Sunday, November 23, 2014

Media rush to judgement challenged

Chasing Aphrodite blogger Jason Felch surely surprised some in the world of Archaeobloggers and Cultural Property Nationalists when he recently challenged a rash of sensationalized media claims on the part of "scholars" and "experts".   The topic of this latest "meme" is the funding of terrorism and specifically of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.   A "sandstorm" of pronouncements in various media have claimed that the sale of antiquities looted by ISIS is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, second only to their revenues from looted oil.   While the evidence of ISIS looting and/or intentional destruction of cultural property is undeniable, the connection to ISIS funding through the sale of antiquities is far more spurious. That evidence is conspicuously lacking and the trade is essentially devoid of material that could conceivably have come through the hands of ISIS.  Are these calls for embargo then strictly for show?  I fear they are not.  They are part of a deliberate long term program of disinformation.

The sensational headlines generated by supposed "expert" testimony may seem justified to some.  After all, what comes through loud and clear is the loss of cultural heritage—a disaster certainly worthy of concern.  However, less obvious to the general public is a not-so-subtle underlying crusade that threatens the very underpinnings of law, order and justice.  Accompanying the claims that collectors fund terrorism are self-serving calls from the archaeological community and its minions for overreaching trade sanctions in the name of heritage preservation.  The connection is not coincidental.

History confirms that a rise in ideological fervor to the level of zealotry often leads to excess.  The zealotry in this case is opposition to the private collecting of virtually anything of interest to Archaeologists.  Unfortunately, many of the zealots in this crusade are more than willing to overlook the due process of law and apparently believe that the end justifies the means.  The United States was a participant in the 1970 UNESCO convention dealing with ownership of cultural property.  The implementing law in this country was carefully considered, debated and adjusted prior to its eventual enactment in 1983.  Consequently, CCPIA provides very clear and precise rules for government intervention in the trade of cultural property.  It is, in my opinion, a very well thought out and fair piece of legislation and remains in force today.  Because of CCPIA, unnecessary widespread restrictions on the antiquities trade have been made more difficult.  For that reason, opponents of private collecting have sought by various means to circumvent the letter and intent of the legislation.  It is worth noting that the current calls for trade restrictions or embargos seek action in the form of Executive Order rather than consideration under the prevailing law—where the public has a voice. 

The Chasing Aphrodite blog also raises an intriguing connection between the State Department and archaeologists making these unsupportable claims.  Indeed, the State Department has lauded their research.  The American School of Oriental Research, ardently anti-trade, reportedly received $600,000 from State to track the condition of cultural sites in Syria.  One can't help but wonder if some of that money enriched anti-trade PR programs.  It seems that the fabrication of statistics on cultural property issues has become another cottage industry in the field of archaeology.  Reading the comments appended to Jason Felch's blog post is itself quite enlightening.  The point is well made there by some insiders that this sort of yellow journalism will ultimately backfire.

Friday, November 14, 2014

MORE that "the scholars said"

Annointed scholar David Knell expressed an erudite opinion on a recent Paul Barford blog regarding the prices realized at a recent auction of artifacts owned by the St. Louis Society, a chapter (at least at the moment) of the American Institute of Archaeology:

 "Well, if it's any consolation to Donna Yates, the other lot she mentioned (Lot 149: Zapotec Figural Urn) sold for only $3,750, well within the original $3,000–5,000 estimate. I suspect that the doubling of the price for Lot 156 (Maya Effigy Vase) was motivated more by the fact that it is 'prettier' (the art market being shallow as always) rather than a consideration of the increased depth of its academic credentials. I think Dr Yates need not lose any sleep."

How enlightening!  The art market ought perhaps to consider the views of archaeologists when it comes to valuation of works.  If the views of archaeologists and similar highly educated "experts" are to be taken seriously, every artifact more than 100 years old, menial as it might be, is of inestimable value and is essentially "priceless".  For confirmation of that fact one could easily cite scores of pronouncements in the international press.  Since the sale of artifacts in the United States is not prohibited by law, that would mean that huge profits could and should be made in this market.  All one has to do is hire an archaeologist to declare the value and Katie bar the door on bidder enthusiasm!

Perhaps there is a major economic benefit within this logic.  If archaeological credentials are the primary determinent of value, then University departments of Art and Art History ought not to bother themselves, at the considerable expense of tax payers, with the teaching of rare art traditions and connoisseurship.   After all, what good is the subjective appreciation of an object once the precise coordinates of its discovery are lost?

Friday, October 24, 2014

"...the scholars said."

