Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Holidays

I have many friends in the Ancient Coin Collecting community and the range of their religious beliefs is impressive, to say the least.  Fortunately, at this time of year most religions see fit to recognize a holiday or "holy day" for one reason or another, not necessarily being the same.  This tradition dates back to the days of the Romans and Mithraism.  Today is as much a secular as a religious celebration.  Regardless of one's personal view and beliefs, I think it is universally recognized as a time of year for holding hands and dedicating ourselves to a better world.  I would like to wish every one of my friends, regardless of religious persuasion, a very peaceful and happy holiday season and a most prosperous New Year.

1/19/2013 FOLLOW UP:

Here's an alternative point of view to my holiday wishes above:

Fox news reports that an Egyptian court has condemned a widowed mother and her seven children to 15 years in prison for converting back to Christianity (her native religion) some eight or so years ago.

"Nadia Mohamed Ali, who was raised a Christian, converted to Islam when she married Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab Mustafa, a Muslim, 23 years ago. He later died, and his widow planned to convert her family back to Christianity in order to obtain an inheritance from her family. She sought the help of others in the registration office to process new identity cards between 2004 and 2006. When the conversion came to light under the new regime, Nadia, her children and even the clerks who processed the identity cards were all sentenced to prison."  Read more:


 The basis for this prosecution stems from the recent shift in Egypt to a national constitution based on Sharia Law.  This prosecution and persecution is something we might expect to read about in a study of the Roman Empire or a treatise on religious fanatacism—certainly not a report on the national policy of a supposedly modern nation.  In response to this blatant assault on human rights, the U.S. State Department should be slamming the door on aid to Egypt.  Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is that they will increase their support of the Egyptian government by endorsing the current Egyptian government's claims that Christian (Coptic) art, and art of Pre-Islamic antiquity, is their national patrimony—even as they advocate destroying it in the name of purification.   If actions of the past are any indication of those to come, the State Department will do everything in its power to increase the flow of U.S. financial support to Egypt, and decrease the flow of cultural property from Egypt to the U.S.  Meanwhile, Americans of all faiths express outrage and life goes on (for some).  Now tell me, who is "Stealing the Past"?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Support from abroad

In a bold display of true Polish solidarity, archaeoblogger Paul Barford has joined with ancient coin collectors in criticizing U.S. State Department (DOS) actions in the cultural property arena.  In a recent blogpost, Barford took the State Department to task for abandoning its role in the Hague plan to help Jewish heirs recover art looted by the Nazis.  This is clearly an altruistic endorsement of collector rights since most of the looted art in question was confiscated from and would be repatriated to private collections.  Of course the actions being criticized by coin collectors are related to a different UN fiasco, but the principle is the same.  Inexplicably, Department of State is said to have based their withdrawal from the Hague effort partly on the fact that the U.S. team has no "culture ministry" to report to.  Barford sees that as a reflection of U.S. attitudes in general about cultural property. 

Based on a good many years of direct and personal observation, I sincerely doubt that any State Department action is a reflection of U.S. attitudes in general.  But then, life is probably different in Poland than it is in the U.S. and Mr. Barford's total lack of understanding American attitudes and law should perhaps be forgiven.  As for having a Ministry of Culture in the U.S., that is a novel idea.  Perhaps he would also recommend a Parliament and perhaps a titular king or queen.  In any case, the fact will remain that the U.S. State Department and the "U.S. Government" are horses of a different color—not unlike "London" and the "City of London".  On that point there can be little argument from any quarter.  What Barford failed to expose through his ubiquitous Google cyber searches is that there is already, in essence, a Ministry of Culture and a titular ruler over cultural property in Foggy Bottom.  That became obvious in the "Black Swan" case where leaked State Department documents confirm a secret collusion between DOS and Spain against a publicly traded American company.

