Wednesday, January 14, 2015

St. Louis Society statement regarding deaccessions

The following statement was issued today by Professor Michael J. Fuller, President of the St. Louis Society, an active chapter of the AIA since 1906:

"The Archaeological Institute of America, St. Louis Society owned a collection of 40 small artifacts for 100 years.  These were documented artifacts, obtained with permission of the applicable governments.  During most of that time, the artifacts were in storage.  Repeated efforts over many years to place them with the St. Louis Art Museum and Washington University failed.  In 2014, the Society’s board, after consulting with experts, decided to put the artifacts up for auction.  As a result, 38 of the 40 artifacts were placed in leading museums, most in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city.  The Society board believes this placement was far preferable to continued long-term storage in St. Louis.  As the New York Times reported on December 26, the artifacts, “largely forgotten” until now, are now headed for public display in a major museum. On Tuesday, January 13, after full airing and debate of the issues, a majority of members of the St. Louis Society rejected an effort by certain members to remove the Society’s board."

As reported in this blog yesterday, the St. Louis Society has been threatened with revocation of its charter unless the entire board resigns on or before February 1, 2015.  The decision of St. Louis Society, by vote of the general membership, to reject that ultimatum has highlighted what some see as the growing intractability of AIA leadership in terms of cultural property management and how best to deal with the universally recognized scourge of archaeological site looting.   


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Missing the Point

Most in the world who have followed the events of recent years in the field of cultural property management are hardened to the bizarre and tend to take it in stride.  However, nearly everyone was perplexed when the Archaeological Institute of America politburo began spewing venom at one of its own affiliates, the St. Louis Society.  At the 2015 AIA convention in New Orleans (just closed) the leaders of this once erudite group drew a line in the sand calling for the resignation of every member of the current governing board of the St. Louis chapter.  Failure to comply will result (or so threatened) in the Society being stripped of its AIA charter.   And what was the crime for which this extraordinary punishment was meted?  The Society board had determined that some of its tangible assets could better serve the archaeological community and society in general if sold and the revenues used to fund educational programs for prospective young archaeologists.  A group of fully recorded, provenanced and legally owned artifacts belonging to the Society were offered for sale at public auction and ultimately sold privately to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The world of archaeology is not the same today as it was when some of us were young, and certainly not the same as it was in the early 1900s when the artifacts in question were legally gifted to the St. Louis Society.  Scores of institutions over the years have sold excess acquisitions to fund a variety of program needs and artifacts from the ancient world are legion among them.  In fact, this is not at all unusual.  Why then did the AIA see this particular event worthy of such vitriolic condemnation?  Even the normally caustic and intractable archaeo-blogger, Paul Barford, questions this AIA response.  In his unabashedly anti-trade blog he wrote: "A handout distributed during the [convention] meeting indicated that the AIA is considering changing its views on the sales of objects of documented legal origins (on the grounds that it legitimises the trade which leads to illicit activity)."  One would expect that members of the collecting community would take offense to this preposterous statement, but why would it raise the hackles of Paul Barford?  He explains, "This is, in my view, bonkers. We should be emphasising the difference precisely between documented licit provenance of antiquities, and antiquities lacking such documentation. This reaction by the AIA to a situation within its own ranks will potentially have damaging effects outside. I hope they reconsider this." 

Frankly, this is one of the very few times in the past decade that I can say Paul Barford is right.  But, as usual, he misses the main point.  The AIA is calling for repression of a long cherished right in America, the right to own and trade property—not just within its affiliated chapters but among the general public as well.  If perfectly legal artifacts are barred from sale today, simply because of a philosophical point of view, what will be barred tomorrow?  We are a nation governed by law, not by the whims of some special interest.  There are laws in place that govern the sale of cultural property.  The St. Louis Society Board did nothing illegal, nothing immoral and nothing contrary to the best interests of their chapter.  Why should the Board of AIA have any right to castigate them for a local action that was properly considered and executed by proper authority?    The AIA leadership is not the Grand Poobah of cultural property, even though some within that circle might like to think so.

