Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Internet Discussions on Looting, Legislation, and Lobbyists

The ACCG "benefit auction" on which I have commented earlier (here, here, and here) has now closed and appears to have been a success for the group having raised over $45,000. The "benefit auction" was meant to raise funds "in opposition to State Department imposed import restrictions." The ACCG has sued the U.S. State Department through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to learn more about the process under which the decision was made to accept Cyprus's request for import restriction on ancient coins of Cypriot type. Elsewhere, several of the ACCG's members have alleged various sorts of conspiracies between archaeologists and State Department officials (see, for example, Ellen Herscher's concise response the latest allegations made against CAARI by Peter Tompa, president of the ACCG, on the Museum Security Network List).

As I have mentioned before, the ACCG is a 501(c)4 organization to which contributions are not normally tax deductible since up to 100% of contributions can be used for the purposes of political lobbying. Indeed, it is well-known that the ACCG actively lobbies senators and congressmen to oppose any sort of legislation which might hinder a "free market" in ancient coins and grants them "Friends of Numismatics Awards" for their support (see here, here, here, and here). Legislative measures are almost universally endorsed by archaeologists and ancient world scholars as a way to diminish looting and the irrecoverable loss of information that results from the unscientific procurement of ancient objects to supply market demand. Looting can be both a casual "hobby" activity for some or can be much more organized and systematic, as is presently the case in Balkan countries, which are major sources for the ancient coin and antiquities trade (for example, see the report on "Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends," which is briefly discussed and to which a link is provided here).

In the past, we have heard much from several members and leaders of the ACCG. For example, some collectors and antiquities dealers belonging to that group have labeled archaeologists who are concerned about looting as "radicals," "extremists," "zealots," "jihadists," and "fascists," and these are just a few of the pejorative terms out there. Several ACCG leaders have tried to assert that the ancient coin trade is independent of the antiquities trade as a whole, that fresh material does not enter the market to a significant degree, and that market demand does not play any role in looting that occurs in source countries. They have also attempted to argue that looting in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion is either fiction or greatly exaggerated (e.g. see David Gill's response to Peter Tompa's discussion of old news on Iraq looting).

Although the ACCG itself is a 501(c)4 organization that uses its contributions for political lobbying, it consistently accuses and criticizes archaeological professional groups such as the AIA, American research centers abroad such as CAARI, and advocacy groups such as SAFE for what it calls political lobbying and manipulation. Of course the irony in this is that all of these are 501(c)3 organizations, which could not pay for political lobbying with the same freedom that the ACCG can.

During the course of the "benefit auction," there has been an increased amount of noise coming from certain ACCG leaders making new allegations. On these David Gill has been making some very useful observations (Looting Matters: "Lobbying and Archaeological Material", "Collecting Coins: 'A Fundamental Aspect of Citizenship'", and "Burns: 'I Wear this Title of Philhellene Rather Proudly'"). Peter Tompa, has criticized the use of foreign "lobbyists" on the decision to impose import restrictions from Cyprus. In response, David Gill has pointed out some of the irony in this since Mr. Tompa is himself the paid lobbyist for two major international coin trade (i.e. dealer) organizations, the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) and the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN). The IAPN is based in Brussels, Belgium. One might also wonder whether or not he is the official paid lobbyist for the ACCG or if this work is pro bono. In regards to Iraq, it is noteworthy that Mr. Tompa is currently lobbying Washington lawmakers to exempt ancient coins from the emergency import restrictions on antiquities from Iraq that were imposed to curb the flow of plundered material into the U.S. As we all know, the U.S. is an important market country for ancient objects. Why does the ACCG have an interest in importing ancient coins from Iraq?

Dave Welsh, an ancient coin dealer and Chair of the ACCG's International Affairs Committee, has publicized Tompa's comments about foreign "lobbyists" on the Internet with an interesting spin; on the British Archaeology list, he posted it with the headline: "Lobbyists paid by foreign government to join assault on collecting." What Mr. Welsh fails to mention, of course, is that his own lobby, the ACCG, has accepted donations, financial contributions, and memberships from foreign collectors and dealers who may well have interests in U.S. legislation on ancient objects and market regulations. Mr. Welsh also advertised the ACCG's news article on the success of its "benefit auction" to several online discussion lists with the subject heading "ACCG Raises $45,000 to fund the Struggle Against Radical Archaeologists" (I thought it was to fight "State Department imposed import restrictions"!). Last year, he urged collectors to donate and join the ACCG using what may be best referred to as "fear-mongering" tactics, asking them to envisage this unrealistic world:
"If the AIA sent a squad of radical archaeologists to your house to seize your collection, in the process verbally abusing you as a moral cripple responsible for everything bad that is happening to archaeological sites, wouldn't you be mad as Hades? Wouldn't you be ready to fight? Well get ready to fight, because that is more or less what they intend to do, and actually are doing, one small step at a time."

In the context of Welsh's behavior and actions, and even his use of insensitive language and slurs such as "cripple," it is interesting to note that they are apparently endorsed by the ACCG leadership since he was recently awarded with the "exceptionally meritorious service award." The online notice about this states:
"As founder and moderator of the Unidroit-L discussion list, Dave has dedicated countless hours to providing a balanced forum for discussion online of cultural property issues. He also represents the collector fraternity very effectively on numismatic discussion groups that reach a broad range of interested parties."

As the moderator and owner of the Unidroit-L discussion list, one might wonder how "balanced" the forum is when he posts headlines like the ones above and moderates the postings of opinions contrary to his own, but allows like-minded individuals to publish various diatribes, and even ad hominem attacks, freely on the list. Although it claims to give a voice to collectors, the behavior, tactics, and views of some ACCG leaders have been questioned by other collectors and metal detectorists before (see here and here, for example).

