Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Question for Collectors

Last week, in a reply to a comment from Peter Tompa, I asked a question:

Given the scale of damage done by commercial diggers to ancient Native American burial, sacred, and other sites which are protected by law, would you also oppose an MOU between the US and another country that restricts the import of Anasazi pots (such as the ones in the Blanding case) into another country? Or would you welcome their help in enforcing our own cultural property laws? After all, it's not illegal to own Anasazi pots in Egypt. Would you support their "right to collect" them, even though they were illegally dug up here?

I wasn't given an answer form Mr Tompa, but I didn't really expect one. It is a rather sticky question for a lawyer to answer. If he had said he would oppose that MOU, he would basically be saying he's ok with someone in another country benefiting from illegal activity here. If he had said he would support such an MOU, then it would be hypocritical of him to be challenging the Chinese/Cyprus MOU.

Regardless of how Mr. Tompa would have answered, I think it's a question that all collectors should ask themselves before ignoring another country's cultural property laws and buying an item of dubious origin.

Do we want someone in another country to benefit from what is illegal activity here? If your answer to that is no, then why is it ok for us to to benefit from illegal activity in another country? That's exactly what happens when we buy items that are dug up in another country, not reported as required by law, and shipped out of that country without required export permits. We get the benefit of what is illegal activity in that other country.

An MOU on cultural property between the US and another country says in effect that the US is agreeing to not let something illegally removed from another country be imported into the US. Would we expect anything different if the tables were turned? I'm sure the US people would be grateful to have an Anasazi pot, that was illegally excavated from a grave, seized and returned by another country if someone attempted to import it.

And what about the advocates of "collectors' rights?" Would they support that same "right to collect" in another country even if what is collected is illegally obtained on US soil? Or does that "right to collect" only apply to Americans?

Many countries have laws regarding cultural property, including the US. We have laws right here in our own country that are very similar to the ones that are considered so restrictive in other countries. The laws here and in other countries are in place because those governments have decided that it's in the best interest of its citizens to protect its cultural heritage. Looting continues unabated all over the world, including right here in the US, destroying the historical record in an effort to find bits and pieces to sell for a profit. When we buy items illegally obtained in another country we are contributing to this destruction.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Stream of Looted Items Continues

There have been several news stories lately about looted items being returned to Iraq, as well as many reports on the scale of destruction to archaeological sites by looters. This brings up an interesting question. Why/how are these things still on the market? Everyday things like cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals are routinely bought and sold with little or no provenance. Who would touch these things with a 10 foot pole?

The sad truth is, these things are still on the market because there are still collectors willing to buy them without asking where they came from or how they were obtained. Why? Does our desire to own something from a lost civilization really override logic when we see an object like this that's described as "found in granny's attic" or "from an old French collection" or worse yet, no hint of a provenance at all?

Although it seems to be the most publicized, looting is not just a problem in Iraq, The ICE website (here) has a list of investigations where items from all over the world were seized by investigators because they were either stolen or looted. Now more than ever we should be using due diligence and asking the tough questions of sellers when we see an item we want, and a reputable seller should willingly provide that information. If we can't get clear answers, with documented proof, then we should walk away from the sale.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I posted a comment to a post Wayne Sayles made on the website on July 4th. When I didn't get a reply within a few days, I posted the same comment to the same post on Mr. Sayles' personal blog on July 7th. It's now July 13th and I have yet to see a reply to either comment. Why is that? If what they are doing is such a good thing and I'm just misunderstanding their intentions, why can't they even be bothered to attempt to persuade me, as a collector, why this is for my benefit?

To see Mr Sayles' post, see here

Here is my comment in its entirety:

Mr. Sayles,
As long as we are talking about truths here, I see nothing mentioned in your article about what the requirements are to legally import those coins in question. All that is required for the Cypriot coins is a valid export license or proof that they left their country of origin before July 16,2007. For the Chinese coins the date is Jan 16,2009. Neither of those dates is that long ago. If those coins were legally acquired, those documents should be easy to obtain. The ACCG is well aware of this, but repeatedly leaves this information out of all posts, blogs, etc. that are written by its members. Why? As an American taxpayer and private antiquity collector I find it outrageous that my tax dollars are being wasted on this farce. And how dare you claim to speak for antiquity collectors! You speak for unethical collectors who want to be able to purchase whatever they want regardless of where it came from or how it was obtained. I have no problem with the FOIA suit, that is how the system was designed, but the upcoming suit dealing with the deliberate attempt to import coins without the proper documentation is disgraceful. You don’t deliberately break the law because you don’t agree with it. You work through the proper legal channels to change it. I hope when all is said and done, the parties to this “lawsuit” are ordered to pay all costs incurred by the government in this rediculous scheme. The ACCG isn’t even following its own code of ethics by attempting to import these coins in violation of its own country’s laws. Shameful! The ACCG should put a stop to this now by obtaining and supplying the required paperwork and stop wasting the taxpayers’ money."

It should be noted that when I posted the comment in the beginning of July, there was still time to get the required paperwork. Now the 90 day deadline has passed, and it's too late. It should also be noted that Mr. Sayles did post other comments to other posts, but only those that agreed with him.

I read a lot of blogs about collecting, including those of Mr. Sayles, Peter Tompa, Paul Barford, David Gill, and Nathan Elkins. I notice that Mr. Tompa and Mr. Sayles are quick to attack Mr. Barford, Mr. Gill and Mr. Elkins repeatedly because they are open about the fact that they disagree with the tactics that the ACCG has used to further their own agenda. Their argument is that since Mr. Barford and Mr. Elkins are archaeologists, they want to stamp out private collecting.

