Friday, January 28, 2011

The Archaeological Lobby's Role Models

Just turn on the news and one can see what the people think of the government of one of archaeology's role models, Egypt.

What about some of the others: Italy, Greece, Cyprus and China?

All have been in the news lately. Italy is as dysfunctional as ever. Pompeii is falling down. The cynical Italian public has become expert at maneuvering around bureaucratic rules, just as Prime Minister Berlusconi did himself when he performed unauthorized construction on his archaeologically sensitive property. Yet, the AIA and Italian Cultural Bureaucracy can at least celebrate their great victory against the small businesses of the numismatic trade and US collectors, all courtesy of the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and its Cultural Heritage Center.

Greece is bankrupt. Museum guards recently rioted on the Acropolis for back-pay. Ordinary Greeks are fed up with over regulation, cronyism and corruption. Yet, at a recent CPAC hearing, the AIA was out in force to cheer on a bloated Greek cultural delegation that included a representative of a well-connected private institution, the Alpha Bank. Even as the AIA pressed for yet more restrictions on American coin collectors, none of the archaeological community so much as acknowleded the fact that the Alpha Bank regularly purchases on the open market the same sort of unprovenanced ancient coins that the AIA hopes to make taboo.

The Greek Cypriot Government seems as unwilling to compromise as ever when it comes to the sad division of the country. Yet, this division is cited as the reason it is so important to continue import restrictions on cultural goods. But while Americans are precluded from importing unprovenance Cypriot artifacts, including coins, the Cypriot cultural bureaucracy turns a blind eye when connected Cypriot collectors buy artifacts looted from archaeological sites on the Island. And let us not forget about the private Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation and its continuing ability to purchase unprovenanced ancient coins on the open market. More endemic cronyism of the Greek sort.

Finally, there is China. The Chinese Government encourages the rising middle class to collect ancient artifacts to help promote nationalism. Sure, a few peasants get the death sentence for looting, but Chinese auction houses connected to government officials and the People's Liberation Army have flourished. Yet, the AIA has supported import restrictions aimed at precluding Americans from collecting such items. And our State Department, as always, is only too willing to oblige.

No wonder it's so easy to be cynical about the efforts of the AIA and its allies in the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to clamp down on American collectors and the small businesses of the numismatic trade.

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