Thursday, August 21, 2008
It has come to my attention that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee formed a National Arts Policy Committee earlier this year (fact sheet). One name I recognize on the list of committee members is that of Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University's College of Law, who specializes in art and cultural heritage law and directs DePaul's program in this field. Prof. Gerstenblith is widely recognized as an authority in this area and has served her discipline well. She is the founding president of the Lawyer's Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and is a senior advisor to the International Arts and Cultural Property Commitee of the ABA Section of International Law. She was also a member of the United States Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) for the U.S. Department of State from 2000-2003 and was editor-in-chief of the the International Journal of Cultural Property from 1995-2002. Prof. Gerstenblith has authored numerous works on art and cultural property law. Congratulations to Prof. Gerstenblith on her appointment to this committee.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
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.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Bryn Mawr Classical Review has created a blog for its reviews, beginning with the first review of August 2008, to encourage informal reactions. For comments on older reviews, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and ask that the review be posted to the blog.
There is a link in each review to take you to the blog, or you can find the blog at http://www.bmcreview.org/. The postings can be anonymous.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Some have tried to argue that coins are not found at archaeological sites (sic!) and that they should not be considered "archaeological objects," but there is more than ample evidence indicating that ancient coins frequently come from the same sources as other antiquities and that historical and archaeological sites are systematically destroyed as "suppliers" seek to profit and fill market demand (on the internet see, for example, N.T. Elkins, "Why Coins Matter...," SAFE Feature 2007; id., "A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins: A Case Study on the North American Trade," Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde 7 (2008): 1-13).
The purpose of this post is to update some of the figures that I compiled from the auction list last month and to comment on another asepct of the auction. As of 2 August 2008, 150 more ancient objects had been donated through single or multiple lots, making 315 the total number of ancient objects up for auction (313 coins and 2 antiquities, a numismatic publication was also recently donated). As before, the bulk of donations and those who contributed the lots with the highest estimated values are mostly dealers. In July, I reported that $26,875 in material had been donated in order to help ancient coin and antiquities dealers and collectors in their battles with the U.S. State Department, but, as of 2 August 2008, an estimated $43,700 in objects had been donated. As before, the reporting of recent histories is sparse; for example, only 8 ancient coins (3%) in the entire auction are recorded as having been in a collection before 1970 or are recorded under the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Two other coins have a possible pre-1970 history, listing only a former collections, while 6 more have a possible, but improbable, 1970 history listing former collections of long time collectors who collected until very recently. Six coins are referenced to auction catalogues within the last ten years. The bulk of the material, 95.42% of it, has no recorded history.
In the former discussion, I pointed out that some of the more profitable auction houses were donating generously to the ACCG "benefit auction." It is interesting to note that another class of dealer is also donating to the auction: the importer/wholesaler.
It is well known that ancient coin and antiquities dealers are often supplied by foreign nationals of source countries who live in market countries. Some of these individuals have worked closely with "finders," as is the case in the Balkans (for example, see the report on Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends, pp. 177ff.). In at least one case it is known that one of these ancient coin dealers and "wholesalers" even arranged the smuggling (this is referenced in previously cited report, but see also R. Dietrich, "Cultural Property on the Move - Legally, Illegally," International Journal of Cultural Property 11.2 (2002): 294-304).
Presently, there is at least one contributor to the ACCG "benefit auction" that is a self-identified importer and wholesaler of ancient coins and antiquities from the Middle East. On its website, the dealership states that it gets material "from the source" and sells to "major dealers in the industry." In May the dealership's website indicated that they had an office manager in Dubai who could help people with "storing and shipping" (this has since been stricken from the public website). Does this indicate that this individual imports Middle Eastern material into North America via Dubai? Dubai has become an important transit market for undocumented Middle Eastern antiquities in recent years (see for example, M. Al Serkal, "Federal Law Needed Fight Smuggling of Antiquities in UAE," Gulf News, 18 May 2008).