The autonomy of DOS is widely recognized in Washington, even within the court system.  The Circuit Court in Baltimore ruled that an ACCG challenge of overreaching import restrictions imposed by Customs and DOS was not "judiciable".  The court found merit in the collectors guild arguments, but ruled that it had insufficient power to judge the actions of DOS regarding those restrictions.  This abdication of the court's authority and responsibility was subsequently upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals.  That case remains under review.  In another helpful blog post, Mr. Barford highlights the crux of collector concerns about the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) conflation of "country of origin" with "find spot" as defined in the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.  The procedural approach outlined by CBP lacks scale and is not at all consistent with applicable law.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Coin Collectors and the Intellectual Landscape

The ever-thought-provoking Polish archaeologist, Paul Barford, used a phrase in one of his recent blogs that did cause for me a moment of reflection.  "Here I am talking about the 'broader intellectual landscape' within which they ['coineys'] function...."  It struck me as odd that Mr. Barford, often prone to wanton derision, would refer to coin collectors functioning as "intellectuals".  Maybe he's had an epiphany.   I must admit that I have never really thought a great deal about the intellectual landscape of ancient coin collecting, much less about its breadth in those terms.  I don't believe that collectors are prone to touting the intellectual breadth of their interests.  Unlike some pedantics, that is probably a bit out of character for the typical collector.  Ancient Coin Collectors, as a group, are far more egalitarian than that.

But, certainly Mr. Barford is right.  Ancient coin collectors do function within a very broad range of disciplines that are often quite intellectual.  From Art History to Metallurgy to Political Science and myriad other paths of exploration, ancient coins provide a wealth of intellectual opportunities.  Perhaps that is what draws adherents of such diversity to the avocation.  Ancient coins can appeal to the psyche on so many different levels that a cross-section of collectors will include scientists, educators, students, clergy, politicians, people of the trades, probably even an Indian Chief or two.  There are certainly enough archaeologists collecting ancient coins to form their own coin club and "provenance" is not to them the Holy Grail.  Virtually all collectors today value the knowledge of a coin's past travels and often pay a premium to have it.  However, they realistically understand that collecting only coins with an extended provenance is akin to drinking only water that fell from the sky over one's head.  What would one do with the water from a well that may have crossed national borders in a river far beneath the surface of the earth?  It is impossible to say where that water was in 1970 or in 1790.  Lacking that knowledge, shall one not drink?  One might just as well suggest that governments control the flow of subterranean water across national borders as to control the transfer of cultural property in a world where culture is, and has long been, shared widely—and intentionally so.  The logic of such regulation is astoundingly not intellectual.  If Canada or Mexico passed a law claiming rain water as their patrimony (Utah has essentially done that already in the U.S.) would the U.S. Department of Justice then prosecute under the National Stolen Property Act those who capture water that flowed out of those countries?  The analogy is not so bizarre as one might think. 

  In contrast to institutional intellectuals, who are by their very nature sequestered in pockets of erudition, coin collectors are normally independent and relatively isolated.  That in itself promotes a certain vulnerability.  They tend to interface intellectually with academia and other institutions on a personal basis rather than as a unified discipline.  The one thing that tends to bring them together is the international trade in ancient coins and its consequent venues.  Coin shows and numismatic conventions are far more than narrowly focused bourses, they are social events that bring people of like interests together for mutual expression, learning and recreation.  The coin show is also a spawning ground for intellectualism as many research projects are born amidst the wide ranging exchange of shared interests.  The intellectual landscape for the typical coin collector is far less regimented than that of institutions.  This can be a disadvantage in some respects, but it has the very real advantage of freedom to explore and journey through a landscape that professional scholars and academic disciplines often find impenetrable.  This is particularly true in the field of numismatic publishing, where academic studies are exceedingly difficult and expensive to launch within the institutional press system.  Perhaps this is what Mr. Barford was alluding to by the phrase "broader intellectual landscape".  Ironically, Mr. Barford has on many occasions attacked the institutional intellect, particularly in his native Britain.  Perhaps there is some correlation between that and his expatriot status, one can only guess.  It was not until recently that I really understood how similar those attacks are to those launched against people he likes to call "coineys".  I rather like the term, and wonder why I didn't think to name the ACCG the Ancient Coiney Collectors Guild.  Sigh, Mr. Barford is right I'm just "...an old man who apparently believes fervently in coin elves...".  What terrific insight.