Old Pots Cops Paint as “Hot” Sold Openly in Thailand
Commentary by Peter K. Tompa about an issue involving antiquities and legal processes that should be taken seriously by collectors of all artifacts, including ancient coins.
Peter K. Tompa |
February 16, 2008
In a flurry of publicity, federal agents recently raided several California museums and at least one well known private collection and seized, among other things, ancient Thai pots from the Ban Chiang culture. While the government has also alleged a scheme to inflate the value of donated artifacts for tax purposes, what has given the story “legs” are the allegations that two U.S statutes, “the National Stolen Property Act,” and the “Archaeological Resources Protection Act” allow prosecutors to establish that artifacts illicitly excavated in and exported from Thailand (as well as some others from China and Myanmar) can be considered “stolen” under U.S. law. As far as one can tell, none of these articles has explained that application of foreign law in the U.S. is considered highly controversial, particularly amongst political conservatives. Conservatives, Independents or Liberals should, however, at least agree that foreign law should not be applied without some serious thought. After all, many foreign laws are in fact dictates of authoritarian regimes and not the results of democratic compromise within duly elected legislatures. Moreover, such laws may not be enforced fairly or consistently. Indeed, they may not apply at all depending on “who you know.”
In any event, there are relatively few U.S. court cases that have allowed prosecutions of holders of antiquities excavated in contravention of foreign patrimony laws. Even then, the courts have made clear that the foreign law must be applied consistently abroad for it to be applied under U.S. law. Here, federal agents seem to have overlooked this requirement entirely. Had they spent even a few minutes on the internet during the course of their five year investigation, they would have learned that Ban Chiang pottery is openly available for sale in Thailand. True, it is not supposed to be exported, but an export control is not the same as a foreign declaration of ownership necessary for an artifact to be deemed “stolen,” and, in any event, because Thailand has not signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention, it lacks standing to even request the U.S. to honor Thai export controls with import controls on Thai artifacts entering the U.S.
Here are two websites indicating that Ban Chiang pottery is openly available for sale within Thailand:
It is also likely Ban Chiang ware may be found for sale at Bangkok’s River City Center complex:
If such material is openly available for sale in Thailand how can it be considered “stolen” both as a matter of law and common sense?
Why should ancient coin collectors care about such an oversight involving old Thai pots? Unfortunately, such investigations involving artifacts of limited monetary value like Ban Chiang pottery could ultimately become a precedent for government prosecutions against ancient coin collectors. What also is clear from published sources is that members of the archaeological community with an axe to grind against collectors have proselytized federal law enforcement. The results of such collaboration are predictable. A twisted version of federal criminal law becomes yet another club in the culture war the archaeological establishment has unleashed on collectors and museums, and the rule of law suffers in the process. Hopefully, members of the press will investigate such unhealthy links between law enforcement and the archaeological community along with the alleged wrongdoing of those involved with Ban Chiang pottery. Basic fairness demands it.
- peter k. tompa