Saturday, 25 July 2015

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

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.


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.


Dave Welsh said...


As the individual targeted by your post I think it is appropriate for me to provide a reply, especially given that I credit you as being thoughtful and sincere in your views.

You gave prominence in your remarks to the concept of a "reasonable compromise" and implied that I was opposed to that goal. I may have opposed what you proposed in the past (sincerely believing it to be a reasonable compromise) because of information and experience you do not have.

But that has never meant that I am opposed to the idea of a reasonable compromise. It instead means that I do not believe in the unproven hypothesis that Western collecting causes looting.

My idea of a reasonable compromise is that the world should not take guidance from the extremists of either the archaeological or laissez-faire collecting persuasion, but instead realize that the way to progress is not to be found in extremism.

I have proposed that we should not rely solely upon the unproven hypothesis that Western collecting causes looting, and neither should we rely upon the unproven hypothesis that the sincere efforts made by dealers to form associations to police their own activities can eliminate illicit trafficking.

Instead I think that a dual effort must be made:
1) To make looting and smuggling of antiquities risky and unpopular in the source states
2) To clean up the inadequately regulated European antiquities market

I believe that there is now an opportunity to accomplish both initiatives through the sale of redundant duplicate artifacts by source nations greatly in need of income, of which Greece has recently become a sad example.

The licit sale of such artifacts with official provenance could fund efforts to address both initiatives, which are unquestionably needed.

And then we could learn by observation, which was the more effective.

Dave Welsh

Cultural Property Observer said...

I agree with Dave, there needs to be "reasonable" compromises on all sides. On the dealer side the compromises must be "commercially reasonable," i.e., something that some one can reasonably expect of a small business dealing often dealing in numerous duplicative objects of limited monetary value. But source countries and archaeologists need to do their part too. Ideally, source countries would have something akin to the Treasure Act and PAS for items found on private land and allow the sale of duplicate objects from stores. Archaeologists could start helping by paying their diggers a fair living wage so they won't engage in illicit digging after archaeologists leave to go back home and there should be year round site security, at least in terms of cameras.

David Knell said...

Dave and Peter, thank you both for your comments. I'm on my way out now and so don't have time to reply immediately. I'll get back to you as soon as possible.

Paul Barford said...

>> the unproven hypothesis that Western collecting causes looting,<<
That's sort of like saying that paedophiles do not cause kiddie porn to be made, our energy needs do not cause new oil wells to be dug, and potatoes would be grown for fun even if people did not eat them. Yeah yeah.

So take two countries, Britain and the USA where there is no shortage of "duplicate artefacts" which do not go into museum stores legally on sale. Is illegal digging "unpopular" in either country? The UK has its nighthawks (that the problem is a real one is shown by the new police clampdown on them this month when the last one did not really work), people are digging up Native American sites and ripping of the pots, baskets and lithics all the time in the USA. Why has the problem NOT stopped there? Why, if the problem has NOT stopped there do you think it would anywhere else if stuff was sold in the same way?

Why, Mr Welsh do you think it is just the "European markets" which require adequate regulation when illicit finds from BLM land etc. get passed on to the US customer by US-based dealers too?

In Britain, Mr Tompa, would you say that metal detecting "nighthawks" and US pot-diggers on BLM land robbing sites are in general ex-diggers disgruntled by poor pay? What evidence do you have of this?

Would a PAS in the USA resolve the issue of clandestine digging in - for example - the Four Corners area and the Ozarks? Did the Scheme in Florida work in this way and why was it discontinued?

When will the BLM get all the sites under threat of looting on the Colorado Plateau fitted with surveillance cameras do you think? How much can the US government invest in this over the coming decade and where will the money come from? Antiquities sales? How would that be co-ordinated? An "antiquities tsar"?

Dave Welsh said...

Mr. Barford:

I have had enough of being "interrogated" by you and will not answer any more of your malicious and often hypothetical questions.

If you have anything of substance to say, please do so, and disabuse yourself of the fantasy that you are engaging in a debate.

Paul Barford said...

Mr Welsh, since you do not like people examining the ideas you proposed and attempt to pass the blame onto them for what they suggest needs further consideration, let me put it another way.

