Ideology, governance and consequences from a collector's point of view

Wayne G. Sayles

Executive Director, Ancient Coin Collectors Guild,

Cite this as: W. Sayles 2013 'Ideology, governance and consequences from a collector's point of view', Internet Archaeology 33.

Ideology | Governance | Consequences

This article is a condensed version of the background paper created for an Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) presentation at the 2010 CBA, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, and Newcastle University conference in Newcastle, England. It presents a view shared by many American collectors and independent scholars. The ACCG, a member of the International Numismatic Council, is a registered non-profit organisation within the United States but enjoys the active support of members worldwide.

1. Ideology

The concept of 'Cultural Property' is far more recent than the concept of 'Collecting'—perhaps by 50 millennia or more. Joseph Alsop argued that collecting is a human phenomenon dating back to the Stone Age (Alsop 1982, 71). Prior to 1970, it was difficult to define cultural property, though it was generally thought of as something tangible relating to 'Cultural Heritage'. The UNESCO Convention of that year resolved to clarify the term by creating a diverse list of objects and a roadmap for control of these designated objects. The tenor of the 1970 UNESCO resolution is sharply nationalistic and encourages retention within source countries rather than cultural interaction on a personal level. The prevention of theft, clandestine excavation and illicit export of significant cultural property seems innocuous enough, until one places that concept within the framework of a nationalist state with patrimony laws where all cultural objects can be, and usually are, declared property of the State. Through the repression of personal property rights, any object exported without a state permit is thereby rendered illicit and any private possession of cultural objects without a state permit is considered theft. Export permits in these nationalist countries are typically difficult or impossible to acquire, even for common utilitarian artefacts. 'Could anything be more inane than legislation that seeks to cover everything from Egyptian statues to Victorian postage stamps?', asked Oxford Art History professor John Boardman (Boardman 2006, 45). The result of this overreaching control is a cultural island where access and research is limited to friends of the State and culture is completely politicised. Professor John Henry Merryman refers to those who espouse this system as Cultural Property Nationalists in contrast to Cultural Property Internationalists who are more global in perspective. (Merryman 1986, 831 ff). Even in socially liberal western democracies, a penchant within academia for cultural property controls has led to heated debate and legal challenges.

Nobody in UNESCO at that time intended or anticipated (at least not publicly) that every single utilitarian object surviving from the long history of civilization would or should come under governmental control. The universally accepted criteria for an object to be of significance to Cultural Heritage, and therefore applicable to provisions of the resolution, was that it be unique and/or irreplaceable. This widely accepted benchmark became the basis for laws in many countries that codified, to varying degrees, the general provisions of the UNESCO Resolution. Included within this article is a brief discussion of the implementing law enacted by the United States Congress in 1983 and some of its ramifications.

One might wonder today whether the intention of UNESCO leaders in 1970 was as egalitarian as advertised, or if it was actually the harbinger of a long-term plan to control the past. George Orwell may have been prophetic when he wrote 'he who controls the past controls the future'. In retrospect, there is considerable doubt that the organisation achieved its purported goal of bettering society. More to the point, the UNESCO Resolution became yet another tool in the hands of the State for control of society and a roadblock to the well-established rules that guide public education. Should access to the catalysts of cultural understanding be stewarded by a narrowly focused group, to the exclusion of the general public? That question has in fact become one of great concern to a growing number of people and a source of heated debate. One independent scholar from Canada characterised the role of collectors in numismatic research:

'… the best way to preserve the cultures of the past is to distribute them far and wide among very different people who can inherit what is of value to them. That is what cultural heritage is really. This is why the collector has done more to advance numismatics than the academic world—there are more of them, they have a greater supply to draw upon (thanks to the dealers) and most important of all, they can bring their uniqueness to the subjects that they love. Not everyone will make important discoveries, but it takes a vast collector base for a few discoveries to emerge, so everyone serves an important role. Without the large market, there would be fewer coins and fewer dealers and the raw material for inspiration would suffer thus' (Hooker 2009).

