Thursday, November 26, 2009

Decision Reached on FOIL Case Brought by ACCG, IAPN, and PNG

A decision has been handed down on the lawsuit filed by the ACCG, IAPN, and PNG to compel the DOS to release documents that were withheld. A summary judgement was granted for the Department of State, and denied for the ACCG, IAPN, and PNG.

For the full text of the decision see here.

According to the decision the government conducted an adequate search, and the information that was withheld was done so properly. Some information requested was provided by foreign government officials and individuals in the private sector with the express understanding that the information would be held in confidence, and it's disclosure would damage the U.S.'s ability to conduct successful negotiations or violate personal privacy. The decision is very clear, and enlightening with respect to what documents were requested. It's definitely worth reading.

The reaction of some members of the ACCG has been interesting, though.

According to Dave Welsh the only time confidentiality should be recognized by law is in the confessional or attorney/client privilege. I wonder if he would consider the same for his medical records. Would he like what he tells his doctor to be held in confidence? This is indeed governed by HIPAA laws that prohibit disclosure. How about his financial details? Would he like for anyone to be able to request his tax returns, or would he expect that the information he provided to a government agency be held confidential? IRS code Section 6103 covers this disclosure.

He also states that it is not in the public interest for the DOS to be able to withhold information based on "expectation of confidentiality". I disagree. It is absolutely in the public interest for our government to be able to negotiate with foreign governments. If those foreign governments can't rely on the US to keep the information given to them confidential they will be less willing to enter into negotiations.

The ACCG still plans to continue with it's ridiculous "test case". It should be interesting to see what kind of "damaging information" they obtained through this FOIL suit that they believe will help them in this case.

More Trials to be Scheduled in the Blanding Case

According to this article here the remaining trials in the Blanding Utah case are to be scheduled in early 2010.

Two defendants have already pled guilty in this case. Jerrica Redd and her mother Jeanne Redd were given probation and minimal fines for their crimes. Hardly seems worth the effort of a 2 year investigation for the punishment they received, even more so since this is not the first conviction on the same offense for Jeanne Redd. She pled to a lesser offense and was fined $10,000 in 2003 for the same crime. (Apparently this time she is repentant, and the judge is confident it won't happen again. Right!)

Judge Waddops reason for the light sentence?

"This is a community where this kind of conduct" is commonly tolerated and "has been justified for a number of years," Waddoups said. "This is a woman who has spent her life as a member of her community."


"prosecution in this case provides sufficient deterrence," the judge said.

I disagree. The sentences imposed so far don't even amount to a slap on the wrist, let alone a deterrant. Each of the 7 felonies Jeanne Redd pled guilty to carried a potential $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison yet she received 3 years probation and a $2000 fine. Jerrica received 2 years probation and a $300 fine.

With the remaining trials coming up, lets hope the judge(s) treat these crimes with the seriousness they deserve. It's time to show that just because "it's always been done" doesn't mean the law will continue to turn a blind eye to it. It's time to show that looting is a crime that will not be tolerated and will be fully prosecuted.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is A Collector Registry A Good Idea?

There was recently an article in the news regarding the Israeli government's efforts to register private collectors who have not yet done so according to the law passed in 2002.

This article brought about a discussion on the yahoo forum Ancientartifacts. How would collectors feel about such a registry in their country? Several members contributed to the discussion, some in favor of a registry, some against.

Those against such a plan brought up what I would consider to be valid concerns ranging from privacy, security, "big brother", to the possibility of those collections being confiscated should collecting eventually be outlawed.

I personally would be in favor of a registry. I think it would make it very difficult for recently looted items to enter the market under the guise of "from an old collection" or no mention of provenance at all. It would also make provenance easier to track because the history of a piece would be easily accessible, even if the original paperwork were to be lost or destroyed.

I do agree though, that the concerns raised by those against a registry would have to be addressed before such a plan could be put into place. I would be interested in knowing how/if those concerns were addressed by countries such as Israel and others who already have this kind of registry.

The CPRI is supposed to begin development on different models of registry for privately owned objects. It should be interesting to see how they approach the issues of privacy and security.

While I don't claim to have all the answers about how a plan like this would work, I do think that this would be a way for collectors to make sure they are not buying recently looted items. The don't ask- don't tell market in antiquities can't continue at it's current pace. Ancient sites are being destroyed and knowledge is being lost every single day at the hands of looters looking for bits and pieces to sell for a quick buck. It's up to us as collectors to close the market for
such items by refusing to buy them.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Help to Save Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiara

The biggest archaeological site in northern Bulgaria is currently being left to the mercy of looters. Please take a minute to read this information: (you can also donate from this page)

And sign the petition here:

I think this is an important cause. Please, donate as little as one Euro or as much as you like to help save this important site from ongoing destruction.