It occurs to me that your self-serving suggestion that there is no connection between looting and the antiquities market is unproven in itself and a dead-end argument which does not advance the discussion (which I imagine to be your intent).

There are test cases (the UK and USA) which disprove your buck-passing notion that selling artefacts would reduce illegal artefact procurement (by the way indicating that you DO see a link between looting and the collectors' market).

Your suggestion that only "European markets" need regulating is discriminatory.

Dave Welsh said...

Mr. Barford,

Your allegation that I maintain that there is no connection between looting and the antiquities market is incorrect.

I have never maintained that no looted items enter that market.

What I have said is that it has never been proven, and in fact cannot be proven, that the connection is causative.

I have further pointed out that there are markets for looted objects in source countries that do not depend upon the European or North American antiquities markets.

Apart from the market within the source country itself, which in the case of Iran is far from insignificant, there is a very active Middle Eastern antiquities market which is not at all likely to ever be affected by any European conventions, laws or regulations.

There is also an extremely active Oriental antiquities market which is not confined to artifacts of Oriental origin. This also is not at all likely to ever be affected by any European conventions, laws or regulations.

It is quite clear to me (and to those who are knowledgeable regarding the antiquities trade) that there will always be a profitable market for illicit antiquities, and that there is no logical reason to believe that anything North American or European legislation may attempt to do can ever prevent that.

It therefore follows that looting cannot be prevented by attempts to regulate or eliminate the European and North American collector's markets.

David Knell said...

My apologies for the delay in replying to comments. I have been caught up with other urgent matters over the past two days and I shall be away tomorrow too. I hope to reply more fully on Sunday but in the meantime, I'll just make a couple of quick observations.


What do you regard as "commercially reasonable" - inconvenient measures to properly record undocumented artefacts now or a total inability to trade in them at all in a few years time? Is burying your head in the sand a sensible option?

The remainder of your comment pretty well echoes the title of my post - "The subtle art of passing the buck". It is also tangential to the primary topic of my post: the moves needed by the antiquities trade to survive. I'll deal with your suggestion of adopting a PAS-like scheme in other source countries in a future post.


You might be surprised at the "information and experience" I have - admittedly more in antiques than antiquities but much of it is still related. I totally agree that "the way to progress is not to be found in extremism" and that dealers forming associations to police their own activities is not going to solve the problem of looting. However, the IAR scheme is a bit more involved and impartial than mere self-policing.

I hardly think that source countries such as Greece selling off their finite heritage is going to either solve their debt problems or greatly diminish looting. Likewise, your hypothesis that Europe and North America should not bother to regulate the antiquities market in those continents because people elsewhere are going to buy them anyway is deeply flawed. To take Paul Barford's analogy, it's sort of like saying we should not bother to regulate the consumption of kiddie porn in Europe and North America either because there will always be a market for it in other parts of the world.

Dave Welsh said...


I think you are perhaps misreading my remarks.

I did not say that Europe and North America should not bother to regulate the antiquities market in those continents. What I said was that such regulation will not stop looting. I do not believe that statement is flawed.

The issue is what sort of regulation is justified.

The hypothesis that looting can be controlled by regulating the European and North American antiquities markets, and that therefore very strict and onerous controls on these markets are justifiable because looting must be stopped, is unsound and illogical. There is no way to solve this problem "on the cheap" by putting the entire burden on the trade and collectors.

The way to control looting is by effective policing in the source states, and by public education to discredit and stigmatize looting. The Italian authorities have adopted these measure with very promising results.

Regarding my position on the antiquities markets, I do not believe any attempt to control them by regulations similar to the proposed German law would be wise. To place costly and stifling burdens upon commerce is not a good thing. There should instead be a well thought out scheme combining sensible and judicious regulation with more active policing, and it should be devised with the cooperation of the ethical dealers who form the great majority of the trade.

It must be recognized that the challenge is to control crime, and that cannot be done simply by passing laws. It is necessary that the public shall understand that looting, smuggling, and knowing trafficking in looted or smuggled artifacts are crimes against society, and that the public shall support effective policing measures against these crimes. In Italy that fundamental realization is being instilled.

