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Exaggeration in the “Cultural Heritage” Debate on Ancient Coins

By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Collecting
Many readers of this blog have undoubtedly been to Disney World in Orlando, Florida and taken a course at the Imagination Institute sponsored by Eastman Kodak. Figment, a cute and colorful dragon accompanies the visitor on a “people-mover” journey through the land of dreams.

The whole experience is accompanied by a captivating musical composition in which the theme IMAGINATION spools repeatedly. That tune becomes so deeply imbedded in the subconscious that one finds themselves humming it for the rest of the day and truthfully for years after.

The Cyprus mail article, titled “US collectors to regain right to trade ancient Cyprus coins” was a tiny bit of an exaggeration, unless the author knows something that I don’t know.

When I read a recent press release on Cyprus Mail, I couldn’t shake that Disney tune. But, instead of IMAGINATION ringing in my ears it was EXAGGERATION!

The ACCG has merely begun the long and tedious challenge that will ultimately ensue. Even though it would be the prudent, honorable and decent thing to do, I don’t see Cyprus or the U.S. State Department folding their cards on this issue. But the Cyprus Mail article contains an interesting quote nonetheless. Maria Hadjicosti, Director of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus Museum Nicosia, said about the coins imported by ACCG for the subject test case:

“There is not much financial value in antiquities, but the coins are not just money….They are important archaeological items, because they can be accurately dated and used for historical study.” This is basically a true statement as it pertains to coins. While even archaeologists debate the utility of coins for dating strata, they obviously are of some value to anybody who finds them, including archaeologists. The most striking portion of the quote is however the admission that, relatively speaking, there is not much value in them—either financially or in terms of national heritage. Certainly not when compared to unique objects like the Rosetta Stone or the Euphronios Krater.

That revelation by Ms. Hadjicosti flies directly in the face of sensationalizing statements (exaggerations) by nationalist advocates who claim that the antiquities trade is third only in size to the illegal drug and weapons trades. These same nationalist gurus, mainly archaeologists, promote themselves and their “colleagues” as brighter, morally superior and specially ordained to promulgate their dogma.

I highlight the word colleague because in their elitist rhetoric they always have colleagues where collectors have “cronies”. They view all antiquities in the same light, whether they be ancient safety pins, broken parts of pottery, stone arrowheads, postage stamps (yes they are included in the UNESCO resolution), coins (which exist in countless numbers – many millions) and a laundry list of other utilitarian objects that are exceedingly common. The loss to the world’s cultural heritage is a gripping hook for a news story, but the exaggeration and rhetorical hype that goes along with most of these stories is nothing short of criminal. If lies pave the path to Hell, it’s clearly going to be overpopulated.

The most audacious exaggeration is the claim that there is no difference between the “licit” trade in antiquities and the “illicit” trade. In other words, anyone who owns anything described by the UNESCO resolution as cultural property is in the mind of a cultural nationalist a law breaker. This is absurd, but it is a theme that nationalist archaeologists beat on without respite. They talk very loudly about ethics, but aside from the ethics that they proclaim for their ideology, they themselves have few ethical bones in their bodies. If they did, they would not be attacking a “licit” market to condemn an “illicit” market. Of course the licit market is open and visible, the illicit market is not. It would be hard to attack something you can’t see. How would you even prove it exists? Easier just to paint them all with the same brush. I suppose that approach is not uncommon for ideological fanatics, who value only their own egocentric view, and there have been plenty of them in world history to compare the present against.

The whole point that the anti-collector coterie evades is that the coins in question are NOT in an archaeological context and CANNOT provide contextual information. How will eliminating the licit market for coins serve their ideological agenda? Well it obviously won’t, so there must be another reason behind this fervor. Is it because eliminating the licit market will dry up the demand and put looters out of business? Come on, nobody with half a brain, not even our dear dragon Figment, believes that. Why aren’t the cultural nationalists lobbying host governments for more protection at the sites? Well, maybe because if they get too vocal they won’t get their permits renewed next year. Oops, too much fervor.

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