The world of archaeology must be in a deplorable state of crisis for an innocuous event like this St. Louis deaccession to precipitate such a radical and overreaching response.  It is, in fact, a very desperate move that has potentially far reaching effects—and not for the good of archaeology as a discipline.  From time to time the world becomes witness to fanatical movements that are anathema to the mainstream of society.  For many years now, decision makers in government have treated academic archaeologists as altruistic professionals—no doubt because of past glories.  As the leadership of Archaeology becomes ever more self-serving and dictatorial, in many ways like National Socialist regimes of the past century, that former sparkle has become a scourge and the light of archaeology may be in real danger of becoming a faint flicker.  If we can see that development here in the hinterlands, there can be little doubt that it will be seen in Washington as well where much of the funding for Archaeology is already at risk.

The St. Louis Society Board has a unique opportunity to challenge this sort of oppression and to do something good for all of Archaeology in the balance.  They could refuse to resign.  Whether they will or not remains to be seen, but sooner or later the weight of unfettered oppression will spread and become unbearable.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Media rush to judgement challenged

Chasing Aphrodite blogger Jason Felch surely surprised some in the world of Archaeobloggers and Cultural Property Nationalists when he recently challenged a rash of sensationalized media claims on the part of "scholars" and "experts".   The topic of this latest "meme" is the funding of terrorism and specifically of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.   A "sandstorm" of pronouncements in various media have claimed that the sale of antiquities looted by ISIS is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, second only to their revenues from looted oil.   While the evidence of ISIS looting and/or intentional destruction of cultural property is undeniable, the connection to ISIS funding through the sale of antiquities is far more spurious. That evidence is conspicuously lacking and the trade is essentially devoid of material that could conceivably have come through the hands of ISIS.  Are these calls for embargo then strictly for show?  I fear they are not.  They are part of a deliberate long term program of disinformation.

The sensational headlines generated by supposed "expert" testimony may seem justified to some.  After all, what comes through loud and clear is the loss of cultural heritage—a disaster certainly worthy of concern.  However, less obvious to the general public is a not-so-subtle underlying crusade that threatens the very underpinnings of law, order and justice.  Accompanying the claims that collectors fund terrorism are self-serving calls from the archaeological community and its minions for overreaching trade sanctions in the name of heritage preservation.  The connection is not coincidental.

History confirms that a rise in ideological fervor to the level of zealotry often leads to excess.  The zealotry in this case is opposition to the private collecting of virtually anything of interest to Archaeologists.  Unfortunately, many of the zealots in this crusade are more than willing to overlook the due process of law and apparently believe that the end justifies the means.  The United States was a participant in the 1970 UNESCO convention dealing with ownership of cultural property.  The implementing law in this country was carefully considered, debated and adjusted prior to its eventual enactment in 1983.  Consequently, CCPIA provides very clear and precise rules for government intervention in the trade of cultural property.  It is, in my opinion, a very well thought out and fair piece of legislation and remains in force today.  Because of CCPIA, unnecessary widespread restrictions on the antiquities trade have been made more difficult.  For that reason, opponents of private collecting have sought by various means to circumvent the letter and intent of the legislation.  It is worth noting that the current calls for trade restrictions or embargos seek action in the form of Executive Order rather than consideration under the prevailing law—where the public has a voice. 

The Chasing Aphrodite blog also raises an intriguing connection between the State Department and archaeologists making these unsupportable claims.  Indeed, the State Department has lauded their research.  The American School of Oriental Research, ardently anti-trade, reportedly received $600,000 from State to track the condition of cultural sites in Syria.  One can't help but wonder if some of that money enriched anti-trade PR programs.  It seems that the fabrication of statistics on cultural property issues has become another cottage industry in the field of archaeology.  Reading the comments appended to Jason Felch's blog post is itself quite enlightening.  The point is well made there by some insiders that this sort of yellow journalism will ultimately backfire.