The international media has long been challenged in its ability to print the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a new pinnacle of absurdity has been achieved in a so-called news report on "RT News"

The report plays on public ignorance and seeks to inflame reader passions with outrageous claims about cultural property looting in Syria.  The motivation for this article is highly suspect and a senseless diversion from the genuine crisis of destroyed monuments and real cases of tragic loss in the region.  The supposed "facts" in this report stem from a purported interview in Lebanon with a Syrian looter named "Mustafa".   The claims seem intended mainly to bolster a recent open letter from more than 80 "prominent scholars" calling for a U.N. ban on the trade of Syrian antiquities—hardly coincidental.

The wares being offered by this "Syrian" subject are shown in a video and in several still photos.  They comprise an indistinct pile of purportedly ancient uncleaned coins and miscellanea.  However, the coins that are visible and highlighted in the video are very poor tourist fakes that would make even the most naive archaeologist cringe and any experienced collector laugh (or cry). The remainder are typical low grade surface finds from the region, many with obvious bronze disease and of very little interest or value to either collectors or archaeologists.  Mustafa will certainly not buy his coveted rifle with this group, much less the heavier weapons he supposedly seeks.  So what is the point of this RT News article?  Apparently for cultural property nationalists to promote their agenda—Carpe Diem.

Extracts from RT News video

The article quotes the supposed looter as saying "these antiquities smuggled from Syria now form up to 50 percent of the European markets."  That is a preposterous statement and not something that any responsible journalist or editor would endorse in print.  Actually, the whole article reminds one of the yellow journalism of years gone by and appears now as a very thinly veiled attempt to criminalize the collecting of ancient coins and portable antiquities.  Those responsible for this sort of baseless vilification are really little better than the looters they decry.  Their agenda-driven ideological fervor is as irrational as it is fanatical.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On Second Thought—a chance for rule of law?

The SAFE endorsement of Britain's Article 11c of Council Regulation (EU) No 36/2012 at first blush might seem lacking in forethought.  Here we have major cultural sites being demolished wholesale by civil war in Syria and Britain responds by prohibiting import, export and transfer of Syrian antiquities that would be preserved by caring collectors.  Of course, endorsement of regulation, any regulation, seems a quite natural response from the liberal "do-good" community.  They rarely consider the consequences of their emotional solutions.   Early in reading of the SAFE post, it would be easy to hit the "delete" button and move on—but one must read a bit further for the implications to sink in.  This British prohibition is very precisely defined as applying to items "where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed from Syria without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of Syrian law or international law, in particular if the goods form an integral part of either the public collections listed in the inventories of the conservation collections of Syrian museums, archives or libraries, or the inventories of Syrian religious institutions."

Does this sound familiar?  It should, it parallels the set of conditions arising from the 13-year U.S. Congressional debate over the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA-1983).  That American legislation was purposefully laced with protections against the wholesale embargo of cultural property.  With those specific protections in place, few could argue that such a carefully weighed restriction on transfer of cultural property (under the agreed conditions) would be anything but a fair and logical response.  If there are "reasonable grounds" to assume that an object came illegally out of Syria, then it should not be migrating out of Syria, even in an attempt to preserve it — an odd paradox to say the least, but that is the law (or regulation).  In this sense, the American law and this British regulation are in harmony and rightly so.  The ancient coin collecting community respects and supports CCPIA.  Sadly, archaeologists do not.  Instead, they support the bureaucratic perversion of this law boldly criticized by a wide range of knowledgable and respected scholars and private citizens—including some who have worked within the very bureaucratic system that has perverted it.

Unfortunately, the protective language against overreach in CCPIA has been stripped of its context, much like a looted artifact, by administrative procedure.  It is likely that cultural property nationalists (especially among the radical U.S. archaeological community) will lobby Washington for import restrictions against every object of Syrian origin regardless of the nature of the object or circumstances of its present ownership and legitimate transfer.  They will insist upon proof that an obect is licit, placing the burden of that proof on the accused rather than on the accuser.  That, contrary to every precept of American law and jurisprudence, is exactly what the U.S. State Department and Customs have done, with seeming impunity, to objects from a multitude of countries that are signatories to bi-lateral agreements under the CCPIA and to at least one country where Executive decree has pre-empted the hard-earned legal process.

In concert with this capricious action, the self-serving archaeological community demands mandatory and untenable regulation of numismatics, an honorable avocation that has significantly benefitted society for more than 600 years.  To this day, ancient coin collecting in the private sector remains the spawning ground of major discoveries and serious research in numismatics - something academia struggles to emulate.  Collectors represent an entire class of dedicated, capable and law abiding people who are among the world's best ambassadors for cultural understanding and tolerance.  Sadly, to many of them, the rule of law is becoming a paper tiger subject to selective enforcement and administrative nullification.  If this is indeed a sign of the times, the road ahead will a difficult journey.

