British Museum and eBay reach agreement
The British Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), managed by the British Museum, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with eBay UK to help prevent the illicit sale of British antiquities that fall under the purview of the Treasure Act. The ACCG registered its concerns about this agreement, to which the PAS responded.
David Welsh |
December 05, 2006
In response to recent news media reports of an agreement between eBay UK and the British Museum concerning the sale of antiquities on the eBay site, ACCG expressed concerns about the protection of legitimate market transactions and of individual collector rights. The ACCG concerns were embodied in a letter from International Affairs Committee Chairman Dave Welsh to Dr. Roger Bland, founder of the Portable Antiquities Scheme:
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
Attention: Dr Roger Bland, Portable Antiquities and Treasure
Reference: Press Release 3 October (with eBay and Museums, Archives and Libraries Council)
Dear Dr. Bland:
The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, a non-profit organization, promotes collecting and scholarly study of coins from antiquity. Since the Renaissance, numismatic research has been furthered considerably by collectors and dealers. The efforts of generations of dedicated numismatists (including a great many amateurs) have resulted in discovery, preservation and conservation of vast numbers of ancient coins, many now in the B.M. collections, and have done much to promote public understanding and appreciation of the ancient cultures that created them.
The ACCG advocates responsible and ethical collecting, including observance of laws relating to preservation of cultural property and antiquities. We consider the UK Treasure Act (1996) and Portable Antiquities Scheme to have set a standard of effectiveness and fairness that the rest of the world should emulate. The ACCG commends this just and beneficial law, and affirms its respect and support for preservation of British cultural heritage, along with that of other nations.
The ACCG is concerned that well meant efforts to protect important antiquities, artifacts and archaeological sites could have the unintended effect of preventing the public from having appropriate access to minor antiquities, such as ancient coins. Collecting and study of minor artifacts stimulates wider public appreciation of greater ancient treasures, and develops public support for studies in history, the classics and archaeology. The public responds naturally to something people can get their hands on.
The question of whether it is beneficial and appropriate to demand proof of provenance for minor artifacts has recently become a divisive issue between the collecting community and archaeologists.
It would be a serious error to presume that coins from old collections only account for an insignificant fraction of coins collected today. Any reasoned analysis must conclude that old collections contained immense numbers of coins, accounting for a very substantial fraction of unprovenanced coins traded today. Provenance was normally recorded only when coins became part of famous collections or originated in notable hoards. The absence of documented provenance characterizing the vast majority of licitly and honorably acquired ancient coins explains why we believe that demanding such provenance is unfair and unreasonable.
The B.M. and eBay have now agreed that the Portable Antiquities and Treasure staff will inspect eBay’s antiquities offerings to identify suspect auctions which will then be removed from eBay. We are concerned about (and anxious to avoid) the possibility of a discreditable campaign in which motives and reputation of collectors and sellers of antiquities are attacked in a one sided manner through inflammatory statements to the press. The ACCG knows that the vast majority of collectors and sellers of ancient coins are ethical and law abiding. We also trust that the B.M. and Portable Antiquities and Treasure staff will act in a forthright and reasonable matter. However, we remain concerned, based upon information learned about a similar program entered into between eBay and Italy, that even well-intentioned programs can go astray. In that respect, I attach copies of affidavits from litigation formerly pending in the U.S., regarding harassment of collectors by authorities, solely based on purchase on eBay of coins from a dealer suspected of selling some coins illegally removed from Italian archaeological sites.
It is unfortunate that conditions today in most antiquities source states are not so favorable as those in the U.K., and that the public often do not support or observe their antiquities laws.The causes of such problems are complex, originating in laws far less wise than those of the U.K., and we believe it is unjust and inaccurate to place blame for these difficulties on collectors. We observe with distress and resentment efforts of certain radical anticollecting activists to demonize collectors, presenting a very misleading picture of rampant looting of archaeological sites resulting from collecting minor objects such as coins. That portrayal is so unfair (and so far from the truth) that one wonders whether this is ethical, particularly when it originates with those whose standing leads the public to consider them authorities.
For example, we observe that the report of 450 suspect items being listed on eBay did not also mention that British citizens recently reported some 47,000 items under both the Treasure Trove law and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. By all means let every single instance of lawbreaking be suppressed, however we request that a fair and balanced perspective be presented to the public. If that is done, it will be realized that there are relatively few miscreants who break the law, and these are in reality the common enemies of both ethical collectors and archaeologists.
The ACCG requests that in your efforts to prevent unlawful sale of illicitly excavated antiquities on eBay, the Portable Antiquities and Treasure staff will give due weight to the unique nature of ancient coins, and reasons why licitly acquired coins nearly always lack documented provenance. We further request that due consideration be given to the importance of preserving and protecting the rights and privacy of individuals from unreasonable invasions.
//S// David Welsh
Dr. Bland replied to this letter with a very reassuring and detailed explanation of the scope and intent of the memorandum. The text of the BM/eBay agreement is at http://www.finds.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2006/10/mou.pdf . As a result of the agreement, eBay has posted guidelines for UK buyers and sellers of antiquities at http://pages.ebay.co.uk/buy/guides/antiquities . The PAS has also posted advice at http://www.finds.org.uk/treasure/advice.php . The reply from Dr. Bland may be downloaded here in pdf format.
- roger bland
- intl. affairs
- dave welsh
- british museum