Saturday, March 10, 2018

More Verification of Fake News

Several months ago I cited a 78-page  Dutch National Police Investigation report that criticized Fake News in the media.  In particular, this investigation debunked the outrageous claims of Cultural Property Nationalists, many of whom are American Institute of Archaeology members or colleagues, that the funding of ISIS is (or was) derived in large measure by the looting and sale of cultural artifacts.  As I stated earlier, this claim was not universally supported within the archaeological community, but it did garner the support and encouragement of some "big name" leaders in that field.  It was clearly a text book example of the "big lie" syndrome that was eagerly disseminated by the media without even rudimentary verification.

An indepth study by MIT scholars, recently reported in The Atlantic,  analyzed some 126,000 contested news stories that surfaced on Twitter.  Their finding has undeniably confirmed that the propensity to lie or grossly exaggerate in the media, and consequently online, has risen to alarming proportions.  I suppose that some Archaeologists might feel vindicated in that they were just following the Pack while creating and feeding on the fallout from those Fake News claims of ISIS marketing through the antiquities trade.  Of course the lies were not innocent little barbs, they were extremely destructive and irreversible.   This abdication of professional ethics is in itself a serious cause for concern and could well lead to a backlash that those guilty of supporting had not anticipated.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire...

The Committee for Cultural Policy has pointed out on several past occasions that exaggerated media reports, of Islamic State (ISIS) income from the sale of looted antiquities to art and coin collecting communities, are and have from the start been unfounded.  The persistence of outright lies has cast a cloud over the credibility of several major media outlets and their academic "experts" who fed the flame for what is obviously an ideological anti-trade agenda.  In their August 2017 newsletter, the CCP presents a report on the findings of a Dutch National Police investigation that flatly debunks this supposed collusion.  In all fairness, similar findings have been reported by respectable archaeologists who value truth over public brainwashing—for what some believe to be the "greater good".  Sadly, these laudable professionals have rarely been quoted and certainly are not heralded by their more radical peers.  Who could ever have imagined that Cultural Property Nationalists would lead Archaeology down such a destructive path?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A sign of the times?

Over the past decade, collectors of ancient coins have been faced with constant pressure from left wing radicals of academia—particularly the archaeological community leadership and their sycophants.  Among the ardent supporters of anti-collector groups are a small but well entrenched cadre of bureaucrats in Washington.  The level of governmental infiltration by these cultural property nationalists—bent on eliminating or controlling international trade in cultural property—is in itself cause for some concern.  History is replete with examples of ideology supplanting law and individual rights in a quest for social management.  It has been the cause of more than one major war between nations, not to mention a global plethora of internal strife over the desire to dictate.

In recent years there has been a barrage of baseless claims in the liberal press stating boldly that the terrorist movements of the Middle East are being funded by huge revenues from the sale (mainly within the U.S.) of ancient artifacts looted in conflict areas either from theft or support of illegal excavation and exportation.  Even avowed supporters of academic archaeology have debunked these wild claims, but they continue to proliferate in the media without justification or any basis in fact.  It's the "Big Lie" in what some see as its finest hour.  One element of that campaign was an Executive Branch program created during the Obama Administration ostensibly to interdict illegal trade and monetary transfers that aided terrorists.  The project was called Operation Choke Point and one of its goals was to throttle trade that the administration considered suspect.  In reality, the project became a tool for ideologues to exert pressure on legitimate business that they disagreed with philosophically.  Ancient coin dealers were among that group targeted.  Under pressure from governmental agencies, several banks cancelled longstanding business accounts with dealers in ancient coins—not due to any transgression nor illegal activity, but simply because they dealt in ancient coins.  Of course, those disenfranchised businesses lodged complaints with their elected representatives and Congress held numerous related hearings that outlined problems to no avail.  The Executive Branch was apparently within its rights and sphere of influence in imposing this form of repressive overreach.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on which way one looks at the situation, the ancient coin community was not alone.   Operation Choke Point affected many other legitimate enterprises in negative ways that the Obama Administration accepted and explained as "collateral consequences".  One was expected to believe that the philosophical overtones were merely coincidental.  This nonchalant writeoff of legitimate American business drew much attention and as early as January 2014 Forbes contributor Tom Basile wrote, "There is a dangerous arrogance of power among the President and senior-level Democrats that should concern every American."

