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

Most in the world who have followed the events of recent years in the field of cultural property management are hardened to the bizarre and tend to take it in stride.  However, nearly everyone was perplexed when the Archaeological Institute of America politburo began spewing venom at one of its own affiliates, the St. Louis Society.  At the 2015 AIA convention in New Orleans (just closed) the leaders of this once erudite group drew a line in the sand calling for the resignation of every member of the current governing board of the St. Louis chapter.  Failure to comply will result (or so threatened) in the Society being stripped of its AIA charter.   And what was the crime for which this extraordinary punishment was meted?  The Society board had determined that some of its tangible assets could better serve the archaeological community and society in general if sold and the revenues used to fund educational programs for prospective young archaeologists.  A group of fully recorded, provenanced and legally owned artifacts belonging to the Society were offered for sale at public auction and ultimately sold privately to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The world of archaeology is not the same today as it was when some of us were young, and certainly not the same as it was in the early 1900s when the artifacts in question were legally gifted to the St. Louis Society.  Scores of institutions over the years have sold excess acquisitions to fund a variety of program needs and artifacts from the ancient world are legion among them.  In fact, this is not at all unusual.  Why then did the AIA see this particular event worthy of such vitriolic condemnation?  Even the normally caustic and intractable archaeo-blogger, Paul Barford, questions this AIA response.

In his unabashedly anti-trade blog he wrote: “A handout distributed during the [convention] meeting indicated that the AIA is considering changing its views on the sales of objects of documented legal origins (on the grounds that it legitimises the trade which leads to illicit activity).”  One would expect that members of the collecting community would take offense to this preposterous statement, but why would it raise the hackles of Paul Barford?  He explains, “This is, in my view, bonkers. We should be emphasising the difference precisely between documented licit provenance of antiquities, and antiquities lacking such documentation. This reaction by the AIA to a situation within its own ranks will potentially have damaging effects outside. I hope they reconsider this.” 

Frankly, this is one of the very few times in the past decade that I can say Paul Barford is right.  But, as usual, he misses the main point.  The AIA is calling for repression of a long cherished right in America, the right to own and trade property—not just within its affiliated chapters but among the general public as well.  If perfectly legal artifacts are barred from sale today, simply because of a philosophical point of view, what will be barred tomorrow?  We are a nation governed by law, not by the whims of some special interest.  There are laws in place that govern the sale of cultural property.  The St. Louis Society Board did nothing illegal, nothing immoral and nothing contrary to the best interests of their chapter.  Why should the Board of AIA have any right to castigate them for a local action that was properly considered and executed by proper authority?    The AIA leadership is not the Grand Poobah of cultural property, even though some within that circle might like to think so.

The world of archaeology must be in a deplorable state of crisis for an innocuous event like this St. Louis deaccession to precipitate such a radical and overreaching response.  It is, in fact, a very desperate move that has potentially far reaching effects—and not for the good of archaeology as a discipline.  From time to time the world becomes witness to fanatical movements that are anathema to the mainstream of society.  For many years now, decision makers in government have treated academic archaeologists as altruistic professionals—no doubt because of past glories.  As the leadership of Archaeology becomes ever more self-serving and dictatorial, in many ways like National Socialist regimes of the past century, that former sparkle has become a scourge and the light of archaeology may be in real danger of becoming a faint flicker.  If we can see that development here in the hinterlands, there can be little doubt that it will be seen in Washington as well where much of the funding for Archaeology is already at risk.

The St. Louis Society Board has a unique opportunity to challenge this sort of oppression and to do something good for all of Archaeology in the balance.  They could refuse to resign.  Whether they will or not remains to be seen, but sooner or later the weight of unfettered oppression will spread and become unbearable.

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St. Louis Society statement regarding deaccessions

The following statement was issued today by Professor Michael J. Fuller, President of the St. Louis Society, an active chapter of the AIA since 1906:”The Archaeological Institute of America, St. Louis Society owned a collection of 40 small artifacts for 100 years.  These were documented artifacts, obtained with permission of the applicable governments.  During most of that time, the artifacts were in storage.  Repeated efforts over many years to place them with the St. Louis Art Museum and Washington University failed.  In 2014, the Society’s board, after consulting with experts, decided to put the artifacts up for auction.  As a result, 38 of the 40 artifacts were placed in leading museums, most in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city.  The Society board believes this placement was far preferable to continued long-term storage in St. Louis.  As the New York Times reported on December 26, the artifacts, “largely forgotten” until now, are now headed for public display in a major museum. On Tuesday, January 13, after full airing and debate of the issues, a majority of members of the St. Louis Society rejected an effort by certain members to remove the Society’s board.”

As reported in this blog yesterday, the St. Louis Society has been threatened with revocation of its charter unless the entire board resigns on or before February 1, 2015.  The decision of St. Louis Society, by vote of the general membership, to reject that ultimatum has highlighted what some see as the growing intractability of AIA leadership in terms of cultural property management and how best to deal with the universally recognized scourge of archaeological site looting

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