Friday, 11 March 2016

Responsible Collecting: The Need to Address the Issue of Public Support

David Knell raises some issues about responsible collecting of portable antiquities which are worth reading. The response of the trade in such items? A typical one is Dealer Dave Welsh on his "professional" numismatic blog "Ancient Coins". Here, rather than examining the argument he goes off on several tangential courses.

1) Welsh accuses Knell of knowing nothing about the trade in ancient coins (the reader learns nothing more about that subject from the blogger's own response).

2) he denies that the no-questions-asked approach to the commerce in portable antiquities shields the trade in illicit artefacts from scrutiny. To do this however he has to twist the wording of what Knell said - but then fails to prove that it is in any way wrong or implausible beyond calling it "an unproven and unprovable hypothesis". In fact the relationship between supply and demand are pretty well understood by everybody - the blogger needs to demonstrate that it does not apply to one particular kind of commerce - his.  The attempts by the numismatic lobby to explain the holes dug in one rich archaeological site in the middle of an ongoing civil war as "foxholes" rather than looting to obtain saleable items is ludicrous.

3) Welsh flatly denies there is any connection between the no-questions-asked trade and the looting of archaeological sites to obtain artefacts to fuel the market (which in order to handle them would necessarily have to be one that obscures actual origins). I think this argument is too obviously self-serving and cognitively weak.

4) Developing the theme of denial:
My reason for saying this is that it is clear that no one in most of the rest of the world has yet shown an inclination to pay any attention to the heritage-preservation advocacy's contentions that collecting of unprovenanced artifacts is reprehensible.
A few moments on the Internet will disabuse any but the most stubborn-of-thinking of that notion, here is the FBI, here's the HSI, here is IFAR  - other examples are a mouse-click away.

Comparison with other resource-protection issues may put this issue  in perspective. One might look beyond the narrow horizons of antiquity collection. Not so long ago in the UK and US bird egg collecting was perfectly acceptable. despite the protests of animal lovers. It was considered (and marketed as) 'rational recreation', a healthy (manly) outdoor pursuit, encouraging a love and knowledge of nature. So basically, exactly the arguments used today to promote "metal detecting" and the collecting of decontextualised archaeological artefacts. It never occurred to egg collectors of our grandfather's day that the hobby would ever be anything other than it was in their time. Today in England, it is strictly illegal to own - let alone sell - wild bird eggs, and if you are caught with any, it is up to the owner to prove they are legal (collected before the enactment of the relevant legislation), undocumented "oological collections" cannot even be given to museums and the only thing that can be done with them is destroy them. Cases of infringement of that law in the UK are now rare (I guess wannabe egg collectors are now "law-abiding" or underground), but those that are discovered are prosecuted and receive full attention of the media and universal condemnation. If one follows the history of this phenomenon, I see no reason why portable antiquity collecting cannot go a similar way as sites are progressively emptied of their more diagnostic artefacts and public awareness rises (PAS you listening? That's your job, not mine). Then, it will be the documentation of origins that makes the difference between artefacts which it is socially acceptable to own, and those which most definitely are not. Portable antiquity collectors everywhere might want to look at this and consider their own situation.

5) The "professional numismatist" labels concerns about no-questions-asked collecting the
ceaseless braying of a few ignorant and arrogant individuals (mostly archaeologists and academics) about a subject they don't understand
While the shady antiquities business tries hard to avoid any form of transparency, let alone accountability, which certainly hinders that understanding of the market, gradually the work of academics in the US, UK, Germany and elsewhere is revealing the broad patterns. I think we all understand that buying "ooops-I-seem-to-be-unable-to-find-the paperwork" antiquities is increasingly becoming seen as an unsustainable model for a truly repute-worthy antiquities market. Despite the denials and insulting language of those on its margins.

6) The descent to ad personam comments of Welsh's next paragraph really requires no comment. He then finishes with:
If Mr. Knell had a genuine interest in influencing the opinions of ancient coin collectors and dealers, [...]
Personally, I do not think it is worth wasting time trying to "influence the opinions of ancient coin collectors and dealers", these people are clearly not interested in debate and open discussion. They alienate themselves from it, and the public discourse should be aimed in a different direction, to public opinion. Public support should be gained for the introduction in countries where the heritage is threatened by portable antiquity collecting of something in its effects like the "1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act". This blog is not for portable antiquity collectors and peddlars, it is about them.

Vignette: Collecting only takes place with public support

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