Saturday, July 26, 2008

Kudos for Cuno

I finally had an opportunity to read Jim Cuno's book, "Who Owns Antiquity?" Cuno writes with the considerable experience of one who has been "on the receiving end" of criticism from elements within the archaeological community for years. Yet, he does not write out of bitterness. Rather, his book is a passionate but well reasoned defense of the encyclopedic museum against the forces of source country nationalism that have threatened its well being in the last decade or so.

A detailed review of Cuno's book is beyond the scope of this blog. Nevertheless, here are some of Cuno's points.
  • Source country nationalism rather than a desire to protect archaeological sites motivates most efforts to seek repatriations or import restrictions.
  • Source counties should return to the practice of allowing "partage" in return for help in excavating archaeological sites.
  • Archaeologists are dependent on source countries for excavation permits. Self-interest or fear of offending their hosts has led to unqualified support for source country rights over cultural artifacts even when that results in the neglect or destruction of those same artifacts.
  • One thing is certain. Whoever made a cultural artifact, it certainly was not made for a modern nation state.
  • Some source countries unashamedly assert rights over cultural artifacts of peoples and cultures they actively seek to subvert.
  • Encyclopedic museums have become a target for source nations and archaeologists because they stand in opposition to the nationalization of culture.
  • The trend of repatriations and import restrictions runs counter to the even more powerful trend of globalism.

Love it or hate it, after reading it, one cannot but help consider Cuno's book to be a valuable addition to the ongoing debate about "who owns the past."


Ed Snible said...

I'm looking forward to reading Who Owns Antiquity and expect my copy soon.

You don't mention it, but I suspect embarrassment over bad deals soured many folks in source countries to collecting. Today the ANA's ethics rules prevent dealers from the kind of predatory deals that were common 50 years ago. With the Internet and globalization these people could sell for retail prices. Here is an excerpt from Burton Berry's Numismatic Biography

"By the late 1950s, a new a strong trend was developing the concerned every collector of ancient coins living in the Near East. First, prices were rising rapidly. Coins that I had purchased on the 1930s for $50 each were selling in public auctions in Switzerland for $1000.... And, more important, the attitude in the Near Eastern countries toward collectors was changing. Where formerly everybody was eager to help the foreign collector, people now were becoming suspicious, and even envious, that you, the foreign collector, saw value in objects in which they saw no value. Newspapers began to give prominence to stories of inflated prices that some antique objects brought abroad, and it was then but a step to accuse foreigners of carrying off the wealth of a nation! Certainly, there is a genuine grievance where newly discovered works of art are exported without authorization or where farmers are encouraged to dig for treasure on archaeological sites on their land.... Many old friends who were officials had retired, and their replacements, regardless of their private feelings, were sensitive to this new trend and found it expedient to go along with it."

(end quote)

The stories that archaeologists tell are much more flattering to the peoples of source countries. They talk of their love of the ancient culture of the land, and of their museum which will hold and conserver the artifacts, never to be sold.

As collectors, the stories we tell are of the sublime beauty of the coins, and of the profit we take by making shrewd purchases.

Here is another anecdote from Mr. Berry:

"I received a telegram from a good friend in Cairo, Mr. Phocion Tano, saying I would find it worthwhile to visit him.... I was literally struck dumb when [Mr. Tano] brought out a small trunk filled with Athenian silver coins of the fifth century before Christ! And when he said I could have my choice at forty Egyptian piasters each (then less than a dollar) I knew that the age of miracles had not passed.... Another Cairo friend, Mr. Joseph Khawan, had ... 900 coins [from the same hoard].... Mr. Khawan was aware of European prices, and I had to pay him considerably more for the common pieces than I had paid on my first purchase...."

(end quote)

Mr. Berry seems quite proud of his good fortune. I can't imagine Mr. Tano feeling pride for his part in this episode. His "good friend", Mr. Berry, purchased the best pieces of a hoard -- for $1 each -- from the unsophisticated Tano, then bragged about it in a book.

The current regime -- borders closed to coins -- keeps profits in the hands of looters, smugglers, and Western dealers. I wonder if there is anything we can do to encourage the Young Numismatists in source countries? The people we hope, in twenty years, will be freely selling coins across borders?

ACE and the ACCG are working with young people here. The ANS attempted to send a small library of coins books to the Iraqi museum but I don't think anything came of it. I wonder if there is anything more we can do for young numismatists and academics in source countries?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Ed- Thanks for your comments. There is probably some truth to this, even today. For an ironic twist, see:

That said, with the internet, this is probaly less of an issue that it was in the past. Still, I have heard that dirt poor farmers in places like Afghanistan offer things they find to Westerners for very little money. (Of course, the Westerners often don't know what it is worth either and/or if it is "wrong" to buy such material under local law.)

Overall, I think even poor source countries should at least consider Treasure Trove with a twist, like Bulgaria is evidently considering. Under this proposal, finders would be required to report coins like they do in Great Britain so they could be recorded. The state would also keep for its own collections what it deems significant. The difference would be that if something is returned for sale, it would have to be sold through a state run auction. Buyers fees would be used to run the system and support local archaeological projects.

This would more fair and hence likely more successful than the largely punitive approach that the archaeological community has been pushing for years.

I also agree it would be great to help source countries and numismatists in foreign countries, but it is hard enough to get people to donate to the ANS here. Also, I have to say I have been personally involved in two effort to try to help source countries on issues related to coins. Both efforts were quite disappointing-- not because of interest here, but because a complete lack of interest in the archaeological establishments of those two nations.

Anyway, thanks for your continued interest.


Peter Tompa