But, on second thought, maybe this Briish initiative offers a window of opportunity and a chance for the rule of law to be vindicated.  If the British regulation is to be enforced as written and approved, and the American law were also enforced as Congress intended—both mandating "reasonable grounds" as a catalyst for action—maybe the rule of law could prevail and all would be better served.  Only time will tell.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


The trials and tribulations of ancient coin collectors today are nothing short of Kafkaesque.  Almost 100 years ago, Franz Kafka wrote the short story below.  We share it here because it will resonate so profoundly with many friends and associates in the numismatic world.  At the end, I have taken the liberty of adding a short sequel.

Before the Law
 Franz Kafka

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country
and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant
admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in
later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands
open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the
gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so
drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only
the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot
bear to look at him." These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the
Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a
closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black
Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The
doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for
days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his
importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions
about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords
put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who
has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however
valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the
remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything." During
these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing
access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he
grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong
contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs
the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight
begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes
are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he
dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a
question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer
raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in
height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to
know now?" asks the doorkeeper; "you are insatiable." "Everyone strives to reach the Law,"
says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever
begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and,
to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted
here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

WGS sequel: And the old man, summoning his last ounce of strength and courage whispered back.  "You cannot shut the gate, to do so will end your own existence.  You only live on because of the gate."  At that moment, the gatekeeper was filled with understanding and remorse.  He stepped aside and let the radiance from the Gateway of the Law spread throughout the land.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Daily Record: Five years on, test case on coins tries USAO's patience

The Daily Record, a news service for Maryland based business and legal professions, ran an interesting report about the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild forfeiture case in its July 13, 2014 issue.  This test case is described in numerous news items at the guild website.  The Daily Record piece by Legal Affairs staff writer Danny Jacobs is apparently available online only by paid subscription.  The headline is catchy, to say the least: "Five years on, test case on coins tries USAO's patience".  The essence of this balanced report is distilled from a recent filing in Baltimore by federal prosecutors. Jacobs describes the document as a harshly worded motion complaining of the "waste of judicial resources" expended by the US Attorney's Office.  The USAO lays responsibility for that claimed waste of resources squarely on the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild.  In their motion, the government attorney states “We are still here — in the fifth year — for only one reason: Claimants’ refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer,”.   There is actually one other reason, justice has not yet been served.

The wasted resources are real enough, and they are not borne by the USAO alone.  The cost to ancient coin collectors, not only in financial terms but in the burden of extralegal and repressive regulation has been considerable.  The whole issue begs an important question: Why did it take five years for the ACCG to end up in a Forfeiture Hearing if that was their original intent in 2009?  There are standard timely procedures and milestones in place for any property forfeiture.  The answer, quite simply, is that the government would not file a forfeiture complaint.  One can't help but wonder if this aberration was intentional and a means to avoid the expected litigation.  In any event, Customs and Border Protection officials seized the coins and failed to adhere to the governing statutes and regulations on processing.  After nearly a year of administrative appeals for due process, ACCG was forced to launch the string of litigation that DOJ is now complaining about.  If anyone should be suffering from a lack of patience it should be ACCG for having to forego these hurdles just to have a day in court.  The facts of this case would raise a lot of eyebrows if they were ever allowed to be litigated—and that may well explain the government's intransigence.  The USAO is right about one thing, coin collectors will not take NO for an answer when they seek the protection of existing law to save their hobby, avocation and constitutional rights. 

Despite the fact that this test case has been in progress for five years, there has yet to be a judgement on the merits of the ACCG complaint.  In the first litigation, the court ruled that the issue was not judiciable, in other words not within the discretion or power of the court to hear.  ACCG appealed that decision, believing that it was not only within the power of the court but was the duty of the court to determine what constitutes legal or extralegal action in the administration of law.  The Appellate Court affirmed the District ruling, stating that this question should be addressed in a Forfeiture Hearing (what ACCG had sought from day one).  Having legitimately brought the initial case before the District Court, after futile attempts to gain a forfeiture hearing, ACCG challenged the Appellate Court ruling in a petition to the Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari.  When the case was not selected for hearing by SC, the government was (finally) committed to initiating the long-awaited forfeiture action.  For USAO now to complain about the time wasted is ironic.

Worse than that, the representation in USAO's reply to the court stretches the bounds of credibility.  “At each turn, Claimants have been rebuffed in their effort to turn a simple civil forfeiture case against a handful of ancient coins into a test of the ability of the United States of America to honor its treaty obligations and to protect the cultural patrimony of countries from which objects of antiquity have been looted and sold to collectors...”.   First of all, ACCG sought and was denied that "simple civil forfeiture case".  Secondly, there are no "treaty obligations" involved here.  There is only a Memorandum of Understanding that is clearly and specifically limited by law.  That law, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, includes very precise language intended to prevent the bureaucratic overreach that launched ACCG on this journey.  Anyone who reads the plain language of the law cannot help but understand how that law, both in letter and intent, has been perverted.  Finally, the implication that ACCG's imported coins were seized because they were "looted" is made without one shred of evidence nor reasonable suspicion.  The law mandates that import restrictions can be applied ONLY to objects first found in and subject to export control of the State Party to a Memorandum of Agreement.  The USAO has presented no such evidence nor even made that claim before a court.  How can such a baseless assumption be presented as fact?