Since 1970, the specific nature of an individual object has gradually become of less consequence to regulators than the broader ideology of comprehensive preservation and control by designated 'stewards'. In fact, the scope of UNESCO's reach now extends even to the 'intangible' aspects of culture—yes, some would control the flow of ideas. Although few of the implementing laws have changed, the determination of unique and/or irreplaceable is no longer a universal benchmark. In recent decades, a tendency to ignore any scale of relevance to the ideals of cultural heritage preservation has strained the already tense relations between globalists and nationalists.

This tension has been fuelled mainly by intractable claims from the archaeological community that no object from antiquity is of value to society unless its precise archaeological context is known, recorded, and verifiable. That stunning bit of illogic has baffled many historians, and especially art historians, but has become pervasive in the dialogue of anti-collecting activists in the archaeological community. Even worse, from the collector's point of view, is the baseless notion that a lack of provenance is indicative of looting and therefore any unprovenanced object should be regarded as illicit. Attorney William Pearlstein sees this as becoming the mantra of archaeologists today:

'The cultural internationalist viewpoint is firmly rejected by many archaeologists, who believe first and foremost in the need to preserve and protect virgin stratigraphic context pending professional excavation. From this springs the mantra that "unprovenanced is illicit" To paraphrase the archaeological view, the depredations of local looters are driven by the demands of unscrupulous dealers and collectors, who aid and abet site looting by purchasing unprovenanced objects. These archaeologists, led by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), insist that the US vigorously enforce foreign patrimony laws, the violation of which should be a serious crime under US law.' (Pearlstein 2009, 12).

A particularly virulent form of this extreme position is the claim that any artefact demonstrably produced by an ancient culture is to be considered 'stolen' if it left the country of origin without explicit documented permission. Under the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA), the US government has become increasingly involved in the enforcement on US soil of foreign patrimony laws that do not even exist or have a parallel in America.

Professor Ted Buttrey of Cambridge University offered a real world example of why coins often lack provenance:

'In the 1980s a hoard of 5000 later-3rd-century antoninani, found locally in Cambridgeshire, was brought to this museum for examination and offered to us for sale. We cleaned it, and in return were allowed to pick out about 250 pieces for our trays. The rest we did not want - we would have had to purchase a whole new set of cabinets (no money to buy them, no place to put them anyway) and spent God knows what in the way of man-hours accessioning this material—and anyhow could not use: the 4750 remaining coins were the same old stuff which we already know of by the thousands. So we kept what we felt to be useful in filling gaps, in studying, and in teaching. The rest of the hoard was offered to the BM [British Museum] who turned it down. Finally the finder took it to a dealer who paid 50 pence per coin and sold them on for a pound. Be clear about this: the hoard was legally found, legally reported, legally offered to several museums (none of whom wanted it), legally returned to the finder, and legally disposed of by him. No one anywhere was going to take the time and the trouble (and the expense!) to provide each coin with a ticket (and photo?) guaranteeing its provenience. So there are 4750 perfectly OK coins from this hoard somewhere out there scattered about the market which [some] would condemn as "illicit"' (Buttrey 2008).

These perfectly licit objects, coins in the above case, are typically referred to as 'orphans' because they lack documentation and therefore provenance. The simple fact is that millions of them are so common that they are routinely sold for less that the cost to preserve a continuing record of their sale. Archaeologists have argued that every coin found in an archaeological context, which includes those found 'on' the ground as well as in it, is significant.

