Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Are Coin Collectors Getting a "Fair Hearing" in the US?

Californian dugup ancient coin dealer Dave Welsh ("Classical coins") has published his "letter to Congress" online. In it he moans about how coin dealers and collectors like him are ill-served by the administration, and that the legislative intent of a group of philistine 1980s lawmakers is being thwarted to the detriment of the no-questions-asked US trade in dugup artefacts from other countries. He suggests that:
[the] rights of concerned citizens interested in ancient artifacts are ignored [...] Everyone on every side of the antiquities collecting issue ought to be able to agree that collectors are entitled to a fair hearing. We are obviously not getting it, [...].
Is that true? That rather depends how one interprets that word "we".

The ACCG claim that there are 50 000 collectors of dugup ancient coins in the US. When there is an MOU request in the pipeline they have been able (by fallacious insinuation, outright lies and misdirection it is true) to get at the most about 2000 of them to comment - all saying "no". What about the other 48 000 who choose not to comment?

If we break down the CCPIA and the 'MOU process' to its fundamental element, it is about illicitly exported cultural property from a member-state of the 1970 Convention. If an importer has an export licence from the source country, the object asses through US borders and into a coin dealer's shop without a hitch. If the object was dug up in that source country and exported to another country and then somebody in the States buys it, a declaration (as far as I can see as far as the CCPIA is concerned could be handwritten in blue crayon on the back of a envelope) is needed that it was exported before the MOU came into force. Basically nothing could be simpler. Especially since EVERY country which becomes a state party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention by doing so accepts Article 3, any transaction not involving the proper export procedure (which is what the whole convention is about) is ILLICIT. Since the US accepted the document in Septemeber 1983, every transaction involving smuggled artefacts from Bulgaria (ie objects that left Bulgaria illegally without following the export licencing procedures) has been illicit, and (since that is the type of vesting legislation Bulgaria had for most of that period) involved property stolen from the bulgarian state and Bulgarian people.

Everybody who sends a comment saying "no" to the proposal (even if they restrict it "just" to coins) is basically saying that they want the trade in objects with no documentation of legal export from the source country to continue. Put simply, they are saying that they want to be able to (continue to buy) artefacts smuggled into the US from Bulgaria. (Let us bear in mind that Bulgaria is one of the clearest examples where this smuggling is in the hands of organized criminal gangs, and that US dealers doing business with them and their middlemen are obviously putting US money into the hands of these criminals.)

Are these the collectors Congress is "not giving a fair hearing to"?

Should Congress be giving a fair hearing to such people?

[Or should they be placed on a watch list and their future mail from abroad closely scrutinised for illegal items?]

What about the other 48 000 collectors who want no part in the ACCG's "Say no to an anti-smuggling MOU" campaign? What is the reason they are keeping out of the public comment process? Do they too want the US market full of smuggled goods flowing unchecked straight from the looter, criminal middlemen and straight onto the US market which we are told is probably the biggest in the world for this type of commodity? Or would they like to see the US market supplied with material of wholly licit origins? Are they afraid to express a contrary view to the ACCG lobbyists because of censure in the coiney community? That they'd end up being excluded from coiney forums? Are they afraid that defending their view against the loud and probably aggressive philistinism that it would provoke is not worth the trouble? Is this why they are keeping quiet?

What therefore we are seeing is a loud 4% of the estimated total (50 000 collectors) who are shouting their heads off that they do not want to see coin smuggling from Bulgaria stopped. They are invited to submit public comment so the CPAC can take their views into account in its deliberations (which are restricted in scope by the CCPIA).

When we analyse what they are saying however, most of them do not take the opportunity to do that, to inform the CPAC in a manner that the information can be used in their deliberations, but send a whole load of other comments. Some of them are based on a total misapprehension of what the MOU involves (some collectors see it as a total ban on ALL coins from Bulgaria, some are concerned that it requires the "provenances from auction houses" of the coins to be known). Others feel they must inform the CPAC that there are already "lots" of these coins in the US (totally irrelevant to the purpose of the CPAC, since it is asked to consider what to do about fresh imports, not the coins already on the market in the US). basically it becomes clear once you start reading through these comments that the people writing have not taken any time at all to find out just what it is they are commenting on, or pay any attention to the background (reasons for) and scope of the original request. Are these the people who are "not getting a fair hearing"?

It seems to me that every collector in the US with a computer and the ("no child left behind") ability to read has every opportunity to find out exactly what the whole MOU matter is about. No "books" involved, just a few mouse clicks. It seems to me totally clear that the percentage that have actually even attempted to do that in the United States of America is painfully low.

Are the rest the ones who are "not getting a fair hearing"? If they have not even gone to the bother of finding out what it is they are asked to comment upon, not even bothered to work out why, not even bothered to think of something on their own to say, but merely copy and paste what a dealers' lobbyist told them to, then what kind of a "fair hearing" do they want? Perhaps what should be accorded attention is that for some reason, if past trends are repeated, despite repeated pleas from dealers and their lobbyists, upwards of 48 000 US collectors of ancient coins will stay well out of the ACCG-run campaign which has the ultimate effect of portraying the whole milieu as bootleg coin buying, plank-ignorant, could-not-care-less philistines.

Vignette: What say the 48 000?


