Friday, February 19, 2010

Preserving the Past by Regulating the Antiquties Market

I attended Prof. Patty Gerstenblith's GWU lecture, entitled, "Museums and the Market: Preserving the Past by Regulating the Market in Antiquities." Although Prof. Gerstenblith ("PG")covered little new ground, her presentation was (as always) very well done.

Here are some highlights:

Some Background

  • Looting started early. The Romans practiced it extensively. Even then, some thought it wrong. Cicero prosecuted Verres, in part for looting Sicilian religious sanctuaries.
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries the colonial powers competed for spoils. Paris was to be the "New Rome;" London, the "New Athens."
  • When Napoleon lost, the French were forced to return much (but not all) of their loot, mainly from Italy.
  • Serious archaeology began in the 19th c. Petrie did wonderful stratigraphic views of sites in the Middle East [He was also a prolific collector-- which PG did not mention.]
  • With the advent of serious archaeology, "connoisseurship" became less important as a means of understanding artifacts. Nevertheless, it still retains some importance, even today. [In this regard, PG departs from some of her more extreme colleagues in the archaeological community who hold an artifact loses all meaning if its archaeological context has been lost.]

Demand and Supply and its Consequences

  • In the aftermath of WW II, new found wealth prompted collectors to compete for artifacts. This increase in demand led to looting of archaeological sites.
  • PG denies that "subsistence digging" is a big issue. She maintains most looting is the result of an organized criminal enterprise.
  • As evidence, PG showed slides of bulldozed tells in Turkey and looters' pits in Iraq.

Loss of Knowledge From Looting

  • PG admits that we know a lot about the Euphronios krater from the object itself, but maintains we would know much more if we knew its context. We would know the station of the person it was buried with. We would learn something about its relationship to other grave goods, etc.
  • Cycladic figures are far more mysterious than they should be because most of their find spots have been looted. There is also a problem with possible forgeries in the series.
  • The "Getty Kouros" and the "James Ossuary" are likely forgeries. If their context had been preserved, they could have been authenticated.
  • Collectors often say if artifacts were made unsalable they would be destroyed. But, looters often destroy less valuable artifacts in their search for artifacts with value.
  • Byzantine mosaics removed from a Church in Cyprus were flattened out to make them more salable, but they no longer look as they did.

Legal Restrictions

  • The U.S. enters into bilateral agreements with other countries that impose import restrictions on cultural artifacts. [Interestingly, PG acknowledges that these are the most controversial types of restrictions. I agree. They preclude import of artifacts openly traded in foreign markets merely because there is no paper trail back to the date the restrictions were imposed.]
  • The U.S. and the U.K. also recognise foreign laws declaring artifacts found in the ground to be state property.
  • U.S. Customs also repatriates artifacts that have been smuggled or which have been imported with improper valuations or countries of origin.
  • PG believes that collectors should not get tax deductions for donating unprovenanced artifacts.
  • She also believes Museum Trustees should be potentially investigated by state authorities if they waste museum assets purchasing unprovenanced artifacts which later must be repatriated.

Long Term Loans

  • PG notes the current MOU with Italy provides for long term loans, but believes there should be more such loans. [At the interim hearing on the Italian MOU, several speakers from the AAMD suggested only museums that repatriated artifacts received such loans.]

New Acquisition Guidelines

  • PG applauded the AAM's and AAMD's new acquisition guidelines generally requiring a 1970 provenance before artifacts are newly accessioned.
  • She notes, however, that AAMD guidelines allow for accession of artifacts that lack provenance information, as long they are posted on-line in an artifacts registry. She worries this exception over time may swallow the 1970 rule.

Questions and Answers

PG took some questions:

  • I asked PG if provenance requirements should be "one size fits all," i.e., should a holder be required to show the same level of provenance information for the Euphronios krater as for a coin. PG indicated, yes. Interestingly, she also indicated that she was not wedded to the 1970 rule as it is a mere "construct." [I agree.] She emphasized, however, that there should be a date certain. She did not like the AAMD's former "rolling" 10 year rule.
  • Well known cultural property lawyer Jim Fitzpatrick asked PG about what the theft of part of the repatriated Lydian hoard said about repatriating artifacts to countries without the money or will to protect them. PG countered that museum theft is a problem everywhere and this should not count against repatriation.
  • CAARI VP Ellen Herscher asked why there were not more bilateral agreements. PG maintained it is time consuming and costly for source countries to make a request to the State Department. She also indicated once an MOU was entered, it should go on in perpetuity. [I have heard from reliable sources US archaeologists do most of the "leg work" in preparing such requests. The 5 year renewal requirement was meant to ensure that import restrictions-- which disadvantage American collectors, dealers and institutions-- DO NOT go on forever, but only for a limited period to allow the requesting country time to get its looting problem under control.]

Question I Wish Was Asked

  • In PG's view, what to do with all those orphan artifacts?


John Muccigrosso said...


Thanks for the summary.

You write of "... some of her more extreme colleagues in the archaeological community who hold an artifact loses all meaning if its archaeological context has been lost".