Even if an argument might be made for national retention of certain types, or exceptional examples, of certain artefacts, rarely can a case be made that utilitarian objects like coins are culturally significant objects. A claim of archaeological significance is equally tenuous. In the field of archaeology, coins are useful mainly as a way of dating the strata in which they are found. However, even this is of tentative value since loose coins, like diamonds, arrowheads, and rocks in general (as any farmer knows) tend to migrate to the surface over time. Thus, the accuracy of dating a stratum by coin finds is only reliable when the coins are in some way part and parcel of a fixed object. This is seldom the case, since most coins found in archaeological excavations are scattered finds. Many, if not most coins found in farmlands are found within the disturbed surface, not within definable archaeological contexts. Large hoards of coins were generally buried in more obscure locations. It is also well established that ancient coins circulated for extended periods of time, sometimes centuries, and the find of a coin does not necessarily date with any accuracy the strata in which it was found. Of course, archaeologists know this but some still cling to the idea that coins are critical pieces of the 'archaeological record'. It's a convenient argument that the general public can understand logically but cannot challenge technically. Greek archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis explains it somewhat differently: '… "the archaeological record" does not exist as such: people in the past did not leave a record of their lives for us to discover, preserve (for future generations), and decipher; what was left from their lives are material fragments (in the broader sense of the word) and it is archaeology that produces the entity we call the archaeological record out of these material fragments of the past; in other words, archaeology as a discipline, as a set of principles, devices, methods, and practices, creates its object of study, out of existing and real, past material traces' (Hamilakis 2007, 14). One might ask, how many examples of a common utilitarian object are necessary to create that object of study? Every one ever produced? In any case, the institutional stewarding of every object from the past is an impossible objective and not one that advances cultural awareness.

Some archaeologists argue that the looting of ancient sites would not occur were it not for the private collector market. That preposterous claim is far too naive to be taken seriously. Neither evidence nor experience suggests that repression of private ownership better protects cultural heritage—either before or after excavation. Therefore, one might be forgiven for concluding that it is a purposeful distortion of reality—intended mainly to sway the non-collecting public and government administrators in a campaign to sequester the past. Hopefully in today's media-driven world the public is not so gullible as to blindly accept spin as fact. Millions of present owners of antiques view this repressive position as a radical departure from the six-hundred-year-old tradition of art and antiquity collecting. Ancient coin collectors are presently under constant pressure from the AIA and its minions, but are far from alone in that regard.

Fossil vertebrate collectors suffer precisely the same attacks, derision and legal prohibitions. They are confronted with the same instinctive possessiveness by archaeologists that coin collectors face. Like academic archaeologists, palaeontologists are often driven to obsessive levels in a quest to control all of the source material within their discipline. They seem compelled to control every bone that survives from any vertebrate life form that ever populated the earth and archaeologists are equally compelled to control every coin or clay pot—no matter how many millions there might be.

Had Orwell been able to see past 1984, he would have seen an even more bizarre world where trinkets from space are deemed 'national treasures' by some who believe that the masses simply must be excluded from any form of academic discourse, independent scholarship or personal interest (Broad 2011) Ancient coin collectors face exactly the same scenario, where the most rudimentary academic study is automatically relegated by archaeologists to Olympian heights and the work of those who chose not to follow the academic path is disparaged and discounted. For example, Dr Nathan Elkins wrote a blistering, inaccurate and totally unfounded condemnation of the Ancient Coins for Education program run by a group of private coin collectors. This non-profit organisation has for more than ten years coordinated classroom sessions that bring independent scholars into schools across the United States and introduces genuine ancient coins as voices from the past. Their tactile learning program has been lauded far and wide, receiving honours from the American Classical League and others. They have reached out to tens of thousands of students from elementary and secondary levels. Dr Elkins apparently felt ideologically driven to vilify those efforts in a most mean-spirited polemic (Elkins 2009).

In a 2008 internet discussion list posting, Professor Buttrey described a revealing proposal by Lord Colin Renfrew that had been brought to the British Academy that year. Regarding the hiring practices at British universities and other institutions, said Buttrey, 'The proposal was, that in weighing the bibliography of a prospective candidate any publication which made use of unprovenanced material should be discounted, obviously to the candidate's disadvantage'.

The Cultural Property War that rages in America is not merely a differing of opinion—it has taken on serious legal ramifications and has in fact created significant personal hardship. It has threatened a long-standing altruistic avocation and has seriously damaged public respect and support for a worthy academic discipline. The tapestry that once reflected a symbiotic relationship between the two has all but disappeared. That alone is a devastating loss of intangible cultural heritage that anthropologists and sociologists will someday mourn.