Friday, November 14, 2014

MORE that "the scholars said"

Annointed scholar David Knell expressed an erudite opinion on a recent Paul Barford blog regarding the prices realized at a recent auction of artifacts owned by the St. Louis Society, a chapter (at least at the moment) of the American Institute of Archaeology:

 "Well, if it's any consolation to Donna Yates, the other lot she mentioned (Lot 149: Zapotec Figural Urn) sold for only $3,750, well within the original $3,000–5,000 estimate. I suspect that the doubling of the price for Lot 156 (Maya Effigy Vase) was motivated more by the fact that it is 'prettier' (the art market being shallow as always) rather than a consideration of the increased depth of its academic credentials. I think Dr Yates need not lose any sleep."

How enlightening!  The art market ought perhaps to consider the views of archaeologists when it comes to valuation of works.  If the views of archaeologists and similar highly educated "experts" are to be taken seriously, every artifact more than 100 years old, menial as it might be, is of inestimable value and is essentially "priceless".  For confirmation of that fact one could easily cite scores of pronouncements in the international press.  Since the sale of artifacts in the United States is not prohibited by law, that would mean that huge profits could and should be made in this market.  All one has to do is hire an archaeologist to declare the value and Katie bar the door on bidder enthusiasm!

Perhaps there is a major economic benefit within this logic.  If archaeological credentials are the primary determinent of value, then University departments of Art and Art History ought not to bother themselves, at the considerable expense of tax payers, with the teaching of rare art traditions and connoisseurship.   After all, what good is the subjective appreciation of an object once the precise coordinates of its discovery are lost?

Friday, October 24, 2014

"...the scholars said."

The international media has long been challenged in its ability to print the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a new pinnacle of absurdity has been achieved in a so-called news report on "RT News"

The report plays on public ignorance and seeks to inflame reader passions with outrageous claims about cultural property looting in Syria.  The motivation for this article is highly suspect and a senseless diversion from the genuine crisis of destroyed monuments and real cases of tragic loss in the region.  The supposed "facts" in this report stem from a purported interview in Lebanon with a Syrian looter named "Mustafa".   The claims seem intended mainly to bolster a recent open letter from more than 80 "prominent scholars" calling for a U.N. ban on the trade of Syrian antiquities—hardly coincidental.

The wares being offered by this "Syrian" subject are shown in a video and in several still photos.  They comprise an indistinct pile of purportedly ancient uncleaned coins and miscellanea.  However, the coins that are visible and highlighted in the video are very poor tourist fakes that would make even the most naive archaeologist cringe and any experienced collector laugh (or cry). The remainder are typical low grade surface finds from the region, many with obvious bronze disease and of very little interest or value to either collectors or archaeologists.  Mustafa will certainly not buy his coveted rifle with this group, much less the heavier weapons he supposedly seeks.  So what is the point of this RT News article?  Apparently for cultural property nationalists to promote their agenda—Carpe Diem.

Extracts from RT News video

The article quotes the supposed looter as saying "these antiquities smuggled from Syria now form up to 50 percent of the European markets."  That is a preposterous statement and not something that any responsible journalist or editor would endorse in print.  Actually, the whole article reminds one of the yellow journalism of years gone by and appears now as a very thinly veiled attempt to criminalize the collecting of ancient coins and portable antiquities.  Those responsible for this sort of baseless vilification are really little better than the looters they decry.  Their agenda-driven ideological fervor is as irrational as it is fanatical.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On Second Thought—a chance for rule of law?

The SAFE endorsement of Britain's Article 11c of Council Regulation (EU) No 36/2012 at first blush might seem lacking in forethought.  Here we have major cultural sites being demolished wholesale by civil war in Syria and Britain responds by prohibiting import, export and transfer of Syrian antiquities that would be preserved by caring collectors.  Of course, endorsement of regulation, any regulation, seems a quite natural response from the liberal "do-good" community.  They rarely consider the consequences of their emotional solutions.   Early in reading of the SAFE post, it would be easy to hit the "delete" button and move on—but one must read a bit further for the implications to sink in.  This British prohibition is very precisely defined as applying to items "where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed from Syria without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of Syrian law or international law, in particular if the goods form an integral part of either the public collections listed in the inventories of the conservation collections of Syrian museums, archives or libraries, or the inventories of Syrian religious institutions."