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.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Looters Arrested In Theft Of Native American Artifacts,0,7158558.story

I'm sure many readers have seen this article, or some other version of the same story. 24 People were arrested in the 4 Corners area where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Mew Mexico meet. These people were digging up Native American artifacts on public lands, where such activity is illegal. Kudos to the law enforcement agencies involved in this operation.

What disturbs me even more is this article:

This article talks about the outrage of the citizens of Blanding, Utah over the raids and the suicide of one of the defendants.

"The federal government has a responsibility to protect antiquities," he said. "But they have a responsibility to protect people, too. Anytime somebody loses his or her life, like Dr. Redd, it's gone too far."

"People already are feeling at a loss without their doctor, said Shalain Lucero. And many are blaming federal authorities for his death."

So should law enforcement no longer arrest criminals for fear that they might be so distraught over the arrest and embarrassement that they might commit suicide? I'm sorry, but Dr. Redd made his choice, the federal government didn't do it for him.

When a federal informant recently offered large sums of money to people for pots, sandals and other antiquities, they were "set up,"

If someone offered me a large sum of money to sell crack cocaine or heroin, I still wouldn't do it. No one coerced these people to go onto public lands and illegally dig up artifacts. They did it of their own free will just to make a few bucks. Was it worth it?

When you knowingly, repeatedly break the law, you will eventually be caught. If you don't like the idea that you might be publicly embarrassed by the arrest and jailed, you shouldn't be doing things that you know are illegal.

I'm a collector myself, and I love my collection. But I started collecting because I love history. When items are ripped out of their context, as these items were, so much knowledge is lost that can never be replaced. The knowledge is what is most important, and wanting to own whatever you want should never stand in the way of or destroy what we could learn from these items when studied in their origional context.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Chinese/Cypriot Coin Saga Continues

As a private antiquities collector and tax-paying American citizen, I'm outraged at this stunt pulled by the ACCG. To deliberately break the law for the express purpose of forcing a trial is just unbelievable. No doubt this was cooked up between the "officers" of the organization without bothering to ask the 5000 members they supposedly serve. What would have been the answer if they had? And what of the millions of American taxpayers that will be footing the bill for this farce? I bet no one in the ACCG thought to ask how they would like their tax dollars being wasted on such a scheme. After all, we are already paying for their Freedom of Information Act litigation, but apparently the wheels of justice weren't moving fast enough for them, so the moved to "Phase 2".

What the ACCG fails to acknowledge is that it's not the importation of the coins that is being prohibited, it is the importation of coins without a valid export license or proof that they left before Jan. 16,2009 (for the Chinese coins) or July 16, 2007 (for the Cypriot coins) that is prohibited. They know full well that if the coins they "attempted" to import had proper documentation, they would have never been retained by customs. This was posted by Peter Tompa himself:

Under the provision, restricted artifacts must be accompanied upon entry into the US with either a valid Chinese export certificate or certifications indicating that the artifact in question left China before the effective date of the restrictions, January 16, 2009.

This was also posted to the ACCG website by Peter Tompa and Dave Welsh:

The burden will then shift to the importer to prove that the coin was outside of Cyprus before July 16, 2007 (the date of the restrictions). Coins lacking such documentation are subject to seizure.

the ACCG can't even follow its own already loosely worded "Code of Ethics" (Coin Collectors and Sellers will not knowingly purchase coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites or stolen from museum or personal collections, and will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country.) or even its own bylaws (The guild does not in any way support, condone or defend the looting of designated archaeological sites, nor the violation of any nation's laws concerning the import or export of antiquities.) This conduct shows them to be an organization that can't be trusted or even respected by ethical antiquities collectors no matter what type of antiquity they collect.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

German Coin Collections Seized

Although I don't collect coins, I have read a lot of coin collectors' blogs lately, and there is a post to a blog here that I would like to comment on.

This post is regarding the recent raids on German coin collectors and the seizing of some collections, written by a coin collector from Wisconsin.

the *one thing* coin collectors need to stand united against is any intrusion by government to meddle in something that isn't worthy of government involvement. Coin collecting is certainly one of those things. When the government get's involved in harmless, innocent pastimes like people's hobbies - where does the government stop?

Apparently it is worth government involvement, since the coin collectors seem to think they should be exempt from cultural property laws. Do the coin collectors ever stop to think that the government wouldn't have seized those collections if they'd had proper documentation of those coins being legally excavated, exported, and purchased? For some reason that escapes me, coin collectors in general seem to think that their items don't need any proof of legal acquisition. They don't seem to think they should be bound by the same laws as any other antiquities collector.

This is where the rubber hits the road for collectors. Do I want the government to suddenly be involved with and regulating my hobby at every turn or worse, do I want my hobby to turn into a criminal activity overnight?

Unfortunately the collectors have brought this on themselves. If they had used due diligence in buying their items, and made sure they had all the proper paperwork, they would have nothing to worry about.

