Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Authorities arrest police officer for possessing artifacts


A police officer and two others with three statues in their possession have been arrested. A security source said they were apprehended on Wahat Road, in 6th of October City in Giza, when a police ambush stopped their car for inspection.

"The three artifacts are of the head of the pharaonic queen Nefertiti. One is 7cm long, and the other two measure 15cm. They are suspected to be antiquities," said the source. He added that the suspects confessed that they intended to sell the pieces.



Here is one more clear proof that repressive antiquities legislation - and governmental efforts to enforce such legislation - have been utter failures. It supports my view that such legislation is, has always been and will always be, difficult and impractical to enforce.

This particular incident is morally no different (in any important respect) from a police officer being found in unauthorized possession of some other type of controlled object restricted to individuals whose possession of such objects is authorized by governmental authorities. Examples of such restricted objects in nations such as the USA, where possession of archaeological antiquities is not so rigidly controlled as it is in Egypt, might include pharmaceuticals, automatic firearms such as machine guns and assault rifles, and (on a somewhat less obviously threatening level) "moonshine."

The latter is a particularly relevant subject, because control of privately brewed and distilled alcoholic beverages has historically been a divisive and sometimes explosive issue in the USA. Few Americans now realize that that a very serious and dangerous revolt against the US Government occurred shortly after the end of the American Revolution, when taxes on alcoholic beverages were first imposed. This unprecedented and widely hated measure was the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, who sought to find a source of revenue to finance redemption of the "Continentals" -- the widely scoffed at and highly depreciated scrip the American Colonies issued during the Revolutionary War.

Resistance to this unprecedented taxation was on a scale similar to earlier resistance to the Stamp Act and the taxation of tea which ultimately led to the American Revolution. This "Whiskey Rebellion" ended only after President George Washington led an enormous army (much larger than any he had commanded during the Revolutionary War) against the rebels. It is worthy of note that Washington himself was, at or about that time, the largest individual distiller of alcoholic beverages in the United States. His leadership in enforcing the tax and personally paying it was decisive, but it did not by any means eliminate the resentment that is still felt today, in Appalachia and other areas involved in that revolt, for interference of the national Government into matters of personal conduct and local commerce which were at the time and to some extent still are, viewed as being concerns which should have been dealt with by the States and their counties rather than the national Government.

Legislation prohibiting private possession of alcoholic beverages such as whiskey received a comprehensive and definitive trial in the USA following passage of the Volstead Act shortly after the end of the First World War. Society was then in a mood to attempt to legislate morality, and it was not realized that passage of such legislation without overwhelming public support was not only doomed to failure, but that the consequences would include social damage far worse than the "evils" the legislation purported to eliminate. One terrible consequence was a huge expansion of organized crime, when thugs such as Al Capone took over distribution of alcoholic beverages during the "Roaring Twenties." The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was a direct result of this ill-advised policy. After Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, it did not require much time to realize that Prohibition had been a monumental failure and to repeal that measure, after which efforts to bring Capone and other thugs who had profited from "Prohibition" to justice became possible and it also became possible to begin to repair the damage caused by this ill-advised social experiment.

If there is now evidence that any "source state" such as Egypt has succeeded in prohibiting private ownership of, and trading in, "archaeological artifacts" without very serious difficulties in enforcing these laws, I would like to be made aware of such evidence. So far as I am presently aware, no "source state" that has enacted such laws has yet been able to enforce them without a massive enforcement effort and widespread public contempt for these laws.

My perspective on this subject is shaped by experience. As the proprietor of one of the world's most significant online venues for the sale of ancient coins [www.classicalcoins.com] I receive very frequent inquiries from individuals and dealers in "source states" such as Egypt who have coins and other antiquities in their possession that they desire to sell. All such inquiries receive the same response: export of antiquities from these states is controlled by law, and accordingly Classical Coins will not accept any shipment from states in which export of antiquities is controlled by law, without an export permit from the government of the state in question.

The Classical Coins website is absolutely neutral regarding that subject, and does not in any way imply opposition to such antiquities laws, but I have yet to receive even one inquiry from any private individual in a "source state" suggesting or implying that the antiquities laws in that state are beneficial to society, or that any private individual possessing antiquities has any intention of complying with these laws. Every such inquiry instead indicates that whenever a private individual in a "source state" comes into possession of an "archaeological artifact" his or her first and foremost inclination will be to sell it abroad at the highest possible price, without regard for the law. Almost every such inquiry (of which many thousands have been received) clearly indicates a desire to sell these antiquities to me. Unfortunately for the inquirers, I will not consider acquiring them at any price even though in most cases, it is presently licit to do so under US law. I may (and do) on principle, freely criticize the unwisdom of foreign antiquities laws, and US acquiescence to such laws, however I will not on principle, have anything to do with violating them.

My personal perspective is sustained by the experience of those involved in enforcing such antiquities laws. The responsible official in Greece, for example, recently made a public statement to that effect. These officials do not see how the antiquities laws in their states can be enforced without public support.

As we consider this situation, note should be taken of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland. This is, to my knowledge, the sole present example of a "source state" in which restrictive antiquities laws have been accepted by the public and are presently being enforced without any significant opposition or organized evasion by interested parties such as metal detectorists.

The Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme which prevail in the United Kingdom are the best (and almost the only) existing example of intelligently devised, successful antiquities laws, and in my view something resembling this should be universally adopted. Although the existing political climate does not favor such a sensible and practically motivated resolution of differences, I believe that the adoption of a global Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme, with appropriate adjustments for the individual concerns of States presently restricting private ownership of and export of archaeological antiquities, would do far more to control looting of archaeological sites than any possible combination of repressive and punitive measures.

The archaeological record itself contains a great deal of incontrovertible proof of the unwisdom and impracticality of repressive antiquities laws over the past five millenia. In antiquity the principal concern was tomb and monument robbing, which reached epidemic proportions in Egypt, when at times it seemed that although half the population was engaged in planning and constructing the tomb of the current Pharaoh, the other half robbed the monuments of his father and more distant ancestors. In view of this clear evidence, it seems appropriate to enquire why anyone should now believe that those archaeologists who advocate a similar repressive policy regarding artifacts of the past should be followed, when all available archaeological evidence suggests that their views are practically unenforceable, and that attempts to enforce such views are likely to have significantly adverse social consequences.


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