By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting Blog ………..

The SAFE endorsement of Britain’s Article 11c of Council Regulation (EU) No 36/2012 at first blush might seem lacking in forethought. Here we have major cultural sites being demolished wholesale by civil war in Syria and Britain responds by prohibiting import, export and transfer of Syrian antiquities that would be preserved by caring collectors. Of course, endorsement of regulation, any regulation, seems a quite natural response from the liberal “do-good” community. They rarely consider the consequences of their emotional solutions. Early in reading of the SAFE post, it would be easy to hit the “delete” button and move on—but one must read a bit further for the implications to sink in. This British prohibition is very precisely defined as applying to items “where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed from Syria without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of Syrian law or international law, in particular if the goods form an integral part of either the public collections listed in the inventories of the conservation collections of Syrian museums, archives or libraries, or the inventories of Syrian religious institutions.”

Palmyra, Syria
Palmyra, Syria

Does this sound familiar? It should, it parallels the set of conditions arising from the 13-year U.S. Congressional debate over the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA-1983). That American legislation was purposefully laced with protections against the wholesale embargo of cultural property. With those specific protections in place, few could argue that such a carefully weighed restriction on transfer of cultural property (under the agreed conditions) would be anything but a fair and logical response. If there are “reasonable grounds” to assume that an object came illegally out of Syria, then it should not be migrating out of Syria, even in an attempt to preserve it — an odd paradox to say the least, but that is the law (or regulation). In this sense, the American law and this British regulation are in harmony and rightly so. The ancient coin collecting community respects and supports CCPIA. Sadly, archaeologists do not. Instead, they support the bureaucratic perversion of this law boldly criticized by a wide range of knowledgable and respected scholars and private citizens—including some who have worked within the very bureaucratic system that has perverted it.

Unfortunately, the protective language against overreach in CCPIA has been stripped of its context, much like a looted artifact, by administrative procedure. It is likely that cultural property nationalists (especially among the radical U.S. archaeological community) will lobby Washington for import restrictions against every object of Syrian origin regardless of the nature of the object or circumstances of its present ownership and legitimate transfer. They will insist upon proof that an obect is licit, placing the burden of that proof on the accused rather than on the accuser. That, contrary to every precept of American law and jurisprudence, is exactly what the U.S. State Department and Customs have done, with seeming impunity, to objects from a multitude of countries that are signatories to bi-lateral agreements under the CCPIA and to at least one country where Executive decree has pre-empted the hard-earned legal process.

In concert with this capricious action, the self-serving archaeological community demands mandatory and untenable regulation of numismatics, an honorable avocation that has significantly benefitted society for more than 600 years. To this day, ancient coin collecting in the private sector remains the spawning ground of major discoveries and serious research in numismatics – something academia struggles to emulate. Collectors represent an entire class of dedicated, capable and law abiding people who are among the world’s best ambassadors for cultural understanding and tolerance. Sadly, to many of them, the rule of law is becoming a paper tiger subject to selective enforcement and administrative nullification. If this is indeed a sign of the times, the road ahead will a difficult journey.

But, on second thought, maybe this Briish initiative offers a window of opportunity and a chance for the rule of law to be vindicated. If the British regulation is to be enforced as written and approved, and the American law were also enforced as Congress intended—both mandating “reasonable grounds” as a catalyst for action—maybe the rule of law could prevail and all would be better served. Only time will tell.