Collecting, especially of medieval and ancient coins, has been accused as a criminal act; under the unjustifiable accusation that collecting is the result and cause of the illegal looting of archaeological sites around the world.

The criminal act is not collecting. It is the clandestine digging of artifacts, not reporting them where required by law, and exporting them without permits. When the collectors buy items without asking the pertinent questions, they run the risk of buying what is essentially stolen property, and as such it is subject to confiscation. Why do coin collectors think they shouldn't have to follow the same laws as everyone else?

Collecting is not the cause of looting, but no-questions-asked buying certainly contributes to it. Who do you think the looters sell to? Collectors and dealers that are willing to buy without asking where it came from and how it was obtained.

If you collect responsibly, you have nothing to worry about in regards to government involvement. You will already have all the proper paperwork on your items to show that they are perfectly legal, and you'll have the added comfort of knowing that you are not contributing to the destruction of the historical record by possibly buying recently looted items.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

There's No Link Between Buying Undocumented Items And Looting?

A comment from Dave Welsh in a post to the Ancient Artifacts forum on Yahoo:

"collectors (and dealers such as myself) actually do understand what collecting is all about,and also understand how specimens are discovered and eventually become available for collecting, thus they realize that collecting such common, low value artifacts as coins does not have anything at all to do with looting of archaeological sites."

Does this comment apply to ANY "low value" artifact, or just coins? Why do coin dealers think that coins shouldn't fall in the same category as other artifacts? The idea that illegally digging coins never destroys a potential archaeological site is just absurd.

For anyone that doesn't understand the damage that looting does, or how no questions asked buying perpetuates it, I recommend reading the book "Stealing History" by Roger Atwood. It gives a startling picture of the damage done, not only in terms of the knowledge lost by ripping items from their historical context, but also the physical destruction of precious antiquities that are deemed unsaleable by the looters.

After reading this book, how can anyone who has a love of antiquities or history not stop and think about how the "don't ask- don't tell" mentality of many collectors and dealers is contributing to this destruction? These are exactly the people that looters sell their ill-gotten items to. How can anyone say with a straight face that there is no connection between undocumented buying and looting?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The US Can't Enforce Other Countries' Laws

One of the arguments I hear frequently from collectors and dealers is "I'm not breaking the laws of my country, and the US can't enforce the laws of other countries, so I'm in the clear". In researching for something else, I came across this article:

It says, in part:

"Starting in the mid-1970s, however, federal prosecutors applied a well-established criminal law, the National Stolen Property Act, to two cases involving illicit trafficking in cultural property. The NSPA, enacted in the 1930s, makes it a crime to transport any “goods, wares, merchandise, securities or money” valued in excess of $5,000 across state lines knowing such property was “stolen, converted or taken by fraud.” At the time it was passed, Congress was undoubtedly thinking about stolen cars, not antiquities from foreign lands. But the statute’s broad language lent itself to cases involving imported cultural patrimony, on the theory that such items had been “stolen” from their true owner, namely, another country.

In United States v. Hollinshead (1974), the defendants were charged with conspiring to transport stolen property in violation of the NSPA in connection with a scheme to procure valuable artifacts in Central America . The conspirators removed a pre-Columbian stele from a Mayan ruin in the jungle of Guatemala , cut it into pieces, and exported the pieces surreptitiously from a fish-packing plant in Belize to California . The defendants then attempted, without success, to sell the stele to various collectors and museums in the United States .

At trial, the government presented expert testimony that under the law of Guatemala , artifacts such as the stele were the property of the Republic of Guatemala and could not be removed from the country without the permission of the government. The judge instructed the jury that there was a presumption that every person knows what the law forbids—essentially, that “ignorance is no defense.” Predictably, the defendants were convicted.

On appeal, they argued that the jury should have been instructed that there was no such presumption as to knowledge of foreign law.The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected that argument. In upholding the convictions, the court noted that while the government was required to prove that the conspirators knew the stele was stolen, it was not required to prove that they knew where it was stolen. As the court concluded, the defendants’ “knowledge of Guatemalan law is relevant only to the extent that it bears upon the issue of their knowledge that the stele was stolen.”

While Hollinshead was the first case of its kind, it did not address the more fundamental question of whether the NSPA should be applied to trafficking in items protected under a foreign cultural patrimony law in the first place. That issue was confronted by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans in the seminal case of United States v. McClain (1979).

