Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Illicit" vs. "Illegal"

In an update to his reaction to my updated post on 
"Islamic State" Terrorists and the Antiquities Market , archaeoblogger Paul Barford took exception to this remark: Readers are cautioned that "illicit" is Barfordian doublespeak for "undocumented" or "unprovenanced." It does not mean "illegal."

There followed a stupefying lecture upon use of the word "illicit" -- whose plain English meaning is "forbidden," but which does have a somewhat different definition from that of "illegal." That is well illustrated here .

Mr. Barford apparently views posts in our respective blogs as constituting a sort of debate, and chides me for "not following the rules" by "dodging the issues" in a manner which is responsible "for the current state of the heritage debate."

I don't consider blog posts as being contributions to "the heritage debate." There is no such debate, except perhaps in Mr. Barford's mind, where many other uniquities reside. 

There are instead the unpleasant realities of what is taking place in the world today, and how they affect the interests of ancient coin collectors (and the professional numismatists and auction firms which supply them). That is the subject of this blog. It is written not for archaeobloggers, but for collectors.

Collectors need clear, understandable guidance regarding what they are (and are not) allowed to acquire. They will never get anything resembling that from  Mr. Barford, or others in the archaeological blogosphere. 

Thus in this blog the words "illicit" and "illegal" are used in a practically significant sense, instead of attempting to preserve every tortuous nuance of international conventions, foreign heritage laws and their various interactions and interpretations. 

Illegal - in this blog - means "in violation of the laws of the United States."
Illicit - in this blog - is used in its Barfordian sense as meaning "unprovenanced, or undocumented."

Collecting unprovenanced, undocumented ancient coins is the norm in the United States, as it is (and has been for centuries) in Europe and the UK. Much has been said here, and elsewhere, regarding the costs of documenting provenance and the consequently very small proportion of coins which have a documented provenance. Suffice it to say that if collectors were only allowed to acquire numismatic specimens with a provenance sufficient to satisfy Mr. Barford and his ilk, it would very soon be impossible to continue collecting ancient coins because the supply of such rarities would be exhausted.

Fortunately for collectors, it is not illegal to collect coins that Mr. Barford, and others in the archaeological blogosphere, would describe as being illicit

The key issue involved is the concept of coins being "innocent until proven guilty." That is, in fact, the law in the United States. However Mr. Barford and his ilk see it the other way round - coins (and all other antiquities) are regarded by them as being illicit unless proven to be licit by valid provenance documentation.

There is actually a rather significant difference between this interpretation, and the usage of illicit in the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Article 3 thereof defines illicit thus:
"The import, export or transfer of ownership of cultural property effected contrary to the provisions adopted under this Convention by the States Parties thereto, shall be illicit."

In other words, an illicit coin is one which has been imported, exported or sold in violation of the provisions of the Convention. Nothing in the Convention states or implies that a coin is illicit if it does not have provenance documentation. 


Blogger Troyjjefferson said...

Thanks for discussing the difference between the illegal and illicit gathering of ancient coins. It can be difficult to distinguish between the two in some cases, especially those involving parties and countries that are warring with the United States. By knowing this information, it's possible to collect coins legally, even if the means are illicit.

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