Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My CPAC Comments: Any Successful Cultural Policy Needs Public Buy-In

Here the comments I presented at today's CPAC hearing on the Bulgarian MOU:

I’m speaking on behalf of IAPN and PNG, which represent the small businesses of the numismatic trade. Over the past decade, I’ve exhibited common ancient coins similar to ones available to collectors worldwide so that you would know exactly what coins are subject to possible restrictions. However, some of you might recall that for some unfathomable reason I was not allowed to show you any Greek coins when you met last year. So, I’ve left my Bulgarian coins at home, and instead, I’ve brought you this ruler.

Professor Gerstenblith will know I’ve borrowed this prop from Stuart Campbell, a Scottish archaeologist, but the point he made at a recent conference is just as apt here. We can all agree some things are wrong, like murder. That would be a “12” on this ruler. But what about illicit excavations? Campbell would submit—as would I—that most people would consider looting as a “1” on this scale —more like a traffic violation than anything else.

Most Bulgarians would also consider looting to be no worse than speeding. A Center for the Study of Democracy report estimates that up to 250,000 Bulgarian citizens engage in treasure hunting. It also depicts both law enforcement and the cultural establishment as being heavily involved in looting, theft and smuggling of Bulgarian cultural goods. So, a Bulgarian citizen might be forgiven if he or she also fails to take such things very seriously.

It is true that Bulgaria recently passed a cultural heritage law. You will no doubt hear it represents a sincere effort to reign in looting. But that law was apparently rammed through the Bulgarian legislature by ex-Communists solely based on input from archaeologists. It seeks to suppress looting through complicated registration procedures, but Bulgaria’s constitutional court has struck down some of its most important provisions.

The law itself seems mainly to be honored in its breech. For example, Numismatic News reports that although 50,000 Bulgarians are members of organized numismatic groups, only 150-200 collections have been declared under this law. Moreover, though this law makes legal export of Bulgarian artifacts virtually impossible, such impediments will do nothing to stop anyone from just jumping into their car or onto an airplane and taking what they want out of the country now that border checks have been eliminated with Bulgaria’s entrance into the EU.

Let’s get real. All that restrictions would accomplish would be to greatly limit the ability of Americans to import the exact same “coins of Bulgarian type” that are freely available worldwide and indeed within Bulgaria itself. Under the circumstances, IAPN and PNG would request that CPAC give heed to the 71% of the public comments opposed to import restrictions on coins. CPAC should follow prior Committee precedent, and recommend against import restrictions on coins, particularly any restrictions based on a coin’s type rather than its find spot.

Alternatively, we would ask that CPAC table Bulgaria’s request to give the country time to get its own house in order and undertake the self-help measures the CPIA contemplates. Specifically, CPAC should recommend that Bulgaria clamp down on metal detectors rather than collectors, that Bulgaria freely issue export certificates for common artifacts like most ancient coins, and that Bulgaria pass a new antiquities law that takes into account the concerns of collectors and dealers as well as the views of the archaeological community.

Please keep in mind my ruler as you deliberate. Any successful cultural policy --whether in Bulgaria or the US -- needs public buy- in to have any chance at success. CPAC has an important role to play in balancing all interests—including those of collectors and the small businesses of the numismatic trade -- to help ensure that fair and workable solutions to the complex problem of looting are found. Thank you.


Paul Barford said...

"Specifically, CPAC should recommend that Bulgaria clamp down on metal detectors"

Cultural Property Observer said...

Just to be clear. There are two rational ways to deal with metal detectors. A total ban, but that needs to be enforced or something akin to PAS and the Treasure Act. I much prefer the latter as it helps ensure the recording of coins and makes excess material available to collectors.

It appears that Bulgaria has approved the first approach. The real issue in Bulgaria is enforcement. If there is a law that makes metal detecting illegal, but it is not enforced (and that would seem to be the case from some of what was revealed during the hearing) than there is no effective regulation.

In any event, regulation of metal detectors should be tried first before there are any restrictions on Americans' ability to collect.