Friday, October 1, 2010

Why Do We Need An MOU?

There are many reasons why the opponents of the MOU say we shouldn't have one. I thought I'd discuss some of those reasons.

"We simply don't need it"

They all claim to do their due dilligence when they buy something, yet looting continues unabated in all parts of the world. Those looted items have to be going somewhere, and even a brief look at places like ebay tell us where. Despite their protests to the contrary, collectors continue to buy items with no questions asked.

"We should try programs such as the PAS first"

The problem here is that the PAS is totally voluntary. How many finds do you think are actually reported? My educated guess is only a fraction of the total finds. Again, a quick look at ebay gives us the answer. How many coins and other finds from the UK give a PAS database number? In any case whether or not there is a PAS makes no difference to the export procedure (which is what the MOU is about). All archaeological finds from Britain need an export licence to leave the country legally - just like Greece - and whether or not they have been reported to the PAS (or the Scottish Treasure Trove Unit etc.) is not any part of the export process. Also does having a PAS stop UK archaeological sites being dug over and disturbed in the search for collectable and saleable antiquities? In what way does the PAS actually protect sites?

"It's too expensive, time consuming, and would take up too much room to keep all the paperwork accociated with their coins. Time is a commodity".

Yes, time is money, but aren't there always higher costs associated with doing business the right way? If I hire an illegal immigrant to work for me it's cheaper, but then they don't have the same protections and responsibilities of a citizen or legal immigrant. But is it the right thing to do? Many companies go above and beyond the minimum of what the law allows. Not only because it's good for the corporate image, but because it's the right thing to do.

"Those countries are not doing their part to stop the looting at the source, they should focus on the looters instead of the buyers"

If you look at the source countries, many of them are impoverished, and simply don't have the funds to police the sheer volume of historical sites that literally cover their entire countries. Even those that are not considered "third world countries" like Italy, Greece, the UK, and even the US cannot possibly be everywhere at once to stop the illegal digging that is going on. So is it the fault of law enforcement, or the looters that are doing the digging?

We need MOUs because the antiquities market, including coins, has proven unwilling to police itself. Perhaps if that had happened, MOUs such as this wouldn't be necessary.


Anonymous said...

Confiscatory laws in source countries *encourage* looting. People tolerate looting because their choice is to lose the antiquities either to foreigners (for cash) or to some distant museum basement. This economic principal is called "tragedy of the commons."

When England passed it's treasure law in the 1800s, at the request of members of the Royal Numismatic Society, it was to keep finders from melting down coins. Citizens need to be enticed to stand up to diggers and private ownership is the only proven enticement. Private ownership also has the benefit of reducing costs of enforcement. When England adopted treasure laws its GDP per capita was lower than Bulgaria's today; private ownership is a cheap effective looting deterrent.

Many collectors oppose the MOU because they feel not having them will somehow incent governments to adopt private property rights for antiquities found on private land. These collectors ignore the possible good an MOU can do: disincenting buyers. If most buyers are afraid market prices for freshly dug antiquities should drop, and perhaps the lower prices will discourages diggers.

I appose an MOU for coins because I expect unintended consequences. (I would support the MOU for coins if I thought it would stop smuggling and get finds into foreign regional museums.)

If the source nearly dries up, the price for provenanced antiquities goes up. Yet the price of unprovenanced antiquities should go down. The differential creates bigger opportunities for criminals. More criminals is the last thing we need! Long-term it's very hard to predict how tinkering with penalties at one end effects incentives at the other end; I worry that your methods are working against your goals. Your methods are certainly working against my goals.

- Ed S

Robyn said...

Hi Ed,

Thanks for your comment, but I believe you are confused. Countries are losing their cultural heritage to foreigners for cash BECAUSE looting is tolerated(and sometimes encouraged) by the no questions asked market, not the other way around.

You say you would support an MOU that included coins if it would stop smuggling, but that is exactly the intent of the MOU. The US has a huge market for antiquities, and if they were required to have documentation to enter this country, don't you think that would help to reduce the looting and smuggling by creating a smaller market for those items to be sold to?

You also seem to be confused on your own position when you say that "lower prices will discourage diggers" in one place in your comment, but in another place you say, that "the price for provenanced antiquities goes up Yet the price of unprovenanced antiquities should go down. The differential creates bigger opportunities for criminals." If the sales price for unprovenanced item goes down then how is that an incentive to dig up more, or for dealers to sell those items?

You also say at one point "If the source nearly dries up". Well,the whole point of all of this is so the sources won't "dry up", because that would mean that there are no archaeological sites left!

I think that if the US denies this MOU, it would only increase resentment for the US because it would send a clear message that we don't care what damage is done to another country's cultural heritage through the actions of our citizens. It will not "incent governments to adopt private property rights for antiquities found on private land".

You say I am working against your goals. What exactly are your goals, and how do you intend to acheive them?

In any event, you've missed the whole point of my post. The point was that if the antiquities market had been willing to do the right thing on their own, MOUs such as this wouldn't be necessary.