Tuesday 8 November 2011

Wagsant on "Antiquities control"

In the comments under the recent Forbes article about antiquities collecting there are currently two comments, one by Larry Rothfield about establishing a registration system to identify material already on the established market (making it possible to spot freshly-surfaced looted items). The idea is a no-brainer [as are the REAL reasons why antiquities dealers oppose it so vehemently]. The other comment - apparently from just such a dealer - is telling. It is obvious that behind the screen name "wgsant" is the pen of Wayne Gerald Sayles, veteran antiquities dealer from Missouri. Commenting on the Forbes article titled "There's Big Money And The Need For Reform In The Antiquities Trade" he concentrates on the first aspect and clumsily skips the second. [Sayles] writes:
Big $ values always stimulate interest and commentary about cultural property and its control. The resulting laws and mindset unfortunately extend down-chain to the most common of utilitarian objects like clay pots and coins that survive in huge quantities. As a result, many collectors of relatively insignificant objects are characterized as supporters of looting and pillaging. They are not, and the failure to make this distinction is a travesty in itself.
What is in fact a travesty is the utter refusal of those involved in this trade to admit what the real problems is. What Sayles depicts lightly as "cultural property control" is of course not exercised for its own sake, any more than kiddie porn control is exercised because the cops and customs officers want to be the only people who can look at the stuff (during their investigations) legally. Whatever both paedophiles and collectors on their closed access forums may assert, the laws governing the passage of this material from hand to hand are in reality there to protect other things, other rights.

Is the trade in these so-called "minor artefacts" like "clay pots and coins" really so "insignificant"? Today on just ONE internet portal selling precisely one of these categories of so-called "minor" artefacts in just ONE country where they are sold, we finds there are "159 Ancient [dugup antiquities] Dealers" offering 107,679 Items with a total value of $23,418,999. Twenty-three point four million dollars is not an "insignificant" sum (enough to buy a combat-ready Chinook helicopter, or - to put the scale of this in a more proper context - keep the PAS running for 12 years at current costs). More to the point, 107 000 holes in the archaeological record just to put this week's coins on offer in one venue in one country is not "insignificant damage" when it is an ongoing erosive process. This one portal selling coins of undocumented provenance represents very major damage to the archaeological record. V-coins was set up in 2008, but ebay through which hundreds of thousands of similarly undocumented antiquities pass annually has been going since 1995. The scale of items passing undocumented from the (finite and fragile) archaeological record onto the global antiquities market (and the history-gobbling US one in particular) is incontrovertibly MASSIVE. Holes are being dug all over the place to keep the market which Mr Sayles represents supplied with fresh commodities, of major saleability and minor 'potboiler' status.

It is this damage that is the problem. It is this issue from which Wayne Sayles
wishes to detract the attention of "Forbes" readers in his comment above. The issue is not about in which country portable antiquities should be, which borders they cross, it is about a far more fundamental issue, the origins of the portable antiquities and what was done to the place they came from and how they came on the market which are the subject of scrutiny.

Yes Mr Sayles (who claims to have done an archaeology 101 course at a Wisconsin university), the "resulting laws and mindset" do indeed apply to all "portable antiquities" which are looted from archaeological sites to supply the collectors market. For the "most common of utilitarian objects like clay pots and coins that survive in huge quantities" are archaeological evidence while they are in the archaeological record (ground) and cease to be the moment they are hoiked out to join many thousands others of undocumented and freshly-surfaced dugups in a dealer's stockroom. Like that of Sayles and Lavender - where DID all that stuff come from, really? It is the "most common of utilitarian objects like clay pots and coins that survive in huge quantities" which keep the market ticking over, keep dealers like Mr Sayles in business. It is the affordability in the era of large scale commercial looting of archaeological sites of the "most common of utilitarian objects like clay pots and coins that survive in huge quantities" which allows the market to expand, persuading more and more individuals that they too an afford a "piece of history" in their homes and emulate and get the kudos in a small way of being collectors like Levy and White. What Sayles is arguing is that the vast bulk of the transactions on the no-questions-asked market should remain unregulatable, should remain no-questions-asked. That is precisely what he set up the ACCG to fight for.

Sayles bemoans the situation that [as a result of the fact that archaeological evidence and the objects of conservationists' efforts are not defined by the commercial value of the elements traded]: "many collectors of relatively insignificant objects are characterized as supporters of looting and pillaging". Note the sleight of hand. Sayles likes to pretend (note the name of the dealers' lobbying group he set up in 2004) that it is just collectors who are allegedly "victimised" thus. The DEALERS are as guilty as collectors, if not more so; who buys the stuff with undocumented provenances on a dodgy market? Who will not declare their sources, or reveal what process was used to ascertain (and verify) kosher provenance? Who actively discourages any discussion of these issues (even on the closed coiney forums)? Dealers, dealers, dealers.

There is absolutely no doubt, given the current state of the no-questions-asked antiquities market, collectors who buy freshly surfaced material without ascertaining and verifying it has a clean collecting history are indeed guilty of supporting the looting, pillaging and smuggling and trading of looted and pillaged artefacts. That is irrespective of whether the items concerned are the "most common of utilitarian objects like clay pots and coins" that are looted "in huge quantities" or whether it is a one-off pot like the Euphranios krater (pulled from the same tomb by a robber as many other more "utilitarian" vessels which also end up on the clandestine market). Or an Athenian deka that might (arguably) be found in a Turkish hoard with many thousand other more "mundane" issues. It is not the coin that matters, it is the context; once separated from the rest and smuggled into the US its just a chunk of metal (which is not to say that those handling it all down the chain of illegal activity should not be punished - they all should end up in jail, I'd like to see a few US coin dealers in a Turkish or Bulgarian jail for knowingly handling stolen property).

