Wednesday, 27 July 2011

One US Coiney on the Politics of Dugup Coin Collecting

Over on Moneta-L dialogue about coin collecting took a political turn the other day with collector Chris Exx (a former commentator on this blog) holding forth about US foreign policy. Observing in general, "the US regularly "ignores the concerns" of countries all over the world" (he said it, not me), he suggests that "it is inconsistent for the US to suddenly gain an extreme anti-colonial conscience concerning coins that is diametrically opposed to its everyday actions". Antiquity collectors of all types love playing the victim, and so he asks plaintively of his homeland: "Why is it that we are being used to expatiate its sins?" Well, as I have noted here many times, the United States does not exactly bust a gut to honour its commitments under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property. In fact the efforts made are pretty minimal compared to the scale of the US trade in archaeological artefacts. The CCPIA sees to that. But its nice to see that a collector is aware that the attitude to which dealers and collectors subscribe is nothing more nor less than a colonialist one.

Mr Exx adds: "I thought collecting ancient coins was the hobby of kings. Where are the rich and powerful ancient collectors to protect our interests as so many other interests are protected?" I suspect the answer to that is that rich and powerful collectors do not have to worry so much about minor things like import restrictions. They have their ways around them no doubt, and if they do not work, their lawyers. The people who are obviously doing a lot to "protect interests" are rich and powerful US antiquity dealers with their political lobbying and other activities.

Then, diappointingly, Mr Exx comes out with the US coineys' "dirty brown untrustworthy un-American foreigners" trope:
Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely that anybody would benefit in most source countries [from curbing illegal exports of antiquities - PMB] outside of a corrupt cabal. And would the antiquities actually be safe? For example: Send antiquities back to the Egyptian government? WHAT Egyptian government? It is totally in flux. And what happens when an extremist party takes control and decides that these objects are the work of the devil and destroys them? Wonderful gigantic Buddhist statues were destroyed in Afghanistan through the same logic. This is not to say that Egypt or Afghanistan or any other country should not have any antiquities. But they are safest distributed throughout the world where they are not totally subject to local conditions. These antiquities represent the patrimony of all of us and should be available to everyone, not solely to the random modern government that happens to currently control an area that they MAY have come from.
Well, we seem to have heard that lot somewhere before. Let's just take ONE step backwards. There are laws about these things. The US collector may not like Egypt having its own laws, but it does. The international community respects the right of sovereign states to declare what material culture it likes its cultural property (1970 UNESCO Convention Article 1) and agrees in that Convention (to which the US is also a state party, though you'd never believe it) to respect those laws.

There are of course no corrupt cabals in the United States, are there? But we "all know" that almost every other country, all those source countries of antiquities the American collectors imagine they have "collectors' rights" over in South and Central America, Africa, Asia and the warmer bits of Europe, well they all do don't they? It must be true, ACCG's Peter Tompa's blog is full of "evidence" of that.

For Mr Exx, far more important than the rights and wrongs of buying stolen and smuggled artefacts (and the archaeological destruction and cultural depletion these acts represent) would seem to be that if they were elsewhere than in his personal ephemeral antiquity collection in his home: "would the antiquities actually be safe?" Again an expression of object fetishisation. This is a distortion of the the Universal Museum argument isn't it? (It was Phillipe de Montebello who popularised the "they are safest distributed throughout the world where they are not totally subject to local conditions" argument.) But that refers to the protection offered by institutions, and not private collectors.

Exx of course jumps on the extempore opportunity to mention Egypt. Are artefacts in Egypt safe? I'd say in general they are a good deal safer than in a cupboard in Mr Exx's back bedroom. Of course a few months ago when Egypt's government and military were being backed up by lots and lots of US aid, Mr Exx probably he'd have chosen a different example. He seems to have an inordinate faith that the USA will always be the same as today, a transatlantic Thousand Year Empire. But it's his own coiney advocates, ACCG's Dave Welsh for example who are pugnaciously proclaiming that come the Glorious People's Revolution, bureaucrats of the current ruling regime ought to be "strung up on the lamposts down Constitution Avenue". (Religious fundamentalism is not so far to seek in his own country too; the Bible forbids the making of graven images for Christians and Jews alike, just as the tenets of Islam; how long are Americans going to continue to ignore that?)

