Monday, January 2, 2012

Turnabout is Fair Play

Archaeo-Blogger Paul Barford has sought to make sport of the heartfelt comments of ancient coin collectors opposed to the extension of the MOU with Cyprus. Accordingly, his own comments to CPAC deserve at least some scrutiny.

Barford has stated to CPAC:

As somebody deeply concerned about the illicit international trade in antiquities and other cultural property and the role of US dealers and collectors in this, I support the renewal of the MOU with Cyprus to help curb the movement of illicit antiquities across US borders by increased scrutiny of imports as per Art. 3 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the CCPIA. It gives out a strong message of US commitment to equable [sic] relations with the international community in such matters.

Comment: I don't doubt Mr. Barford's sincerity, but it should also be noted that Barford is apparently a contractor for UNESCO. This is at least as relevant to the validity of his views as his claims that US Dealers and collectors are motivated by financial interests in their opposition to these MOU's. It's interesting that Barford suggests that MOU's "give[] out a strong message of US Commitment to equable [equitable?] relations when these MOU's impose restrictions on Americans not borne by others including collectors in Cyprus.

The rich cultural heritage of Cyprus continues to be seriously threatened by looters who, in defiance of antiquity preservation laws, are systematically and clandestinely stripping sites of collectable items many of which are destined for sale on foreign markets. Cyprus applies the measures envisaged in the Convention to attempt to combat this looting but the financial temptations of the international no-questions asked market for smuggled goods (and the US market plays a potentially big role) encourage criminals to try and subvert these efforts.

Comment: A Swiss academic who has studied the issue has concluded that most looted artifacts no longer go abroad and instead go into collections of wealthy Cypriot collectors with the full knowledge and acquiescence of Cypriot authorities. Under the circumstances, Greek Cypriot Government propaganda repeated here masks a different truth.

I would ask the CPAC to urge the appropriate US authorities to pay especial attention to the US trade (both across the country’s borders as well as internally) in what the trade persists in calling “minor antiquities”, and in particular in dug-up coins. Coins like any other archaeological artefacts illegally taken out of the archaeological record and unlawfully exported cannot be exempt from scrutiny. Yet this is what the people who profit from trading this type of material would apparently like to see. It cannot fail to escape the notice of the CPAC that US coin dealers and their lobbyists are currently engaged in active opposition to the imposition of import controls on items without documentation of lawful export (19 U.S.C. 2606) which can only draw attention to the current form of the market for such items in the US. The comments in this docket include those of a few hundred collectors (among the 50 000 collectors of ancient coins the lobby group the Ancient Coin Collectors’ Guild claims). They, fired up by the alarmist rhetoric of the dealers’ lobbyists, oppose restricting imports onto the US market to only those with documentation of what the CCPIA considers to be lawful export. Their collective voice in favour of the reintroduction of an unrestricted flow onto the US market of freshly imported archaeological artefacts such as ancient coins without documentation of lawful export shows why it is so important that US vigilance is maintained.

Comment: Barford misstates the impact of import restrictions and thus mischaraterizes the nature of the opposition. Barford suggests that restrictions only impact freshly imported archaeological artifacts from Cyprus. In fact, import restrictions impact all imports of coins of Cypriot type from legitimate markets abroad. Such restrictions are grossly overbroad. Coins legitimately for sale in the UK or Germany cannot be imported under these restrictions without detailed documentation that does not exist for most ancient coins. Even worse, US Customs has evidently taken the position that coins of Cypriot type on the designated list may only be imported if they are pictured in an auction catalogue predating the 2007 restrictions. This bars entry of virtually all Cypriot coins. In addition, the "current form of the market in the US" Barford complains about is no different than the "current form of the market" in the EU, of which Cyprus is a part. As such, restrictions only discriminate against American citizens.

The US needs to maintain their [sic] tough stance with anyone attempting to abuse the system and continue to seize illicitly-exported material of this type at the US borders (in accordance with the measures envisaged by the 1970 Convention), and in doing so help make international controls on the movement of illicit artefacts more effective.

Closer scrutiny of archaeological and ethnographic material of Cypriot origin crossing US borders is a non-drastic means of providing this help and respecting the obligations of the USA and other states parties under the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Comment: US Customs already has plenty of tools at its disposal to interdict artifacts looted from Cyprus (including claims of smuggling and theft) without resort to grossly overbroad restrictions that only discriminate against American citizens. If such restrictions are such a good idea, how come only the US applies them? And if Mr. Barford is so concerned about Cypriot cultural heritage, shouldn't he spend at least as much time railing against corrupt Cypriot practices as he does against American collectors?

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