One of the defendants in McClain , Joseph Rodriguez, hired squads to raid archaeological sites in Mexico . He arranged to smuggle pre-Columbian artifacts into California and then traveled around the country selling the items out of a suitcase. One potential client, suspecting that he was being swindled, contacted the FBI, which initiated a covert investigation. An informant met with one of Rodriguez’s partners, Mrs. Ada Simpson, claiming he was interested in acquiring stolen merchandise, which would be resold by the Mafia. In the course of negotiating the deal, Mrs. Simpson explained how the artifacts were dug up, how papers were forged and how they were smuggled into the United States . Eventually the defendants agreed to meet the informant and his “appraiser,” an official from the Mexican Department of Archaeology, at a San Antonio hotel to negotiate a deal. After agreeing to sell their entire lot of artifacts, the defendants were arrested and charged with conspiring to violate the NSPA. The government’s legal theory was that the artifacts in question had been “stolen” within the meaning of the NSPA because Mexican cultural property laws had vested title to such pre-Columbian artifacts in the Mexican government. The defendants were convicted after trial.

On appeal, the defendants raised several issues. First, they argued that applying the NSPA to cases of “mere illegal exportation” constituted unwarranted federal enforcement of foreign law. Second, they claimed that the artifacts could not be considered “stolen” under the NSPA because there was no evidence that there had been a deprivation of private ownership rights under common law. Third, they argued that the NSPA was superseded (or pre-empted) by the more narrowly tailored 1972 law prohibiting importation of Pre-Columbian artifacts (which, for technical reasons, did not cover the items at issue in the case). Finally, they asserted that their convictions should be overturned on grounds of “vagueness” because the Mexican laws at issue were known only to “a handful of experts who work for the Mexican government” and therefore ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of fair notice.Relying on the NSPA’s expansive scope and purpose, the court held that the statute clearly applied to the illegal exportation of items declared by Mexican law to be the property of the nation. The court rejected the notion that other, more specific legislation would limit or preclude the use of the NSPA in this context. On the vagueness issue, however, the court threw out the defendants’ convictions because the Mexican statutes at issue, the court held, did not announce the proscribed conduct sufficiently to put the defendants on notice that their activities violated criminal law. McClain therefore established that American citizens could be convicted under the National Stolen Property Act for violating another country’s lawsregarding removal of cultural heritage, but only where that foreign law was unambiguous."

And finally:

"The law in this country has steadily evolved in the direction of enforcing foreign claims regarding antiquities and other objects protected by cultural patrimony laws. It is unlikely to reverse course anytime soon. "

This is a very interesting article, one that should put to rest the idea that the US can't/won't enforce another country's laws regarding cultural property.

It is also important to note that the US is also a party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Article 13 says:

The States Parties to this Convention also undertake, consistent with the laws of each State: (a) To prevent by all appropriate means transfers of ownership of cultural property likely to promote the illicit import or export of such property; (b) to ensure that their competent services co-operate in facilitating the earliest possible restitution of illicitly exported cultural property to its rightful owner; (c) to admit actions for recovery of lost or stolen items of cultural property brought by or on behalf of the rightful owners ; (d) to recognize the indefeasible right of each State Party to this Convention to classify and declare certain cultural property as inalienable which should therefore ipso facto not be exported, and to facilitate recovery of such property by the State concerned in cases where it has been exported.

It can no longer be reasonably argued that the laws of other countries can't be enforced and can therefore be ignored. It is a collector's responsibility to know and follow all laws regarding ownership, import, and export of the items they collect.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Who Should Protect Antiquities?

There have been a few highly publicized incidents in the news lately concerning thefts of antiquities from government controlled places. Private collectors and dealers have pounced on these as an opportunity to show how antiquities would be better taken care of in their hands.

Yes, by all means, lets let the private collectors and dealers have them, because we all know that private collections are never robbed, fires and natural disasters never happen to private collectors, artifacts are never damaged in shipping. The difference is, the the theft or fire that happens to the average collector is hardly newsworthy. These publicized instances just give them another excuse to say "See! See! We were right! This would never have happened if that government/museum had released those items to the private sector. We would have taken better care of them!" This is simply not true in many cases. How many private collectors have received an item that has been damaged in shipping? How many private collectors have had fires or floods that have completely ruined their collections? Did these items fare any better in the private sector? At least when an item is kept by a museum or government, its provenance is generally kept as well. We know where it was found, what it was found with, and who had it earlier. The same can't be said for many items held by private collectors. Far too often that information is lost for one reason or another.

And what happens when things are released from the stores? Collectors scramble to buy the nicer pieces, but what happens to the more mundane items found with them? Who should look after those? What use would a museum have for an assemblage of items once the more visually appealing items found with them have been removed?

This is just another spin on the old argument against reporting finds because "It will just sit in a storehouse anyway, I'll take better care of it" Even officials, in response to the theft of 9 paintings from the Mohammad Ali Pasha's palace, have gotten in on this, saying

"This incident shows that Egypt is not ready to have items returned to the country at this point. They can't keep the things they already have safe, so why would major museums risk returning artifacts," a German archaeologist in Cairo told the Middle East Times, on condition of anonymity.

