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The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has become a driving force in the ongoing effort to protect coin collectors and museums in which coins are stored from being forced to give up these items to foreign governments under the premise the coins are the cultural patrimony of the claimant nation. — Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News April 26, 2010

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A Conflict of Interest?

From The Celator, December 2004.

By Wayne G. Sayles, "Through the Looking Glass" |
December 01, 2004

The British Treasure Act of 1996 is regarded by most private collectors as a model system for protecting both the needs of society and the rights of the individual. The law allows unlicensed search for artifacts, respecting of course the rights of public and private landowners, but requires that culturally valuable finds (as clearly defined by the Act) are reported and made available for the state to acquire with reasonable compensation to the finder. However, for professional archaeologists and public institutions, there is a serious short side. The monetary value of these legal finds on the international market places them in the difficult position of having to commit their already thin resources to the acquisition of artifacts that they consider of importance to society in general, but which have not come from the effort of professional archaeological excavations. As a practical matter, this draws financial resources from the professional arena and actually reduces the amount of activity that can be funded by licensed archaeologists. Obviously, archaeologists would much prefer that all excavation be restricted to activities that are sanctioned, staffed and controlled by members of their own discipline. The most notable aspect of the Treasure Act of 1996 is that, flawed as it may still be, it does respect the basic rights both of society and of the individual. Some may see this as striking a balance between conflicts of interest.


The interests of the individual are fairly clear in this case. The concept of private ownership is particularly strong in America, where individuals have sometimes defended their personal possessions literally with their lives. Private ownership is a concept that we cherish and one that we are quick to defend.

There are many things that, as a society, we own in common. The most visible are our public lands and buildings. Perhaps less visible, but just as important are the natural resources that, as citizens, we own in common. There are a great many agencies within the U.S. government that manage these resources on our behalf. These agencies are actually quite good at making public resources available for individual use. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, has an extensive program providing access to and use of public lands. The Forest Service and Parks Service, The Army Corps of Engineers, and others are equally dedicated to public land and resource use. The Library of Congress maintains a public resource of immense value, but it is completely accessible to individuals. Virtually everything that the citizens of the United States own jointly, excepting items of national security, are available to individuals for their own use. In other words, lawmakers and public administrators in the United States—let's call them stewards of the public trust—do take the concept of individual access to public property very seriously. 

The issue of cultural heritage is more elusive than that of land management, because in many cases it is ethereal and hard to define in practical terms. The argument has been made, and adopted by UNESCO in 1970, that cultural heritage is esentailly a part of each nation's public trust.. Archaeologists see themselves as the stewards of that trust and as being charged with the management of that national resource. One might argue that this is a self-appointed role. Why not historians, art historians, anthropologists or sociologists? Why not a government agency? Should a national resource be stewarded by a special interest group?

The archaeological community has a very real conflict of interests in this case. Their livlihood as a profession, and as individuals, depends on control of the public resource. Relying on professional arrchaeologists to manage the world's cultural heritage and cultural propertyas a resource for public use is simply not going to work. Private ownership of cultural property has fostered far greater public access than that provided by archaeologists—check the list of donors and benefactors of any major museum. 
 
The interests of archaeologists are as self promotional and pecuniary, as those of the antiquities trade. What makes them more acceptable as stewards of our cultural heritage? 
 
The only group without a conflict of interest in this case is society itself, present and future, for whom the past is theoretically being saved. Why should private citizens be restricted from owning a piece of the past? Do we need to be protected from ourselves? Collecting is a natural instinct of man, trying to suppress it is like trying to catch Niagara Falls in a tea cup. The rallying cry of archaeologists today is that sites are being looted on a devastating scale. This justifies, in their minds, the elimination of private collecting and the antiquities trade which they claim are the cause of this destruction. Site looting is a problem, to be sure, but it pales in comparison to the impact of lost freedoms in a democracy. Since few governments of the world have heeded the call for archaeological site protectection, frustrated archaeologists have focussed on a softer target—collectors. The problem is that they seek to disenfranchise the very people for whom they claim to be working. To me this sounds an awful lot like a conflict of interest.

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