Tuesday, October 25, 2016

System Now Rigged; Underlying Facts Have Not Changed

    This is what I said, more or less, at today's CPAC meeting about the renewal of the current MOU with Cyprus.  The reaction from those opposed to collecting was predictable, but I was happy to get support from archaeologists for the idea of paying fair wages to site workers to discourage looting and promoting the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities scheme to ensure coins found outside recognized archaeological sites are adequately recorded.  I hope to be able to prepare a full report of the CPAC meeting in the near future:  

         I am speaking on behalf of the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatics Guild, which represent the small businesses of the numismatic trade.  In many ways, this hearing is greater test for CPAC than for ancient coin collectors.  We've heard a lot from first the Sanders and now the Trump campaigns that the system is rigged. Here, unfortunately, there is strong evidence that may be the case.

          For 25 years after the CPIA was passed, there were no restrictions on coins.   This should be no surprise.  Coins are items of commerce.  So, it is difficult for modern nation states to justifiably claim them as their “cultural property.”  They are probably the most common of historical artifacts and are not of “cultural significance.”  They are avidly collected and traded worldwide—including in places like Cyprus.  It simply makes no sense to preclude Americans from importing coins where there is no real “concerted international response.”   Indeed, when the CPIA was being discussed, Mark Feldman, a high ranking State Department lawyer, represented to Congress that it was “hard … to imagine a case where we would need to deal with coins except in the most unusual circumstances.” 

          In 2007, this changed with Cypriot coins.   According to the declarations of two former CPAC Members, including Former Chair Kislak, that change was made against CPAC’s recommendations.  Moreover, there was an attempt to mislead the public and the Congress about CPAC’s true recommendations.  Even worse, it has recently come to light that the decision maker at the time made the decision after she had already announced she was leaving for a job at Goldman Sachs, where she was recruited and works for the husband of an AIA Trustee who has been very active lobbying on cultural heritage issues.  Nor is the situation better now.  In fact, the AIA just gave an award to the current State Department decision maker at the swank Metropolitan Club, again courtesy of this same well connected couple.   Under the circumstances, how can collectors and the small businesses of the numismatic trade think the system is fair? 

           Let me touch on some issues brought up in papers by members of the AIA and related groups trying to justify these restrictions.   First, there is the claim that Cypriot coins did not circulate in any numbers.  But this does not mesh with Cyprus’ status as an Island astride major trade routes or information in the scholarly paper attached to the IAPN submission.  Indeed, as referenced in one letter by an AIA member, there was a Smithsonian exhibition several years back entitled, “Cyprus: Cross Roads of Civilizations.” That pretty much says it all.  In any event, the governing statute only authorizes restrictions on coins that were first discovered within and are hence subject to the export control of Cyprus.  Thus, the standard is whether such coins are “exclusively” found in Cyprus, not generally found or some lesser standard.  Only coins actually found in Cyprus can be subject to Cypriot export controls. 

          Next, there is the claim that coins tell us something about Cypriot history.  Maybe so, but virtually all of what we have learned we learned well before import restrictions were imposed.  Limiting Americans’ access to such coins simply won’t help add much to that knowledge.  Moreover, Professor Joan Connelly makes the point that she has spent an astounding $100,000 per coin in “dig dollars” to recover coins worth perhaps a few dollars on the open market at her site.  This begs the question whether perhaps at least some of these “dig dollars” might be better spent on site security during the long off season and paying her local workers a fair living wage so they will not be tempted to do any looting in the long off season.   

          Finally, the State Department and Cyprus have never seriously considered alternatives to import restrictions like the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure Act.  Import restrictions do more harm to legitimate collecting and the appreciation of Cypriot culture than good.  Indeed, it's a real shame that they particularly hurt the ability of Cypriot and Greek Americans from getting in touch with their heritage.  Such restrictions should be ended or limited to coins actually found in Cyprus. 


John H said...

Hi Peter:

I've just visited another blog and I'm still laughing. It's very funny stuff. Highly recommended and a brilliant example of how not to write a blog; turgid and dense, the latter being the operative word. You'll need a machete to cut a path through it.

Nevertheless, in relation to the 'dig dollars' debacle you highlighted, my initial reaction was that poor pay is no indicator of criminal intent; nor should it be assumed that only underpaid excavation workers are the only ones with sticky fingers and connections to that part of the criminal underworld specialising in heritage theft. There are many well documented examples of antiquities theft carried out by those further up the salary scale and food chain.

But in a rare moment of candour, the aforementioned prose masher who's not widely known for his love of numismatists, collectors, metal detectorists, the US, Israel, democracy, or anyone smarter than he is, appears to have had a Damascene conversion:-

"The lawyer [that's you, Peter!] fails to prove that looting is exclusively, mainly or sometimes done by former site workers. Or restricted to archaeological sites (and what about church thefts?)."

The inference being heritage criminality really does reach further up the salary scale (something we've all known about for years). Then he goes and spoils things by introducing - without, as usual, any proof whatsover - a new class of heritage villains...crooked clergymen.

I think he'd be wise not to venture outside when there's lightning about.

Best wishes

John Howland

Cultural Property Observer said...

This comes from a scholar/dealer:

I just read your latest post, which I must say strikes me as extremely well written, sensible and rational. In fact, it is one of your best to be sure.

Needless to say, I also tuned in to our favorite fountain of knowledge and good sense to see what he had to say. My, my, my but he does seem upset! In any case, among his many curious comments is the following:

"The 'cultural property lawyer' would presumably think that in Colonial Williamsburg 'coins are the most common artefact' found. I wonder if he has been there and asked the staff or is he just making this up as he goes along? In Pompeii? In Pharaoh Ahmose's tomb? On the streets of Dura Europos? In a Pictish crannog? A Tuscan Roman villa? The Athenian Agora? The excavation of WW1 trenches at Ypres?"

This is a perfect example of how you can be criticized for what you haven't said and don't mean. I would say that coins are among the most common of all ancient artifacts that are found in areas where coins were used.Of course, pot sherds, bricks, tiles and so on are actually found in much greater number than coins are, but this should be obvious. After all, a large transport amphora can shatter into 100s of pieces, each appearing as a single find, while a coin from the same period remains a single find.

1. While coins undoubtedly were used in Colonial Williamsburg, they were certainly not a major part of its economy. I would bet that coins were not all that common there until the later 18th and earlier 19th century.

2. Immense numbers of coins have been found in Pompeii, ever since it was first excavated in the 18th century. Though pots, tiles and bricks are surely more common.

3. No coins were found in Pharaoh Ahmose I's tomb - one reason for that might be that Ahmose I, founder of the 18th Dynasty and of the New Kingdom, ruled in the mid 16th century BC, approximately 1000 years before coins were invented.

4. Huge numbers of coins were found in Dura-Europos - just look at the final report volume by A. R. Bellinger.

5. Pictish Crannogs might have the occasional coin that had been taken in raids or the like, but the Picts had no coinage of their own and probably only used them as bullion if they had them.

6. A Tuscan Roman villa, or a villa in Britannia or Dalmatia, or anywhere else, will not produce many coins simply because the inhabitants would not commonly be walking around the house dropping and losing coins. If danger approached a villa might be the site of a hoard, secreted for safety, but a villa site is not the same as a city site where coins would be dropped in passing.

7. The Athenian Agora has produced over 100,000 coins (including illegible pieces).

8. A WWI trench at Ypres is not a place where anyone would bring a purse of coins, so its excavator should not expect to find more than a very few.

How's this to answer one of his vaporings?