Let's use a hypothetical scenario to refute this argument: Let's say I buy a classic car. I find out that this car was poorly taken care of, left to rust out in a garage. I spend my money restoring it. I then find out that this car was stolen from its previous owner. Do I get to keep this car because I'll take better care of it? NO! It belongs to the rightful owner! Same thing goes for antiquities. Just because you think you will take better care of it doesn't mean you get to keep it. Items that are not reported where required are stolen items, period. If you buy an item without proof of legal acquisition, you run the risk of owning a stolen item. The only way to avoid this is to ask questions of the seller, and require provenance.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artifacts

Finally, after much hard work and many emails, a group of collectors in the Yahoo forum Ancientartifacts have finished a Code for Ethical Collectors of Ancient Artifacts. It is all valuable information, and something I would recommend to all collectors. You can find the original post here:

Here is the full text as written:

A Code of Ethics for Collectors of Ancient Artifacts

Version 1

1st March 2009

This is a voluntary code, reflecting the personal conviction of those who adhere to it. It concerns actions now and in the future, and aims to inform both new and experienced collectors.

Although it is clearly in every collector’s own interest to be able to separate the fake from the authentic, keep good records and care properly for artifacts, these guidelines are an attempt to go further by outlining common sense standards to protect our shared interests, and particularly the finite and fragile archaeological resource.

(1) Protect our archaeological heritage and uphold the law

• Only buy artifacts which you have reason to believe have been obtained and are offered in accordance withall national laws.

• Ask the vendor for all relevant paperwork relating to provenance, export etc.

• Take extra care if collecting particular classes of object which have been subjected to wide-scale recent looting.

(2) Check your source

• Verify a vendor’s reputation independently before buying. Assure yourself that they are using due diligence in their trading practices, and do not support those who knowingly sell fakes as authentic or offer items of questionable provenance.

(3) Collect sensitively

• Consider the implications of acquiring items which may be of religious or social significance to others.

(4) Recognise your role as custodian

• Do your utmost to ensure the wellbeing of the objects in your care.

• Consider the condition of artifacts prior to purchase and whether you will be able to carry out any necessary conservation or repairs. Any intrusive operation should ideally be carried out by a competent professional.

• Maintain and update records relating to each artifact, including its provenance. Make sure these records can be connected to the relevant object by a layman.

• Only buy from vendors who do the same.

(5) Keep artifacts in one piece and consider the significance of groups of objects

• Do not dismember any item, or acquire a fragment which you believe to have been separated from a larger object except through natural means.

• Consider the implications of buying an item from an associated assemblage and the impact this could have on study.

(6) Promote further study

• Liaise, where possible, with the academic and broader communities about your artifacts. Significant objects,in particular, should not be withheld from study. Try to find out more about the artifacts you own and their context.

(7) Dispose of artifacts responsibly

• Do your best to ensure that none of the above guidelines are infringed by the way you dispose of your artifacts.

• Pass on all information about each piece, particularly its provenance, and include as much original documentation as possible (even if the prices are blacked out).

• Give an honest description of any repairs or restoration.

• Promote responsible custodianship to the new owner and other collectors.

• Give thought to the disposal of your collection in the event of your death, and leave clear instructions as to how it should be sold or donated.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Italy Takes on Looting

According to this article in the Sunday Herald:

Italian police have found a stash of some 1500 looted items, and have arrested 16 people, 3 alleged tomb raiders and 13 of their alleged clients. It's frightening to think how easily these objects could have ended up on ebay, or in the hands of unscrupulous dealers and collectors.

What knowledge is now lost because of the way these things were dug up? Unfortunately we will never know. The only thing they were concerned about is "how much can we sell this for?" This is what happens in the world of "don't ask, don't tell" antiquities collecting. Items are ripped out of context, and what we could have learned from studying them in/with their surroundings is now lost forever. Looted items are passed from the looters to dealers, who don't care where they came from or how they were obtained. They only care about the money that object will bring. They are then sold to collectors who also don't care to know such information, they only care that it's something they want to buy, how much it costs, and is it authentic. Not a thought is given to how it was acquired. The historical record is being trashed, aided by irresponsible collectors hiding behind many excuses for what they do. These excuses range from "it's my right to buy whatever I want" to "but I'll take better care of it".

The article then goes on to describe an interview with a "retired" looter, one of Italy most successful, lamenting the fact that it's becoming more difficult to dig and sell his objects because of increased monitoring, stiffer penalties, and more aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen. It's causing the market to dry up. Darn, what a shame!

Collectors need to change their attitude. Too much is lost to looters, we need to do everything possible NOW to make sure we are not contributing to ongoing looting. They only way (short of not buying at all) to make sure you are not buying recently looted items is to ask for documentation of provenance, and walk away from the sale if none is provided. We should be working to create a smaller market in which these items can be sold. If more collectors refused to buy these items, then the dealers would be stuck with them, leading them to buy less from the looters. Eventually the looters would have no reason to dig, because no one would be buying the items anyway.