Happily, we can now speak of Operation Chokepoint in the past tense.  As of August 16, 2017 the Trump Administration has terminated that program and described it as a "misguided initiative".  Hopefully, this is a sign of the times and the present administration will also recognize the negative consequences of bureaucratic overreach at the State Department and U.S. Customs.  They might start with implementation of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act and guide the bureaucracy back to a position consistent with the law and not driven, as it has been, by misguided ideology.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Unintended Consequences

Three years ago, coin collector and hobby advocate Scott Barman posted on his blog an insightful article about the nature of what others have described as ideologically inspired bureaucratic overreach.  He named the post "An Ancient Dilemma" and discussed the issue of unintended consequences in an era of "hyper-partisanship".  Where other members of the coin hobby and trade—including myself on some occasions—have become understandably emotional on this topic, Mr. Barman exhibits a remarkable degree of restraint and appeals both to law and common sense.  In the past several years, he has also written other pieces on this subject, see:

For those who would care to evaluate the "ancient coin collector" perspective, without the mindless media disinformation barrage of our times, the thoughts expressed by Mr. Barman will certainly be worth considering.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Sad Day for America

Today, Friday June 23, 2017, The Financial Services Committee of the House of Representatives held a hearing entitled "The Exploitation of Cultural Property: Examining Illicit Activity in the Antiquities and Art Trade." This is certainly a worthy topic of consideration, though the tone is not exactly what the title implies.  It's heartwarming, in one respect, that Congress has the time to consider these sorts of issues when the viability of our Republic is at serious risk.  On the other hand, it may say something about the very nature of representative government and who is actually represented versus who the electorate is.  The three bureaucrats testifiying before Congress in this hearing presented one point of view.  They understandingly deplored the loss of cultural property, but essentially blamed that loss on private ownership that evolved through trade with illegal sources -- "trafficking" is the operative word.  Not surprisingly, each heralded their own efforts to "save the past" for all of us.  Nobody in the room talked about the failure of law enforcement worldwide to stop "trafficking".  How is any buyer in an international market able to distinguish between an object recirculating in a vibrant and venerable trade from one stolen yesterday?  That is not the "buyer's" job, it is the role of law enforcement and the markets based on verifiable evidence -- commonly called "due diligence".  Does that mean providing extensive provenance on any object offered for sale?  In the case of minor antiquities that is unreasonable and impossible in far too many cases.  Still, some items may well appear "too fresh" and should be avoided by all sellers.  The burden of proof that something is illicit, however, remains with the accuser.

What those few elected representatives in Congress present did not hear (the room was nearly empty) was the six-hundred-year-old story of how private collectors of antiquities have saved countless objects from loss through physical destruction for intrinsic metal value (for example, melting down silver and gold coins) or the countless museums worldwide that are populated with cultural property donated by private collectors.  Why was that perspective not made clear?  Because the Archaeological community stranglehold on academia and bureaucracy has made alternative views all but impossible.  Why was the room nearly empty?  Maybe because this is a special interest and most representatives were juggling impossible schedules.  The approach of bureaucracy, in its mindless support of a small academic ("expert") interest, funded mainly by public support, is actually extralegal and counterproductive.  Academia and Bureaucracy have no actual control over foreign governments, so they turn their attack instead toward the innocent who are blameless.  This is most obvious in the liberal media where hardly a day goes by without some blatant and typically false propaganda.  The actual truth is that private collectors do far more to save the past than the loose-lipped academics ever dreamed of doing.

So, what actually is the chance of a fair discussion of the issues involved?  Virtually zero.  This hearing was essentially a checkmark for the next step in a well planned legislative or bureaucratic event.  The failure of governments and law enforcement in foreign lands to eliminate looting and wanton destruction has become a harpoon in the side of law abiding Americans who love the past.  Worse than that, the U.S. Government has become the advocate for a disgusting array of foreign sovereignties who have not the slightest regard for individual rights.  It's all about politics, not about justice or freedom.  Yet, the LAW is what bureaucracy uses as a hammer by distorting the will of Congress in its letter and intent with impunity.  It's a sad day for those who believe in the American system of Democracy and Justice.
“The Exploitation of Cultural Property: Examining Illicit Activity in the Antiquities and Art Trade”
“The Exploitation of Cultural Property: Examining Illicit Activity in the Antiquities and Art Trade”

What happened to the Debate?

 I was disappointed not long ago when I heard that Ann Coulter's scheduled talk at Berkeley was cancelled by the university and the conservative Young America's Foundation that had sponsored her.  The action was taken in response to serious concerns about student and project-sponsor safety.  Violence on campus has become a hallmark of that once prestigious university and the ultra-liberal element there has effectively abducted reason in their mind-boggling narcissistic tantrums.  One radio talk show host characterized the actions and attitudes of Berkeley students as "Fascist" in their physical repression of free speech—which ironically the liberal community loudly demands when it serves their own purpose.  How easily they forget that it is a right that ALL American citizens enjoy.