Could you provide a reference to such a comment? I'm curious to know who the most extreme archaeologists are on this issue.

My sense is that the mainstream position would be that "an artifact loses MOST meaning if its archaeological context has been lost," but I would not be surprised to hear "SOME artifacts lose all meaning if their archaeological context has been lost," especially in reference to items that are not unique in some way and are part of a well known category.

So something like the Euphronios krater may still provide us with new knowledge because of what's depicted on it, but not nearly as much as if we knew where it was from (which seems from your notes to have been an example in the talk).

Cultural Property Observer said...

John- This does seem to be the position taken by at least some. Here for example is a statement from Prof. Muller-Karpe said this in 2004: "An archaeological object torn out of context has also lost its meaning, its real value-- like a single letter, torn out of the pages of a history book." See

Some of the bloggers like Barford also seem to take a similar position, but perhaps I am missing the nuances given the general tenor of their posts.

I do also think, however, you are correct that this is not a mainstream position within the archaeological community, and my perception may come from the rhetoric I am reading rather than what archaeologists actually think.


Peter Tompa

John Muccigrosso said...


Thanks for the reference (long URLs, huh!).

I think though that a longer quotation makes M-K's remarks seem less extreme:

"The value of an archaeological find for the history of mankind lies in the information it carries.
The main body of information is inseparably associated with the object’s situation in the earth, that is, its archaeological context.

An archaeological object torn out of context has also lost its meaning, its real value – like a single
letter, torn out of the pages of a history book.
The cultural property that needs our protection first and foremost is the archaeological context in
the earth. Compared to this context, an object from an unknown context has little value. It has lost
all its significance for research and promoting our historical awareness and knowledge – the con-
sciousness which constitutes us as human beings."

Note that he says "little value" not "no value" at one point.

He puts the case strongly, but I'd say it's a fairly mainstream stance.

Ellen said...

Please note that my name is spelled "Herscher."

Anonymous said...

Good Question: What to do with all those orphan artifacts?

First of all, think about the FUTURE, in that we should STOP producing or supporting to produce more orphan artifacts!

My other answer would be, unfortunately we have to do our best to identify the place of origin (waist of time, money and energy since we could have known it so easy in the first place, if persons were not deliberately and with full purpose trying to blur a provenance) in the meantime making sure they are not stolen again ;-).
If we find out, we ask the country/place of origin if it wants the object back.

I still wonder though, why you wish to distinguish between coins and other artefacts. There are many ancient Greek poleis - and I am not talking about Athens or the like - where we could write a history if we would have provenanced coins.

On top, among those many thefts that happen in the countries and with night museum watchman beaten, bound and gagged for small artefacts (like coins), I still do not understand how the collecting of ancient coins can be a legitimate business.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Ms. Herscher-- My apologies. I have corrected the spelling of your name. For what its worth, mine is often misspelled as Tompka.

For Avatar. Collecting and selling ancient coins has been legitimate for over 600 years, and why should it stop? Do you think there are sufficient archaeologists or museum professionals out there to preserve, display, and study the millions of ancient coins extant? Even source countries like Cyprus, Italy and China ENCOURAGE their own citizens to collect ancient coins [and unprovenanced ones at that]. Why do you want to deny Americans this same opportunity? Without the support of private collectors and dealers, there would be little or more likely NO study of ancient coins in this country. The two institutions that do the most work on coins-- the ANA and ANS are I believe 100% dealer and collector funded.


Peter Tompa

Anonymous said...

Mr. Tompa,

The ANS will have their good reasons why they have highest standards of privacy and confidentiality in regard to the ANS's donors. So I may be blue-eyed here, but were do you have your information from, that they are "100% dealer and collector funded"?

I would find it very sad if institutions are aware of the consistent black market with artefacts in which at least I include ancient coins and they would not make every effort to stop this market and the killing of people for a few 'valuable' items.

I am more worried though that you write that 'source countries' - I have been to Professor Gerstenbliths Talk in DC and understood this term is not a proper one - would even encourage their own citizens to collect ancient coins. Would you have a source for this? By contrary, it is my understanding that Italy, Greece, China try to stop looting and selling artefacts!

Anonymous said...
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Cultural Property Observer said...

Dear Avatar-- I'm quite sure from my personal contacts with both the ANS and ANA this is true. If you want to check yourself, you should be able to research their funding through various filings they must make.

In Cyprus, collectors freely import ancient coins without provenances. [Once imported, Cypriot coins are not supposed to be exported.] Also, look at the collection of the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation. I have their publication about their collection. They make quite clear they purchase coins from European commercial sources like everyone else, and their book does not contain provanance information for their coins. This is not surprising. Both Italy and China have huge open internal markets for ancient coins. No provenance information is required. Do a search for "Cyprus," "China" and "Italy" on my blog and you should be able to find some supporting documentation. Not too long ago, Coinage Magazine did an article about ancient coin collecting in China. The Bank of China has also teamed up with an entrepreneur to sell such coins to tourists.


Peter Tompa

Anonymous said...

It seems my earlier blog entry got lost?

