Saturday, January 03, 2015

The New Year

2014 was a difficult year for many, especially for Classical Coins and the Welsh family due to our difficult relocation to Temecula ( see ). These difficulties are now behind us, and Classical Coins had a successful holiday season. Many orders, however, were shipped late (although before Christmas) and we sincerely thank our loyal customers for their patience and understanding.

Among those who had a difficult year were both sides of what Wayne Sayles has described as the "Cultural Property War" [ ]. Collectors' rights advocates were once again disappointed when the ACCG's efforts to bring State Department officials responsible for the flood of US import restrictions on ancient artifacts (including coins) into court to explain their actions were frustrated [
unmoved_by_extralegal_seizure.aspx ], by another judicial decision based upon arcane legal technicalities.

It is inexcusable that the State Department Cultural Heritage Center has secretively and deceptively conspired with the archaeology lobby (and cultural officials of foreign governments) to suppress importation of minor antiquities including ancient coins into the USA, without respecting the clear legislative intent and spirit of the 1983 CPIA authorizing such restrictions, or the legitimate rights of collectors and firms engaged in the antiquities trade. It is still worse that the State Department Cultural Heritage Center has subsequently compounded this unjustified conduct by resorting to every possible legal stratagem in order to prevent the actions of its officials from being subjected to judicial review. That is not fair play or ethical conduct. Putting the private agenda of individual bureaucrats ahead of the intent of the law is shameful, and neither "cultural heritage" nor preservation of the "archaeological record" are nearly as important as the inherent obligation of government to treat all citizens fairly and equitably.

The result has become an outrageous example of government by regulation, rather than by legislation. Bureaucrats of the State Department Cultural Heritage Center have a bias against private collecting of antiquities and the international trade in these objects, and are doing everything in their power to strangle it by regulation, without consideration for the legislative intent of Congress -- that collectors and firms engaged in the trade should be protected from arbitrary decisions of this sort by open public hearings held before a panel of experts representing all points of view.

That this odious conduct is being allowed to continue by the judiciary without review clearly indicates that the US government is gradually being transformed into a government of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats and for the bureaucrats.

Meanwhile "preservationists" opposed to private collecting of antiquities and the antiquities trade also had a difficult 2014. Looting of artifacts continues unabated in many areas, notably those controlled by Islamic fundamentalists who have no interest in preserving relics of pre-Islamic civilizations. Although most Western societies consider this attitude unacceptable, there is no real possibility of stopping this looting by police action. It is, in fact, very difficult to prevent looting by police action even in "source nations" committed to preserving the relics of past civilizations.

"Preservationists" opposed to private collecting of antiquities and the antiquities trade however believe that the evident failure of repressive policies to control looting should be addressed by even more stringent restrictive measures aimed at "protecting sites from damage and destruction due to collection-driven exploitation." The basis of this belief is the delusion that if collecting antiquities by Western European citizens and those in English-speaking nations can be suppressed, looting will cease because there will be no market for antiquities. No one who really understands the antiquities trade believes that this would actually be the outcome. There will always be a market for such antiquities somewhere, even if only through their destruction to obtain valuable metals as bullion and gemstones that are not traceable and can be sold without hindrance, or converted into salable articles.

This anticollecting perspective has become a tenet of archaeological ideology rather than an objectively considered, realistically assessed viewpoint. There is no evidence that it would ever work, and the "collateral damage" inherent in violating legitimate property rights and the personal freedom of numerous citizens for the sake of attempting to preserve the interests of archaeology by such unproven methods, is completely ignored. Those objecting to such unreasonable treatment are criticized in pejorative and misleading language which seeks to portray them as "wealthy people [desiring] to have an ancient piece of culture to boast about."

This observer does not believe that Europeans and Britons (including citizens of other British Commonwealth nations) are likely to go nearly as far as extreme "preservationists" wish in implementing stringent restrictive measures upon the antiquities trade. That approach is having more success in the U.S., where it is unclear whether the ACCG and other collectors' rights advocates can ever succeed in having their day in court. Penetration of the State Department and de facto control of its cultural affairs officials by the archaeology lobby has been effective. In this observer's opinion that is primarily due to the efforts of CHC director and archaeologist Maria Kouroupas, who is now approaching retirement.

2015 brings new possibilities to change old problems and old attitudes. It does not seem likely to knowledgeable observers that presently strife-torn areas of the Islamic world such as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan will soon become pacified to an extent that would permit policing of imperiled archaeological sites. Nor does it seem likely that extreme demands for repressive measures against the antiquities trade will soon be enacted.

Meanwhile there is a genuine success story in the effort to preserve cultural heritage, while respecting legitimate property rights and the personal freedom of citizens - the British approach embodied in the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It has significant accomplishments to its credit and in many respects has revitalized British archaeology, giving archaeologists new resources to draw upon. The PAS has harmonized with longstanding British traditions of local archaeology interest groups and antiquarian collecting, and has offered important guidance to British metal detectorists on how detectorist clubs can educate their members to practice their hobby responsibly.

One would think that an objective observer would not have very much difficulty in drawing the conclusion that a cooperative approach such as this is far more likely to get results than the confrontational methods advocated by "preservationists," which are in effect in most source nations and are embodied in the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Whether common sense and a practical approach will eventually prevail remains to be seen.


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