These antiquities represent the patrimony of all of us and should be available to everyone, not solely to the random modern government that happens to currently control an area that they MAY have come from.
Whoah, which antiquities? Those brought back from the Grand Tour in deep yesteryear, or freshly "surfaced" items bought on the no-questions-asked market in the past few years? There is a vast difference here.

In any case, they are not "available" to anyone locked in a cupboard in Chris Exx's back bedroom, are they? Frankly, I think if he has the disposable income to buy antiquities at all, Mr Exx is probably far better placed financially and socially to hop on a plane to Cairo to have all sorts of antiquities "available" to him in collections there, than the average inhabitant of Fustat to get a visa to the USA, hop on a plane, and see some antiquity taken away clandestinely from Egypt and stuck in a showcase in the Museum of Antiquities in Mr Exx's home town, or in Mr Exx's back bedroom cupboard.


Chris Exx said...

Hi Paul,

I appreciate all the attention to at least part of what I have written on Moneta. But you seem to be making a lot of assumptions about what I mean. I sent you my direct email address. Feel free to send me questions, keeping in mind that I can only represent my own opinion. In no way am I a spokesman.

I am first to admit that I am just coming to grips with this issue and have a lot to learn. Your guidance and suggestions and feedback are helpful.

I am particularly interested to hear what you think a US collector like myself, participating in a hobby that you say you do not wish to see ended, can actually do to avoid buying illicit coins in a market where hundereds of millions of coins have been circulating for decades and centuries without any record keeping? I have been trying to suggest possible alternatives on the Moneta list, but it really is a hard nut to crack. I could use your help.


Paul Barford said...

"I sent you my direct email address. Feel free to send me questions"
Well, obviously I am more interest in commenting on what has been said publicly, what people are saying openly and candidly to other people.

My aim is not to conduct some kind of free one-to-one cultural heritage consultancy for individual clients.

In any case, I would rather see collectors work these things out for themselves by reading stuff and THINKING about it themselves. Its no use me telling somebody "what to do", it has to be something they do because they have decided (not been "told") it is the best and only right thing to do. There is too much passive "wanting things on a plate" in collecting and it is this that causes the stagnation of the debate.

So in the post above, I found something on a discussion list that I felt needed comment and, unable to do it there, did so here.

"In no way am I a spokesman".
Oh, but you are. You express the sort of opinion we can find in the collecting milieu, the views which need discussion both within and outside it.

I encourage my readers to venture into those forums and see whether the sort of things you were saying are (as I say they are) typical or atypical and make their own minds up. That's what Moneta-L does not want outsiders seeing.

Paul Barford said...

"can actually do to avoid buying illicit coins in a market
Chris, how do people avoid buying a stolen car, drinking alcohol produced in illegal stills, having sex with under-age girls or whatever?

I don't understand what kind of answer you want. I'd say buy only that which you can verify and then prove to others is of legitimate origins.

Have a look at the Code of Ethics on Ancient Artefacts, if it is still there. What principles could the RESPONSIBLE collector of any kind of dugups adopt as a minimum standard for their own practice? I think they mostly could apply to coin-shaped artefacts too.

"coins have been circulating for decades [...]without any record keeping?
Tell, me they have been circulating among responsible collectors and dealers, or irresponsible collectors and dealers?

Have these issues suddenly dropped from the sky in July 2011, or are these things collectors and dealers have been aware since 1970 that they'd have (in the end) to be doing something about? So, why do you think they did not?

Is not the [real] truth that the market for the past couple of decades has been based on illegally excavated smuggled material - like the container loads literally of looted coins and artefacts shipped to the US from the Balkans? Read some of Nathan Eklkins stuff (the stuff the dealers did not manage to suppress - oh yes they did). THAT is why dealers in dugups did not want the documentation of real collecting histories, isn't it?

Those "millions" of coins have NOT been "circulating for centuries" they are freshly looted material passed off by uncaring no-questions-asked dealers as such. That is why you will get nowhere in those circles telling them that the origins of those coins should be clarified.

