Saturday 19 November 2011

Coo-coo coo, the ACCG Code of Ethics is back

After an unknown period of absence, I see that the "ACCG Code of Ethics" is back on their website. The page starts with a blurb: "The private collecting community has long been in need of a national organization and of a stated code of ethics by which members of the fraternity ought to abide". It is unclear whether the noun "fraternity" refers to members of this organization, a brotherhood, or the "private collecting community". Of course the question inevitably arises of why "private" collectors should abide by a different code than "public" collections such as museums. Are ethics relative? Anyway the Code as posted now contains much that actually reveals the "Collectors' Guild" to be a front for a dealers' guild:
The code, as adopted by the Board of Directors in 2005 and revised in June of 2010, includes (note that - what else is there? PMB) the following points:
1. Coin collectors and sellers will not knowingly purchase coins stolen from private or public collections or reasonably suspected to be the direct products of illicit excavations in contravention of national patrimony laws. Coin collectors and sellers will also comply with all applicable customs laws.
2. Coin Collectors and Sellers will protect, preserve and share knowledge about coins in their collections.
3. Coin Sellers will not knowingly sell modern forgeries of ancient coins, and all ancient counterfeits or Renaissance type copies will be clearly identified as such.
4. Coin Sellers will disclose all known defects, including tooling, re-engraving or reconstruction of coins they sell.
5. Coin Sellers will not misrepresent the value of coins they buy or sell.
Points 3-5 need no comment, they are common to most dealers' codes of practice, these govern business practice. A code for COLLECTORS would in their place have other principles, such as their undertaking (point 4) not to undertake any kind of conservation/restoration work on the items they curate which do not comply with modern conservation standards, and keeping the coins of which they are stewards in proper conditions. Point three might include that if a collector has coins in the collection which are known to be fakes, that they are either separated from the rest, or properly catalogued and labelled so that if they are not around themselves to dispose of the coins (for example, death or imprisonment) their executors do not unknowingly pass fakes onto the market as authentic coins.

Point two is interesting, what is actually meant by Coin Collectors and Sellers will protect, preserve and share knowledge about coins in their collections? That knowledge includes of course collecting history. A dealer that fails to pass on to the buyer their full knowledge of the collecting history is therefore in breach of the ACCG Code of Ethics. This Code obliges those who abide by it to "protect" such knowledge, "preserve" it, as well as to "share" it. The Code is one step short of saying that the ethical collector compiles a full catalogue (like a museum's accession register) of the collection, which preserves and allows the dissemination of knowledge about the identity, sources and origins of the material as well as any conservation treatment it has undergone since accession.

Principle 1 is the one which infringes on the areas one ACCG dealer has called "Cloud Cuckoo Land". There's nothing particularly remarkable of course in collectors and dealers not "knowingly purchas[ing] coins stolen from private or public collections". That is just common sense, common decency and what the law requires.

The principle "Coin collectors and sellers will also comply with all applicable customs laws" again has no place in a code of ethics if it merely means "coin collectors will abide by the laws of their own country". This is what I think we all suspect that "applicable customs laws" means coming from the pen of the ACCG. Sayles later clarified this last year to have precisely that meaning. "All applicable customs laws" however could mean all laws applicable to the transactions which led to the coins coming onto the (US) market, which is quite a different matter.

The injunction: "not knowingly purchase coins [...] reasonably suspected to be the direct products of illicit excavations in contravention of national patrimony laws" is of course exactly what is needed. What however is the ACCG criterion for "reasonably suspicion of being the direct products of illicit excavations"? For example Gloucestershire nighthawk Slimey Joe Thugwit might put his loot on ebay, and how is an ACCG member to exercise "reasonable suspicion"? I think the case is somewhat different in the case of a coin which seems likely to have come from a country which has stricter laws on illicit excavations than England. Reasonable suspicion of the surfacing of a coin or other dugup artefact on the market involving the breaking of national patrimony laws would have to be measured by different standards. Is it enough in such cases for the collector to put in their catalogue "I bought this from Honest Joe Slugwit, the reputable Punxsutawney dealer, so it can't be looted"?

Also does it make a difference if the coin bought is a 'direct product' of illegal digging (looting) or iif it has been "laundered' by passing (undocumented) through several other hands before it "surfaces" where the collector finances the future transactions of this nature by buying it? At what stage does participating in a chain of transactions involving at their source illegal activity become "ethical"?

It is NOT only in "Cloud Cuckoo Land" that responsible collectors would do due diligence to make sure that the coins Punxsutawney Joe Slugwit is selling them do not come from fresh and illegal diggings in Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Caria, Jordan or the Nile delta among other places.

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