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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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Archaeology: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

While hiding behind a mask of altruistic innocence, the archaeological community threatens to devour a venerable hobby and pillage the rights of private collectors with impunity.

By Wayne G. Sayles |
January 01, 2005

Last year, the widely reported looting of the Baghdad Museum set into motion an outpouring of sympathy for the Iraqi people and for the museum officials responsible for preserving the historical remnants of this cradle of civilization.  The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) called it "the most severe single blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions and the ravages of the conquistadors."  One has to admit, it did seem like a huge calamity.  Some scholars were literally calling for blood.  Professor Elizabeth Stone, an American archaeolgist, was quoted in the News Telegraph as saying "I would like to see helicopters flying over there shooting bullets....You have got to kill some people to stop this." Dr. Donny George, Director General of the National Museum of Iraq was reported in MSNBC News as saying "'These people [at archaeological sites in Iraq and/or at the National Museum in Baghdad] are stealing material from the whole of mankind. If they steal from mankind I would say it is fair they should be shot."  To their great credit, the World Archaeological Congress responded immediately with a condemnation of these calls to shoot looters.   There was no relenting, however, in the subsequent war of words that was waged in the media, nor any hesitancy to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of private collectors of antiquities . 

Much less noticed by the press were the after-action reports by independent investigators that revealed two important facts.  First, the number of items missing was grossly exaggerated, and secondly, some of the items that were considered "looted" were actually in the personal possession of museum employees who later returned them under an amnesty program.  The claims that the museum had been emptied and that its objects were all bound for the Western antiquities market were patently false.  Independent scholar Dr. Francis DeBlauwe, who has closely tracked the situation, now estimates that about two percent of the antiquities of the Baghdad Museum are missing.  Did the media friends of the archaeological community responsible for spreading this huge lie retract their articles or admit their gullibility?  Well, yes, a few did -- but not many. Some were probably in a catatonic state from embarrassment, others may have felt that the truth was irrelevant.  In retrospect, one can't help but wonder about the motivation behind this well orchestrated propaganda.  That it was mainly propaganda, is clearly revealed in a report by Eleanor Robson for The Guardian.  She wrote: "While senior Iraqi officials were begging for help in Baghdad, the US Civil Affairs Brigade in Kuwait was also trying from April 12 to get the museum protected. THEY ALREADY KNEW [emphasis mine] that its most valuable holdings were in vaults of the recently bombed Central Bank."  In spite of this knowledge, inflammatory reports were encouraged and were frequently quoted by American Institute of Archaeology (AIA) leaders.  When the truth became obvious, Donny George (who earlier would have condoned some blood letting)  did a backward two-step claiming that he had been misquoted by the press on the extent of the losses. David Aaronovitch, a London reporter, summed up his feeling about the situation as: "Furious, I conclude two things from all this. The first is the credulousness of many western academics and others who cannot conceive that a plausible and intelligent fellow-professional might have been an apparatchiks of a fascist regime and a propagandist for his own past. The second is that - these days - you cannot say anything too bad about the Yanks and not be believed." 

Could this rush to judgment be attributed simply to compassion for the Iraqi people?  It would be nice to think so, but those who proclaim an empathy with the guardians of cultural heritage are not always as idealistic as they profess to be.  Middle Eastern scholar Joseph Braude, a graduate of Yale and Princeton and author of "The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East and the World", pled guilty in August, 2004 in a New York Federal District Court to smuggling artifacts stolen from the Iraqi National Museum into the United States.  Braude had worked as a specialist in antique Arabic manuscripts at an Islamic archive in the United Arab Emirates.  According to press reports, Braude confessed that he knew the 4,000 year old seals that he acquired in Iraq were stolen.   

Another prime case of intentional and false propaganda being directed against private collectors was the furor raised over widespread claims of looting of the Afghan Museum in Kabul.   Recent reports by a team of independent investigators under the auspices of the National Geographic Society have shown that these looting reports were inaccurate and greatly exaggerated and reveal that the archaeological community, and specifically UNESCO, KNEW that they were inaccurate.  The reports served, nonetheless, to mislead and motivate a U. S. Congressman from Pennsylvania into introducing anti-collector legislation in response.  