So, what is your role? Shrug your shoulders and carry on buying, pretending there is "nothing else on the market, so what can I do"? What does that mean, that there is "nothing else"? It means that when those dealers assure everyone that the coins they are selling are "all from old collections" but cannot prove that with any kind of documentation, not so much as an old-looking collector's ticket, let alone a invoice, they are basically talking crap. They do not know that because they've not bothered to secure proof, they deny you their customers the right to demand proof before buying.

Would you really call that responsible dealing in anything? Why should coins be an exception here? Why would you patronise an irresponsible dealer in anything (and if you do, what does that make you)?

(to be continued)

Paul Barford said...

(continued from above)

Have a look out there where the naysaying is coming from. Have a look who runs ACCG, who pays the lawyers to lobby. Who obstructs at every stage any attempt to resolve this problem? The same dealers that glibly assure everybody, it's all OK, kosher stuff, from old collections, but we cant show you the papers, we -er - lost them.

But it cannot be can it? On my blog I show why. The container load from Frankfurt which just 'disappeared' onto the US market, those coins 350 000 of them are out there, masquerading as 'old collection" (with 50 000 collectors work out statistically how many of THOSE coins you probably have in your own collection). That was just one shipment of many.

Fifty years ago the population of the US and rest of the world was smaller. There was no Internet allowing online sales. It stands to reason (surely) that there were far fewer collectors of dugup ancient coins from the Old World than there are today. So less collectors means obviously less coins were in circulation. Some of their collections were lost when they died, for many decades collectors have been willing their best stuff to public collections, taking them off the market. So now when there are sufficient in the US market alone for 50 000 collectors, where [really] did they come from? I satirically invented for the purposes of this blogging the "coin elves" to explain what we are asked to believe. Anyone who does not believe in the coin elves (and I do not) has to admit that vast numbers of coins on the market today ARE freshly looted. Aren't they?

So how to avoid buying looted coins? Only patronise dealers who have cast iron proof that they have coins from an old collection for you. Not a shake of the hand, "look-me-in-the-eye-do-you-think-I-would-lie-to-you?" kind of non-proof. You cannot pass that on to the person who next buys your coins.

And if you cannot find such a dealer, because they all want you to take their word for it, which means they have not been able to ascertain themselves that the coins are of licit origin? I'd say in a market which common sense shows (see above) must be saturated with illicit material, don't buy.

It's like going to a nightclub to look for a girl, you go in and it you look around and it seems to you that all those beautiful slim long-legged girls look very much like they are under-age. I'd say it was not a good idea to take any of them home with you, no matter how appealingly they gyrated on the dance floor. If you did, whether or not you were subsequently caught out by the cops ("where's the proof?"), you'd still feel bad about it later. Wouldn't you?

Don't buy potentially looted artefacts. Don't have anything to do with those that handle them. That's the way to clean up the market. If the dealers have no interest in doing so, that is what responsible collectors can do.

Are you going to take responsibility for your hobby?

Chris Exx said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for your clear position. That is all one can ask for.

To be fair I will give you an honest reponse. No, I will not take full responsibility for everything related to ancient coin collecting. I won't dispose of coins I have that don't have documentation pre-1970. Very few do. I won't stop buying coins from reputable US dealers. Coins currently do not have the provenance that you recommend and I will continue collecting. (I don't import coins myself any more because customs inspectors can't tell one from another and even coins that are legal to import may be confiscated.)

My reasoning is similar to why the Americas and Australia are not returned to their native inhabitants. There is a limit to what you can expect uninvolved parties to do to redress previous wrongs by others, especially when the earlier times had different values in which those actions may not have been considered wrong.

Do you require absolute proof that every article of clothing you wear was not created under sweatshop conditions, or do you simply avoid known offenders, or not care at all? Similar questions can be asked of every item you possess or use and of the place you live. Do you refuse to have anything to do with universities that discriminated by race or gender AND STILL HAVEN'T PAID RESTITUTIION to all those affected?

It is easy to demand impossible things of owners of items you have no interest in possessing. I have no time machine to use to restore provenance to the coins in my collection.

I would however support laws that require each step in the chain of aquisition to keep full provenance records of their vendor and also carry that vendor's records forward to the next purchaser. I think we have to be willing to register what coins we have in our possession at this time. This way we could draw a line in the sand at some date from which full documentation could be expected to exist for any legitimate coin. This would discourage whatever part of future looting is driven by the coin market.

