Friday, September 24, 2010

A New MOU, Same Misinformation

Like other source countries, Greece has now requested a bilateral agreement with the US requesting documentation to prove that items of Greek cultural heritage being brought into the US are not the products of recent looting. Like other MOUs before it, this has caused a flurry of discussion on collector's forums.

It's only logical that so called "source countries" would ask the US for this type of agreement. The US has one of the largest markets for antiquities. Unfortunately that also makes it one of the largest markets for illicit antiquities as well. For some reason, the majority of US collectors just cannot understand that by buying items using the "don't ask- don't tell" method, they are directly contributing to looting in the countries that these items come from.

The most vocal of these collectors seem to be the collectors/dealers of ancient dug up coins. Led by the ACCG, a dealers' lobby, they are fighting tooth and nail against any import restrictions that would include coins, no matter what country is asking, and whipping the collectors into a frenzy in the process.

How could we forget their ridiculous Baltimore coin stunt protesting the Chinese and Cyprus MOUs, how they loaded the collector's forums with misinformation (for more on this see here) and ran a fax campaign to bombard the DOS during the Italian MOU comment period?

This time around, the DOS is only accepting comments via a website they have set up, and those comments are available for all to see. A great deal of them are from the coineys spouting their usual stuff.

Most coins on the market were dug from hoards or are available from long-standing collections.

Greece has not tried systems akin the the UK Treasure Act before seeking restrictions.

Greece already has more coins in its State Collections than it can publish or properly curate

The mere removal of coins from the country does not damage the historical sites of Greece, nor does it remove historical artifacts from the country.

Another favorite that I read is how this MOU would somehow turn regular law abiding citizens into criminals because they own something of Greek origin. What an absurd idea!!

One that struck me as particularly interesting is this one, from a Jack Davis, American School of Classical Studies at Athens:

Even Greece, an EU country with an effective police force and well-organized archaeological service, lacks the means to control the looting of its archaeological sites by law enforcement alone. Every square kilometer in Greece is full of ancient remains that present targets for looters . Hundreds of unexcavated sites each year fall victim to pot hunting and coin hunting, in the course of which irreparable harm is done to Greece's heritage and aspects of its history are made irretrievable. It is the moral and ethical obligation of the United States to do all it can do to fight looting at the other end of the distribution chain, on the demand, rather than supply, side. By supporting Greece's request that the U.S. sign a proposed MOU endorsing the UNESCO agreement of 1970. Other archaeologists will no doubt emphasize the significance of knowing through digging where artifacts are found. The story doesn't stop there. Ancient objects found unburied, on the surface of the earth, also derive their historical importance from us knowing exactly where they come from. Coins, for example, in some periods and places did not circulate far from the places where they were minted. In other instances they did. Whether they did or they did not can be an important indication of the relative strength of an ancient economy. I myself have learned much by mapping patterns in the distribution of coins and other small artifacts over large areas, 50 or more square kilometers in scale. One hardly dispute the fact that holding an ancient coin in one's hand is exciting, even potentially educational. What is not so exciting, however, is being witness, as I have been, to the utter destruction of an ancient settlement inflicted by treasure hunters searching for antiquities. Even coins that can be sold for relatively little profit in flea markets or on the Internet. Whether a million dollar statue or a ten dollar coin is concerned, the same damage to the cultural patrimony of Greece.

Quite the opposite of what the coineys would like us to believe isn't it?

Should this MOU be granted by the US, the rules set forth in the CPIA would apply. This means that items would need either an export permit from Greece, or proof that it was already outside of Greece prior to the date the restriction takes effect. I've written here about what constitutes acceptable proof .

Nothing already in US borders will be affected, no one will automatically become a criminal because they own something Greek, and anything coming into the US will only have to be shown that it was outside of Greece prior to the restrictions (even if it was looted before that). What they are trying to do is curb the looting that is taking place every single day in Greece by making it more difficult for those items to enter the market. Perhaps if people were more concerned with how the antiquities they buy were obtained, and asked those questions of the sellers, MOUs such as this wouldn't be necessary.

For more information on the Greek MOU, see here.

For more information on MOUs in general, see here

The cultural heritage of the Greek people is at stake, and they are trying to protect it from disappearing a piece at a time into the collections of those who don't seem to care how those pieces were obtained. It's time that the US to say that we are not going to allow US citizens to profit, monetarily or otherwise, from what is illegal activity in another country.


David Knell said...

Excellent summary!

Robyn said...

Thank you David,

Nice to hear from you.

Take care,

Bill Donovan said...

I disagree with you. You did write a nice article supporting your position, and the last quoted letter makes some good points. What it comes down to, I think, is a difference in what we value. I won't presume to tell you what you value, but it seems different from me. The US Constitution is based partially on Locke's philosophy, and the framers substituted "happiness" in the space of Locke's "property," which is one reason why the US is a great place to live, I have the right to own things I value. I value being able to own ancient coins, I like learning about them. The connection with history is inspirational in other facets of my life. If you need proof of a group valuing a hobby, one only needs to look at the numbers of letter to the DoS regarding the Greek MOU, around 1100 to 400, with the larger amount coming in against the MOU. Or, look to the Moneta-L yahoo group, where academics, politics, and ethics are constantly debated very openly with both sides expressing themselves, usually eloquently. Despite your convictions, which make you unable and unwilling to see from the perspective of someone against the MOU, you have to admit we are organized, thoughtful, and passionate. Here was my letter to the Department of State:

Dear State Department,

I'm writing you as a coin collector. In particular I enjoy collecting ancient coins. I'm an artist and a studio art professor. I'm also a war veteran, with a combat infantrymans badge awarded in 2005.

