Museum Security Network

US collector urges rationalisation of the rest of the world

( An archaeologist’s blog commenting on various aspects of the private collecting and trade in archaeological artefacts today and their effect on the archaeological record. Paul Barford, British archaeologist living and working in Warsaw Poland. Since the early 1990s a primary interest has been research on artefact hunting and collecting and the market in portable antiquities in the international context.)

How stupid can we be? I mean, here we dumb people are thinking that black markets exist because there are people who want to buy illegal goods (pirate CDs and computer programs, kiddie porn, drugs, plastic explosives etc etc), when we’ve got it wrong. No, educated coin collecting people tell us, it’s actually the laws that are at fault. The irrational laws that are made by our governments which tell us what we can and cannot buy. The coin collectors have a simple way to get rid of the black markets, get rid of the laws and you get rid of the market they define as illegal, simple!

For example, they argue, if we get rid of “irrational” (sic) archaeological resource protection laws, with one stroke of the pen, you would stop all “looting” of archaeological sites. Because by definition it’d be legal, right? (One can only assume they’d apply the same logic to pirate programs, drugs and kiddie porn; all “free enterprise” like selling archaeological artefacts as collectable geegaws).

Thus Reid Goldsborough in a long text called “Looting, Smuggling, and Coins”:
With ancient coins, the harsh and unfortunate reality is that with most new finds laws are broken and information is lost during the distribution process as coins wend their way from the ground to private collections. Almost all new finds are smuggled out of source countries, and this has been the case for many years. But the culprit isn’t those breaking the laws or those they work with but the laws themselves. […] Because these laws are irrational, they’re routinely broken. But to avoid detection, finders, middlemen, and dealers rely on secrecy. The unspoken byword is “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Provenance information about the coins we buy in most cases is deliberately suppressed at every stage, and important hoard and findspot information is lost. Consequently, we know a great deal less about ancient coins, individually and as a whole, and we know less about history as well.
So after cheerfully proclaiming that almost all the new finds coming onto the US market are looted and smuggled coins, instead of discussing what the responsible ethical collector should do to avoid encouraging this process even further, he comes out with the usual tired old mantras explaining why (from the view of as US ancient coin fondler and accumulator) this is perfectly justified. We’ve heard them all before:

“the laws are broken because they are irrational”. No, like the breaking of the laws anywhere and everywhere, they are broken because somebody has an interest (usually financial) in not obeying them. That they are to be considered as “irrational” or not is the law-breaker’s self justification (try telling that to a traffic cop next time he pulls you over for speeding or going through a red light – “irrational place to have a speed limit/ crossing”). There is a perfectly good rationale behind the archaeological resource protection legislation of the countries in question. There is a perfectly good rationale behind the laws that regulate the export of cultural property from them. It is not the laws which are “irrational” but the arguments offered by those who refuse to respect the wishes of those that have them.

The orientalism of the US collector continues, countries
“regard anything ancient found in the soil of the country as part of its cultural heritage even when it was made and used by a totally different people…” yeah yeah, so the archaeological record in the territory of a country is not at all part of the heritage of those that live there (but IS part of the heritage of somebody who does not, like a US collector)? It is not theirs to say what happens to it? What about other cultural heritage, architecture, cultural landscapes? Just because in the USA the indigenous population was displaced by a dominant alien culture which for long totally disregarded its cultural heritage does not mean that everyone everywhere else is obliged to have the same exclusive attitudes to continuity of tradition (Power of Place). There may be cultural apartheid in the US, I think we in the Old World would resent them trying to impose it on everyone else, just because it suits a few greedy collectors.

“typically wind up in storage in dank basements of museums or government offices” Yeah yeah, instead of a US coin dealer’s “special offers” tub in a coin show. The coins from the 1864 excavations at Bradwell on Sea, Essex will still be in the museum identifiable as such long after Mr Goldsborough’s coins have lost any provenance, including that they were in his ephemeral collection. Its not “dank” there either.