Back in the 90s, I don't recall the actual date, I was invited to participate in a program hosted jointly at Berkeley by the Classics Department of the University and the San Francisco Ancient Coin Club.  I delivered a paper about clasped hands as a symbol of marriage on ancient coins.  The atmosphere was very collegial and friendly.  Nobody threatened nor insulted me.  In fact, I was left with a very good feeling about Berkeley in general.  What in the world happened between then and now?

Whatever it was, it didn't just happen recently.  After founding the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild in 2004, I started attending U.S. State Department hearings of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) in Washington DC.  My intention was to establish a dialogue with Archaeologists who opposed the 600-year tradition of private ownership of ancient coins and members of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that was then becoming proactive in adding ancient coins to designated lists of material restricted from importation into the United States.  I had in fact sent a formal letter to Prof. Jane Waldbaum, then president of the Archaeological Institute of America, suggesting that our respective organizations had common interests and might explore areas of potential cooperation.  She was then a Professor in the University of Wisconsin system and I mentioned our common ground, at least geographically—since I was a post-graduate student at Wisconsin and a PhD candidate.  I never did receive a reply (in retrospect, no great surprise).  At one of the CPAC meetings about six months later, while waiting in the lobby for clearance to enter, I happened to recognize Professor Waldbaum standing alone in the room.  I walked over and introduced myself.  I mentioned that I had recently sent her a letter and wondered if she had received it.  She looked me straight in the eye and said "yes", then without another word, turned and walked away.  At that point, I had a pretty clear indication where we were headed.  Granted, I was only a PhD candidate at UW, but I had by that time become fairly well recognized in the field of Numismatics as an author, publisher and collector advocate.  She knew very well who I was and who I represented.  In a way, I suppose I should thank Jane Waldbaum for laying it out so clearly. That simple act of arrogance taught me a lesson that no classroom exercise ever could. Education is an ongoing adventure and my 75 years on this earth have certainly been adventurous.  What I have learned about people is worth its weight in gold.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Devil is in the Details

In America, the concept of Representative Democracy theoretically provides each citizen a proportionate voice in government through the election process.  Those elected officials serve their constituents, and the nation in general, by creating the laws under which we all manage to co-exist.  The faithful enforcement of those laws is delegated to the Executive branch of government and executed through a wide array of bureaus, departments and agencies.  As the number of laws has increased over time, so too has the number and size of the enforcement entities.  The resulting bureaucracy is managed through a pyramidal system that ultimately becomes difficult to manage in the chaos of election vagaries and changing leadership priorities.  In this environment, "top down management" only works to a limited degree.  Changes in policy at the bureau management level happen slowly in most cases, if at all.  By the same token "undoing" bureaucratic action is easier said than done.  Consequently, mid-level managers who have inherent protections—including job security that elected officials lack—are effectively empowered far beyond normal expectations.  They make decisions daily that affect literally millions of people.  For the most part, I believe these bureaucrats have the best interests of the nation at heart and do their best to serve.  But, they are human.  Some will inevitably be influenced by a special interest that strikes a chord with them.  Since the enforcement of law can require more detail than legislation typically provides, rule-making at agencies becomes a critical element of the process.  These rules can either support the letter and intent of legislation or they may reflect the interests or preferences, or even the training, of enforcement agency personnel.  As always, the devil is in the details and they can be more subtle than politically appointed managers realize.  This is especially true when there is a significant span of time between enactment of law and bureaucratic rule-changes.  When agency rules fail to enforce a law in the manner intended and anticipated by Congress, the system suffers a break-down in confidence, effectiveness and credibility.  At that point, law becomes a hammer rather than a harbor.

Although the "rules" of enforcement for the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA) are guided by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the action agency is actually Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  Customs agents at every U.S. port of entry are trained, often by Archaeologists, to identify, detain and seize cultural property that is restricted from importation in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the United States and a foreign nation.  The MOU is consummated and its scope determined, according to strict parameters of law, by the U.S. State Department (DOS) with guidance provided to CBP for implementation.  Therein lies the devil—in the details of implementation.  What may start out as a rational effort to protect cultural heritage can become a repressive and extralegal process that infringes on the rights of ordinary law abiding citizens.

Recent press coverage of an event held by CBP's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), at the Boston Public Library, highlights a few objects being repatriated to Italy that were allegedly determined by ICE to be illicit.  In addition the occasion was apparently convenient for transferring to Italy "nearly 200" ancient Roman coins that ICE had originally detained in Cincinnati  more than three years ago.  Although some of the objects at this public repatriation were significant and worthy of press coverage, the coins were very low grade and exceedingly common late Roman bronzes of a general type and character found in Middle Eastern "desert" climates.  Virtually any serious collector of these coins would immediately recognize the powdery yellow and reddish patina that distinguishes them.  In all but the very rarest of cases these types of coins are not the sort of significant cultural property that CCPIA protects.  One can't help but wonder why they were detained, much less seized, and why they were being repatriated to Italy?