The noble hobby of amateur coin study, numismatics, has come under attack recently from foreign governments and the archaeologists who work there, sometimes they are Americans with compromised integrity because they are really representing the interests of the foreign governments. The USA believes in free trade and property rights, many of the people who are against coin collecting believe that citizens should not be able to buy ancient coins, which runs counter to the fundamental form of capitalism we practice in all other facets of our daily lives. The State Department may be tempted to side with these unamerican ideals because of political expediency. However, I urge you to consider that there are two sides of the coin, so to speak, and consider the interests of both groups.

Thanks for your consideration,

Bill Donovan MFA

Robyn said...

Hi Bill,

You said: "I have the right to own things I value. I value being able to own ancient coins"

First of all, the MOU will NOT prevent you from owning ancient coins. What it will prevent is you being able to buy something that was dug up, not reported to the authorities, and smuggled out of Greece. Your right to own what you value doesn't extend to stolen property. Like it or not, Greece claims any item of cultural heritage that is found within their borders as property of Greece.

You do NOT have the right to own something that was stolen from another country. As long as it can be shown to have been out of Greece before the restriction takes effect,by nothing more than a simple sworn statement from the
seller, then there is no problem.

Your side had a whopping 1100comments. What happened to the other 49,000 that Wayne Sayles claims to be US collectors of ancient coins? What that says to me is that there is a relatively small but vocal group of you that are being blindly led by your leaders at the ACCG without actually knowing what the MOU means.

I also think your letter to the DOS misses the mark. Numismatics hasn't come under fire. There has never been, nor will there ever be, anything wrong with collecting and studying legally acquired objects.

There us nothing "un-American" about not allowing US citizens to own something that can't be shown to be legally acquired. No one is saying that you shouldn't be able to continue to buy ancient coins, only that you shouldn't be able to continue to buy them with no questions asked.

Bill Donovan said...


It's obvious you're a decent person concerned about the same things as I am, however, we see things differently. I liked how you argued your points in the article. There must be better solutions to the problem then what we currently are dealing with.

Underneath your argument are some assumptions which dis-empower individuals and empower the state. I understand why you're for it, but I'm against it. Philosophically I disagree with cultural property, and see it as a new ideology, which empowers the victim of past centuries, and uses shame to inflict harm/revenge on former colonial/imperial states. If you read this, and think, yes! I want to harm former colonial/imperial states, then you understand at that moment you are in the grips of ideology.

A few of my concerns:

One, that customs officers will understand that Ancient Greece is a different state and area then modern Greece. (An ancient Greek coin could come from almost anywhere in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; but wouldn't a border law enforcement agent have an incentive to stop all ancient Greek objects, including ones that originated from outside the modern state?)

Two, that ancient coins have rarely had provenance paperwork throughout history, so a completely legitimate coin, not recently dug up or looted, might not have a document saying where it's been. Let alone have ben cataloged and photographed. Therefore no one will ship these legit objects, hampering my hobby unfairly, and a bit vindictively, if you want my opinion.

If this MOU gets approved, and includes coins, collectors would be at the discretion of customs officials to interpret a complex issue. If their instructions lead them in a certain direction, wouldn't it be natural for them to take legitimate but questionable cases and include them in with smuggling cases? That would include almost every case by the way, except high-end old world collections.

Wouldn't this be unfriendly to numismatics as a whole?

Would the rest of the world have a privileged position relative to a US citizen?

Paul Barford said...

"look to the Moneta-L yahoo group, where academics, politics, and ethics are constantly debated very openly with both sides expressing themselves, usually eloquently. well only those allowed to be members, some of those with views on the ethics, politics and academic issues have their membership blocked for no stated reason - how OPEN is that Mr D? That seems very "unamerican" to me, suppression of free speech and all that... What enables the misinformation to which Robyn refers is precisely blocking out alternative voices on the artefact collecting discussion forums.

I agree 100% with what Robyn says about the MOU and your letter about it. It is a shame you could not be bothered to read the Convention on Cultural property Implementation Act before you wrote to teh CPAC - that is after all what the public were being asked to comment on - specifically article Section 303(a)(1) (19 U.S.C. § 2602) of it. Did you"? Well, no. Neither did most of the other coineys because they did not read the question before answering it - never a good idea.

Robyn said...


Yes, we see things differently.

"so a completely legitimate coin, not recently dug up or looted, might not have a document saying where it's been. Let alone have ben cataloged and photographed. Therefore no one will ship these legit objects"

Again, all that is required by the CPIA is a sworn statement from the seller attesting to the fact that this coin was outside of Greece prior to the date of the restriction taking effect. If a seller of a legitimate coin is too lazy or unwilling to do that, then perhaps they shouldn't be in the business of selling ancient coins to begin with. CBP has no "incentive" to stop anything that comes in with the proper paperwork.

I see no reason to continue to let another country's heritage be sold off bits at a time to people who cant be bothered to make sure their items were legally acquired just to be "friendly" to numismatists or anyone else.