Corruption and mismanagement within the various governmental agencies established to protect antiquities, and among museum staff personnel, is a problem worldwide.  While this has been going on for a very long time, several cases have recently made international headlines.  According to press reports, the head of the  Cultural Relics Protection Department of the UNESCO listed World Heritage Site at Chengde Mountain in China was sentenced to death for stealing 250 relics from temples of the former Qing Dynasty palace.  In Egypt three top archaeologists were arrested on charges of stealing and smuggling tens of thousands of antiquities.  The nation's chief of Pharaonic antiquities was also charged with negligence of duty.  The response of Ali Radwan, the Dean of Arab Archaeologists was "We archaeologists cannot assign a policeman to control inspectors who could sell their morality to an antiquity trader."   In other words, it is the collector who is at fault not the corrupt archaeologist or bureaucrat.  The argument would seem to be that if it weren't for collectors, all archaeologists and bureaucrats would be saints.  In other cases, according to Egypt Online, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) barred two prominent foreign archaeologists, one British, one German, from Egypt's archaeological sites. The British archaeologist was reportedly involved in dealings with an American antiquities dealer, while the German archaeologist allegedly bought a number of antiquities stolen from archaeological sites in Egypt. According to an SCA spokesman, "The German archaeologist purchased several bronze statutes dating to the 12th Dynasty. October magazine last week revealed that these statues, unearthed in Fayoum governorate in 1985, are now on display in Munich Museum."  In Malaysia, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage lamented the frequent theft of valuable artifacts from sites and museums.  He as much as acknowledged internal corruption by telling reporters "We are also looking at amending the laws to give us more clout to take action against those who are negligent in safeguarding the items."  A career guard at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was arrested in 1954 for stealing at least 2,500 treasures from the museum over a twenty year period. 

In Israel, the Antiquities Authority had a third year archaeology student arrested on a charge of allegedly stealing antiquities from an archaeological site when he extracted artifacts from a holding site without a permit.   In 2003, a French archaeologist was arrested at the Alexandria airport in Egypt while trying to exit with some 50 artifacts and 144 coins from the Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Islamic periods.  He reportedly told the police that he was a tourist and had bought the items in local shops.  It was later discovered by authorities that he was a member of the French archaeological team salvaging relics from the port at Alexandria.   In 2000, the deputy director at the Tohoku Paleolithic Cultural Research Institute, a renowned Japanese archaeologist, admitted to salting a dig that he supervised in order to be able to claim discovery of Japan's oldest stoneware.  The pieces that were used for this hoax came from other digs that he had led and he had been keeping them at his home as "part of his collection".  In July 2000, an American professor of archaeology was arrested at the Athens Airport attempting to board a plane to Chicago with a nine inch amphora of the Roman Period in his baggage.  In February 2001, police in Irakleio, Crete arrested a Greek archaeologist and confiscated some 7,000 coins and thousands of small antiquities from his home.  Some of these scholars and bureaucrats are precisely the people that anti-collecting zealots would have the American government turn over confiscated collectibles to.  The methodology it seems is to destroy the legal American market and consequently reward foreign black market enterprise.

Archaeologists are not the only academics or bureaucrats known to violate Cultural Property laws.  Two Professors of Ancient History from the University of Catania, in Sicily, were arrested and charged with aiding and abetting the accused mastermind of an international smuggling ring.  Two British professors teaching at a university in Tarsus were arrested in Istanbul trying to leave the country with some 924 coins and metal objects that they had accumulated in the region where they worked.   A senior Egyptian official from the Agriculture Ministry and six other government employees were arrested in 2003 for trying to sell a mummy to an undercover policeman.   It was reported that they had illegally excavated the mummy from a site at Beni Suef and had it hidden in a government-owned truck.  Some archaeologists, finding a dearth of employment opportunities in academia, have taken jobs with private sector companies engaged in heritage or cultural resource management.  These archaeologists, although a product of the same certification system as their academic brethren, are actually looked down on by their own kind.  A Round Table on Heritage Management, Business and the Ethical Archaeologist was recently organized by the European Association of Archaeologists because "There is a perception that, when archaeologists work in the private sector rather than for a governmental or semi-governmental agency, financial greed or other concerns will overwhelm their allegiance to an ethical code of practice."

