Sunday, August 25, 2013

Shanna Berk-Schmidt on Coins and the Cultural Property Debate

Shanna Berk-Schmidt has posted her thesis about coins and the culural property debate on  Her thesis provides an unusual and welcome perspective of a numismatic dealer to the issues in an academic environment.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Show Will Go On After All

CPO is happy to report that the good people of Cleveland will get to see an exhibit of Sicilian antiquities after all.  But CPO suspects that "the beyond ownership" mantra of proponents of the MOU with Italy remains on life support.  The problem here was that Sicily had made a last minute demand for considerably more money for the exhibit to go forward after closing at the Getty.  In the future, however,  Sicily can and should get top dollar for renting out its antiquities before they are sent abroad  And Sicily should also consider selling off duplicates in State collections.   Sicily needs money to help preserve its magnificent cultural heritage.  Loans from Cleveland in return are fine, but they won't help pay the bills.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Islamic fanatics are burning mummies and churches in Egypt while the army and police are nowhere to be seen.  Yet, unbelievably there are calls in the archaeological blogosphere for the United States to impose "emergency" import restrictions to expedite the repatriation of unprovenanced Egyptian artifacts back to Egypt.   Is this really about preserving Egyptian cultural heritage or taking advantage of the ongoing tragedy to further an anti-collector agenda?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Archaeology: Art or Science?

An underlying theme at both CPAC hearings and in the archaeological blogosphere is that archaeology is a "science" as to which all other interests must bow.   But is archaeology really a "science" as archaeologists who demand restrictions on collectors often contend?

Here is an part of an an interesting comment to a recent post that addresses this question:

I would now like to respond to Barford's call for the "METHODOLOGY of this discipline." Of what value is the methodology or methodologies employed in archaeology? What results have been obtained by these, what breakthroughs achieved? Having taken classes with numerous archaeologists over the past several years including three who were dig directors at the time, I am now of the opinion that archaeology is not a science at all. Archaeological digs yield certain assemblages of material objects in context. What any of this data means is open to wildly varying interpretation as one can clearly see from reading the publications of the archaeologists themselves. While I have the utmost respect for all of the archaeologists with whom I have studied, and value them both as people and erudite scholars, I find the discipline of archaeology itself to be of very limited value in telling us anything concrete about the past. Archaeological data is a useful tool at the historian's disposal in conjunction with documentary evidence (like coins, papyri, inscriptions) and ancient narrative accounts. By itself, however, a material assemblage in context tells you almost nothing and is open to almost any interpretation one can dream up. When dealing with prehistoric periods where the only evidence is a material assemblage and its context, the "science" of archaeology is less akin to the science of...well, SCIENCE than it is to the "science" employed by L. Ron Hubbard in crafting DIANETICS or Joseph Smith in creating the BOOK OF MORMON. The consensus among my fellow graduate students was that one could make up just about any story one wished and as long as it accounted for the material assemblage it was no more or less likely to be the truth than any other story including all of those published in the flatly contradictory and wildly varying interpretations of nearly every specialist in the field.

Perhaps then "archaeology over all" is an even more hollow ideology than it seems.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Out of Egypt

Egypt's union for archaeologists has demanded that the government throw out foreign, particularly American archaeologists because America has not formally approved of the military's coup against the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood Government.  American archaeologists have helped politicize archaeology through their support of MOU's as "public diplomacy" measures of the US Government.  Now, such politicization has only come back to haunt them.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Snobbery Behind Anti-Collector Rhetoric?

