Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why it is Pollyannaish to imagine that antiquities looting can be stopped if onlycated about the relationship between antiquities and their own country's history

It is not uncommon to hear archaeologists and cultural heritage advocates argue that looting stems largely from ignorance on the part of locals about the past they are destroying, and that the best way to stop those who would dig is to educate them to care about and embrace heritage as their own. That view is difficult to square with this news report about metal detectorists digging on the battleground at Gettysburg.


Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Weiss Case: another shoe still to drop?

Brown professor of orthopedics Arnold-Peter Weiss has pled guilty to trying to sell a coin he told an undercover Customs agent was a "fresh coin... dug up a few years ago" -- in other words, a coin he knew (or at least believed) to be stolen. That is not the sort of behavior one would expect from a collector respected enough to be named a trustee of the American Numismatic Society and to have formerly sat on the board of the Harvard University Art Museums, and certainly not what one would expect to go on during the International Numismatic Convention at the Waldorf-Astoria. Ironically, the coin, along with two other extremely rare coins Weiss planned to sell, were revealed to be fakes when tested using electron microscopy.

Weiss' downfall bears some resemblance to the conviction upheld in 2003 of Frederick Schultz, the former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental, and Primitive Art, though as Rick St-Hilaire notes, it marks the opening of a new prosecutorial front, having been argued at the state rather than federal level. The penalty also differs markedly: Schultz went to jail for years on a felony rap, while Weiss pled down to a misdemeanor (for trying to sell a knowingly stolen coin he valued at over $300,000!), and got off relatively lightly with 70 hours of community service, a $3000 fine, and forfeiture of 20 other ancient coins. In addition, in a brilliant decision, the judge has ordered Weiss to write an article for a coin collecting magazine warning of the risks of dealing in coins of unknown or looted provenance.

That should send a shiver through the ranks of coin dealers, though for the more hardened dealers the lesson learned may be only to not be stupid enough to say what Weiss said, in talking about provenance. Collectors, on the other hand, are likely to be deeply troubled by the discovery that even experts asked by prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos to vet the coins mistakenly declared them genuine. SAFECorner suggests that this case may "prompt coin dealers, auctioneers and collectors to agree that verifiable provenances and scientific testing are necessary for all coins above a certain price level." I would agree that collectors will be more aware now than before that they need coins scientifically tested for authenticity, but like dealers they will probably also become more wary about talking about provenance rather than more demanding verification of the source of a coin they covet.

The most interesting remaining aspect of the case is flagged by the following pregnant facts:

*the sentence was exactly what the prosecutor recommended to the judge, following a plea bargain

*the prosecutor did not simply accept the judgment of experts but chose to do further testing using the electron microscope

*there was no recommendation made by the prosecutor to destroy the forgeries, nor did the judge order them to be destroyed

*the dealer who purportedly sold the coins to Weiss was not charged

Did Weiss flip? What led Bogdanos to test the coins after having solicited expert opinions? Is the dealer now being sweated? Clearly, there are indications there is more to come.