Sayles assures the readers of "Forbes" that, as long as the portable antiquities traded no-questions-asked are bulk lots of "relatively insignificant objects", neither collectors [and, by extension, the dealers who supply them] are guilty of being "supporters of looting and pillaging [or I, presume, illicit transactions in antiquities and smuggling]". He says the failure to make a distinction between these peddlars of plundered history and those dealing in "significant" objects is some kind of a "travesty". I rather think that word applies to the veteran antiquity dealer's arguments here.


Anonymous said...

Haha! There is even a "VCoins Dealer Code of Ethics" www.vcoins.com/coe.asp. stating "all dealers are legally obligated to operate their businesses in accordance with applicable local, state, and national commercial laws.

At(9) it is outwritten: "I will not knowingly deal in stolen numismatic items. I will report such items to the proper authorities if they are offered to me."

13) refers even to unsubstantiated provenance: "I will not intentionally misrepresent items I sell, including the use of misleading images, historical conjecture, unsubstantiated provenance or pedigree, or other tactics that may artificially inflate the perceived value of an item."

It would be worth to make a detailed study of how all these companies are able to operate, most of them in the US and UK it seems. They sell all kinds of antiquities, not only coins. Thanks, Paul, for speaking out!

Paul Barford said...

I've already done somewhere a breakdown of that "code of ethics".

13 is a laugh isn't it, "increases the value" when they all of them have no trouble at all selling any of their stuff with no pedigree at all. There obviously is - in reality, not dealers' fantasy - no added value in pedigree at all, otherwise they (coiney collectors and coiney dealers) would all be going to great lengths to preserve it, to preserve value.

Have a look at Welsh's "reply". Pathetic.

Larry Rothfield said...

I am glad you think a registration system is a no-brainer, but I did want to differ with you on the question of whether dealers oppose it vehemently. One of the most notorious dealers, Hicham Aboutaam, has said in print, in the New York Times, that he favors a registry. On the other hand, some important heritage protection advocates OPPOSE the idea of a registry because they fear it would be designed in a way that would allow for cheating and/or make life easier for dealers who could still sell antiquities under the table. I am not in favor of a registry unless it is carefully designed and -- crucially -- linked to a requirement that only registered antiquities could be sold and to a tax on all sales over a threshold price.

Chris Exx said...

I don't think that you are right that pedigree does not increase value. Perhaps you are being ironic. I certainly prefer coins with pedigree. And those coins do go for significantly more money at auction. Besides ensuring that the coins were not recently looted, the pedigree is often a connection with famous collectors and collections. Provenance to a hoard or find spot is incredibly important to numismatic studies.

The fact that pedigree is intentionally destroyed is, in my opinion, the strongest evidence that a large portion of ancient coins on the market are looted. Hiding looting is the only reasonable explanation for erasing the source of coins.

Seizing coins at borders is a haphazard and unreliable way to fight illicit coins since there is no way to distinguish the licit from illicit. It also appears that a simple statement from the shipper may be sufficient for coins to gain entry. What we really need is some way to register licit coins so they can be distinguished from illicit ones. At the moment lack of documentation does not mean much since there is no recognized way of documenting the licitness of any ancient coin.

Chris Rose

Paul Barford said...

Chris, welcome back, long time no write. If pedigree actually gave value in the coin market, you'd get more coins with pedigrees (real or faked). The fact that there are so few is evidence that it has no commercial value. How many hoards are (actually) scattered on the US market, but without any possibility of reconstructing it in its entirety? I've spotted quite a few coin "clusters" on V-coins (scattered between different dealers) which certainly give the impression that another hoard has recently "surfaced" on the market.

"The fact that pedigree is intentionally destroyed is, in my opinion, the strongest evidence that a large portion of ancient coins on the market are looted. Hiding looting is the only reasonable explanation for erasing the source of coins."
Indeed, I agree 100%. Dealers have all sorts of excuses, but none of the really sound all that convincing.

Seizing coins at the borders is intended to stop MORE illicit coins coming onto the market. Art 3 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention is what should be being applied in the US, but guess why it isn't?

But until it is (if it ever will be) surely the most RESPONSIBLE dealers and RESPONSIBLE collectors is to allow authorities to stop more and more
of them coming in, month after month, year after year. Surely that is the least they can do. It seems a pretty little thing to ask of (responsible) collectors and dealers, doesn't it? So why are lots of them supporting the ACCG when it tries to stop this happening? What does that say about US collectors of dugup ancient coins? The MOUs comprise no problem whatsoever to the importer who has acquired coins with the relevant paperwork as set out in the CCPIA (two types are permissible) like they would with certain other types of goods - like used cars for example.

Anonymous said...


while checking the current CPAC @ http://exchanges.state.gov/heritage/culprop/committee.html there are two vacant positions as of October 31, 2011. One expert each in the international sale of cultural property and in archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, or related fields is missing. Are there not enough candidates to fill these positions?

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