Ancient Coin Trade Fights Back
by Peter Tompa
The Art Newspaper (Oct. 2012) has published an article by Riah Pryor about the ACCG's test case, currently pending before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The article correctly notes that one of ACCG's key complaints is that the applicable regulations " muddl[e] up the place a coin was made with the place it was found." If the point of import restrictions is to protect archaeological sites in source countries, why has the Government written restrictions based on a coin's place of production rather than its find spot?
Nathan Elkins, a strident critic of collectors and the coin trade, suggests that the dispute is between "experts and academics on one side and and collectors and dealers on the other," but several more seasoned academics I know have also expressed concern that such over broad restrictions do little but encourage grasping cultural bureaucracies like those of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and China to lay claim to any artifact that may have been produced in those countries millenia ago.
> Nathan Elkins, a strident critic of collectors and the coin trade, suggests that the dispute is between "experts and academics on one side and and collectors and dealers on the other" ...
The archaeology lobby and archaeology bloggers constantly endeavor to portray "experts and academics" as "good," presumably because they are not involved in buying and selling antiquities, whereas conversely "collectors and dealers" are portrayed as "bad" because they are involved in buying and selling antiquities.
This stems from the code of ethics to which archaeologists subscribe, the AIA's version of which may be viewed at http://www.archaeological.org/news/advocacy/130 . According to this code, archaeologists must
"Refuse to participate in the trade in undocumented [ i.e. unprovenanced] antiquities and refrain from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects."
It would clearly be wrong to contend that archaeologists and the societies that govern their professional conduct do not have the right to set these standards regarding "unprovenanced antiquities" as an ethical requirement for archaeologists. It is, however, equally wrong for archaeologists to seek to extend their ethical standards regarding "unprovenanced antiquities" as a requirement applying to everyone, by stating or implying that collecting and trading in "unprovenanced antiquities" is unethical for individuals who are not archaeologists.
By endeavoring to portray collectors and dealers as "bad" because they are involved in buying and selling antiquities, the archaeology lobby and archaeology bloggers do indeed seek to extend their ethical standards regarding "unprovenanced antiquities" as a requirement applying to everyone. In this observer's view, that pejorative endeavor can fairly be criticized as unjustified and unethical conduct.
Arthur Houghton's remarks highlight the dichotomy inherent in this. In his incessant criticism of collectors and dealers, Dr. Nathan Elkins has become both ethically conflicted and logically conflicted. As Houghton suggests, "Dr. Elkins should unwind his conflicted views, get on with the business of scholarship and teaching and stop railing at the market that yields up the evidence he so eagerly uses in his own work."