Sunday, 15 January 2012

"Collectors" Guild Keeps US Collectors in the Dark

The US organization run by some dugup artefact dealers which claims to be a "Guild" of and for "Collectors" of such items seems to be going about looking after US collectors' interests in a very strange way. It is becoming clear from events over the past few weeks that there are currently a number of ongoing changes in the context in which the no-questions-asked collecting of ancient artefacts has so far operated. These must be confusing and difficult times for that collecting milieu. Collectors wanting to know where they stand, and what the future will hold for them and their collections surely should have somewhere to turn for information and advice.

There are as we know a number of US-based coiney blogs and discussion lists, many of them propagating the ACCG point of view. Are collectors finding the information they need to understand the rapidly changing situation on places like Peter Tompa's "Cultural Property Obbserver" blog? Or the "News" section of the ACCG website? or on the Moneta-L discussion list?

Certainly collectors are being enlisted through these and other resources to join the ACCG-led fight against the CCPIA (implementing the 1970 UNESCO Convention) which places import controls on unlawfully exported artefacts and has provisions for the return of stolen artefacts. They have even brought these people into conflict with their own government over this matter, thus exposing them to the danger of being added to a watch-list in future.

But to what extent is the ACCG making the effort to acquaint collectors with the other problems the collector may face if not very careful about the legality of the purchases they make according to US law? I will set out below a few things that collectors will NOT find being discussed on the coiney blogs. The pattern is such that it is very tempting to see this as a deliberate suppression of information. Are collectors being wilfully misled?

A few weeks back I noted that the journalists who run the Chasing Aphrodite blog had drawn attention (Looted Antiquities at American Museums: An On-Going Crime, law professor argues) to an article of Stephen Urice about cultural property and US law which noted a serious problem for the owners of cultural property of less than clean origins: "Between Rocks and hard Places: Unprovenanced Antiquities and the national Stolen Property Act". This was not picked up by coiney bloggers, as I predicted at the time that it would not be, since it undermined the coiney premise that "provenance does not matter". It seems collectors have lost the chance to read the original article which was originally open access and is now subscription-only.

Then there have been developments in the SLAM mummy mask case which suggests some creative use of US legislation by the government (the first to pick this up was 'White Hat' cultural property lawyer Rick St Hilaire, it received very little attention in collecting circles). There have however since been three cases involving interpretations of US law on imports quite separate from the CCPIA which potentially have, I would say, far reaching consequences for those collecting ancient objects brought into America from other countries by less-than-legal means. There were some paintings going to auction, a painting loaned from a museum, and a whole historic warplane that somebody had managed to sneak through not-so-vigilant US Customs. Again, the possible implications of these cases, or rather the interpretation of law on which they are based, have been totally ignored on the coiney blogs. Why?

Dealers try to convince US collectors that current US law (but again, just the CCPIA) "discriminate" against American collectors because allegedly over here in Europe we can fill our homes with looted artefacts and art taken from neighbouring countries. It seems however that the stereotype of collectors over there of the meaning of a Europe without frontiers is maintained only by a refusal on coiney websites to inform collectors of cases which show that this is not the case. Such as the long-running saga in Switzerland about a coin sold there two years ago at auction which was looted from northern Greece. The collector who bought it without proof of legal origins has just lost it, a fact that coiney blogs are not sharing with their audience of collectors who buy stuff from US dealers without proof of legal origins.

Another myth they like to perpetuate is that non-white "Wiley Oriental Gentlemen" are not capable of looking after the cultural heritage of their countries, they are all corrupt and their museums are badly-run and full of thieves. The inference they draw from that is that the laws intended to get freshly-surfaced items into national collections are "bad" laws, and the stuff is "better off" being exported to teh US where private collectors there can look after the artefacts. In order to uphold this viewpoint, each and every case of damage occurring to objects in the museums of the "Wiley Orientals" and especially insider thefts. These are the staples of blogs like Peter Tompa's or Dave Welsh's "Unidroit-L' discussion list. The same "resources" however are totally silent about analogous events when they take place in the museums, archives and public collections of the USA. This is even more noticeable when they affect numismatic collections, such as the recent court case over thefts from the American Numismatic Association Money Museum. The total silence on the coiney blogs is all the more puzzling because there is an appeal for help (and from whom if not the international numismatic community?) to find the missing coins.

