Friday 5 August 2011

Daily Mail Archaeology: the "Archaeological Crank" and the Rhinocerus

In his discussion of tabloid newspaper archaeology, Washington anti-archaeological preservation campaigner Tompa suggests that
"Archaeological cranks complain that the UK does not give them exclusive rights over the past".
One really wonders whether he misrepresents the issues being discussed accidentally (through simply not understanding) or whether he does it deliberately. I suppose which answer you choose hinges on whether you think the guy stupid or not.

Conserving rhinos, including preventing those who feel it would be nice to have their own pet rhino in their back yard to "look after and preserve" from illegally snatching them, is not a case of ecologists wanting to secure "exclusive rights to rhinos" but a matter of people wanting to preserve more than just isolated animals but rather communities of them in a habitat. What stands in the way of that, like archaeological sites, is the commercial value some unscrupulous people pay on the extraction of certain dismembered parts from that habitat. The no-questions-asked buyers of rhino horns and no-questions-asked buyers of freshly dugup coins have much in common and a shared responsibility for the destruction of something precious.

It cannot be stressed enough that coins end up on an illicit market only because collectors and dealers agree to buy them from criminals and trade in illicitly-obtained coins. No other reason.


Chris Exx said...

Hi Paul,

Are you making a distinction here between illicit markets for coins and licit ones? Is there a market for ancient coins that is licit from your perspective? My understanding is that in your view it is a matter of the documentation of each individual coin rather than what marketplace or dealer the coin comes from.

I think the main reason most collectors end up with illicit coins is that there is no mechanism to distinguish most licit coins from illict ones. If a coin is obviously illicit most collectors would avoid buying it for totally self interested reasons of not wanting to invest in something that they don't have clear ownership of. That is certainly the case for me.

I am, however, becoming increasingly incredulous at the explanations of dealers why they are not keeping enough records to make an evidence based judgement as to licitness of individual coins. And why they think collectors don't deserve to have enough information to defend their ownership of the coins they buy. Who would buy a car from somebody that wouldn't aid you in verifying a proper title? Many collectors annually spend amounts in the same range as a car purchase. Or more.

I think dealers using you as a whipping boy can easily backfire. I went to see what all the fuss was about. Although it certainly took me a while to get my head around it, you have important information for us.

I had no idea of the volume of cultural property being repatriated. I thought it happened only in exceptional cases. Through your blogs and your links I have been enlightenened to the risk collectors take that changing international standards and enforcement will place our collections under if we don't aggressively demand better proof of the origin of our coins. And possibly even if we do have proof because changes in law seem to sometimes apply retroactively.

I see no reason why the relationship between archaeologists and ancient coin collectors need be antagonistic. We ignore or downplay or misrepresent your concerns at our own risk. And I doubt that archaeologists invented this issue themselves. They are certainly concerned but the driving force seems to be the source countries' greater ability to assert themselves in the international community.

Chris Rose

Paul Barford said...

What kind of question is that? Yes there could be (rather than "is") a market for ancient coins that is licit from my perspective. The problem is the way dugup coins are bought and sold and collected today is very far from that.

"there is no mechanism to distinguish most licit coins from illict ones" yes there is, it's called determining that the coin has been licitly obtained, that it actually is what the dealer says it is. Not doing that is what I call the "no-questions-asked" purchase of coins, which nis how I refer to the market that allows illicitly-obtained items to freely (and as you say indistinguishably) circulate with the rest, thereby falsely presenting them as "licit by default". If there is no satisfactory answer to the question, the responsible collector does not buy.

"the explanations of dealers why they are not keeping enough records to make an evidence based judgement as to licitness of individual coins"

Try because in reality everybody knows that in all likelihood, not so far down the line they were all illicitly obtained. It cuts through all the crap.

"changes in law seem to sometimes apply retroactively"
No, they do not. But fashions change, a responsible collector in the future might not want to touch with a bargepole coins you bought with a light heart.

That's where I am headed anyway. This has got to come from collectors THINKING and deciding for themselves what direction the hobby should be heading. Are collectors siding with the poachers or participating in a sustainable use of the resource?

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