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Ancient Coins: The Yin and Yang – A Smorgasbord of Views on Cultural Property

This week I was treated to a smorgasbord of views on cultural property from members of the archaeological and collecting communities.

ying yang head Ancient Coins: The Yin and Yang   A Smorgasbord of Views on Cultural PropertyOn Tuesday morning, I listened with interest to the presentations of several archaeologists at the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) in Washington, DC. This was my fifth appearance at a CPAC hearing in as many years. In every case, the general tenor of oral comments by public presenters has reflected a dichotomy of interests—those of collectors versus those of nationalist governments (defended mainly by the archaeological community). The dividing line has always been clear, and not just in the rhetoric that is entered into the public record at these events. Even the informal assemblage of speakers prior to the event (call them gaggles, if you will) is indicative of the diverse philosophical views. I suppose it’s only natural for like-minded people to congregate, but the atmosphere is and has very much been one of “us and them” . This is not to say that either camp is overtly unfriendly, in fact the opposite is true. I think both camps try very hard to be polite and cordial in a personal sense. But camps there are, and gaggle they do.

The Collector camp is comprised mainly of collector advocacy groups. Occasionally, individual collectors, dealers or concerned citizens have appeared or have been represented by counsel. However, the lion’s share of opposition to Memorandums of Understanding these days has come from the Ancient Coin Collecting community and the Art Museum community. The former is represented by advocacy groups, like the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) and the American Numismatic Association (ANA), along with representatives of the numismatic trade and other non-profit organizations like Ancient Coins for Education. The latter is represented primarily by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).

The proponents of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) are primarily the representatives of governments seeking import restrictions and the archaeological community, including its related museums—most of which are institutional. The advocacy group Saving Antiquities For Everyone (SAFE) has consistently supported import restrictions, but has not appeared before CPAC in the public sessions lately. A rather late attempt by SAFE to compile and introduce a petition in support of the MOU with Greece was apparently aborted when it failed to meet the State Department imposed deadline for public comment.

One of the most striking views that I heard during the public session was a comment from Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) president Dr. Brian Rose. In response to a question from the committee, Dr. Rose stated that he was not aware of any schism between the collector community and the archaeological community. That statement must have shocked most of those in attendance, regardless of their philosophical position. Even some eyebrows of normally stoic CPAC members showed signs of disbelief. For the past decade, the antagonism between collectors and archaeologists has grown exponentially and can hardly be unknown to the leadership of the AIA. Perhaps Dr. Rose was expressing his hope that such a schism is not insurmountable, and if that be the case I do share his sentiments. But, I don’t want to misrepresent his view in any way and will leave further comment on that to him.

Hot on the heels of the public comment session came news of a post by one of the more vocal archaeo-bloggers that called American dealers and collectors “cultural property bandits: xenophobic, neo-colonialist, introverted, self centered and careless consumers.” While viewed by many as an irrational extremist, this blogger is sometimes defended and encouraged by more reputable names in the field. The blogger went on to say “I think it would save a lot of people a lot of time and angst if the USA was to simply withdraw from the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property.” This is of course a preposterous and ridiculous suggestion. America enjoys the largest legitimate market for cultural property in the world and clearly has a responsibility to maintain the integrity of that market. The United States legislature worked hard and long (13 years in fact) to craft a law that serves the interests of the international community regarding the protection of cultural property. That law, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (variously CPIA or CCPIA), is also designed to protect the interests of American citizens and businesses that are equally a part of the international community. The collector community opposition to recent Memorandums of Understanding is predicated on what we see as a failure of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government to implement the law as enacted and intended. That opposition does not in any way reflect a disdain for the law, nor for the original intent of the UNESCO resolution. Hopefully, the drift away from that original intent can be corrected to allow for a return to cooperative and inclusive efforts rather than a further schism.

The huge gulf between the statement of Dr. Rose and the statement of the blogger referred to above represents a sort of Yin and Yang of views within the field of archaeology. There are similar polarities within the collecting world. In both cases, rationality and balance seem to be nurtured by moderation. As I said in my closing remarks to CPAC, “The general interest of the international community is best served by inclusive cultural policies. We should be working together—stewardship should include the private sector.” By that, I simply mean that private collecting and independent scholarship are in the general interests of the international community and should, in light of demonstrated expertise, experience and dedication, be fully partnered with governments and institutions in preservation of the past.

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