After reading archaeo-blogger Paul Barford's latest screed against numismatics, CPO has to wonder if the anti-collector bias of some archaeologists is motivated largely by academic snobbery.  But in an era where popular culture cares more about the Kardashians than the classics, we should celebrate pastimes like ancient coin collecting and not dismiss it out of hand.  Coin dealers like Italo Vecchi and collectors like Arthur Houghton have spent years producing magnificent studies of ancient coins that help keep the cultures that produced them alive.  And really, what's wrong with that?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Do the Right Thing

It appears from reading the Washington Post article about the proposed return of the "Jewish Archive" to Iraq that many of the artifacts are in fact personal in nature.  If so, shouldn't the US State Department and its Cultural Heritage Center be required to make images of the archive available to families of displaced Jews and give them an opportunity to claim what is rightfully theirs before such material is repatriated?   Who has better title, a successor government to those which hounded these people out of the country that had been their home for generation upon generation or the families themselves?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Iraqi Jewish Archive To Be Returned to Uncertain Future

The Washington Post has a poignant article about the Iraqi Jewish Archive and its planned return to the anti-Semitic Government of Iraq after a $3 million restoration courtesy of the US Taxpayer.

One wonders whether the same ardent repatriationists who have demanded its return will monitor the Iraqi Government's treatment of the archive with the anywhere near the same vigor they have shown in criticizing the US Government's actions, which after all, saved the archive from oblivion.

And will the archive be cared for by the Iraqis on its return?  Will it remain available so scholars?   CPO tends to doubt it as do many of  those who have already posted comments to the Washington Post article.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Evan Ryan Nominated to be Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs

On July 8, 2013, President Obama nominated Evan Ryan to serve as the new Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee acted on  Ms. Ryan's nomination with unusual dispatch, holding a hearing on July 30th and reporting the nomination favorably out of Committee on August 1, 2013.

In her new post, Ms. Ryan will be the deciding official for import restrictions under the CPIA.  One can only hope that she will receive honest assessments about the issues each MOU raises, particularly where there is an effort (as in the case of China and Italy) to preclude Americans from enjoying access to the exact same artifacts that are widely traded within those same countries.  But, more likely, it will be business as usual.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Greater Obama Administration Transparency on Government Surveillance Program and Even Golf, But Not Cypriot and Chinese Coins

Life can be strange.  President Obama has promised greater transparency on the government's top secret anti-terror surveillance program and even his golf game.   Yet, as set forth below, his administration is still stonewalling on details about why import restrictions were placed on Cypriot and Chinese coins of the sort widely collected in Cyprus and China themselves.  Yes, life and the law can be strange.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What the Good People of Cleveland Are Missing

The Getty has this great web post about the controversial show, "Sicily Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome."  But the magnificence of the exhibit just made me think what the good people of Cleveland are now missing.  Ironically, the website also notes that the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy in Rome has proclaimed 2013 as the "Year of Italian Culture."  But not in Cleveland, Ohio it would seem.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Court Sets Briefing Schedule in ACCG Forfeiture Case

Judge Blake has set a briefing schedule for a government motion that seeks to limit the scope of discovery in the forfeiture case against the Cypriot and Chinese coins the ACCG imported for purposes of its test case.   The parties' papers and the court's short letter order can be found here.

Despite the predictable spin from the archaeological blogosphere, the key issue-- which should be important to more than just coin collectors-- is whether due process requires discovery into the basis for any forfeiture so a defense can be mounted before the government is allowed to take the Guild's property.   But don't just take my word for it.  Read the short memorandums of the parties and draw your own conclusions.  And why shouldn't the government be required to admit or deny the simple, direct questions appended to the Guild's memorandum?  That, at a minimum, is a fair question for any "cultural property observer" to ask.

Not so Difficult

Afghanistan has many problems, including the Taliban insurgency, endemic corruption, and extreme poverty, but after reading the archaeological blogs, one would think the chief among them is the looting of heritage by poor Afghan farmers.

But that's not all.  For looting provides yet another chance to lay blame for Afghanistan's state of affairs on America!  Indeed, despite fellow archaeological blogger Rick St. Hilaire's recitation of all the statutes federal prosecutors may use to force the repatriation of "looted" antiquities, anti-American archaeo-blogger Paul Barford goes so far as to claim that the protections afforded under U.S. law to "looted" Afghan antiquities are "scandalously" inadequate.  Barford also appears to assume it's just too difficult for countries like Afghanistan to request import restrictions under the Cultural Property Implementation Act.

