Thursday, 2 July 2015

Blogwarts: the fantasy world of blogging in California

You thought 19th-century pomposity was long dead after a hundred years? Think again. It lives on in a certain blog (and it just cracks me up sometimes!). The blog is run by Dave Welsh, an engineer who lives in California and deals in coins - the same ACCG member who in all seriousness refuses to accept that the looting of antiquities is primarily driven by those who pay for them. He, backed by a coin-collecting lawyer and a metal detectorist, insists that anyone who presumes to oppose his views about ancient artefacts must be able to prove they are nothing less than a qualified archaeologist with a plethora of diplomas before they are even allowed to speak.

Indeed, those who engage with his fantasy world may be excused for hallucinating that they are not that far from a snooty version of Hogwarts under Dolores Umbridge. To appreciate the full majesty of his blog, we have to understand that Welsh regards his blog not as a mere digital platform for his opinions but as some kind of august institution where he reigns as provost and a select few who fall in line with the institution's way of thinking are admitted as fellows or adulating students (presumably suitably attired in its regalia while sitting at their laptops).

After a personal attack on the credentials of Paul Barford (déjà vu?), he graciously granted him permission to enter the institution briefly and reply as a "guest". Welsh posted a special notice - grandly entitled "Comments Policy Exception" - in what to mere mortals like you or me would be just a blog comment. Under the title, in characteristically sententious and laboured prose reminiscent of a 19th-century schoolmarm, he solemnly announced to the gathered assembly:

"I have decided to permit Mr. Barford's comments to be published here even though I consider them to contravene the policy of this blog that comments must shed more light, not more heat, upon the subject of the discussion. This is an important subject, and Mr. Barford must be given every opportunity to defend his position, even if his remarks transgress blog policy.

"This is a one-time exception and it is not likely that I will extend it to other subjects Mr. Barford may be interested in commenting upon. He must realize that commenters are guests, and have an obligation to "follow the rules" of the venue. Mr. Barford does not determine the rules here, nor does anyone else who comments to my blog."

I gather that even if the "subject of the discussion" in this august institution is nothing less than a personal attack ("heat" itself surely?), the person discussed should think it a deep privilege to be allowed to enter its hallowed portals and be granted permission to speak. Ah, and there was innocent 21st-century me, naively thinking a blog was just a blog. I feel truly humbled.


But on a serious note: I am avidly in favour of an intelligent and thoughtful approach to collecting antiquities and thus protect its future. Do these people really think that posing as some pompous institution and fatuously inviting ridicule is the best way to promote its image?


Barford has also replied here and here on his own blog - though be warned: readers may find its more relaxed "policy" and down-to-earth format a shocking return to reality.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Ancient coins looted? As if on cue ...

Okay, I'll admit that there was a slight element of sarcasm in my previous post about ancient coins looted in Israel. Since, as has been noted, irony is not always recognised for what it is, I'll come clean: ancient coins ARE antiquities, they ARE looted (in huge numbers), and they ARE found in perfectly saleable condition at archaeological sites (even those not found in pristine condition are flogged off in huge bulk lots as "uncleaned").

Coincidentally, while in the midst of discussing my blog post on a discussion list, an Israeli dealer, apparently oblivious to that thread, posted his ad on the same list - almost as if on cue.

The dealer, Z.Z. Antiquities based in Jerusalem, advertised 50 kg of "bulk, uncleaned, unattributed ancient coins from the HolyLand". The coins are a mix of "Roman, Byzantine, Greek, Seleucid, Ptolemy, Judean, Islamic, Nabatean, Phoenician, Persian" and we are told that "there are approximately 350-400 coins per kg on average" - so 50 kg would be about 17,500-20,000 ancient coins.

Brandon Leon, the owner, seems a little edgy when his activities are highlighted - and I think we have to sympathise with anyone whose delinquent computer mouse is disconcertingly prone to bouts of Tourette's - but his ads do cause concern. This is not the first time that a connection between the rampant looting of ancient coins at archaeological sites in Israel and the enormous bulk lots of them offered by dealers such as Z.Z. Antiquities has been suggested. Although we are assured that "all of our antiquities come with Export Approval legal documentation from the Israel Antiquities Authority", one nevertheless has to question where 50 kg (that's over 110 lbs for those not used to metric) of ancient coins originated.