Of course this sort of thing goes on at a smaller scale daily in virtually all of the source countries for antiquities.  About ten years ago, I personally witnessed the curator of a remote archaeological museum in Turkey, really no more than the private villa of a politically connected person near a well known site, selling genuine minor artifacts to a tourist.  On that same trip, in the presence of an unimpeachable witness, the curator of a regional archaeological museum offered to sell me ancient coins out of a desk drawer in his office.  I was savvy enough to decline.  Several dealers and collectors visiting museums in Bulgaria have related similar experiences to me.   What is not stolen or sold by corrupt officials might as well be.  Locating stored archaeological objects, to conduct the research for which preservation of these national treasures is considered so important, can be literally impossible.  In the Fall of 2004, the press in Egypt revealed that 36 gold bracelets and two gold rings dating to the Roman Period could not be found.  The objects had been excavated from the site at Kom Ombo in 1905 and were placed in the Egyptian Museum for "study" and preservation.  Museum officials suggested that the items were probably just misplaced.   A report in Egypt Today revealed that "The museums cataloguing process involves each piece being branded with a serial number, which is then entered on a running list - a list that includes the numbers alone. No description of the item. No placing it on an historical timeline. Pieces are stored in wooden boxes, which are then handed off to storekeepers who sign for the boxes and their contents without knowing what's in any of them." 

Efforts by archaeologists to undermine the legitimate market for antiquities include some audacious and ludicrous claims obviously intended to scare collectors out of the market.  A recent BBC article discussing artifacts from Israel, a source country that does issue export permits for certain antiquities, reported that "Some archaeologists have now concluded that everything that came to market in the last 20 years without clear provenance should be considered a fake."  

In response to claims by the archaeological community that the collector market is responsible for site looting, I would invire a comparison of the record of misdeeds among archaeologists against those by numismatists.  Some of the most notorious looters of all time did so under the banner of "professional archaeology"  Sir Aurel Stein sent back some 40,000 antiquities from China to Britain. Giovanni Belzoni pillaged Egypt's treasures and Heinrich Schliemann ransacked Troy.  I submit that such a comparison would make it clear that there is no justification for vilifying the ancient coin collecting community.  

The real core of the problem, in my opinion, stems from a basic lust for power and control.   The following quotes (extracted by Forrest Fenn from Vol. 11, no. 5 of the Society for American Archaeology Bulletin) put the picture nicely into perspective.  Archaeologists Jon L. Gibson and Joe Sanders wrote: "We suggest that just because sites happen to be on private property should not make them privately owned. We also maintain that archaeologists must challenge one of American's most precious rights - the right to do as you please to your own land - if we are going to have any chance of preserving our diminishing heritage....First, we must press for legislation that places an archaeological lien on private property with significant archaeological sites. Second, archaeologists must be the ones to choose which sites are to be protected. We can not entrust this selection to a governmental board or legislated process, which would give land owners the final word on whether a site will be protected.....Archaeologists must be more than just stewards of the past. They must serve as the public conscience. They must act on society's behalf even when society is insensitive or objects."  

It must be said, in all fairness, that the vast majority of archaeologists are reasonable and dedicated scholars with nothing but good intentions.  Many of them are themselves collectors of antiquities or other objects that fall under the UNESCO list of cultural property.  They are no more responsible for the incessant attacks on private collecting than ancient coin collectors are responsible for archaeological site looting.    In fact, some archaeologists have spoken out harshly against their own profession. Alexander Joffe, a professor of Archaeology at Penn State University from 1993 to 2000, wrote in the Middle East Quarterly that "the profession only values high culture in its most rarified form and is entirely possessed with its role of mediating the meaning of objects to a high-brow Western audience."  The leadership of the archaeological community has committed the entire discipline to a course of action that is doing far more to destroy the study of cultural heritage than to promote it.  They are driving a wedge between academia and the general public.  In a very real sense, they are biting the hand that feeds them and there will surely be long range repercussions.  The elimination of private collecting is the first step on a slippery slope that could ultimately lead to a loss of interest in supporting academic and museum programs with both private and public funds.   

Our purpose is not to hurl rocks at the archaeological community, but merely to show, through factual evidence, that there is no basis for the perception of elitism that some in those circles try to promote.  Furthermore, there is no justification for the self-serving attacks being launched daily by the archaeological community against private collecting and most particularly against collectors of ancient coins.

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