In addition to suffering from academically inspired government overreach, legitimate collectors and members of the antiquities trade have met with scorn, humiliation and vilification, not only from internet trolls but from many professional archaeologists as well. Some critics have argued that private collecting no longer has a place in what they see as a New World Order. The most avid of these proponents carry out a proactive agenda to support their unashamed goal, which is the elimination of private ownership of all cultural property. They are apparently sincere in their self-righteousness, to the point of ignoring or circumventing applicable laws in a quest to serve the 'greater good'—'even when society objects' as one academic archaeologist not very tenderly put it (Gibson and Sanders 1993).The reaction to this frontal attack on what is a very diverse and dynamic social group has predictably been one of indignation.

Why is the debate about cultural property so polarised? The rhetoric from both sides has not helped, but words alone are not the entire problem. At the risk of oversimplifying, one might reduce the plethora of arguments to one element—control. Archaeologist Paula K. Lazrus framed the issue from a nationalist perspective: 'The question for us today, is whether the concept of ownership (as opposed to stewardship) continues to be a sustainable or even moral position in our contemporary society, and if not, how can we engage the world's citizens in the active preservations of our collective history and cultural heritage' (Lazrus 2003). That, to any collector is a sobering thought. To any citizen of a free world nation with constitutionally guaranteed property rights, it is a wakeup call. Is the aim of UNESCO 1970 to preserve culture and cultural objects or is it to justify the nationalist retention of historical objects as state chattel? The mere suggestion that private collecting is not a 'moral' position raises the blood pressure of many.

Collectors, particularly in America, are conditioned by their political history, national structure and social environment to expect a significant degree of personal freedom within the protection of law. One might say that the vast majority of Americans value that freedom above most other social contracts. When institutional control threatens personal freedoms inherent under law, wherever that may occur, an opportunity for conflict is born. Students of the past can certainly cite a long list of cases where repression of law-abiding citizens led to strong reactions. The challenge is to find a path that reduces or eliminates looting but protects the individual's right to ownership where law allows and to the presumption of innocence.

Is the nature of academia so different from that of independent scholarship that the twain shall never meet? Of course not. Two shining examples of cooperation between the private sector and academia are the fields of Ornithology and Astronomy. Professional societies in these disciplines count many private advocates among their esteemed members and benefit greatly from the consequent interaction. Numismatics once enjoyed a similar bond. This, unfortunately, is in sharp contrast to the current relationship between archaeology and private collecting. Today, archaeologists characterise collectors as defilers of an ideal and collectors see archaeologists as disingenuous oppressors of free thought and legitimate scholarship. If their concerns about looting were genuine, say some collectors, nationalist states and archaeologists would have sought common ground with collectors who traditionally have supported preservation of ancient sites. Rather than calls for help, modern collectors have witnessed the growth of pointed criticism and a predatory atmosphere that rejects cooperation as collusion. The AIA members convened at St Louis in 1973 denounced research based on unprovenanced artefacts and AIA publications have subsequently refused to accept the work of members who used unprovenanced material from private collections in their research. That singular act slammed the door on at least two generations of progress, and threatens yet another.

2. Governance

The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (1983) is the vehicle by which some of the provisions of UNESCO 1970 became law in the United States. Usually referred to as CCPIA or CPIA, the law is very specific about how the provisions of the UNESCO convention are to be applied within the US. The law underwent an extraordinary process of review and compromise that lasted for more than a decade before it was finally approved by the legislature. Within the law are clearly worded protections that preserve the rights and interests of private collectors and independent scholars. Consequently, collectors and collector advocacy groups like the ACCG believe the law, as enacted, to be fair and appropriate. When deemed essential, the act allows for import restrictions to be placed on certain objects that may be considered significant cultural property. The built-in protections so laboriously included were generally adhered to during the law's first decade of implementation. Gradually, extra-legal bureaucratic action and creative misinterpretation of the law expanded the reach of administrative managers to the point where the law no longer serves the people it was designed to serve. Instead, it has become a default rubber-stamp authorisation for wide-ranging prohibitions and has lost all of the credibility that Congress so diligently sought to assure. It seems incredible that bureaucratic manipulation could orchestrate the demise of a law so carefully crafted, but that is exactly what happened to CPIA.