Instead of adopting more stringent due diligence practices in their business transactions or engaging equitably in a dialogue with the historical scientists who encounter, study, analyze, and publish ancient material on a daily basis and as part of their professional career, ancient coin and antiquities dealers have locked themselves in a public relations battle with archaeologists and other scholars and the medium for this battle is, by-in-large, the Internet. For example, one may recall the ACCG's widely circulated and self-promotional press release (via the PR Newswire) of its benefit auction, which misrepresented archaeology and the issues surrounding looting. This press release appears to have been authored by Wayne Sayles, a coin dealer and founder and executive director of the ACCG (click here and here for discussions of the press release).

The Internet is a double-edged sword in the sense of the information it provides. With it, we can share and access information unlike ever before, but at the same time anyone can use it is a platform to "publish" anything they wish, thus making it difficult for casual browsers to discern between the quality of information available. Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing our Culture (New York, 2007), explores these issues in detail and comments more specifically on how the Internet is being used by some individuals and groups to grind political axes. For example, he discusses the junk science that is disseminated through the internet and backed by certain energy companies that claim that climate change is fiction. Without more thorough investigations, casual readers are not usually aware of the sources of information they read or the political agendas that may guide them or the spins that are put on available data.

Several informed commentators and scholars have discussed the looting issue as one similar to climate change, the ivory trade, and the hunting of endangered species. Indeed, these are all issues which seem to pit the profiteer against the scientist, the commercial and self interest against that of knowledge and preservation.



Nathan- Without getting too deeply into the details of your post, one concern I have is that members of the archaeological community seem to be claiming they don't lobby government officials when they clearly seek to influence them. See: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/08/patty-gerstenblith-named-to-obama-arts.html Archaeological groups may not engage paid lobbyists, but much of their time and effort is in effect subsidized by their academic institutions. For example, Patty Gerstenblith appears to work on these issues 24-7. One can only do this with the support of one's academic institution. Obviously, coin dealers and collectors can’t compete with that without spending some money. However, if look at my lobbying disclosure forms for my work for IAPN and PNG you should conclude that the amounts billed are quite modest, particularly compared to what the big guns like Patton Boggs charge for their efforts. Also, I have to say the time that gets charged to IAPN and PNG is only a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of my own time I spend on these issues. I don’t do it for the “money.” I do it because I love collecting “ancient money” and because I feel that the restrictions proposed by the archaeological community can only strangle my hobby that has led to the preservation, study and display of untold numbers of ancient coins for generations.


Peter Tompa



I think there is a very big difference on the one hand between archaeologists raising awareness by writing letters to congressmen or senators and raising public awareness by public advocacy and research, and the well-financed and paid political lobbying on the other. I think most people would see a difference here.

You and Wayne may allege various conspiracies, but as we have seen time and again, there are usually a number of errors in these, as is the case with the attacks that have been made against CAARI and the late Danielle Parks.

Since you bring it up, I find the insinuations made against Prof. Patty Gerstenblith entirely unseemly. You seem to imply she got her position on Obama's committee by lobbying or (excessive) financial contributions. Could it be that she is a well-known specialist in art law with gravity in the field and was viewed as the best person for the job? Are you implying that some antiquities dealer who might have a
very different interest
in art and art law should have been appointed?



I have some difficulty following your logic train. You seem to have no trouble suggesting that the ACCG defends the coin trade because coin dealers contribute to it. Yet, you seem genuinely offended that one might perceive a relationship between Professor Gerstenblith's donations to Barack Obama and her appointment to Obama's arts committee. Are you suggesting that the former and the latter are different? If so, I'd love to hear the basis for that conclusion.





Actually, I find it impossible to follow Peter Tompa’s and your own logic on this issue.

What the ACCG and other trade organizations are doing is underwriting lobbying efforts to influence the minds and policies of Washington lawmakers: paid lobbying.

By stark contrast, what Prof. Gerstenblith has done is made lawful campaign contribution for Obama's presidential bid.

501(c)4 organizations, like your own, may have no limits on what they can spend on political lobbying, but, in contrast, private citizens are only allowed to contribute up to $2,300 to a presidential campaign precisely so that a private citizen cannot have undue influence over the candidate in question!

It is a matter of public record that I personally made a small donation to Senator Clinton’s presidential bid earlier this year, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call any lawful contribution to a presidential campaign “lobbying,” as you are implying it is, when the legal maximum per citizen is so small compared to the costs required to launch a presidential campaign.

It is also a matter of public record that Mr. Tompa contributed to the McCain campaign and I believe I would make a complete fool of myself if I seriously tried to argue that he were attempting to influence Senator McCain in the fashion, you seem to be saying that Patty Gerstenblith has influenced Obama with poltical contributions.

The simple fact of the matter is that an entirely obtuse and transparent spin on her appointment to the committee was made. By your and Mr. Tompa’s logic, we would expect that everyone who made these relatively meager maximum contributions should have a committee position, which is hardly the case. What you fail to acknowledge is that in addition to being an apparent supporter of Senator Obama, Prof. Gerstenblith is an highly qualified and decorated individual in the realm of “arts policy,” who any serious candidate would probably consider deserving of a spot on a committee for national arts policy.

It is entirely unseemly and perhaps even slanderous to allege she made excessive (illegal) contributions to the campaign just because she also has an appointment to a committee. I'm sure committee members belonging to various advisory committees for both Senators McCain and Obama have made lawful campaign contributions, as is there legal right, but this does not consitute "lobbying." So this begs the question, why make such vitriolic accusations and insinuations? Is it simply out of frustration or is it because you prefer a different candidate?

Yes, no matter how hard you try to spin it, unrestricted paid political lobbying by trade groups and contributions to presidential campaigns by private citizens that fall within the legal limits are two entirely different things.