I just went through your example of the BOCCF. I wonder what is understood here as research. I hope it includes not issues like to find out in which places these coins were traded, with which other ancient cities they had contact with or so, as I personally would find this would be almost sarcastic. If we would have info where exactly the coin was excavated, we could spare much time and do more useful things.

Again, there is a market for ancient coins that is also a consequence of looting. I do not want my grandparent's coins stolen from our home and end up in some other's private collection. Again, it is the future we have to think about that we make sure we not support site looting for ancient coins! Can't we agree on this?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Avatar- You are now just engaging in argument with little real analysis behind it. The fact is Cyprus allows for imports of unprovenanced ancient coins. Italy and China do too and also have very large internal markets for the same. Under the circumstances, I'm not sure why such countries and their supporters within the archaeological community have much cause to claim American collectors are doing anything at all wrong. Is something else going on here? Is Cuno right? Is it all really about cultural nationalism? It would seem so to me.

Peter Tompa

John Muccigrosso said...

Peter wrote:
"Without the support of private collectors and dealers, there would be little or more likely NO study of ancient coins in this country. The two institutions that do the most work on coins-- the ANA and ANS are I believe 100% dealer and collector funded."

This is a rather hyperbolic statement, Peter. Surely some collectors are generous donors, but to suggest that there wouldn't be any research on ancient coins if collecting were illegal is a bit much. (BTW, I don't agree that it should be illegal.)

There are numerous academic institutions that in one way or another support research on numismatics, as you well know. There are plenty of areas of research that are not exclusively supported by private collectors. Coins would be no different.

Cultural Property Observer said...

John- Thank you. Perhaps, "little" then. The truth is there is relatively little academic research on coins to begin with compared to the wealth of material available. The ANS in particular fosters it. There are a few archaeologists who write on coins, but not all that many. There are certainly popular journals on ths subject, but they are not academic in nature. If there were no collecting, there would be no funding for the ANS and ANA. There might be some reasearch done, but it would certainly be much less than today--particularly compared to the number of coins out there. That was my main point.

Best regards,

Peter Tompa

Anonymous said...

Peter, again: my earlier post from yesterday is lost.

But, I will give my opinion on some issues:

Your question: "ollecting and selling ancient coins has been legitimate for over 600 years, and why should it stop?"

Because things have changed a lot since 1410! Because people get treathened in order that others can have coins in their home.

Again, I would like to see an official source from any country that "encourages" citizens to collect ancient coins [and unprovenanced ones at that].

Also: "Why do you want to deny Americans this same opportunity?"

I want to make clear I make no distinctions here between Americans, Chinese, Greeks etc. It is you who brings up nationalism.

I agree with John M. that numerous academic institutions in one way or another support research on numismatics. I am not a numismatist myself but I am impressed by the work that is done at a great number of institutions and academic numismatics. I wish thy could jump in here and shout: Look, there is more than "some research" done. Where would we stand without Babelon, Head and others?

And again, what research questions would you want them to answer, referring to my point raised above?

Anonymous said...
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John Muccigrosso said...


I don't know what this means as a factual statement subject to verification:

"The truth is there is relatively little academic research on coins to begin with compared to the wealth of material available."

There is a lot of scholarly publication on numismatics.

If your point is that there would be less collector support of publication on topic X if the collecting of X were illegal, then yes, that's probably true, but it hardly proves that the collecting of X should be legal. (Again, I have no problem with ethical legal collecting of coins.)

Find some scholars who are publishing on coins to express this concern and we can talk. :-)

nevekevin said...

I'm sorry, I am new to these talks. But it seems to me that the hoards of Artifacts in the basements of Museums and warehouses upon warehouses of artifacts tucked away so the general common people cant even see it let alone, Own a piece of, how is that keeping the meaning of a Artifact. Why is it that only the extreme wealthy and museums aloud to own artifacts but simple commoners can not, Also id like some kinda explanation how you know a item is looted, does it have a date looted stamped on it. for hundreds of years people have sought artifacts without the paper trail are you to assume just because there are no paper trail they are illegal and looted, and who justify's what is looted some could argue archeologists loot graves. what makes that more right then someone who owns a property or goes out on a day metal detecting. If Museums and archeologist's had a less then snobbish and demanding attitude more people might say hey guess what this was found over there. You might want to take a look. but if a poor person finds gold or something shiny and pretty its get the cops and wealthy lawyers after them. Just because they are jealous they didn't find the site before anyone else does, My guess is if archeologist's are so uptight about common people finding Artifacts before them, then go be a goat herder and you to could find the dead sea scrolls, oh gosh because a over educated dirt digger didn't find it its a fake, hm how many years did it take for experts to finally say the dead sea scrolls where real,im not a educated guy, but i do not like a double standard don't sit and say its OK for a Archeologist to collect Artifacts and not the common people. Not every Artifact is religious piece. Ill pose this question as I did on a earlier site. When you find a coin penny quarter, or what ever foreign currency you have, on a street, sidewalk do you pick it up and take it to the local police station and try to find the owner and return it, or do you pick it up put it in your pocket, and then become a looter yourself. I'm sorry Peter for ranting on your blog.

Best Wishes,

Ed Snible said...