The evaporation of CPIA's protections did not happen in a vacuum. A series of high-profile lawsuits and prosecutions—some successful and some not—rattled the antiquities trade and cast a dark cloud over the entire world of private collecting. The notoriety of these cases was such that a long-term feeding frenzy developed among self-interests that saw the vulnerability of collecting as a target of opportunity. An unholy alliance between archaeology and nationalistic bureaucracies was born of this moment and has become the scourge of public and private collecting in America today. Another troublesome and potentially devastating area of bureaucratic overreach is not within cultural property law at all, but rather in the extralegal application of laws that have nothing to do with culture or heritage. The NSPA has been invoked in cultural property cases as a'back door' form of prosecution and coercion. As Professors Urice and Adler have pointed out, the NSPA was enacted to deal with cases of interstate theft of automobiles and is woefully inadequate to try cases of alleged international patrimony theft (Urice and Adler 2010, 124). That, however, has not stood in the way of zealous prosecutors.

Since the advent of criminal complaints under NSPA, several major museums in the United States have voluntarily repatriated ancient art to foreign countries in response to the mere threat of negative publicity and legal action. The ploy works because individuals and institutions are often inclined to forfeit their property rather than suffer the onerous and expensive nightmare of legal defence against a US government agency—particularly when the outcome might affect one's career or freedom. Consequently, actions that rightfully should be challenged go unchecked and simply breed more of the same. In situations where NSPA complaints or similar cases have been contested by the accused, they are often dismissed or settled out of court with little fanfare. The effect of this 'feeding frenzy' was almost predictable. The antiquities trade and the museum community withered under the barrage and all but withdrew from public comment on government actions. The 'last man standing', oddly enough, was the comparatively small, unorganised and underfunded coin collecting community. Ancient coin collectors do have one tenacious trait that has kept their advocacy alive for the past eight years—a passion for their discipline that is unsurpassed.

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, founded in 2004, represents more than 700 individual members and 21 Affiliate Member coin clubs. The guild has opposed CPIA based import restrictions on coins through individual member comment, formal written comment and oral public comment at eight Cultural Property Advisory Committee hearings in Washington. The guild has also sought redress of US State Department and Customs actions believed to be arbitrary and capricious. A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the guild led to the release of hundreds of pages of documentation and records previously denied to collectors. In a bold challenge of the procedures used by State and Customs to apply and enforce import restrictions, the ACCG continues to defend collector rights in the US Court of Appeals.

One institution that chose not to appease nationalist extortion is the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM). Without going into the case in detail, what essentially happened was that Egypt claimed ownership of the museum's prized Ka Nefer Nefer mask and sought repatriation claiming it was illegally exported. SLAM refused, arguing that the mask was acquired in good faith and with due diligence. The US government took up Egypt's position and filed suit against SLAM arguing that the object must have been stolen since no export permit exists. The presumption of guilt that accompanies this non sequitor is contrary to the most basic fundamentals of American law where innocence is presumed. After lengthy filings, during which the government could not prove that the mask was actually stolen, the US District Court dismissed the government's complaint. This ruling is an important vindication of the longstanding collector position that under US law a lack of verifiable provenance is not synonymous with 'stolen'. When law favours the collector, and it sometimes does, archaeologists frequently turn to the subject of ethics—suggesting that ethics trump law. That argument is often counterproductive, as illustrated by Kimberly Alderman, who wisely opined that '…all parties to discussions about the illicit antiquities trade are advised to be mindful of the distinction between ethical and legal arguments in order to promote clarity in discourse' (Alderman 2010, 93-4).

Americans in particular view the reversed burden of proof that exists in many foreign countries as a breach of their constitutional rights. That may be irrelevant when one is within another country's jurisdiction, but it is not irrelevant when foreign laws are prosecuted within US jurisdiction and when the US government facilitates that prosecution of foreign laws against its own citizens and institutions. The venerable Sotheby's auction firm had for some time been conspicuous by its silence in cultural property matters, but that came to a screeching halt when the US government recently blocked the sale of a 1,000-year-old Cambodian statue. Sotheby's has moved to contest the action and the arguments in this case should prove insightful since the proof of this property being stolen will likely be as difficult as it was in the Ka Nefer Nefer Mask case. Simply proving that an object once resided in a nationalist country with patrimony laws does not in itself prove that the object now removed from its original context was stolen.