Collectors have a responsibility to know how their items were acquired, and should use due diligence to make sure they were gotten honestly and ethically. Let's think about it another way; people are always up in arms and boycotting businesses that get their clothing from sweatshops. They want these places shut down for unethical and reprehensible business practices. Why shouldn't antiquities dealers be held to the same standard as any other business? Shouldn't they be able to prove that their items were acquired honestly, legally, and ethically? A dealer who buys and sells items obtained through looting, no questions asked, is using equally unethical and reprehensible practices as the sweatshop owner. Why aren't collectors boycotting them? If people can do their research to find out where the clothes they wear every day come from, why can't they use the same diligence in finding out where their antiquities come from?

Collecting can be a wonderful experience. I'm a collector myself, so I'm in no way "anti collecting", but it should be done ethically, and collectors should always keep in mind the damage looting causes and make every effort to make sure they are not contributing to it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Cost of Ethical Collecting

A common argument among collectors is that an item with provenance will cost more than one without. This is simply not true in many cases. I found these examples in 30 minutes on

(no prices listed, but even offers export papers with the item)

And these from Collector Antiquities, Dr. Bron Lipkin's website:

All are reasonably priced items. You may have to look a little harder to find provenanced items, but they are certainly there, and you can get them for about the same price as un-provenanced items elsewhere. As you are looking, you'll see that many items say "from an old French collection" (or some variation of that). I was asked once how you know if that's true, a seller can put anything they want in a listing. Simple, you ask for proof. If a seller is making claims of provenance, a buyer has a right and a responsibility to ask for proof of those claims. An ethical seller will have no problem providing that information. There's also no reason why you shouldn't ask about provenance even if there is none listed. The argument I hear from sellers about that is "I don't want to tell the buyer where I got it, then they will just skip over me and go right to my source". Sorry, that's not good enough. That argument fails for a few reasons. The
first and most important is how does a buyer know that is the real reason that information is being withheld? And while I'm sure that does unfortunately happen, I don't think that's the usual. If a lot is sold by an auction house, providing that provenance is not going to lead anyone to a source where they can get it cheaper. Another reason is that antiquities are unique objects, once an item is sold, there is generally no other like it. Lastly, dealers usually sell to each other at a discount, they are normally not going to make the same deals for collectors as they would for other dealers, expecting future reciprocation. The only way to make sure you are not buying a recently looted item is to ask for provenance. If a seller won't give me that information, I won't buy from them. Period.

There has been much written lately in blogs and forums regarding unknowingly buying illicit items, one such example was discussed in the Ancientartifacts forum on yahoo, with the end result being talked about here:

As it turns out, these shabtis have a high probability of being recently looted, and made their way to ebay and other sellers. The disturbing thing is that nobody down the line asked for proof of provenance. Why not?

Kudos to both Dr. Bron Lipkin and Rolf Kiaer for doing the right thing. I don't know where Rolf Kaier acquired his item, but Bron Lipkin got his from a seller he trusted and put his faith in. This highlights the importance of asking for paperwork to back up provenance claims, even with a dealer you trust. While a building a relationship with a dealer you can trust is very important to a collector, that trust should not replace due diligence, and you should still ask questions about how the item was acquired.

It doesn't have to cost you more to collect responsibly, so why would a collector want to risk more damage to the historical record by possibly buying a recently looted item?

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Smoke Screen?

In a message posted on Unidroit-L

Dave Welsh says:

I find very little in what Elkins (or anyone else in that camp) has to say on the subject of collecting ancient coins that does not similarly defy logic and likewise seek to assert requirements that would make it impossible to continue collecting ancient coins or other ancient artifacts.

The problem (in my opinion) is that radical archaeologists believe that their discipline inherently owns all ancient artifacts, and they are not willing to share this source material with collectors. The arguments presently being made regarding documentation and provenance impress me as nothing more than a smoke screen
whose true purpose is to disguise their true intention of making private collecting

Really Mr Welsh?

Urging collectors to get documentation and provenance is a smoke screen to disguise their true intention of making collecting impossible? Then how do you explain the fact that there are many private collectors out there encouraging the same thing? So called "radical archaeologists" are not the only ones talking about ethical collecting. There are many ethical private collectors out there as well that are trying to educate others on the importance of provenance and documentation. This is to help protect the historical record from the damage being done by looting.

Don't you think it would be like shooting themselves in the foot for collectors to be encouraging something that would ultimately bring private collecting to a halt?

Don't you think your "radical archaeologists" would have nothing to complain about if collectors would make sure their items were acquired legally, and had documented proof of that? And what is so "radical" about wanting to stop looting? They aren't trying to stop collecting, but stop the collecting of looted items.

Proper documentation proves that the item was acquired legally, and provenance (even if it doesn't go all the way back to the find site) assures the collector that they are not buying a recently looted item.