To enact laws and regulations imposing unrealistic and stifling regulations upon the antiquities trade in Germany and some other countries in Europe will not really accomplish anything other than crippling legitimate and ethical dealers and auction houses. The trade will shift to Switzerland, London and other venues where the regulatory climate is more sensible. Meanwhile those involved in shady and criminal behavior today will mot disappear, they will instead operate a black market.

It is far better to keep the trade open, and insist that it be above-board. The best way to accomplish that is to work with those who know it intimately and understand its workings. The views of armchair theorists without trade experience are not likely to be helpful in this.

Regarding the sale of artifacts, my view remains that little or nothing positive is being accomplished by warehousing artifacts of no real importance to science or heritage, simply to keep them out of the hands of collectors.

Judicious culling and licit, provenanced sale of highly redundant artifacts would reduce the custodial burden of source states, encourage collectors to value provenance and to place a premium upon it, reduce demand for unprovenanced artifacts, and provide funds which could be used for public education regarding the evils of looting and smuggling, and increased policing.

That isn't "selling their heritage." It is instead understanding and classifying that which is important to heritage, and then sensibly using that which is not important to heritage to protect that which is important.

Paul Barford said...

Mr Welsh, your constant attempts to "dodge" rather than "address" do not help your case and merely lengthen threads like this without them getting anywhere. Again, I suspect this is your intent.

The suggestion - in your first post to this comment thread - to introduce fresh (non-looted) stuff onto the market to stop looting DOES imply you see a causative relationship between the collectors' market and the cause of looting. Please just stop the word games and accept that this is the clear implication of what you wrote.

In the first comment here you likewise say that in your opinion, the way to stop looting is "2) To clean up the inadequately regulated European antiquities market", I pointed out this was discriminatory. Now you say "looting cannot be prevented by attempts to regulate or eliminate the European and North American collector's markets". Your word games lead you into inconsistency again. You say one thing then contradict yourself just a few dozen hours later.

Dave Welsh said...

Mr. Barford:

That is not the implication of my statement, and only an ideologue such as you would take it that way.

My adding the "and North American" designation to "antiquities markets" is not an inconsistency. It addresses your bringing that dimension into a discussion that began with a proposed German law.

I think it's quite clear who is attempting to introduce "word games" into this discussion.

Please realize that this last comment of yours introduces nothing at all of any substance. It is exactly what Tim Haines had in mind when he recently explained why you were the only person ever expelled from the Ancientartifacts discussion group, for incessantly disrupting and misdirecting discussions.

That expulsion however took place in the face of strong objections on my part.

Dave Welsh said...

Mr. Barford and David:

I am not going to bandy words with Mr. Barford or get into a flame war with him in the comments section of this blog.

If he persists in his efforts to control the discussion and force it into a regurgitation of his blog hobbyhorses, on his terms, I have better things on which to spend my time.

If a genuine discussion is wanted - and Mr. Barford hs never yet been willing to accept that in a public discussion venue, in the opinion of almost everyone other than himself - I am willing to give that a try. But I think blogowner moderation to preserve focus is warranted.

David Knell said...

Topic reminder: the point I wished to make in my blog post was that in light of the current proposal to tighten controls on the antiquities trade in Germany and a likely spread of similar legislation in other Western countries (I think the "tomorrow the world" prediction in that sense is realistic), the antiquities trade urgently needs to review its image and policies. It is my contention that if the antiquities trade wishes to survive and avoid being regulated out of existence altogether, its best policy is to discard the suicidal position of intransigence - and headlong confrontation over conservation issues - and instead court public opinion by being seen to be genuinely concerned about those issues themselves, and actively taking concrete steps to distinguish between licit artefacts and those which may have been recently looted.

I do not think it is constructive - likely to ensure a long-term future for the antiquities trade - to scrabble around for excuses to justify continued intransigence and to not take those concrete steps. Whether any of those excuses are valid or not is neither here nor there - they generally underpin the "passing the buck" title of my blog post in public perception and at any rate their validity is largely questionable (I hope to examine some of them separately in later posts).

