. Like any market, not those that are assumed/imagined/hoped/insinuated to be, but can be verified as genuinely legitimately obtained. So by definition that cannot "fuel clandestine excavation or theft in source countries" since objects illegally obtained cannot by any stretch of the imagination be part of any legitimate market. Mr Wetterstom is putting up one of those typical coiney straw man arguments. In fact he's manipulating words, isn't he? More accurate would be to substitute the words "current state of the" for "legitimate". But then he could not do that, as that suggests that the market could be changed so the problem is reduced, and resisting any change in the global and US market is what the organization he heads is all about. But that's not the end of it:
To collectors, the failure of states to enforce their own cultural heritage laws is a key factor in any illicit activity. Corruption within nationalist governments is pervasive and compounds the problem [...] the best approach to reduce looting and corruption is to address the problem at the source.
Well, postulating that this is the only way forward and dealers and collectors have no responsibilities whatsoever (indeed victims of the situation) may be very comfortable, but is it true? Yesterday I posted a text about measures in England to prevent ongoing archaeological looting there. I am not sure where corruption comes in there, does he think the British police force is corrupt because they are not catching the night-time looters? Or perhaps British politicians or heritage organizations? This really needs clarification. (He may argue that a body called English Heritage is in some way "not nationalist", but could he argue it with any real conviction?) Then we have the US Four Corners case, Wetterstrom seems to be suggesting that the solution to the endemic vandalism of archaeological sites there is a clampdown on the artefact diggers. Is that the ACCG position? I thought they were campaigners for "collectors' rights"? But obviously we cant have one solution for the US and one for the rest of the world (imposed by the US), can we? The ACCG has always been quick to present US collectors' "recommendations" for the rest of the world to follow (the "Witschonke Argument"). They have with equal alacrity shied away from the implications of applying the same measures to resolving the same problems at home in the US. Why? Maybe now the ACCG has a new leadership, we will see the reverse approach adopted more consistently.

But surely, short of policemen lurking behind every bush or rock all night every night by every lootable archaeological site across the western hemisphere (and Africa, the Near East and Far East too) at tax-payers' expense, part of the operation to enforce the antiquities legislation is keeping a close eye on what is happening on the antiquities market (it will be recalled that this was one of the recommendations of the Oxford Nighthawking Report on which this new English heritage scheme is based).

It seems to me that Wetterstrom is standing by the traditional collectors' position that the looting of archaeological sites somehow has no connection with the no-questions-asked antiquities market and that sorting it out is the task and problem of everybody else, and not the no-questions-asked dealers and collectors. They consider themselves marginal to the solution. I think it is obvious to the rest of us that they are central to it.

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