Saturday 22 September 2012

Weiss: "US Collectors Should Lead by Example"

It was with great interest I read the text of Dr Arnold-Peter Weiss (‘Caveat Emptor: A Guide to Responsible Coin Collecting’ ANS magazine 2012, issue 3, pp. 35-41). This has about 3,5 pages of text (the rest are glossy photos not entirely related to the topic). In the introductory paragraph, Dr Weiss declares that his recent “experience” has taught him that “foreign cultural property laws” do matter within the US – of which he claims he was previously unaware. He says this has caused him to “do some serious thinking”, and he is sharing his thoughts “in hopes of increasing awareness of the need to promote responsible collecting of ancient coins”. Having said that, it is remarkable how little of this text reflects in any way Weiss’ own personal experiences, with all the coins he handled (including some known to have entered the ANS collections). Why is this?

How remarkable to see Weiss saying “I would hope that over time a guide for best practice can be established” (“and this effort is a first step in this direction”). Well, how much time do numismatists – slow-thinking though  they may be – to create such guidelines if “Petrarch was collecting coins”? Pathetic. The Weiss ‘Guide’ is summarized in just six points [p. 41], which are offered as “a set of practical rules, which are not a legal manual but my own personal opinion on how to deal with this issue". These six points are inexplicably confused for an author already with "over 110 peer-reviewed medical articles and 5 books" under his belt, but their gist is: 
1) ‘Research’ the coin’s collecting history (auction catalogues)
2) Ask the dealer questions – get any old paperwork to verify information on claimed history, especially vague references to a previous “collection”,
3) look for real, not fake ‘cabinet toning’,
4) Know the laws,
5) leave coins alone that ‘feel wrong’,
6) Avoid coins appearing in multiples as if from a recent unreported hoard.
In answer to the criticisms of naysayers (mostly fellow dealers) that a more ethical approach will, instead of a new beginning, lead to the end of the collecting of ancient coins, this  experienced collector assures his reader that applying these principles:
there will still be coins available – of any kind, quality or price range. Newly-found coins will become less interesting to many collectors, and old collection coins with legitimate verifiable provenances will be priced for what they are: legally safe and beautiful coins […] we have to change our collecting practices. We just need to draw a line in the sand, and the time for that is now.
Not very convincing is it? I am not sure what he thought he was writing, and what its purpose is. The product is just a little bit humorous. What was reported at the time of the sentence he received for pleading guilty to some dodgy dealing, is that he was required to:
write an article about the problem of trading in unprovenanced coins – those of uncertain origin – and "the continuing threat of this practice to the archaeological record." He also must try to get it published in the numismatic society's magazine or a similar venue. The article "will raise needed awareness about unprovenanced coins and will promote responsible collecting among numismatists," district attorney's office spokeswoman Joan Vollero said. 
 So the article was to be about trading or collecting? What the convicted dealer has written is a text on what collectors should do, not a word on the role of the dealer – except to answer questions when asked. In any case, there is nothing here about the archaeological record per se. From front to end, Weiss discusses just “hoards”, and the issue of site finds is skipped over. As is another aspect of “responsible collecting”, no mention is made here about the collector documenting the coins and passing on the documentation he has accumulated about the collecting history to the next owner, a minor but crucial point (I imagine in his books on hand surgery that in addition to pre-operation diagnosis, the issue of post-operative care is not omitted, but could be wrong).

It is also highly notable, as is typical for US dugup coin collectors, that the notion of “responsible collecting” is largely reduced by Dr Weiss’ text to being sure to follow the law, rather than developing an ethos. Not a mention of course is found here about what a responsible collector should do if he is offered material which clearly is illegally obtained. Dr Weiss says do not buy it. If he found a fellow medical practitioner flagrantly breaking the law would he just walk away letting him get on with it, or report him? Where’s the difference?

I wonder whether coin dealer Dr Weiss reads technical literature connected with his other profession with the same lack of attention as this article reveals? On page 39 (and also 41 point 4) we find a typical example of erroneous coiney thinking: “a country such as Italy has a MOU with the US that forbids the import of many ancient coins from Italy which have left the country after January 19th 2011”. That’s not what the CCPIA and the attendant MOU say. That is what the ACCG tell gullible collectors they say, but Dr Weiss has not read the Act for himself in preparation for writing this article it seems. There are other examples of this kind of thing in this short text, for example on page 39 the writer claims that US legislation requires importers to know the “provenances” of coins. Again this is simply not true, but again it is what the ACCG and its lobbyists are telling gullible folk.