There are several paths that might lead CBP to seize ancient coins.  If the appraised value of imported coins is greater than $5,000, and there is evidence that the coins were stolen, the coins may be seized by CBP under the authority of the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA).  Most source countries for ancient coins have National Patrimony laws that vest ownership of all artifacts, including coins from antiquity, with the State.  Therefore, any object exported from these lands without a State permit is by default "stolen" from the State.  The recipient of such property in the U.S. may in some cases be guilty of a criminal law violation with serious consequences.  A second path to seizure would be illegal importation of a coin or coins that have been restricted through a Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and a country from which the coins had been exported.  Import restrictions are authorized under specific criteria outlined in CCPIA and enforced by CBP on a case by case basis as determined by the State Department in a "designated list" of items.  These coins would by law need to have first been found in, and subject to export control of, the MOU partner nation.  Bureaucratic rule-making has expanded that and other criteria in alarming ways.  A third path that ancient coins and other private property may be seized by ICE is through the process of "Civil Forfeiture" which allows law enforcement agencies to seize objects that are suspected of being involved in criminal activity—whether or not the owner was actually charged or convicted.  This increasingly controversial action is not particular to coins nor the importation process.   A fourth way is if imported coins are entered into the U.S. by means of a false statement.

The coins seized in Cincinnati were evaluated by a CBP contract "expert" who identified them as Roman Imperial bronze coins and apparently determined their value to be less that $5,000, which ruled out the NSPA.  The stated invoice price was actually $1,000, which seems reasonable considering the nature of the coins shown in press releases. Under no circumstances would they meet the NSPA threshold.  At some point, CBP must also have realized that the coins were exported from United Arab Emirates, and the U.S. does not have an MOU with UAE under the authority of CCPIA.   Since there was no evidence of associated criminal activity, Civil Forfeiture was apparently ruled out.  It would have been appropriate at that point for CBP to release the shipment with an apology and move on.  However, three years ago there was a clamor in the Archaeological community and surrogate Media for widespread prohibitions on importation of virtually all cultural property.  Returning these coins to their rightful owner might have been politically embarrassing.  That left CBP with only one option—the false statement route.  These coins were obviously found in the Middle East—not in Italy—based on photos released by CBP.  Mint names on some of the coins, iconographic details on others and "desert patina" on virtually all leave no doubt as to their source.    When CBP interviewed the importer they reportedly were told that the coins had a Middle East origin.  The only viable explanation for seizure by means of "false statement" seems to be that ICE agents erroneously assumed Italy was the point of origin for all Roman Coins.  Any other explanation would suggest intentional extralegal enforcement.  Once the coins were seized, the importer had the right under law to appeal and contest the seizure.  However, the cost of doing so and effecting a reversal of this action would far outstrip the value of the coins themselves.  Keep in mind that the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has been in court for eight years, with significant costs to both the Guild and the U.S. Government, fighting the extralegal seizure of $275 worth of low grade ancient coins.   It is understandable that the importer simply gave up the coins.  Whether intentional or not, this amounts to intimidation by a government agency charged with serving the public.  The private property of a citizen in cases like this is seized without justification—and that is the basis of the ACCG court case which is in effect a class action suit on behalf of all collectors.  Even if the documentation in Cincinnati were inaccurate, and it does not seem to be, the typical penalty in minor cases like this would be a reasonable fine, not seizure.  Ironically, even if the coins had all been struck at the mint in Rome they were still not covered by the existing MOU with Italy because that MOU does not include Roman Imperial Coins, only early Italian and Republican coins and coinage of Greek colonies in southern Italy.

Adding insult to injury, CBP has now repatriated the coins to Italy—where they had probably never seen the light of day—and then self-applauded their "protection of cultural antiquities".  There was no reason to detain or seize the above coins and no reason to repatriate them to Italy or anywhere else for that matter.  One could easily imagine that a Customs Agent in Cincinnati might not be familiar with ancient Roman coins and might need to hold a shipment for a few days pending examination by a more knowledgeable party.  One could even imagine that a person contracted by CBP as an "expert" on ancient coins might err or be misunderstood, but the above case is not a unique example of collateral damage. Extralegal and unduly aggressive seizures by CBP and ICE are of increasing concern to the many thousands of Americans who buy coins legally from foreign vendors.  That concern will not be alleviated until the letter and intent of existing law is restored.