I think your reasoning that most coins on the market were dug up post 1970 is flawed. Most coins would have been exposed in agriculture and construction over the last 2000 years. The fact that the internet was not available in the 80s did not prevent me at all from collecting then, nor did it prevent people from collecting, casually or in earnest, for hundreds of years before that.

I don't think lack of direct evidence of looting of specific coins means much. Likewise I don't think that lack of provenance means much at this point about the licitness of a particular coin currently in a collection.

But essentially I agree that compulsorily maintaining provenance is the only solution to both cultural property concerns and collectors' concern to maintain possession of their collections. Advances in technology in the last 20 years make such record keeping much more feasible than it would have been before that.

It may increase the cost of collecting beyond the means of some collectors of inexpensive coins and I regret that. But, barring any other better ideas, it seems to be a necessary step in preserving the legitimacy of collecting and separating it from illegal activities.

Thanks again, Paul, for your answers.


Paul Barford said...

The problem is what one understands by "reputable US dealers". I rather think our definitions will differ there (written about somewhere here earlier).

" Coins currently do not have the provenance that you recommend and I will continue collecting"
Somehow I thought you'd say that. I do not "recommend" anything, I say what I think divides responsible collecting from irresponsible collecting and why, you ignore that if you like. You do.

"My reasoning is similar to why the Americas and Australia..." No it is not, because coins are being looted NOW, not two hundred years ago. You "reason" that because you want to buy coins, like the guy who wants to sleep with underage girls in my analogy. Period. You dont "feel bad" about it at all,, do you? ("what else can I do?")

" I have no time machine to use to restore provenance to the coins in my collection"
Jeeez... BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT I AM SAYING PEOPLE "SHOULD DO" IS IT? I am saying the licit market should make it impossible to sell FRESHLY dug up coins as though they were from old collections.

You REALLY have not understood ANYTHING I said. It's just a waste of time discussing anything with somebody incapable of listening. Which is why I really have no time for coineys.

"I think your reasoning that most coins on the market were dug up post 1970 is flawed". Well, there's nothing more to discuss then, is there?

Paul Barford said...

I hope one day you have a blog on some software application you are working on and somebody writes and asks questions like, "I don't know how to look this up myself, tell me please, how does a computer work?" and "why don't the little men inside who push the information round suffocate"? And then when you have spent several hours of your time explaining to this lone and insistent questioner how a computer works, the guest says "I think your argument is flawed, I'm still going to carry on believing there's little men in it because otherwise how would the data get pushed around?".

Then perhaps you might understand how this blog owner feels about continuing this "discussion" with you. OK?

Chris Exx said...

Hi Paul,

The internet is full of people who are willing to explain how computers or basically anything else works. They are happy to find interested beginners.

Communication involves the movement of information, no? You too could learn from others. It's fun. It could turn your frown upside down!!

If one did not already know how wonderful you are one might think that your intention is to simply EXPLOIT this problem with no interest in how to actually reduce looting related to ancient coin or antiquity collecting.
But I know there is a cuddly Teddy Bear in you somewhere who wants to make the world a better place.

In any case you glossed over my bud of an idea of how to do exactly what you ask: Prevent newly dug up coins from entering the market.

If you check on Moneta I am making a market based proposal that I hope will create interest among dealers in addressing the problem through giving value to provenance. Certainly there is a lot of work to do to develop that idea. And this would be a first step to really closing down the looting connection: Getting dealers aboard.

Although you may feel like you wasted your time I do think you have helped move forward a nascent collector driven approach.

I thank you for your almost patience with my attempts to separate what you say from what others say you say. I'll try not to bother you so much, but I will keep an eye on your blog and keep learning.


Chris Rose

Paul Barford said...

Well, this "frowny teddy bear" suspects you of attempting to put John Hooker's advice to collectors into action:

As you say, "bud of an idea". No I did not "miss" it, it's more or less what everybody has been saying for a long time. Good luck with getting dealers on board. I note you suggest it needs legal change - and I think we can all guess how THAT will go down with the ACCG.

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