Monday 8 August 2011

Dealer: "Prohibition" won't Work, There's Always the US Postal Service

US dealers are fond of referring to efforts to restrict the flow of fresh dugup artefacts to the US to those items shown to have been legally exported, or exported before the promulgation of certain legislation as "artefact prohibition". This implies that cutting off the supply of illicit material onto the market in effect stops that market. Only a coiney would not draw the conclusion that if things are that bad, something should be done about it. No legitimate market can be built on a supply consisting to a large measure of material of illicit origin, that stands to reason. But as I have shown, it seems coineys do not really reason about such things like normal people.

Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh is a case in point. He has this morning published a text called "Coin Prohibition: a Historical Parallel" which compares what he calls a prohibition of legal coin trade with the attempted prohibition of alcohol in the US (1919-1933), based on a programme he had seen on the History Channel the night before. He regards this as "mandatory watching for everyone on every side of the present controversy over collecting ancient coins".
I was struck by the parallels between Prohibition and efforts to restrict (and ultimately end) the international trade in ancient artifacts such as coins, and their possession by private collectors.
Hmm, except there is in reality no such ("anticollecting") "effort" in the US. This is a convenient, and rarely questioned by them, coiney myth. What is in reality being urged by critics of the current form of the markets is that dealers and collectors acquire only items that have been licitly-obtained. But admitting that of course would not serve the coin dealer's arguments in favour of the maintenance of the no-questions-asked market.
[In the US] temperance ideologues were dismayed to discover that Prohibition turned out to be a monumental, disastrous failure. Even they could clearly see that very little good and a great deal of harm had been caused by their unrealistic campaign to legislate morality. [...] Should present-day activists ever succeed in enacting legislation restricting (and ultimately ending) the international trade in ancient artifacts such as coins, and their possession by private collectors, there is no doubt in my mind that such anticollecting laws would be even more impossible to enforce than the Volstead Amendment.
Welsh then gives a revealing insight (written in the PRESENT TENSE) into the steps that can be taken by coin buyers and sellers to circumvent Art 3, 6 and 8 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property:
Coins are much smaller that containers holding equivalent values of alcoholic beverages. They can readily be concealed in what appear to be ordinary letters sent through the international postal system without declaration of contents. It would not be feasible to intercept any significant fraction of coins illicitly mailed, and there would be other ways to bring them across the porous borders of nations such as the United States. If the US cannot even stop illegal immigration, how can anyone imagine that it would be possible to prevent illicit entry of small objects such as coins?
I have myself received a package of (fake) ancient coins from the US declared by its coiney sender merely as "metal stampings" (sic) and think this sort of thing is common practice. I have written on the blog several times of the alarmingly porous borders of the US, referring to them as a barrier of bubbles for most antiquities. So is it currently legal to send "illicitly mailed" items through the US postal service? Certainly the later will have lists of prohibited and restricted items, perhaps it is about time more attention was paid to getting antiquities added to this and the legality of possession by dealers and collectors linked to the legality of the means used to physically transfer ownership and possession (like proof it was transported by the US postal service in a package clearly marked as containing ancient artefacts). Welsh then goes off into flights of fantasy:
I doubt however that the obviously inevitable failure of "coin Prohibition" would be similarly recognized and responsibly admitted to by the moralists presently campaigning for its enactment. They are not motivated by the sincere social concerns of the Temperance Movement, but by an ideology founded upon the notions that archaeology is the most important human activity and that State Socialist principles should apply to possession of ancient artifacts, which must be kept in institutional and public custody.
Good grief. First of all, he has adduced no evidence there is any movement to totally prohibit ancient coins in private hands. Then we should note the demonisation of the critics of the no-questions-asked antiquities market, they are admittedly "moralists", but not actually motivated by "sincere... concerns", but a "state socialist" ideology. There is a quite serious inaccuracy in saying that the concern is a State Socialist "archeologie über alles" as ACCG ideologues used to put it, when the concern is for the sustainable preservation and management of the archaeological resource. In the same way is the concern for rhinos is not based on any "Ökologie über alles" but a concern for providing protection from poaching and other deleterious effects to the end of sustainably maintaining rhino communities in their natural habitats as long as possible, so they do not go the same way as the herds of bison once on the US prairies. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether concern for conservation of anything is some form of "state socialist principles". Certainly Welsh is among those in the ACCG equating archaeological resource preservationists with "Nazis" and they themselves claim to be "Internationalists", so there seems some ideological confusion in their camp.