Stopping collecting isn't the goal, curbing the looting is. That's why archaeologists and ethical collectors are encouraging provenance and documentation. Why is that so hard to understand?

The problem is (in my opinion) that if buyers start asking for provenance and documentation, then sellers would no longer be able to buy items in bulk that are unreported and shipped from countries without export licenses. They wouldn't be able to sell items that they or someone else found using metal detectors, dug up without permission, and then didn't report.

My hope is that as more collectors realize the importance of ethical collecting, then sellers would have no chioce but to offer legitimate, documented items if they want to remain in business.

Picture curtesy of

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Greek Antiquities and the Law

This was posted on the Unidroit-L forum on yahoo.

" THESSALONIKI, Greece — Greek police arrested a veterinarian with more than 2,000 illegally excavated antiquities, including a small clay statue from pre-Columbian America, officials said Friday.... "The confiscated antiquities included more than 1,500 silver and copper coins dating from the 4th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D., Halkidiki anti-crime squad director Giorgos Tassiopoulos said. Police seized another 680 clay and bronze artifacts, including vases, lamps, statuettes and jewelry.

This is the astonishing reply:

What's the typical penalty for this in Greece? I wonder how many of those finds would have been reported if the Greekstate didn't claim everything in the ground as it's own without discernment.

Seriously!? So what this person is saying is "We'd report our finds if we were allowed to keep them"? Why not just say "Well, ya know, if every country would just make it legal to take whatever we want there would be no looting."

According to the article referenced, this was a Greek man, so he knew, or should have known the laws. He chose to deliberately ignore them. Is this how we want collectors to be seen? Shouldn't we be working to make collecting respectable?

There are laws for a reason. Greece has decided that it is in the best interest of its citizens to protect its heritage and have a say in what happens to antiquities that are found within it's borders. You can't just ignore the laws because you don't agree with them or because they get in the way of something you want to posess or sell.

A question not answered in the article is how did he acquire these artifacts? Was he digging them up illegally and not reporting them, as the law requires, or is this another case of "don't ask, don't tell" buying? Responsible collectors are getting a bad reputation because we seem to either be far out-numbered by the irresponsible ones, or they are much more outspoken.

Here's what I could find on Greek Antiquities Laws:

a. Current scheme based on Greek Antiquities Law of 1932 and 1950. All antiquities on land and sea are the property of the State, which has the right to investigate and preserve them.
Antiquities are broadly defined as "all works, without exception, of architecture, sculpture, graphic art and any art in general. . . and all other works and equipment in whatever material, including precious stones and coins."

b. Anyone finding antiquities or discovering them fortuitously must report the discovery to the authority; there are penalties for not doing so.

c. Antiquities may be freely imported (but must be declared); export can only be made after a decision of the Antiquities Council, and illegal export is punishable by a fine and up to five years imprisonment. Effectively, there is no export of antiquities.

d. Private collections of antiquities are allowed, but a permit is required from the Ministry of Education. Collectors must keep a detailed inventory and grant access to the Ministry for study, photography, etc.

e. All excavations of archaeological sites must be authorized by permit. Foreign schools are permitted three annual excavation permits. Otherwise the State may carry out excavations on national, municipal, religious, and private property, but must pay fair compensation to owners. Illegal excavations (including looting) may bring a prison term of up to two years as well as a monetary fine.

f. Intentional destruction or damage to antiquities carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine.

g. Sales of antiquities are strictly regulated. A permit is required for dealers, who are under the authority of the archaeological authorities. Dealers must submit a monthly list of antiquities acquired by them and offered for sale. The State has the right of preemption in any sale of antiquities in the country. Sales from private collections must be approved by the Ministry.

Knowing what we know of Greek antiquities laws, can anyone say with a straight face that all Greek antiquities for sale on ebay, etc, were ALL exported prior to the 1932/50 laws or have the proper export papers to prove they were exported legally? I think it would be a stretch to say that "many" of the Greek antiquities currently for sale on venues like ebay would hold up to that standard. That is exactly why the ethical collector should be asking these types of questions before we buy an item.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Most Common Arguments Against Ethical Collecting

The ethical collector, among other things, gives thought to what damage they are doing to the precious and finite historical record, and makes sure that all international laws and treaties were followed in the acqusition of that piece They ask the difficult questions of sellers regarding where the item comes from, and whether or not it has the necessary paperwork to show it was legally exported. An equally ethical seller will be happy to answer these questions and provide all documentation. (More on ethical sellers later)

I'll use this open question posted in the AncientArtifacts forum on yahoo since it seems to have many of the popular arguments all rolled into one:

For the Original post, see here:

For the original reply, see here:

"Hi this question is opened to everyone. I'm sure that most collections thats most of the "legal" antiques come from - do you think that the where obtained legally? Its not like the collector obtained the items any differently from the way we are obtaining it today- either way they came from looted tombs. The only difference is that after the 1960's or so - date put in place by the Egyptian government in terms of obtaining and buying Egyptian artifacts making it legal to buy items taken out of Egypt before the specified date. But I think we all fail to see the underlying factor that at one stage even stuff will a tracable provenance once was some"pirates booty".

