Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy the Best Steward for Coins?

In my planned oral statement for last Friday's CPAC meeting (which was abbreviated somewhat in the telling at the Chairwoman's request), I observed,

Italy has one of the world’s richest economies. Yet, ..efforts to reform the system have run up against an entrenched cultural bureaucracy and given serious under funding, “passive preservation” has become the rule. In such an environment, it is no wonder that Italy has done a poor job taking care of the coins at state institutions and archaeological sites. In particular,

  • Coins in museums have historically suffered from major thefts and poor internal documentation.
  • Institutional collections are poorly documented in published form.
  • The publication record for coins found in Italian excavations is poor.
  • Without publication it is almost impossible to know what has been found and what has become of the material.

This of course suggests that the Italian state may not be the best steward of common artifacts like coins—and collectors should continue to be able to study, preserve and display them through their own efforts.

Interestingly, neither Stefano De Caro nor anyone else from the archaeological community contested these facts, and, indeed I recall De Caro admitting that publishing coins was "difficult."

Yet, Mr. De Caro defended Italy's claims to all coins struck there in ancient times, stating they were being made on behalf of "Pax Britannia," etc. Is De Caro's claims to all ancient coins struck in Italy aimed at furthering scholarship and the preservation of these common artifacts or is it in reality about nationalism and bureaucratic control? Do the facts deceive us or is the Italian cultural bureaucracy really the best steward for ancient coins struck in Italy? And what are the AIA's views about the state of coins under the care of the Italian cultural bureaucracy and Mr. De Caro's claims to all ancient coins struck in Italy?


Nathan Elkins said...

Hi Peter,

I believe you misheard Dr. De Caro's statements which is understandable since you and I both were sitting on the far side of the room and it was sometimes difficult to hear.

De Caro never used the words "Pax Britannia", etc. What he did say was "Britannia Romana", "Africa Romana", etc. He also never laid claim to all coins struck in Italy either. Instead, in the context of discussing various parts of the Empire such "Africa Romana" or "Britannia Romana," he stated that he believed that ancient coins from all areas ought to be protected as archaeological resources not that all ancient coins produced in Italy should be considered Italian patrimony. Certainly, the latter would be impractical and this was not the point De Caro was making.

All best,

Cultural Property Observer said...

Nathan, thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree due to language issues and where we were sitting, he was a bit hard to understand. I did think, however, that he was suggesting that Italy could/should assert claims to protect Roman coins on behalf of other modern nation states that used to be part of the Roman Empire. I do agree with you, however, that the underlying statute does not contemplate that at all and it certainly would be hard to justify it or enforce it. Perhaps, then what he was really suggesting was that if Italy is successful in getting restrictions on coins, other nations from the old Roman Empire will follow. Anyway, it would be helpful if the DOS released the transcript of this hearing at some point to clear this up.


Peter Tompa