Right from the first page he starts banging on about “hoards” as if that were the beginning and end of the problem. The PAS is suddenly mentioned (p. 35, why? Just because its an ACCG meme?). Another fallacy is introduced here, that the UK is “essentially unique” in rewarding finders (I’ve discussed several other examples on this blog in the past), once again we find a coiney not really understanding how the various vesting legislations work in those quaint countries the other side of the dividing sea.

Another area where there is obvious confusion of thought is the only mention of site finds in the whole text:
In many source countries, random finds are often sold to local smugglers or organized bands of looters, whose sophisticated equipment allows them to dig up entire sites, well before any reporting occurs. 
I think you could write a whole essay on the breadth of the misconceptions that single sentence betrays. First of all it shows the coiney pre-occupation with “finders”, the pretence that artefacts come onto the market as the result of a lucky accidental find (which the nasty, and it goes without saying that if they are not American, they must also be "corrupt", people in the "furrin gubn’mint" want to take from the “finder”). In this coiney vision, looters only come into the picture when a ‘finder” shows them where to dig. In reality looters targeting known sites like Archar, Isin or Ilchester know exactly where to dig. Secondly, note the fixation with “reporting”. What archaeological preservation is about is stopping people from taking a spade to archaeological assemblages and sites, not for encouraging them to do so and telling us about it. Once again the ACCG fixation with the PAS (together with the inability of that organization to clearly get the conservation message across) are misinforming this writer.
It is of course a fallacy to say that freshly excavated coins coming onto the market can be recognised by the collector because they “look freshly cleaned with gleaming surfaces” [p. 36]. At this point most of Weiss’s readers will be giving a wry smile and tapping their foreheads. They know that many thousands of them come onto the US and European markets very, very dirty. One of the cabinet W coins on the other hand was all cruddy in its old collection and only when it was recently cleaned did its full beauty become clear (lot 1003 Syracuse, Gelon tetradrachm). Weiss goes on and on [pp 36-7) about the connoisseur’s eye that can spot real cabinet toning from fake cabinet toning (“the usual colour is a purple hue”) thus spotting the fresh dugups. No mention is made that licit fresh dugups would have paperwork available, smuggled, looted material does not. Again, the only material he is discussing are those hoards - and of silver and gold coins. Copper alloy coins (for example those with 'desert patina') do not develop the same kind of cabinet toning on which he seems to be suggesting the collector rely. In any case, I do not accept that the effect is so difficult to induce as he suggests. Later on he admits that totally new (fake) coins have deceptive artificial surface aging [p. 39].

Wholly laughable is the next section of the text where the writer says he concentrates on the subjects of hoards because of their “likely unfamiliarity to the US-based collector”. Eh? He reckons that US collectors (really?) have an inferior knowledge of the use of coins as an historical source than “an equivalent Italian, English or Turkish collector”. Which is why he then [p. 38] tells them “why hoards matter”. Do the ANS numismatists really need such a Noddy-book explanation of this? Wow. This (like the sudden, inserted, outburst about foreign museums on the next page) is surely just padding.

A subsequent section of the text warns that if a collector buys coins with no firm provenance they run the risk of being cheated with fake coins (reference then to his own case) which are “insinuated [..] into the market unnoticed” [p. 39] among “hoards of genuine coins smuggled out of the country of origin” .

Following that is a somewhat garbled passage about laws, the scare quotes suggesting that the writer does not really understand why countries protect cultural heritage from destruction and removal [p. 39] after which where the responsible collector is advised, to “be fully informed about foreign countries’ laws OR only buy from dealers and auctioneers who are informed on such issues”. What is not explained is how to avoid those that are not. The writer sums up with some fine words:
Given our own laws, US collectors will be held to a higher standard than individuals in some source countries […] we should lead by example, and scrupulously follow the laws that apply to those of us in the US […] What does this mean practically? How is a collector of ancient coins supposed to manoeuver through this maze of rules? I would argue that it can be done, but it is a different kind of collecting requiring a proactive rather than passive approach to provenance.

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