The topic of this post is the wisdom of many in the antiquities trade in continuing to ignore a means of improving their public image by being able to distinguish readily between licit and illicit artefacts. The means may be inconvenient but I am convinced that unless the antiquities trade try to meet the conservation concerns of the public at least towards halfway by actively adopting that means as a "reasonable compromise", the legislation forced upon a trade seen to be selfish and unaccommodating is likely to be a great deal more than merely inconvenient. And it will be a bit too late then to complain about "anticollecting ideologues".

"The issue is what sort of regulation is justified."

No, the issue of this blog post is what sort of potential regulation, regardless of whether it is justified or not, stands a chance of being averted by the antiquities trade rapidly addressing its image and actively taking sensible precautions rather than just sitting back, waiting for it to happen and then complaining how unfair it all is.

Dave Welsh said...


You contend that the antiquities trade has an image problem. I agree. But what you refer to as "excuses to justify continued intransigence" are not excuses. They are an informed understanding of reality, based on knowledge and experience those in the trade have acquired.

Critics of collecting and the antiquities trade do not understand the actual causes of looting in source countries. They have been misled by Renfrew and Elia into a belief that there is a way to solve this problem "on the cheap," without having to attack the problem in the source states.

That is a theory, and it is wrong. The error is absence of scientific method and rigor, which are not followed in the theoretical aspects of archaeology. Theories are not tested and verified as in the physical sciences.

It is unjustifiable to base public policy upon allegations or theories not scientifically provable, and not based upon convincing evidence.

Give thought to this:

When it is proposed to regulate an industry the norm is that investigative studies are first done to demonstrate need, then objective assessments follow to evaluate costs and benefits of the proposed regulations. In this case, what part of that process has been carried out?

Knowledgeable observers in the trade are unanimous in believing that the burden of compliance with demands for proof of licit origin is prohibitive for objects not of high value.

When I resear4ched museum practice to satisfy the "1970 standard," an average of 40 hours of curator time per acquisition was being spent. Investigating provenance is onerous and expensive. It can cost as much to investigate the provenance of a 100 euro coin as to investigate the provenance of a 100,000 euro statue.

What part of this reality has been considered by those advocating provenance investigation obligations on antiquities dealers collectors?

The cart precedes the horse here. "Solution" by regulation is demanded before proof of necessity is provided, and before costs and benefits are assessed.

The proposed new German law is so onerous that if Classical Coins were located in Germany, I would be forced to leave that country, or close my business.

13,767 concerned individuals have now signed the online petition opposing the proposed German law. How many could be persuaded to oppose that petition?

Paul Barford said...

"Theories are not tested and verified as in the physical sciences"

I am interested to know what for a scientist like yourself would be "rigorous scientific falsification" of the "theory" that the expanding no-questions-asked commerce in antiquities is the motor for the supply of fresh artefacts to the market by looting. I'd also be interested to know how you'd go about proving the opposite (that the expanding... is NOT the motor...). It is a shame that instead of talking about it, the antiquities dealers associations have not yet set up such a study.

Of course we do have one such study carried out in the UK in collaboration with the PAS on illegal artefact hunting there. Prominent among its conclusions on reducing illegal artefact hunting was the recommendation to regulate the antiquities market. I do not know whether you have read it.

Instead of spending time "researching provenance" for objects which come to them with none, I rather think the idea of the proposed regulations is to encourage German-based dealers only to buy from their legitimate suppliers those artefacts which come with the collecting history and avoid those without - thus immediately placing unscrupulous middlemen with freshly dug-up antiquities at a disadvantage. After all, the asserting that a particular artefact IS of licit provenance and collecting history has to be based on something other than a say-so (back to that notion of scientific method and rigor - there must be documentation not assumptions like those of which you accuse Renfrew and Elia). If anecdotal evidence and opinion from the one side counts for nothing in the eyes of the other, then both sides are bound by the same principles of secure documentation on which to base their conclusions.

"13,767 concerned individuals ..." But from ALL fields of collecting in Germany and about half of them from beyond. The problem is that the proposed draft law covers so many areas, that it is not at all sure which combination of its individual elements these signatories are protesting. This rather reduces its impact. The document before us (or rather not before us) is a DRAFT law and all the petition is saying is "we, the undersigned, think it should be redrafted" - which is of course the fate of every draft law or regulation anyway.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...