3. Consequences

One claim that vexes all private collectors is that 'Collectors are the real looters' (Renfrew 1993). Through this dictum, Lord Renfrew set a whole community of young archaeologists astir and neither argument nor evidence to the contrary has been able to cool the anti-collecting fervour of some. Consequently, the once symbiotic relationship between private collectors and archaeologists is now very fragile. Isolated cases of cooperation continue to exist, but the overall atmosphere today is one of considerable animosity and distrust. Is this serving the greater good? Will strict regulation and control of stewardship promote cultural awareness and international fellowship? Will it better preserve the objects of antiquity that speak to us about the past? To argue that it will, suggests to private collectors that they are viewed as less capable, intelligent, dedicated and sharing than professional academicians. Therein lies the rub—that proposition is neither true nor tolerable.

Private collectors, unlike most professional scholars, are not born of a 'corporate' philosophy and do not share the common methodologies that academia demands. Much of the collector's skill and experience comes from educational opportunities of a practical and self-guided nature. While collectors do not live in a world of peer review, that does not at all diminish the value of their contributions.

Many of the greatest numismatists of all time have been private collectors—and that is not predicated on the scope of their acquisitions but on their scholarly accomplishments. Are the research skills or deductive reasoning powers of a professional archaeologist any more finely honed than those of a physician, lawyer, politician, clergyman or history professor? Is it fair to say that objects from antiquity will be better preserved in the hands of someone trained in archaeology than in the hands of a librarian or a dentist? One might concede that a particular methodology is likely to be adhered to more closely by one trained in that method, but whether the end result is preferable to a different methodology is always arguable.

To insist that archaeologists are the only competent stewards of the past is not only elitist, it is taken by many collectors as a personal affront. Fortunately, not all archaeologists are this dogmatic. Still, the support (both public and private) of collectors for archaeology as a discipline is not nearly what it once was. Perhaps the discipline can be self-supporting, but that remains to be seen in the midst of global financial crises that have every budget in the world under scrutiny. Cuts have already been blamed in countries like Italy and Greece for poor preservation of national treasures, much less household objects from antiquity. Increasing numbers of archaeologists are either unemployed or employed today by private enterprise. The public largesse that allowed radical ideology to flourish within academic archaeology seldom finds a parallel in industry and is under the same fiscal pressure today that all of academia and public programs are. Ultimately, the most sustainable model for both archaeology and for collecting is exactly what evolved over the past six centuries, a symbiotic relationship. That is not beyond the realm of possibility, but the prospect dims each passing day. Ideology is ever flowing, like a pendulum, from one extreme to the other. What seems timeless and crucial today will be lost and forgotten when ultimately overcome by events and new ideologies. What will not be forgotten so quickly is the personal angst that aggressive extremists create at either end of the pendular swing. Sadly, that leaves a narrow window of opportunity for progress at the centre of the spectrum. Collectors, through their advocacy of rational and effective laws, hope to widen that window and hasten the pendulum's movement toward centre.


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Boardman, J. 2006 'Archaeologists, collectors, and museums' in Eleanor Robson, Luke Treadwell and Chris Gosden (eds) Who Owns Objects? The Ethics and Politics of Collecting Cultural Artefacts. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 33-46.

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Pearlstein, W. G. 2009 'Cultural property, congress, the courts, and customs: the decline and fall of the antiquities market?' in K. Fitzgibbon (ed) Who Owns the Past, Cultural Policy, Cultural Property and the Law. Rutgers University Press. 9-31.

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Urice, S. and Adler, A. 2010 'Unveiling the Executive Branch's Extralegal Cultural Property Policy' (August 13, 2010). University of Miami Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2010-20. [Accessed 12 March 2013]

Reader Comments

For responses to this opinion piece, please also see (in this issue) "Response: the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme" by Roger Bland
and "Who controls the past?" by Penny English.

  • IA Editor
  • 18-MAR-2013 at 09:49

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