Wednesday, 22 June 2011

ANS's Witschonke and the Illicit Trade in Antiquities: "It's All THEIR Fault"

The American Numismatic Society (ANS) is conducting a discussion about "Ancient Coins and the Cultural Property Debate" in their magazine. While of course such a move should be welcomed, it is a shame that the theme is chosen in such a way as to make the ensuing discussion object-centred (and not conservation-based). The reader is immediately misled about the actual concerns that underlie what the American collector labels "the cultural property debate" which pretty soon gets deflected merely into the territory of "ownership" issues. What surely is at issue is the effect of the way antiquities as a whole (coins included) are collected on the looting and destruction of archaeological deposits which are a fragile and finite resource. Also one cannot help wondering about the commitment displayed and the effectiveness of a debate on such complex topics which apparently assigns each author just two pages (short attention span of coineys?). The discussion is also typically amerocentric rather than internationalist. Anyway, lets see how it is presented.

The beginning is not very encouraging. In the brief introductory article, Rick Witschonke trots out the same old tired arguments we have seen in the US context over and over again. His is an object-centred view. The problem for him is not that sites are damaged to produce fresh items for the expanding no-questions-asked numismatic trade (a problem he does not even mention), but how numismatic data (findspot details and associations) are lost through this market. He places the blame for this on "increased vigilance" and "national patrimony laws" which "drove the [...] trade in ancient coins underground" (which is why dealers don't like to talk about where coins actually come from).

But one might remark that it takes two to tango. Criminal sellers have to find buyers willing to do illicit deals with criminals, and these can do so sure that they will encounter no less morally challenged people who will in turn buy the goods from them. Witschonke is admitting that anyone who buys coins from these source countries in such a manner are participating in this underground illicit trade.

I find it odd that the problem is presented here as due to the "increased vigilance" of the archaeological protection authorities of these "source countries". This is because elsewhere US dugup antiquity collectors are saying (see yesterday's discussion here of what Tompa said about Bulgaria) that the way to resolve the problem is provide more vigilance, guards on all the sites. Witschonke raises an issue of the existence of "national patrimony laws", alleging that they are to blame for the problem with cultural property, nowhere does he address the issue of whether countries with antiquities in their soil "should" have them. What does the coiney think: should the USA have an Archaeological Resources Protection Act? Should Bulgaria or India? And who says they should not, or what they should contain, and on what grounds?

Anyway to continue with what Witschonke writes; he remarks that the main concern of the American Institute of Archaeology (apparently the only archaeological body in the world) is to "suppress the illicit trade" and "therefore end illicit excavation". This means that "they are opposed by dealer and collector groups who wish to maintain the trade in ancient coins". There is an interesting logical jump there. That the AIA wants to curb the illicit trade is presented as a threat to the entire industry. So what proportion of the coin supply to the trade is of illicit origin if the threat it might be curtailed rouses such alarm?

The ANS membership apparently (that is what Witschonke says) wish to engage in "responsible" collection of ancient coins. It seems to me therefore there is a need within the ANS to have some kind of a discussion what that means as part of their contribution to the "cultural property debate". Now, there is a document on the "Collection Policies of the American Numismatic Society" ("Acquisition and Disposal of Numismatic and Library Material") which states that:
The Society will not purchase or exhibit numismatic objects or other items that the Society reasonably suspects to have been unlawfully removed from archeological sites, stolen from public or private collections, removed from their country of origin in contravention of that country's laws declaring them state property or otherwise imported in contravention of the laws of the United States.
[That latter bit ("otherwise") is a bit puzzling as of course as dealers and collectors will tell you importing stuff illegally exported from most source countries "no US law was broken"]. It would be useful if the ANS was to make such a principle fundamental in a code of ethics for responsible coin collecting which it would expect its members to uphold in all cases, but especially in the case of those that purchase and collect dugup archaeological material (ancient coins). It would be even more useful is the word "suspect" (in itself a useful advance on weasel-worded "have no reason to believe") were replaced by the notion that the responsible collector takes "active steps to ascertain and document that individual items were not..." and seeks out responsible dealers who can supply such material. If that were applied on a large enough scale, that would do a lot to reduce the demand for illegally dug and illicitly exported archaeological material. It is clear that it is the failure of collectors to collect responsibly that is the cause of the looting. Irresponsible collectors are the looters of the past.

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