Then we have some more missing information on coins, it seems the American Numismatic Society (where our old friend Rick Witschonke is Curatorial Associate) is for some reason at this moment busily censoring the online records of donations from a certain individual, removing the information about where these particular coins came from. It seems to me that coin collectors thinking of donating research material to a US public collection ought to be aware of the fate that may await their own gifts of generosity if they choose the ANS, and this is something that collectors should have to go somewhere else to find out rather than Paul Barford's blog (and look how popular that post is, there seems to be quite a lot of interest in these behind-the-scenes-doings by the ANS). As readers will know, I make the point about the hypocrisy of dealers invoking the "presumption of innocence" in the case of transactions involving freshly-surfaced artefacts, but they do not apply it themselves to acquisitions from certain collectors the moment a grey cloud appears anywhere near their name. We saw this in the case of the ACCG's own treatment of two affiliated dealers (and benefit auction donors) the moment they seemed to be in trouble with the law (the case has not yet come to trial).

Then there is the raid on the New York International Numismatic Convention on 3rd January and the further developments in this case. There seems every reason to believe - including what appear to be a number of 'strategic leaks' - that this is going to be a watershed case. Yet the coiney blogs are silent, forum moderators are keeping discussions under a tight rein and deleting posts before other members see them. It seems to me that for far too long both US dealers and US collectors felt not only that they were above the law, entitled to do what they wanted in the name of their hobby, even to the extent of suing the US government and spreading all sorts of false information about government officials (and others who they saw as their opponents). Obviously if a group is going to accuse the government of illegal acts (which is what the coin dealers have been saying over the application of the CCPIA for years), they had better be 100% sure that they themselves are 100% inside the law. Otherwise they are opening themselves up to precisely the kind of investigation which it seems to me that coin and antiquity collecting are about to face in the USA over the next few months. The fact that it seems to have caught them all by surprise seems to be due to the fact that they as a milieu have been kept woefully poorly-appraised by their (self-appointed) leaders not only of the law itself, but also recent developments that should have been sending out signals that the status quo was not going to last for ever.

Meanwhile, as if to show the irrelevance of the ACCG, despite all that has been going on in and around the coineysphere, the last post on Tompa's blog is an old one about a guy who will not ship Sicilian coins to the USA (see here) and on Dealer Dave's how restrictions on importation of unlawfully exported coins is "destroying the coin market". Both so CCPIA and so old hat...

Vignette: Byron Reed, an early US coin collector (1870s-1890s), time for a change.


kyri said...

to say that there has been no discussion is not realy true yourself have given links to some discussions in earlier posts.
whenever something like the switzerland seizure happens i allways post a link onto the sites im a member of and i let my views known on the due diligence[or lack of]in the coins/antiquities to the seizure of the drs coins there is a school of thought that they might be fakes[i think this is what david gill has heard and has hinted at on his blog].that would leave alot of people with egg on their faces.

Paul Barford said...

I did not say there has been "no" discussion on any of these topics, I'm discussing them for example. What I am saying (and the title gives a clue) is that a certain group of DEALERS who masquerade as a collectors' "Guild" and say they are only doing what they do in the collectors' interest in fact are demonstrating by AVOIDING these topics (I mentioned their blogs and news section of their website) that their interests lie elsewhere.

Yes, it would indeed leave a lot of people with egg on their faces if the coins had been faked, Weiss and Walker of Nomos, CNG who were selling them for starters. Do you really think they were or do you smell a coiney 'revenge' story?

kyri said...

i had heard whispers as soon as the coins were offerd that at least one was a fake and this is 3 weeks before the seizure,so who knows,they might be sure the truth will come out in the end,at least i hope so.

Paul Barford said...

Well, since both of them are from known dies, I do not think that they really are fakes. This looks like the sort of story that one might expect to be slung around to create a smokescreen of misinformation. The question is, in whose interest is such misinformation? Who is trying to defend what?

And aren't the ACCG very QUIET about all this?

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