At the end of the day its own to your own moral convictions whether you want to buy something or not, while knowing its history of acquisition.

Personally I think human nature to have something/ own something has led to this industry of buying artifacts. And all our past purchases in a way has indicted "there is a demand- now someone needs to supply".

As long as we want certian things, someone will make it there job to supply the demand no matter how. I don't think that not buying these items is clear cut solution. Someone else will scope this piece of history up , possibly not treat it well or even sell it on to someone else, eventaully a few years later making its way to your mantle piece / or another auction - with you not having the slightest clue of how its acquition started - (all you will be told was owned by an old man , now deceased " truth of the matter is in many cases people selling these items whom form part of the buying-selling chain don't really know that it was recently looted and as it passes from hand to hand it's looted history becomes more obscure until eventually it has a "provenance" - eg: from the collection of the late Mr. X- but whom did Mr. X get it from?, whom did the person whom sold it to Mr.X get it from, and so on ."

Here is the reply given:

"I'd like to answer your open question: I'll break it down into parts.

"I'm sure that most collections that's most of the "legal" antiques come from - do you think that the where obtained legally? Its not like the collector obtained the items any differently from the way we are obtaining it today- either ways they came from looted tombs."

Don't you think that's part of the problem? We can't continue, knowing what we know now about what we are doing to the historical record, to collect the way it has been done in the past.

"But I think we all fail to see the underlying factor that at one stage even stuff will a tracable provenance once was some"pirates booty""

No, no one fails to see that We can't change the past, but we, as responsible collectors, need to make sure that we are not continuing to contribute to looting now or in the future. We do that by buying items with legitimate provenance.

"As long as we want certain things, someone will make it there job to supply the demand no matter how."

That's true, there will always be irresponsible collectors to buy these items. As responsible collectors we need to make sure that we are not the ones buying them.

"Someone else will scope this piece of history up , possibly not treat it well or even sell it on to someone else"

Do you really think that justifies buying a recently looted item? Because someone else will just buy it anyway, so why not me? "I'll treat it better" has long been an argument of those not willing to report finds where required. Their theory is "it will just sit in a dusty store room anyway, I'll take better care of it, so I'll just keep it". Even for the average collector, "I'll treat it better" is not justification for buying a looted item.

"truth of the matter is in many cases people selling these items whom form part of the buying-selling chain don't really know that it was recently looted "

That wouldn't be true if they used due diligence BEFORE they buy the item. Ask questions of the seller. Ask for proof of offered provenance.

"as it passes from hand to hand it's looted history becomes more obscure until eventually it has a "provenance" - eg: from the collection of the late Mr. X-"

That's how it works. It's true that a large percentage of the items
out there were originally looted or stolen from legitimate digs, but as I said
earlier, we can't change the past. What we need to do now is change the way we
do things so that we don't continue to contribute to looting.

"but whom did Mr. X get it from?, whom did the person whom sold it to Mr. X get it from, and so on "

That's the importance of getting and passing on provenance, so we have this information going as far back as possible.

I think that this exchange shows clearly how collectors justify to themselves the "don't ask, don't tell" attitude that has been prevalent in the collecting community for far too long. It also shows just as clearly why those arguments fall short.

It's up to us, the collecting community as a whole, to change the way we do things so we are not continuing to contribute to the looting that has already done so much irreparable harm to our precious historical record.

Why we collect, and the problems it can bring

First let me say right off that I am a collector. I collect Ancient Egyptian pieces because I love the culture. Everything about it fascinates me.

I love to look at my collection. I imagine what it must have been like to live back then, who might have owned the pieces that I own now, and how such seemingly delicate pieces have survived for thousands of years.

Collecting is an enjoyable and educational pastime that has been going on for a very long time. People collect for various reasons. Love of a culture, a particular type of item, or the love of history in general.

But collecting brings with it many problems if not done ethically and responsibly. It uses the same finite resources that archaeologist and others use, but for different reasons. This resource is limited, and once it is gone, it can never be recovered, so we should respect it and help protect it so we can all continue to learn from it.

The way things have been, and continue to be collected, it's clear that this precious historical resource is not being respected and is being deliberately depleted by commercial diggers. Digging and metal detecting with total disregard to the laws are doing more damage every day. Everytime something is ripped from it's context without being properly recorded, any information we could have gotten from it is lost forever.

Irresponsible collecting encourages this behavior by buying items "no questions asked". This is only putting money into the pockets of these law breakers, whether directly or indirectly.

There are plenty of legitimate items out there to be bought, there is no justifiable reason to buy the illicit ones that seem to have flooded the market.

For more information see the links on this blog.