Israel passed an Antiquities Law in 1978 and dealers claim that the items they sell all come from inventories which predate that law. But it is hard to believe that the 100,000 artefacts that leave Israel each year all come from that source (Blum 2003). Rather, it is credible that the lax situation in Israel, where antiquities are openly sold, enables dealers there to source their stock not only from modern illegal excavations within Israel itself but also from those in neighbouring countries and territories.

An ACCG coin dealer on the discussion list refused to accept that looting is "driven by the existence of a collecting market in Europe and North America". Admittedly, the US dollar is an international currency and its use, together with the English language, in the ad by Z.Z. Antiquities cannot prove it was aimed largely at the American market. But "N. America" and "Europe" are listed first as regional targets for sales by the Israeli dealer and, despite protestations from the ACCG, I think it safe to say that those markets play a primary role in encouraging the looting of archaeological sites for ancient coins.

A few years ago, Nathan Elkins, Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist, wrote about coins being smuggled out of Bulgaria. Among other things, he mentioned that one individual ALONE had shipped approximately one metric ton of ancient artefacts from Bulgaria to the United States within only a few months. That individual is a known supplier and dealer of ancient coins in the United States. To put those shipments into perspective, one metric ton would be about 350,000 ancient coins.

Where do we suppose that one metric ton of material came from? Legal excavations? The evidence is overwhelming that the three tongue-in-cheek statements bulleted in my previous post were actually total b@#*$%?&!!!

Oops, sorry about that last word; my computer mouse seems to be playing up again ...

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Ancient coins looted? That can't be right!

"Israel Border Police on Thursday announced that they had arrested seven individuals for allegedly engaging in unauthorized excavations at a historical site. [...] Authorities said that the men had stolen ancient coins from the Roman and Byzantine periods [...] The men were found to have shovels and metal detectors." ("Police arrest alleged antiquities thieves for stealing 2,000-year-old coins", Jerusalem Post, 30 April 2015).

But wait, that can't be right! As many coin dealers of the ACCG persuasion will tell you:
  • a) Ancient coins are NOT antiquities. Yes, they are objects and they are old but they are round metal disks that were used as money so they cannot possibly be antiquities. They are sort of ... kind of ... in some way ... well ... different.
  • b) Ancient coins are NOT looted. They are all found in hoards far away from anything else ... so somehow that is not looting ... or scattered on the ground ... so somehow that is not looting either. They are never ever found at "historical sites" like antiquities are. And they are never ever dug out of those sites with shovels and metal detectors "causing irreparable damage". Because coins are ... sort of ... well ... different.
  • c) Even if ancient coins were found at "historical sites" like antiquities are, NO ONE would loot them because they would all be in awful condition and unsaleable anyway. Unlike metal antiquities which may be found in superb condition at "historical sites", coins are ... sort of ... well ... different.
But I can't help wondering if those dealers may be  ... sort of ... well ... completely wrong?


(UPDATE: For those who may have missed the mild sarcasm.)

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Seizures of antiquities: a glance at the law behind them

Seizures of antiquities by government agents are a recurring theme in the United States - and sometimes the seizures seem to be carried out on only the flimsiest of evidence that the items may be contravening the law. Outraged dealers and collectors typically cry that the frequently successful outcomes of such actions where evidence is relatively weak are a flagrant breach of a legal principle enshrined in national law: surely, they protest, something must be "innocent until proven guilty".

Well actually, that principle still holds true in such cases - the seized items are indeed "innocent until proven guilty" (much like a person being arrested) - but the clue is in the word "proven". "Proof" is not a universal paradigm in law; what may be demanded as proof in one type of legal action may not necessarily be required as proof in another.

A Canadian coin dealer recently suggested that the prevalence of seizures in the United States as opposed to Canada or Britain was the result of a difference in legal systems: whereas Canada and Britain are governed by "common law", the US has no such protection. In fact, he was quite wrong. The legal systems of Britain, Canada and the United States are all largely based on "common law" (a system originating in England and grounded on judicial precedent as opposed to "civil law" grounded on statutes, etc.). The legal systems vary between those nations in the way in which they are implemented and by other factors but their systems are all founded on common law.