Dave Welsh said...

Mr. Barford presents the issue of provenance documentation in a manner suggesting that it could be written on the back of an envelope with a crayon. This is both untrue and misleading.

Provenance documentation which satisfies the requirements of US MOUs (granted in accordance with the 1970 UNESCO Convention) requires documentary evidence that the object(s) in question were either exported with a permit issued by the "nation of origin," i.e. the nation of presumptive origin (the state with whom the MOU was negotiated, not the state from which the object is actually exported) or documentary proof that the object was outside the borders of the "nation of presumptive origin" on the date at which the MOU was announced.

Mr. Barford presents the burden of proof involved in a manner that implies that it is insignificant. This is very far from reality. The burdensome costs of certified documentary proof are well known to everyone who has had to produce such documents to satisfy legal requirements, in situations including passport applications and employment applications for governmental and law enforcement positions.

Documenting provenance according to the standard required by the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention is standard practice for museums seeking to avoid controversy regarding origins of their holdings. According to the best information presently available, this standard requires about 40 hours of curator effort per object for those important objects whose ownership can be traced.

In the case of ancient coins, very few coins offered in the present numismatic market have traceable origins that could satisfy the 1970 UNESCO Convention. This does not mean that they were recently illicitly excavated.

Whilst there are indeed numerous recently illicitly excavated coins in the market at any given time, those who are experts in the numismatic market understand that it comprises immense numbers of coins found since the days of the Renaissance, as well as specimens that have always been held in treasuries and have never been excavated. Any allegation that recently illicitly excavated coins dominate the numismatic market is both foolish and ignorant.

The cost of documentation is prohibitive for objects of small value such as most ancient coins. One way to convey this difficulty is to think of a vintage stamp collection of issues more than 100 years old, which according to the 1970 UNESCO Convention is subject to exactly the same requirements as a collection of ancient coins.

Nearly everyone has at some point known a stamp collector who has assembled a collection of postage stamps many of which were issued prior to 1911. I did so myself as a student, and in doing so learned a great deal about the political structure of the world prior to the First World War. Collectors acquire thousands of stamps which they arrange in albums that may include hundreds of pages each displaying scores of stamps.

Really serious stamp collectors, of whom Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a conspicuous example, may assemble very valuable collections comprising large numbers of albums and immense numbers of individual stamps.

Now consider the burden involved in documenting the origins of every stamp in a collection such as that of President Roosevelt. Who can imagine that he would have considered attempting to do that? He would instead have delegated the task to the State Department, which would have responded that it was impossible.

This is the reality ideologues such as Mr. Barford gloss over and grossly misrepresent in such a manner as to mislead the unwary into thinking that provenance is easily obtained, natural and an essential aspect of licit origin. Documentable provenance is actually very difficult and often impossible to obtain, costly to record and irrelevant to the interests of nearly everyone other than anticollecting ideologues.

Paul Barford said...

Well, this is a pretty typical example of the sort of thing I am talking about... I write about whether coin collectors are or or are not getting a „fair hearing”. One of the reasons that the voice of the few is easy to ignore is because when they try to make a "contribution to the debate" (ha ha) they cannot focus on the issues. Here we have a perfect example.

I write in passing (and a little tongue in cheek) on the limited documentary requirements these people are protesting about and instead of Welsh addressing the actual issue I discussed, we suffer a lengthy essay on stamp collecting which clearly is nothing at all to do with what I wrote.

I would be inclined to reject this as entirely not on topic and too long, but two days ago Welsh rejected a perfectly cogent and very short comment of mine to a blog post of his about me, but posing a question he could not answer and I’d not like to give him an excuse for doing it by rejecting his.

Nevertheless I propose restricting my reply to the "blue crayon" remark. To go into the stamp collecting analogy really is going too far off the topic. I think anyway that I’ve already addressed those issues several times over the years, if Welsh cannot be bothered to keep up, I can’t see why should bother explaining it to him again...

Now, blue crayons.

Welsh is trying the „Tompa-provenance-sleight-of-hand” distraction tactic here. Let’s stick to what the CCPIA actually says.

I was clearly referring to the CCPI [19 United States Code SECTION 2601 et seq.], specifically to section 2606: Import Restrictions, its (a) Documentation of lawful exportation, and more specifically to its (c) Definition of satisfactory evidence: (1) for purposes of subsection (b)(2)(A) of this section, and: (2) for purposes of subsection (b)(2)(B) of this section.

Now, if Mr Welsh (who I am sure knows the laws concerning antiquities of his own country by heart) would recall what is needed if you’ve not got an export licence and the US customs stop your stuff under the CCPIA.... It is basically a declaration under oath by the importer AND a statement by the seller. Unlike the laws of Belize (check it out) there is no proscribed form of such a statement, and therefore nothing to stop it being in blue crayon on the back of an envelope. Obviously it would look more official and professional if it were not. The importer gets ninety days (“or such longer period as may be allowed by the Secretary for good cause shown”) - 2605(b)(2) - to come up with this piece of paper and make a declaration. Hardly arduous.

Nobody is talking about any provenance research here, the major part of Welsh’s text is an over-wordy red herring (like just about everything else whingeing coineys trundle out in justification for their no-questions-asked dealings).

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