Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Greece: rise in looting during economic crisis

(stock image)
"The economic crisis has led many Greeks to antiquity looting and smuggling, with most of them being first-time offenders with no criminal record, says a National Geographic report." ("Antiquities Looting Increases in Crisis-Stricken Greece", Greek Reporter, 18 August 2015). And the shortage of cash has had a double impact. Budget cuts have left state agencies unable to deal with the situation. It is "estimated that in all of Greece there are only about 60 employees who work exclusively to prevent and disrupt looting".


Sunday, 9 August 2015

Time for a thoughtful reduction in UK metal detecting?

It is clear that the controversial pastime of metal detecting in the UK, even in cases where finds have been officially reported, has occasionally placed so much strain on limited public funds that the treatment of archaeological sites was compromised and fell short of best standards. One such case, for instance, concerned competing claims on the public purse by events at Creslow and Lenborough in Buckinghamshire during October and December respectively last year.

In light of the recent shrinkage of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and other severe cutbacks in funding at both national and county level for the UK heritage sector at the present time, I wonder if British metal detectorists have accordingly scaled down the active pursuit of their hobby to allow scarce and already stretched resources to be focused on priorities such as dealing with genuine chance finds and discoveries or the urgent demands of emergencies and 'rescue archaeology', where sites are actually under immediate threat. There appears to be a strong case for thoughtful detectorists to curtail their digging in potential sites that are not under immediate threat and find other ways to amuse themselves in the meantime until funding to support their hobby in a reasonably responsible way has improved.

Many of those hobbyists proudly claim that the activity is primarily for the public good. Is this then a time for them to restrict their pastime willingly in response to the current situation or to simply carry on regardless?

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The subtle art of passing the buck: it's always someone else's fault

(source)
Dave Welsh, a coin dealer in Temecula, California, and a member of the ACCG, has posted on his blog about a proposed law that is rumoured to involve new due diligence requirements in Germany. (Parts of the proposal are controversial and details need to be ironed out but it is important to bear in mind that Germany has long been notorious as a prime market hub for looted antiquities due to its previously lax legislation.) Welsh also repeated his opposition to the proposed German law on a discussion list. Urging people to sign a petition against it, he intoned a dire warning:

"The strategy of the opponents of collecting is "divide and conquer." First Germany, tomorrow the world - one nation at a time."

Oh, I do wish he would spare us the melodramatic histrionics. Temecula is almost 100 miles away from Hollywood.

Curiously enough, although the fight against looting is already a worldwide concern, laws are normally passed by individual nations - one nation at a time. That's typically how law works. We don't yet live in a single World Empire (the UN is merely advisory); there's nothing to "divide".

After giving valid reasons why dealers prefer not to divulge their sources, he then went on to rant that the "anticollecting ideologues [...]  aren't interested in arriving at a reasonable compromise" and bitterly cried that "Barford and his ilk" will have triumphed if the law is passed.

Ah! I'm hoping that Welsh appreciated the usual meaning of the word 'compromise' - an agreement reached by both sides making concessions. It's a two-way street. Surely he wasn't suggesting that all the concessions should come solely from those concerned about looting and smuggling while the antiquities trade should do absolutely nothing to meet them halfway.

Let's assume he was being sensible. Well, I hate to say I told you so but ...

I proposed a "reasonable compromise" years ago - long before the present looting crisis in the Middle East - and I predicted what would happen if dealers ignored it. As it happens, Paul Barford was quite amenable to the proposal. It was Welsh and his "ilk" who were not "interested". He opposed it. He opposes pretty much everything except the status quo.

The current German law of 2007 concerns objects imported into Germany from another EU nation after 31 December 1992 or imported into Germany from any other UNESCO Convention signatory after 26 April 2007. Those dates are the current thresholds. The proposed amendment is rumoured to demand a provenance of twenty years (it is unclear which category this refers to; the EU category already extends back 23 years). At any rate, the legal thresholds are considerably more recent than 1970. Welsh's excuse for ignoring my scheme was purportedly based on his assumption that any laws would inevitably insist on the same threshold as the ideal mooted by the "archaeological community" and that is clearly not the case. So much for that irrelevant condition.

I patiently tried to explain years ago that laws are passed by politicians, not archaeologists. And the only people that politicians really care about are the electorate. Show the public that all dealers care about looting enough to have taken a "reasonable compromise" to combat it and I dare say the politicians representing the public might feel less urgency to tighten existing laws and be more open to accommodation on matters such as publicly divulging sources and graduating thresholds. But no, it seems that this dealer would rather pretend that proposals such as mine are impossible in the hope that he can just carry on with the status quo forever and not have to do anything.

