Sayles: Letter to Editor, Washington Post (unpublished)
A letter from Wayne G. Sayles to the Editor of the Washington Post in regard to the Atwood article "Stop, Thieves! Recovering Iraq's Looted Treasures". The letter was apparently not published.
Wayne G. Sayles |
October 03, 2004
Letters to the Editor
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20071
Roger Atwood's "Stop, Thieves! Recovering Iraq's Looted Treasures" (The Washington Post, Sunday, October 3, 2004, page B02) reiterates a long standing concern of both the academic and private collecting communities that important cultural objects of antiquity are sometimes removed from their historical context, and even from their country of origin, by clandestine excavators and international smugglers. This activity certainly detracts from the value of an object as a voice from the past. It is a crime in most countries, and offends not only national law and international conventions, but the general interests of all mankind.
Unfortunately, in many of the "source" countries little is being done to stem this illicit activity. In fact, many of the currently empowered governments of these countries have no direct roots from the classical past and have shown little interest in preserving its memory. In some cases, like the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, they have purposely destroyed it. Out of increasing frustration with the failure of these governments to protect archaeological sites within their own borders, the archaeological community has turned its attention toward private collectors in the inexplicable notion that eliminating the legitimate market for antiquities will also eliminate the motivation for looters of ancient artifacts. This inflexible ideology has in the past two or three years escalated into a major "Crusade" against the collecting community.
In a barrage of bylined articles, apologists for this parochial view have characterized private collectors as being part of the looting process. Literally thousands of private, law abiding, citizens of the United States have been defamed publicly by these assertions. For the most part, these polemics go unchallenged because collectors are typically quiet and unassuming people who are not experienced activists. Public museums have faired little better, as any who display objects lacking fully documented provenance risk the ire and professional castigation of the archaeological community and by extension that of the broader academic community. Virtually every museum in this country has benefitted greatly from the generosity of private collectors. This, of course, is a point of great consternation to zealous opponents of private collecting.
The latest weapon in their fight against collectors is on the legislative front. The Archaeological Institute of America is an active supporter of legislation like the "Iraq Cultural Protection Act" as embodied in HR 1047 (originally S-671 as introduced by Senator Grassley). Mr. Atwood touts this bill, with its 11th hour added restrictions against importation of antiquities from Iraq, as a preventative measure to prevent "laundering" of plundered antiquities from Iraq. It empowers the president, says Mr. Atwood, to "slap a five year ban on any antiquities removed from Iraq since 1990." What Mr. Atwood did not mention is that there already is a provision in place to do that very thing, and that the existing provision is in fact already being employed. The Executive Department has had an emergency import restriction on importation of antiquities from Iraq in place for the past five years and President Bush just recently extended that provision. The provisions in HR 1047 are not only unnecessary, they contradict previously established law and precedents. The real reason for the legislative action in HR 1047 is to provide a vehicle for an "end run" around the Cultural Property Advisory Committee which has been established purposely for dealing with such issues. The CPAC is a non partisan broadly based committee where all points of view are heard and considered. By contrast, it has been very difficult for private collectors to make their opinions heard, much less understood, when writing to their legislators about a very obscure attachment to HR 1047 which is a massive trade bill.
The provisions of HR 1047 are so loosely crafted that even the most common piece of pocket change from antiquity is banned from importation. Coins from antiquity were produced and survive, even today, in the millions of specimens. They were never intended to be "cultural property", they were intended to circulate and to facilitate international commerce just as money does today. Coins were expected to cross national boundaries and so they did. Islamic coins struck at the Madinat al-Salam (Baghdad) mint, for example, have been found in buried hoards as distant as Sweden. It is unreasonable, therefore, to ban the importation of such a coin because it "might" have come from Iraq. It might just as well have come from a country where exportation of antiquities is not illegal. In other words, the legislation proposed by Senator Grassley and supported by Mr. Atwood places the burden of proof upon the citizen, not upon the government. The law supposes in advance that an importer is a criminal and requires that accused person to prove that they are not. Worst of all, is the fact that customs officials lack the technical numismatic knowledge to understand even at the most basic level which coins are likely to ever have originated from or passed through the country of Iraq. Consequently, any ancient coin entering the United States could be confiscated by customs officials on the wildest of speculations and held until the importer proves a provenance back to 1990. This is a ludicrous burden of proof that simply cannot be met in the vast majority of cases.
The fight against plundering of archaeological sites is one that archaeologists and private collectors should see as a common cause. Indeed, collectors have generally been of that belief and are somewhat taken aback by the aggressive attacks being launched against a hobby that has given much to the world in terms of scholarly research and philanthropic support of institutions. While we all are concerned about the loss of important links to the past, it is grossly unfair to characterize collectors as being a cause of that calamity. The Grassley bill as it pertains to importation of antiquities from Iraq is not something that an informed and reasonable person ought to blindly support.
Wayne G. Sayles
Ancient Coin Collectors Guild
P.O. Box 911
Gainesville, MO 65655