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Symbiosis Lost and Nuance in New York

By Wayne Sayles – Ancient Coin Blog

Ancient coins have existed since the 7th century BC. They attracted the interest of collectors shortly after that and have continued to inspire ordinary people around the world for going on three millennia.

coin_warsDuring the Italian Renaissance, the collecting of ancient coins became so popular that a sophisticated commercial market emerged and numismatic scholarship blossomed. Anyone with sufficient interest and erudition was able to study the past through its coins. The development of numismatics as a science is a result mainly of private collectors and their dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. When academia became aware of the value of coins as voices from the past, coin collectors and professional scholars found that they had much in common and worked closely together. Yes, that was a long time ago.

What we see today is a bitter turf war between private collectors, independent scholars, museums, nationalist governments and archaeologists. What happened to the symbiosis?

Deep within the collecting community, there is still a longing for cooperation and symbiotic support with those academics who dedicate their lives to study of the past. But, the mutual cooperation and respect of those halcyon days is all but gone. The only words that most private collectors hear from archaeologists these day are disparaging. And, in equal measure, the response is unfriendly.

As archaeological blog comments about the recent CPAC hearing on Italy reveal, the symbiosis is all but dead. It is unlikely ever to reappear to the extent that we saw in the 19th or 20th centuries. That is sad from a collector’s point of view, but is it equally sad from the academic archaeologist’s point of view? I am coming to doubt that it is. They have very little use for private collectors and are not reticent to say so.

There is no denying that a bitter antagonism exists between collectors and archaeologists. I’ve called it a Cultural Property War and have been criticized therefore as being “bellicose”. I didn’t start the Cultural Property War and I see it in the light of all wars—as a devastating and unwelcome event. Personally, I long for those symbiotic collaborations of the past. But, I am a realist and there seems to be little chance that the forces guiding and controlling the discipline of archaeology and the cultural ministries of nationalist nations will ever again embrace private collecting as a friend. I see that as their loss, but it is really a loss for all of us.

The die is cast, I fear, and the present struggle will continue until archaeology has established its dominance or private collecting its independence. I would predict that neither will happen soon nor without considerable animosity and a terrible loss of opportunity.

Nuance in New York

Yes, the unthinkable did happen. On Saturday, November 13th, Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Melik Kaylan headlined “Myths of Babylon.” four days later, The New York Times ran a piece by John Tierney titled “A case in antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’ .” The mere fact that these editorially antithetical publications published back-to-back articles about cultural property is not so remarkable—the topic is, after all, becoming steamy. What is remarkable is that both were critical of cultural property nationalists. When these two publications share a common view, it is worth paying attention.

Melik Kaylan has been a New York based journalist for 25 years. His resume includes positions as Editor of the Village Voice, Associate Editor of Connoisseur magazine and Arts Editor at He has written for numerous publications including Wall Street Journal, Vogue, New York Times, The Times of London and others. Kaylan has won Cultural Awards in Italy and Turkey for print and television work on antiquities smuggling. The Kaylan report mentioned above roundly criticizes nationalists and archaeologists for orchestrating massively overblown media hype over the military’s supposed failure to protect Iraq’s heritage. While not specifically charging archaeologists with willful deception, Kaylan leaves his readers with few alternate conclusions. He cites unfounded reports and “highly provocative” accusations flowing from their community without any exercise of what he calls “responsible judgement.”

John Tierney writes a twice-a-week column for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990. He has written for The New York Times Magazine and The Times Metro Section, and has served as a correspondent in the Washington and Baghdad Bureaus. He has also written for The Atlantic, Esquire, New York Magazine, Newsweek and numerous other publications. In making a case for “Finders Keepers”, Tierney makes a bold statement that others have merely danced around. “…there is no doubt that the cultural-property laws have turned archaeological discoveries into political weapons.” In this respect Tierney echoes the conclusions of his colleague Michael Kimmelman, whose article “When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns” appeared in The New York Times on October 23rd. He goes on to challenge several cultural property nationalist tenets, agreeing in many cases with Art Institute of Chicago Director James Cuno. Mr. Kimmelman and Mr. Tierney are probably unaware that the U.S. State Department treated ancient coins as political pawns in the Memoranda of Agreement with Cyprus and China, but they certainly have the situation pegged correctly.

In and of themselves, neither of these articles by Melik Kaylan nor John Tierney are breaking news. They are opinion editorials. In 2004, when the ACCG was founded, the press was almost exclusively dominated with condemnation of the antiquities trade, criticism of American museums and vilification of private collectors. Articles like the two mentioned above were virtually unheard of. Finally, that rush to judgement has come into question and the national press is beginning to realize that academic archaeologists are not the only interest group with a legitimate point of view. The pendulum may finally be starting to swing back.

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