And now, when events in Germany suggest my prediction may have been only too accurate, he complains that it's all the fault of "anticollecting ideologues" and everyone else. Sigh ...

Compromise means compromise; it involves mutual concessions. I wonder if Welsh has questioned why I, as a former collector myself and someone ardently in favour of collecting, so often ridicule the ACCG. I wonder if he realises that my criticism of them is based on my perception that, in a world where public image is so vital, the blinkered, arrogant, hideously uninformed, rabidly anti-academic and recklessly intransigent attitudes of that lobby group pose as great, if not greater, a threat to the future of collecting than most of the "anticollecting ideologues" put together.

Maybe if the ACCG and other groups like them actually got off their backsides, showed that they themselves genuinely cared about the looting crisis by proactively taking concrete steps to combat it instead of merely whining when someone else does, things would be different. And the public - represented by the politicians who actually pass laws - might take them more sympathetically and less cynically.

My proposal may not have made a huge practical difference, beyond improving image, to the antiquities trade in Germany itself (the legal thresholds already predate it) but the advantage of it as a universal database and deterrent to looting is undeniable. And, if the "tomorrow the world" prediction is correct and artefacts currently unrecorded apart from on precarious bits of paper are to stand a realistic chance of being traded almost anywhere in future, the adoption of such a secure and permanent scheme is patently urgent.

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Regarding the IAR: I have no huge personal incentive to develop it into reality. I no longer collect antiquities myself. If people want me to develop it, they will have to back it enthusiastically and consider eventually forming a way to support it financially. I have already explained its potential. But I am not prepared to go it alone.


Friday, 17 July 2015

Your typical "antiquity" on eBay - where did it come from?

Someone recently asked my opinion about an object offered by a UK seller on eBay. The object is grandly described as "IMPRESSIVE ANCIENT ROMAN TERRACOTTA OIL LAMP WITH APOLLO 1ST-3RD C THAMES FIND" and it highlights the old caveat emptor warning to perfection.

Despite the seller's description, the figure is of course Diana, not Apollo. It is a fairly accurate copy of authentic lamps depicting this motif that were made in North Africa during the late 2nd to mid 3rd centuries AD. It looks quite convincing at first glance.

However, even judging just by the photos, the unslipped fabric doesn't ring true, the surface looks artificially patinated, and the piercing of the handle is dubiously proportioned. And poor Diana must be slightly alarmed to be reaching up to pluck an arrow from the quiver on her shoulder only to find that the artist has forgotten to include it (though perhaps just as well; she could be a trifle bloodthirsty at times).

Authentic lamps with this motif are quite common. Sadly, fakes of them are even commoner. I suspect this example is a more sophisticated version of F5 and of the same series as F6.

As usual, apart from the dubious assurances of "Thames find" and "British found" by the seller, there is absolutely no indication of where the item came from. A provenance (collecting history) for an item is not only an ethical precaution against inadvertently acquiring looted artefacts; as Elizabeth Marlowe rightly pointed out, it is also an important factor in avoiding fakes. Dealers in fine art have accepted for decades that a work purporting to be by a top artist is worth very little unless accompanied by a watertight provenance. The antiquities market, both high-end and low-end, is every bit as notoriously saturated with fakes as the fine art market. Perhaps it is time that a similar standard for provenance is more widely adopted for antiquities.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

US "returns" Syrian lamp to ... Iraq

After seizing antiquities in a raid at Deir ez-Zor in Syria, it seems the US Government handed over ALL the items to Iraq in a well-publicised ceremony.

One problem with that ceremony is highlighted by a lamp displayed with other items on a triangular blue sheet in one of the photographs (see image). It appears to be authentic and is a Syro-Palestinian type of the 3rd - 4th centuries AD. In other words, the lamp which was seized in Syria is likely to have been made and found in Syria.

The bits and bobs handed over to Iraq are a strange assortment - including a tiny fake bust of Nefertiti, a modern metal-smelting crucible, a leather manuscript in Aramaic, pieces looted from Mosul Museum, Islamic coins, and so on. After a proper analysis of what the items really are, it is intended that any Syrian antiquities will eventually be transferred on to Syria.

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Paul Barford and Sam Hardy have covered this topic in admirable depth.

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 the official edict 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.

Priceless!

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?

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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 ...



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