A look at the seller's history shows dozens upon dozens of massive "dealer lots" that contain thousands of coins, some of which have sold for $150,000 - $200,000 each. All of this material appears to originate in the Middle East.
Find spots and histories are not recorded by this seller, who claims to supply other dealers in the industry. The UAE serves as a transit market for antiquities, so we may not even be sure in what country many of these coins were found. Where are these coins coming from? Are they hoards or accumulations of single finds? The importer/wholesaler also deals in other antiquities in mass quantities, from where are they coming?
The auction does indeed seem to symbolize "free market for all collector coins." But, to borrow a phrase coined by Chippindale and Gill, what are the material and intellectual consequences?
Friday, August 8, 2008
The press release also reiterates the dubious and argumentative claim that tradesmen and collectors are better stewards for ancient objects than trained professionals. I have critically evaluated Sayles' unsubstantiated assertions regarding this subject before (see N.T. Elkins, "Archaeologists don't care about ancient coins?" Cultural Heritage in Danger, 26 October 2007). The press release also declares that archaeologists (which would include many numismatists), who are concerned about the effect of indiscriminate market demand, are "wildly radical."
There is also a promotional aspect to this press release as well:
"The ACCG, a numismatic advocacy group, is currently selling ancientBeyond the rights of American consumers to purchase whatever ancient object they desire without concern or about the circumstances in which it was procured, David Gill observes:
coins donated by its members to fund a legal challenge of recent U.S.
StateDepartment (DOS) sanctions that they say were applied contrary to law
and threaten their hobby. The benefit sale, closing on August 17, is being
held at the online venue http://www.vauctions.com/."
"Cosmopolitan archaeologists believe that stewardship
of the finite archaeological record is appropriate in a civilised
And I am sure that rational and responsible coin collectors will
Indeed it would seem he is correct. In a thread on the British Archaeology list regarding the ACCG's auction and its efforts, one metal detectorist wrote [the quoted text to which he is referring is in blue]:
"I have found it impossible to follow this debate from the start due to work commitments, but the following paragraphs posted by 'invisible planet' did
jump out at me:
'Elkins is clear to make a distinction between those 'numismatists who are more sensitive to contextual study' and those who 'search for coins to fuel market demand [, which] contributes to the destruction of valuable information for serious numismatic research *and *archaeology'. [ibid]
'It seems inevitable that laws will come to pass which will attempt to restrict illicit
trade in the antiquities of 'foreign' countries, and seems wise that numismatist dealers such as yourself should take measures to bring your business in line with current thinking in ethical practices. It would be better in the long term to stand with those of us who do do support the preservation of contextual knowledge for future
I have to say that even as a metal detectorist, I whole heartedly subscribe to this kind of thinking.
From what I have been able to read then I do feel that perhaps Mr. [Dave] Welsh is misreading the current climate in the UK within providers of artefacts/coins to collectors that there is an ever growing movement towards the necessity to preserve any contextual knowledge that may be gained from a find and indeed many of us within the hobby work hard towards this.
Markets such as Ebay UK are woefully lax in allowing the selling of non treasure artefacts/coins that have not been recorded with a body such as the PAS and, although the PAS is not in place to 'legitimise' the trade in antiquities, it is only in this way that any potential knowledge can be saved and tighter restrictions placed on the
illicit trade. Without the proper recording of all finds and proper documentation, whether they are for the collectors market or not, then any arguments that private collectors are a force for a wider academic study is hogwash and the whole situation of buying and selling and collecting becomes nothing more than a rush of hogs to the trough.
While I as a detectorist am against any move to restrict private collecting, it, as with the hobby of metal detecting, simply has to respond and react to its very real responsibilities."
The message above stands in stark contrast to remarks and assertions made by Dave Welsh, a coin dealer and head of the ACCG's International Affairs Committee, on the same list. Some of Welsh's comments there have echoed those made previously by Wayne Sayles. It seems that other collectors, and at least one metal detectorist, are not able to reconcile themselves with the "wildly radical" views maintained by some of the ACCG's leaders.