Does this sound familiar?  It should, it parallels the set of conditions arising from the 13-year U.S. Congressional debate over the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA-1983).  That American legislation was purposefully laced with protections against the wholesale embargo of cultural property.  With those specific protections in place, few could argue that such a carefully weighed restriction on transfer of cultural property (under the agreed conditions) would be anything but a fair and logical response.  If there are "reasonable grounds" to assume that an object came illegally out of Syria, then it should not be migrating out of Syria, even in an attempt to preserve it — an odd paradox to say the least, but that is the law (or regulation).  In this sense, the American law and this British regulation are in harmony and rightly so.  The ancient coin collecting community respects and supports CCPIA.  Sadly, archaeologists do not.  Instead, they support the bureaucratic perversion of this law boldly criticized by a wide range of knowledgable and respected scholars and private citizens—including some who have worked within the very bureaucratic system that has perverted it.

Unfortunately, the protective language against overreach in CCPIA has been stripped of its context, much like a looted artifact, by administrative procedure.  It is likely that cultural property nationalists (especially among the radical U.S. archaeological community) will lobby Washington for import restrictions against every object of Syrian origin regardless of the nature of the object or circumstances of its present ownership and legitimate transfer.  They will insist upon proof that an obect is licit, placing the burden of that proof on the accused rather than on the accuser.  That, contrary to every precept of American law and jurisprudence, is exactly what the U.S. State Department and Customs have done, with seeming impunity, to objects from a multitude of countries that are signatories to bi-lateral agreements under the CCPIA and to at least one country where Executive decree has pre-empted the hard-earned legal process.

In concert with this capricious action, the self-serving archaeological community demands mandatory and untenable regulation of numismatics, an honorable avocation that has significantly benefitted society for more than 600 years.  To this day, ancient coin collecting in the private sector remains the spawning ground of major discoveries and serious research in numismatics - something academia struggles to emulate.  Collectors represent an entire class of dedicated, capable and law abiding people who are among the world's best ambassadors for cultural understanding and tolerance.  Sadly, to many of them, the rule of law is becoming a paper tiger subject to selective enforcement and administrative nullification.  If this is indeed a sign of the times, the road ahead will a difficult journey.

But, on second thought, maybe this Briish initiative offers a window of opportunity and a chance for the rule of law to be vindicated.  If the British regulation is to be enforced as written and approved, and the American law were also enforced as Congress intended—both mandating "reasonable grounds" as a catalyst for action—maybe the rule of law could prevail and all would be better served.  Only time will tell.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


The trials and tribulations of ancient coin collectors today are nothing short of Kafkaesque.  Almost 100 years ago, Franz Kafka wrote the short story below.  We share it here because it will resonate so profoundly with many friends and associates in the numismatic world.  At the end, I have taken the liberty of adding a short sequel.

Before the Law
 Franz Kafka

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country
and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant
admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in
later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands
open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the
gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so
drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only
the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot
bear to look at him." These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the
Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a
closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black
Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The
doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for
days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his
importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions
about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords
put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who
has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however
valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the
remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything." During
these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing
access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he
grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong
contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs
the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight
begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes
are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he
dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a
question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer
raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in
height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to
know now?" asks the doorkeeper; "you are insatiable." "Everyone strives to reach the Law,"
says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever
begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and,
to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted
here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

WGS sequel: And the old man, summoning his last ounce of strength and courage whispered back.  "You cannot shut the gate, to do so will end your own existence.  You only live on because of the gate."  At that moment, the gatekeeper was filled with understanding and remorse.  He stepped aside and let the radiance from the Gateway of the Law spread throughout the land.