Sunday 5 July 2015

Stakeholders "Unwelcome"

Bulk lots for sale, Welsh's exclusive
  emporium of 'Classical coins
Over on a coiney blog, the tiresome discussion is still dragging  on about whether Paul Barford is "qualified" to make any observations on the collecting of portable antiquities in the eyes of an engineer-turned coin dealer who seems not really to have grasped the concept of what the social media are.  He claims the right to demand that because I blog, I should submit to him and his readers details of how I earn my living and organize my time "because" (of course a Two Wrongs argument is now coming up):
you have yourself intruded in a most unwelcome manner into many areas in the realm of collecting, metal detecting and the numismatic trade that are none of your business according to the perspective of those assailed in your blog utterances. One glaring example of this is your attempt to portray the confidentiality maintained by dealers regarding their sources as reprehensible. It is in fact required by the longstanding and traditional ethics of the trade.
It used to be the traditional ethics of the cotton and tobacco industry in the South to exploit black slaves, Judge Roger Brooke Taney infamously declaring that persons of African descent  "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit". Things have, more or less, changed in the US since 1857 in that respect, but not - it seems - in the coin trade. The point is that in both cases, that "tradition" no longer stands the test of time. As a matter of record, the requirement to maintain secrecy about the sources of the items sold by a responsible dealer is not stipulated by the ACCG code, or that of the ANA. (Where is it "required" Mr Welsh?)

Another ACCG blogger posted a rather silly text filled with dot distribution maps of coin finds. Silly, because in his eagerness to prove one point (that Professor Nathan Elkins is not as good a numismatist as he), he missed another. Coineywise, his intellectual honesty was not up to posting and reacting to the comment I sent his blog (so I posted it here). The same point is made by the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, when we abandon this stupid "tradition" of not saying where individual things are found, we suddenly get huge amounts of information which were unavailable to no-questions-asked numismatists. Philippa Walton has shown what can be done with these data, and that work is now expanding. This is all because records are made of precisely the information that ACCG dealers - who acquire and then sell coins on without that information - are ignoring. Mr Sayles of course will not be answering that.

The problem is that this "tradition" means that illicit goods can be passed off by middlemen as "old collections going cheap [nudge-nudge, wink-wink]", and the coin dealer who buys them and brushes the loose earth off can pretend they did not understand the allusion.  As Sam Hardy observes: "By not keeping any records, dealers make it easier for buyers to convince themselves there is no evidence of any wrongdoing” ("they-can't-touch-you-for-it-legality"). The ease with which dodgy items can be slipped onto the market at any stage of the chain of ownership is the very reason why observers say we need responsible dealers to do away with this "traditional" business model. I leave it up to the reader to decide for themselves whether they believe the excuses offered and what they think the main reason is for the dealers to wanting to hang onto their "traditional" lack of transparency and accountability and why they are fighting it tooth and nail. 

Whatever the individuals whose activities in full public view (public domain material) are the main subject of case studies used in my blog to illustrate a point may think, and however 'unwelcome' they think having somebody look over their shoulder is, it is not true that these are private matters. First of all as I say what I write about are things people have themselves published on forums, blogs, internet sales pages etc. They should not assume that they are immune to criticism just because what they write and do is in full public view. Secondly, it is generally accepted that the heritage does not belong exclusively to one interest group. That is the whole rationale behind artefact collecting and its uneasy relationships to archaeology and heritage management. The notion of a "World heritage" ("heritage of all humanity") is the very justification of US (Swiss, German and all the rest) dealers and collectors claiming "collectors' rights" over stuff dug up in far off countries like Egypt and Iraq, and denying the citizens of those countries the same rights to access the material they want to possess for themselves.

Yet that sword has a double edge because it means that we are all stakeholders in that past. I am as much a stakeholder in the case of a Syrian coin in Mr Welsh's stockroom as the schoolteacher Hamid in Damascus and Mr Welsh himself.  Mr Welsh and his collecting friends deny others the right to express interest and concern about what they are doing. "It is none of your business [what we are doing with these bits of everybody's heritage]" they say. Well, actually it is. Very much so. That is especially the case when we are already concerned about illicit digging, smuggling, illegal transfer of ownership - and then we find the dealers at the other end of these ownership chains claiming all the stuff they have is "of licit origins, it's just I cannot show you the paperwork, someone seems to have lost it - Ooops". Neither can they show us what happened to the illicit stuff they "did not buy". I think we all can see that there is a case here to be answered. It's either we believe in the coin fairies and coin elves model they are trying to foist on us, or we begin to suspect that we are not being presented with the full picture. "Go away, it's not your business" is not the answer that is likely to convince anyone that some "intrusion" by stakeholders is not justified.

What is happening here is a reflection of the ingrained attitudes represented by Judge Taney that brown-skinned persons living in foreign lands "have no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that their cultural heritage might justly and lawfully be reduced to a commodity for his personal benefit". Shameful.

The archaeological heritage belongs to us all, and we should all be able to have a say in how it is used (Hamid too), and that applies in particular to the deeds of those who want to use it for their own selfish needs to the detriment of others. These users should be persuaded to exploit it in a way that the interests of others in the same material and information are damaged as little as possible. It's what we call 'best practice' and it is the aim of public discussions (among which is this blog) to establish what we mean and expect from 'best practice' in responsible antiquities dealing. If that is "unwelcome" to dealers, then that in itself says a lot about them.

If instead of coins dugup in foreign lands, these people were selling online live rare insectivorous plants (for example) dug out of  wild environments East Coast swamplands, then they may not really welcome people looking over their shoulder and tut-tutting (Dionaea muscipula is a protected species there), but I would say that a conservationist has every right to ask exactly what they are doing and what paperwork they have showing these plants come from licit (cultivated) sources. Indeed, they'd not be much of a conservationiust if they shrugged their shoulders and ignored in-your-face online activity.

Mr Welsh claims that instead of being sleazy, "the profession of ancient coin dealer is among the more unusual, interesting ways to earn a living, offering ancient coins for sale is one of the most exclusive professions...". The antiquities which Mr Welsh brightens up his life selling ARE under protection in their original environment in most source countries, like the Venus Fly Trap, and it is only right for Mr Welsh to be prepared to answer questions where the ones he has came from, and how he got them, and what due diligence he has done to verify that they were not obtained or taken out of the source country by illicit means. There are a number of reasons why such questions may be "unwelcome" and I leave it to the reader to decide why they think he prefers to keep such information to himself and why he is, like other dugup dealers, continually trying to deflect attention from this fundamental issue.

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