To be clear, Mr. Barford, Mr. Elkins, and Mr. Gill are not anti-collecting. They are anti-LOOTING, none is opposed to collecting that is done responsibly and legally.

It was also said that since Mr. Barford and Mr. Gill are not American, (here, and here) they must not know how the system works here. But when I, as a collector (who they are supposedly representing) and American citizen express my outrage at what they are doing and ask why they are deliberately leaving pertinent information out of all posts and blogs by their members, no one can seem to come up with a reply. What argument will they use to explain why I disagree with what they are doing? I'm not an archaeologist, I'm a private collector, so there's one argument shot. I'm an American, and I DO know how things work here, so there's another one down. I know.. I must have been brainwashed by reading the other blogs! Sorry, no.

I consider myself to be an intelligent person, able to form my own ideas and opinions, and I have been following this story since Dave Welsh posted it to the yahoo group Ancientartifacts. What I have seen is Mr. Sayles and Mr. Tompa accusing Mr. Barford and Mr. Elkins of spreading false and mis-information, when in fact it is Mr. Sayles and Mr. Tompa doing exactly that. Spreading mis-information, innuendo, and accusation, attacking anyone who doesn't agree with them. What business is it of theirs how David Gill pays for his Newswire publications? Anyone who disagrees with them MUST be working undercover for a foreign government?(here) I wonder who I work for then, they owe me a check!

Mr. Tompa and Mr. Sayles continually complain about how unfair the import restrictions are for Chinese and Cypriot coins, but constantly leave out the fact that all that is required is a valid export permit OR proof that the Chinese coins were out of the country prior to Jan 16 2009 ( yep, that's 7 months ago!) and the Cypriot coins were out of the country before July 16, 2007 (only 2 years). Contrary to what Mr. Sayles says in the post Getting it Right, the Cypriot government doesn't have to "sprinkle holy water on it" for it to enter the US, you just have to show proof that the coin left Cyprus prior to July 16,2007 OR an export permit from the government. Again, mis-information. If these coins were legally acquired, that paperwork should be easily obtained.

Another thing I noticed is that the ACCG claims to be working on behalf of all collectors, yet the original Cyprus MOU has been in effect since July 19,2002. Only when it was renewed and coins added did they object. If they are truly working on behalf of all collectors, why didn't they object in 2002? Why haven't they objected to any other MOU?

In the post A Rose is a Rose Mr. Sayles says "All that really matters is that the ACCG remains true to its charter and defends the free and independent collecting of ancient coins." It would really be nice if they remained true to their own code of ethics and comply with all cultural property laws of their own country.

What I see is a lot of twisting words, false arguments, and wasted money by the members of the ACCG that can't even come up with an honest, persuasive argument to justify what they are doing.

If the best Mr. Tompa and Mr. Sayles can do is personal attacks on those who disagree, and half truths is their posts, why should anyone listen to their side of the argument?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Freedom to Collect

Over on Peter Tompa's blog Cultural Property Observer, he has made a post on freedom to collect.

A couple things jumped out at me in this post that I feel need addressed:

Hopefully, such a day will never come to these United States when ordinary Americans will be unable to study, preserve and display ancient coins just like Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams did generations ago.

This is an argument that is used a lot by collectors. Just because something "has been done this way for generations" doesn't mean that it's the way it should continue to be done. We now know and care more about the destruction looting causes to the historical record, and we can't let this continue.

Instead, it will take the vigilance of collectors and even litigation like the FOIA case against the State Department and a "test case" about import restrictions on coins of Cypriot and Chinese type to ensure that ordinary Americans retain their "freedom to collect."

Yes, as Americans we are free to collect. But that freedom to collect can not and should not supercede the right of another country to pass and enforce whatever laws its government deems necessary to protect its cultural heritage. The ACCG's challenge to the State Dept is attempting to do just that. The US has agreed to help China and Cyprus enforce its cultural property laws by agreeing to not let something illegally removed from either of those countries into the US. Why is that a problem?

The only problem I see with it is that it forces The dealers who are members of the ACCG to be more diligent in their business practices, and lowers their profit margin since they would no longer be able to buy cheap, undocumented objects from any Joe, Stan, or Harry with a metal detector who digs things up illegally and ships them out of the country without reporting them. They would actually have to seek out legally acquired objects to sell.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What To Do Now?

Many collectors, like myself, started buying artifacts out of interest for a particular culture or type of item. As they become more educated collectors, they start to realize the damage that is being done to the historical record by looting. They become aware that a way to help curb looting is to only buy items with provenance. Unfortunately for many of us, it's too late. We already own unprovenanced items. So the question now becomes "What should I do with the items I already own?"

The answer is to start documenting them now. Write down anything you know about the item. Who did you buy it from? When? Where did that person get them from? (If you have that information) If you have done any restoration to the item, document that as well. Take pictures of the item and keep them with the paperwork. This will be the beginning of a provenance. Should you decide to sell the item, pass all this paperwork on to the buyer, and try to educate them of the importance of keeping and updating this paperwork.

The best advice I can give to anyone concerned about the destruction looting causes, and wanting to make sure their items were legally obtained is to educate yourselves. Familiarize yourself with the laws concerning the items you buy, and the laws of the countries you are buying from.

There is much more to being a responsible collector than just requiring provenance, for more information see here:

This is a Code of Ethics created by a group of responsible collectors belonging to the Yahoo forum Ancientartifacts. There was a lot of time and effort put into creating this, and if followed by the majority of collectors it could make a significant impact on the destruction caused by looting.