It remains to be seen where the road will go from here, but one thing is certain—Ancient Coin Collectors will not give up an avocation with a laudable history more than 600-years-old without exhausting every possible resource.  If that means wasting the time of someone in Washington, then so be it.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A Shot in the Foot

Archaeologist Paul Barford, a self-appointed spokesperson for the archaeological lobby and crusader for the views of Cultural Property Nationalists, is well known to those who follow cultural property matters in cyberspace.  The typically outrageous behavior of "Mr." Barford (he apparently lacks academic position or institutional affiliation) is routinely challenged by those he targets, but is rarely commented on publicly by the archaeological community outside of a small circle of troll enablers.  The posts on Mr. Barford's blog and in his comments elsewhere online are not normal forms of communication.  As one who is frequently targeted by Mr. Barford, I can offer an example from his current blog.  He alludes there to comments appended to a recent Biblical Archaeology Review article.  A comment by David Knell stated

"That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world." 

I'm not sure in this case who "the rest of the world" is, but Knell's statement did not seem all that obvious to me, and does not comport with scholarly opinions that cite poverty as the primary cause of cultural property looting.  Eliminating the private collecting of ancient coins clearly would not eliminate looting.  Some scholars have said as much publicly and at least one did so in the recent Cultural Property Advisory Committee hearing in Washington DC.  One reason is that the trade is truly worldwide and repressing one market would simply divert the flow to another.  Should American collectors be disenfranchised simply to make a meaningless point?  Universal market repression is simply not going to happen.  The other reason is that those who loot ancient sites will inevitably find precious metal objects that can be melted down for bullion if not sold intact.  Many who are familiar with Middle Eastern bazaars know very well that this is precisely what happens to many coin finds irrespective of national or international laws.   I submitted a comment (which I thought was pretty tame) regarding the Knell statement:

"I think that is an inaccurate characterization. The amount of looting in Britain is far less than that in Egypt, for example, if one believes the media reports. Does that mean there are many more (or more voracious) collectors of Egyptian artifacts than there are of Romano-British or Celtic objects? If so, the ancient coin market does not reflect that. A rational person might conclude instead that the differing degrees reflect differing cultural property laws and societal concerns over perservation in the two countries. "

Taking the debate off of the BAR site page, Mr. Barford chose to make it the subject of a post on his own blog.  He starts by introducing a string of preposterous analogies to the words of Knell.  Here are the comparisons Mr. Barford makes to ancient coin collecting:

"(so, I'd say that's like the fact that paedophiles buy the stuff provides most of the motivation for the production of kiddie porn, or the fact that people buy pirated DVDs is the reason why criminals produce them, or that people pay bribes to get what they want is the reason why corrupt individuals ask for them). These things are blatantly obvious to the rest of the world, but  veteran dealer and campaigner Wayne Sayles is not having any of this."

Well, the last seven words at least are factual and relevant.  The rest is typical Paul Barford.

Barford then launched into a tirade against the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Britain, seeming to imply behind a very thin veil of "anti-defamation-suit" verbage that the PAS is a laundering operation for some 16,000 legal metal detectorists in Britain who in Barfordian Twist get their coins from Munich elves (illicit coin dealers). 

Finally, Barford suggests the term "collection driven exploitation" as an alternative to "looting" that should in his view be used "irrespective of what the law says about it."  He says, "This is a conservation issue, not one of collectors' rights by law or anything else."  I beg to differ.  It is ALL about law.  In a situation that is driven by law, how can anyone propose to act irrespective of what the law says?  America has a law that is clear and reasonable, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.  Collectors and dealers are therein held to a clear legal standard.  Everyone else in America, including those administering the law, should be held to that same standard of compliance with the precise letter as well as historic intent of the law. 

So, what is the point of this blog post?  Simply that this sort of nonsense is not doing Archaeology any good.  Collectors are not going to "fade away" because they are harangued by someone like Paul Barford, or repressed by bureaucratic regulation.  If archaeologists really believe that a war against private collecting is a remedy for looting, they have a serious problem.  As we near the end of a decade with coin restrictions in place, how much good have they accomplished?  On the other hand, how much harm has been done to the image and support for Archaeology as a discipline?  Or for State Department administration for that matter.  And why?  Because of a misguided concern about common coins that are sold legally worldwide and that archaeologists have traditionally ignored?  Those who have turned the castigation and vilification of collectors and dealers into a crusade have shot Archaeology in the foot and the pain will sooner or later become obvious.  Sadly, those doing the shooting will have moved on to trolling other waters by then.