The differences in what counts as proof arise from differences in the type of legal action - between "criminal cases" and "civil cases" - and that distinction exists in both Britain and the United States. Most of the American cases of antiquities confiscation come under the heading of "civil forfeiture" (more commonly known as "civil recovery" in Britain), more specifically "in rem". Whereas in a criminal action, the burden of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt"; in a civil action in rem, the government sues the property itself (in rem) and all it needs is a "preponderance of the evidence" ("balance of probabilities" in Britain), a far lower burden of proof.

That may explain why American seizures of antiquities are seldom accompanied by a conviction of the people involved. A civil action in rem is far easier than a criminal action (or indeed a civil action in personam) and far more likely to be successful. Even if the artefacts are licit, the cost of legal defence is often not financially viable, especially in the absence of documentation. Cynically, it might be said that the US government gains the political kudos of repatriating antiquities to their countries of origin and the favourable publicity of proactively being seen to do the "right thing" with the minimum of effort. Whether the seizure was truly justified or not seems almost irrelevant from that perspective.

However, political motivations aside, such seizures do serve as a warning that dealers and collectors of antiquities would do well to heed. Insisting on documentation of items considered for acquisition is not only a responsible means of stemming the flow of recently looted artefacts, keeping and preserving records is a vital precaution in increasing the chances of holding on to those licit items they already own.

Cases of civil forfeiture seem to have become almost an epidemic in the United States and far commoner than in Britain. Their prevalence has been deeply controversial and an absolute nightmare for some. "America - Land of the Free"? Perhaps more like "America - Land of Litigation" (and a carnival for lawyers). But also a timely reminder for those buying and owning antiquities to take their responsibility seriously.


Many thanks to Derek Fincham for glancing through my draft before posting. Any errors are my own.

Artwork is my own - with a little help from James Montgomery Flagg.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A flash of candour or just wishful thinking?

I just glanced at the title of a blog post by trade lobbyist Peter Tompa ("Let’s facilitate Lawful Trade and the Appreciation of Italian Culture it Brings", 8 April 2015) and literally misread it for a second as "Let’s facilitate Awful Trade and the Appropriation of Italian Culture it Brings". Is it just me subconsciously hoping the coin trade has finally brazenly admitted the effects its approach may have on conservation or is his blog sending a subliminal message of contrition?

Nah, back to reality ...

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Artemission: too many fakes for comfort?

Let's be clear: the antiquities trade is notoriously plagued with fakes and some of them can be difficult to spot. Dealers in antiquities may handle hundreds or thousands of items over a long career and it is inevitable that even the most expert and honest dealer among them will inadvertently offer an occasional fake now and then. Even major museums can be fooled sometimes. But when common low-grade fakes or replicas that should not fool a myopic tourist persistently occur with tedious regularity among a dealer's stock, a line has been crossed. When that dealer has been in business for a very long time and we can reasonably expect them to have acquired a great deal of experience, we have to question not only the dealer's expertise but the honesty of their intentions.

Such a dealer is Artemission, based in London and owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD). I mentioned in a comment to my earlier blog post that the three fake bronze lamps featured in that post were "only the tip of a problem that has persisted for years". Here is just a very small selection of other examples of that problem (items sold as fakes or openly as replicas on eBay or other venues by other sellers are on the left, the equivalent items offered by Artemission are on the right) ...

I emphasise again: none of these items are high-class fakes; they are all low-grade replicas, tourist tat and other rubbish of the kind sold on venues such as eBay. They are not the kind of thing that should fool an experienced dealer in antiquities even for a second.

It is tempting to suggest that the name of the business should be 'Artefission' - the art of dividing punters from their money. Certainly, the problem at Artemission is not helping the image of the antiquities trade. Yet Karawani is not only a member of the AIAD - an association proudly displaying the slogans "Purchase with Confidence, Trustworthy & Transparent Trading, Dependable Dealership, Reliability & Good Faith" - he is on the Executive Committee.

There is also the matter of well-known reproductions of Ancient Greek pottery that have appeared, curiously distressed, artificially aged and presented as genuine, on the website of Artemission but I will examine those at a future date.


Note: Although made merely as a reproduction or tourist souvenir, an item becomes "fake" when deceptively offered as the real thing.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Margaret Rule CBE

Very sad to learn that Margaret Rule CBE passed away on Thursday, 9 April. Her passion for archaeology was highly infectious and I fondly remember her warm and enthusiastic support for my own research. 

She is perhaps best known for her work on the Mary Rose and I offer a link to this BBC video from two years ago as a tribute.



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