But aren't the AIA and related archaeological groups always there to help craft a request?  And isn't the State Department always willing (perhaps too willing given what is actually required under the statutory regime) to oblige with a MOU?

In any event, to the extent looted Afghan materials are entering the country at all, it would seem federal prosecutors have plenty of tools at their disposal to stop them.  But lest we get ahead of ourselves like St. Hilaire and Barford, let's also acknowledge that it was quite legal to sell, collect and export antiquities at least before the Communist regime that preceded the Taliban took over.

Indeed, here is what one knowledgeable observer who actually lived in Afghanistan at the time has reported:

The 1958 Afghanistan law is not a vesting law, at least and would not trigger any US statute requiring a declaration of national ownership. There were licensed antiquities dealers in Kabul when I visited Afghanistan in the 70's and 80's. The Kabul museum issued permits for export - a flimsy blue sheet in Dari and a clumsy stamp. US Customs had no interest in these documents, at least in the 1970s and 80's. The reviewing archeologists at the Kabul museum did not allow export of Buddhist material but would sometimes grant permission for Bronze Age and Islamic pieces. Cotton foundation carpets were not allowed out in the interest of protecting the reputation of the Afghan carpet industry. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Italian Museum Sells Ancient Coins

A reliable source has reported that the Capitoline museum in Rome is selling genuine ancient Roman coins in their bookshop. The bookshop is run by a company wholly owned by the city of Rome (and thus by the government). They are Late Roman Bronzes priced at 45 euros each.   The Museum and the Government of Rome should be commended for giving Italian and foreign tourists an opportunity to own an inexpensive artifact from the same culture that was responsible for the magnificent statuary found in the museum.  Purists may be aghast, but ancient coin collecting is quite legal in Italy, and the country has many fine numismatic firms that deal in such items.  So, why not?   But does the museum also offer export permits for the coins it sells to tourists?  Probably not, but perhaps it's more than a bit foolish to require one for inexpensive ancient coins of the sort widely collected both in Italy and abroad. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bank of Cyprus Raids Depositor's Accounts; Time to Sell Off the Coin Collection and End any Subsidies to Archaeological Interest Groups?

The Bank of Cyprus has raided its own depositor's money to stay afloat, taking 47.5% of deposits over 100,000 Euros.  The depositors are thus paying for the sins of their bankers, who stand accused of many of the same foibles as some of their American counterparts.

Ancient coin collectors may recall the the bank was a player in the controversial decision to impose import restrictions on coins "of Cypriot type."  Its cultural foundation supported that request, which has made it much more difficult for American collectors to compete with the bank for the same ancient  coins on the open market.  The bank appears to have also offered support for the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute.  CAARI  actively lobbied the State Department for the import ban, presumably using the considerable connections of Clay Constantinou, a CAARI trustee, campaign funds bundler, former ambassador, and lobbyist to convince the State Department to ignore the recommendations of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to retain a longstanding exemption for coins.

Now, however, the bank should be concentrating on survival, not on coin collecting or supporting archaeological groups that lobby against the interests of collectors.  Perhaps then, its time to sell off its cultural foundation's coin collection, end any funding for CAARI and give the bank's battered depositors a break. 

Erasing Turkey's Christian Past

The Economist reports on the conversion of a historic 13th Byzantine church in Trabzon into a mosque.  Even in Islamic Turkey, the decision has prompted some concerns.  As the Economist notes,

The decision provoked surprising anger in a city notorious for its ultra-nationalist views. “It’s about erasing the Christian past, reviving Ottomanism,” says a local historian. “There are enough mosques in Trabzon, half of them empty, what was the need?” chimes in Zeki Bakar, a neighbourhood councillor. A lawsuit has been brought to undo the conversion.

One wonders if Haghia Sophia in Istanbul will be next.  And one has a right to ask, if Turkey will not respect its pre-Ottoman past why should other countries be so willing to repatriate pre-Ottoman artifacts to the country?

Update 8/15/13:  Here is another good article about the conversion of the church in Trabzon.