Welsh then warns:
There would however be significant negative effects from criminalizing the private possession and distribution of ancient coins (sic - this is getting repetitive), just as there were negative effects from criminalizing the private possession and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Collectors would be faced with the dilemma of having to cease their collecting activities (and perhaps even surrender their collections) or become criminals, while law-abiding dealers such as myself would face a similar dilemma.
So, at the moment, a US dealer who currently buys and trades in smuggled and looted coins is according to this ACCG dealer not in some way dealing ultimately or perhaps even directly, with criminals? How so? They are surely, whether they are doing it intentionally or not, putting money straight into the pockets of culture criminals and illegal history trashers. Note the sly manipulation, inventing people who allegedly want to criminalise the mere possession of any ancient coin, whether licit or illicitly on the market, Welsh alarmistically depicts the direct aim as being criminalising "collectors". But for a collector intentionally or not to commit any kind of criminal act by buying stolen or illegally transported coins (unless they dig them up themselves with a metal detector) they can only do so by buying from a dealer who has such coins on offer and - carefully avoiding asking awkward questions - acquired them from a dodgy source. Welsh also says:
I especially commend [viewing the History Channel programme to which he referred] to those advocating anticollecting views in the hope that they may come to realize how far divorced their expectations are, from what would actually occur if they got what they presently think they want.
Note he does not refer us to any authoritative books, just a TV programme, and just one on which we are expected to formulate a new view on the wisdom of combating the purchase of illicitly obtained artefacts. Some of us however have a view of the wider context in that we've lived and worked in Islamic countries - in my case Egypt - and can see that legislation against alcohol in a modern state does not have to lead to the same results as in the USA. Perhaps the problem is not with the laws themselves, but American society and mores? The parallel is a false an ahistorical one unless its proposer is going to look outside his own backyard and look at it in a wider global context - the same context as we should see the US end of the global trade in illicit artefacts which the "collectors' rights" lobbyists like dugup coin dealer Welsh would for some reason best known to himself like to prevent the rest of us trying to get restricted.


LordOfTheManor said...

Dave Welsh aside, the sneering use of "coineys", "coin fondlers" , etc. does absolutely nothing to promote serious consideration of your points by anyone who might self-identify as a collector or numismatist. In addition, there appears to be no room for independent scholarship or even academic interest by anyone outside of your self-appointed formal academic caretakers. Why do you assume every US citizen interested in classical numismatics, or heaven-forbid "collecting", advocates looting? Your overly broad, scathing remonstrances against the US (without rational arguments or specific evidence other than Mr. Welsh's musings - very un-academic)reveal as much ignorance on your part about the facts over here as you claim we have on the topic. Perhaps everyone needs to take a deep breath and listen more.

Paul Barford said...

Well, Mr or Ms "Lord of the Manor", this blog is about antiquity collectors, not for them. I have found that the majority of collectors have closed minds over certain issues and I long ago gave up the idea that they can be persuaded.

This over-broad definition of "independent scholarship" is a problem, and is in itself the reason for using the term "coineys" and "coin fondlers" to call it into question.

What do you mean by this term in the context of what the majority of people accumulating these things actually do? I have asked this question a number of times and never received anything that could be considered a proper answer. In particular, why accept data of unknown origin into this "discipline"? Tell me, what does the average collector in the US do to prevent financing looting and smuggling? You'll tell me no doubt that they go to "reputable dealers", but I ask on what that reputation is built if they supply coins with - in most cases - absolutely no documentation of legal origins, legal export and collecting history. You cannot base any discipline worth the name on illegally-obtained and unchecked data.

People like Mr Welsh act as ambassadors for the US, if we see them unchallenged by others doing and saying reprehensible things in the name of "Our [American, Divine Manifest] rights and Constitution", then I think it fair to consider this goes much deeper in American attitudes to the rest of the world. Further evidence of that same US attitude towards the rest of the world, and rampant hypocrisy in the US ruling elite, we see daily in the news.

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