“Private collecting benefits society just as much as public display”, really? Scrap museums then, shall we (if they benefit society “just as much” but at no cost to the public purse, then why not)? Mostly though these days private collecting in its current form benefits dealers and smugglers, and who knows what the money the latter make goes to finance? I wonder whether in fact the “social benefits” of coin collecting (within the US) can really be juxtaposed with the harm that many of us conclude is done down the line elsewhere. We will never know though, will we, while the trade is so secretive about what really lies behind the material they acquire. Let’s have some openness about this to put those postulated (local) “social benefits” into the wider (global) context.

“encouraging the study of the past”. Some (many in fact) people do not need the encouragement of buying looted objects. Do they not have a voice?

“Ancient coins and artifacts are our collective heritage, not the heritage of individual countries”, so US collectors feel fully empowered to not bother about putting money into the pockets of those that steal what they want from those other countries? But wait a second, are not the archaeological sites from which those collectables come ALSO our collective heritage? How does it look, that getting the coins out of the ground to go into Mr Goldsborough’s own private personal piece of the collective heritage over there in the USA trashes that other more extensive piece of the collective heritage? The destroyed archaeological information may not be the heritage of individual countries, but neither is it exclusively Mr Goldsborough’s to say he does not care where those coins come from.

“or the archeological establishment”. So let’s get this right, Goldsbourough is saying that the archaeological heritage belongs to all of us, especially if we are US coin collectors, but NOT if we are archaeologists (including those in the country whose archaeological record is being looted)? Some collectors simply seem to have it in for the archaeologists.

What actually is more important though is that the “history” of emperors, kings, Greek towns, the mythological scenes and so on, that these collectors are “encouraged” to learn about by “holding a piece of real history in their hand” and stashing it away in a cubby hole in a back bedroom, is largely book history. But to produce these collectable and “holdable” geegaws involves trashing unread a record of another history. One that, though the evidence survived millennia, does not survive the looter’s spade. One that can be recovered by the methods of the archaeologist. One that will never be read because bits of it are in Mr Goldsborough’s collection. And he knows that, and is trying hard to justify it to us. Do we accept these arguments? I do not.

“There should be a government-regulated free market of antiquities and coins in source countries around the Mediterranean, as there is in the United Kingdom.” Well, that is just misinformed rubbish. There is no government regulated market of antiquities in the United Kingdom! Complete rubbish.

”Under a rational system, […] Governments would confiscate material shown to have been uncovered illegally at off-limits, bona fide archeological sites.” Umm, but that is what happens now. Then coin collectors moan about it. We saw Jim McGarigle complaining that the Verona seizure was a waste of public resources because the COINS recovered were not, as he put it, “national treasures. An important point is who determines what a “bona fide archaeological site” is? The governments concerned, with their archaeological advisors, or US coin collectors? This is important as it affects what the codes of ethics say, at the moment the ACCG one in effect restricts the right to say what is bone fide archaeological evidence to the US coin collectors.

“Saving Antiquities for Everyone is an advocacy organization that, despite its name, promotes the mainstream archeological position, which includes banning the private collecting of ancient coins and artifacts.” Eh? More misinformed complete rubbish. The mainstream archaeological position is that there is a trade in legitimate artefacts which have been on the market licitly for decades and generations, and there is a trade in freshly dug illicit artefacts. The mainstream archaeological position is that the latter should be stopped. It seems Goldsborough has not read the material SAFE produces, if he had he would know that SAFE does not promote “banning the private collecting of ancient coins and artifacts”. He is misinforming his readers.

He writes: “Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is an advocacy organization that, despite its name, promotes the mainstream position of coin dealers […]” Ah. A word of truth; he said it, not me
An archaeologist’s blog commenting on various aspects of the private collecting and trade in archaeological artefacts today and their effect on the archaeological record. Paul Barford, British archaeologist living and working in Warsaw Poland. Since the early 1990s a primary interest has been research on artefact hunting and collecting and the market in portable antiquities in the international context.

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