Saturday, 5 August 2017

Getting America a bad Name: American Exceptionalism Abroad


Don't give a damn about your laws
Coiney Scott Barman (The law of unintended consequences Sep 26, 2013) draws attention to a recent case involving US tourists that  unwittingly reveals more about collectors' attitudes than he intended.

Two tourists (coyly named as 'Fred and Wilma') dug up somewhere in an unnamed 'Mediterranean country' some ancient coins (they say, on a beach) and then after flashing them around in the hotel went looking for a dealer who identified them. They decided to take them home, but were stopped at the border with them hidden in the case (they coincidentally just happened to have a written statement by the dealer available saying they were 'cheap' coins).* They were then detained for nine days for trying to smuggle the coins - and faced a three year sentence if found guilty. The situation is presented as two wide-eyed innocents abroad accidentally caught up in a nightmare of bureaucratic bumbling due to their ignorance of the 'unreasonable' local law ('the average retail price for the coins would be $20'). Nevertheless lex dura sed lex, even for Americans. It seems to me that most of the good guidebooks to these countries actually do have a section on 'shopping' and what you should not bring into or take out of these countries (currency, firearms, endangered species, antiquities). There are US campaigns warning US tourists about this too. Ignorance of the law is no defence. But look what conclusion the coiney blogger draws:
I have written several posts about the impact of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA; 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq.) and the potential for foreign countries to use Memoranda of Understanding that the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) agrees to without considering citizen comments. The CPAC has said that the collateral issues raised by the comments are baseless. Fred can tell them otherwise [...] Next time the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) asks for assistance in addressing a call for comments from the CPAC regarding a foreign country’s MOU request, please remember the plight of Fred and Wilma. Although their ordeal lasted “only” two weeks, the next person may not be as lucky and find themselves in the jail of a country whose laws are far less humane than the United States.
The law is perfectly 'humane':
even if you are an American, don't steal any of our cultural patrimony.
I do not see anything wrong with that. If there is a law in Turkey-or-wherever about raping their little girls, or destroying million-year old rock formations in the national parks, reckless driving after drinking alcohol, or shooting at black men who scare you, I'd suggest 'Fred and Wilma' abide by them while in Turkey-or-wherever until they are back in their own country with more 'humane' laws on such things.

But what shallow-minded lunacy is this? The CCPIA (still less any MOU) in no way affects the laws of a sovereign country outside the USA. Like the Convention it is intended to implement, it recognizes the existing laws of those countries and the right of the states that have them to have them. Nothing else. No amount of  'public comments to the CPAC' will ever alter that situation - and nor is the CCPIA process in any way intended (by 'Congress' or anyone else) to change that.

'Fred and Wilma' broke the law in the host country and were potentially facing the consequences. They did not because the US government waved a big Uncle Sam stick at the foreigners and the two were let off  (where a native having less power to avoid charges probably would not).

But the really odd thing about this is the notion that 'supporting the ACCG'  will in some way help people to get away with breaking heritage laws in foreign countries. This post clearly shows that in the coiney mind, the ACCG is engaged in helping antiquities smugglers escape justice. 

Let us recall that the leitmotif of the US dealers' lobby is precisely the allegation that foreign countries 'are not doing enough' to police antiquities crime at  home, and that the US government should force them to do that by withholding help (help, guys, know what that concept means?) until they do. They insist that source countries police sites to prevent pillaging, and police borders to stop smuggling. I guess that means, unless the smuggler happens to be a US passport holder. 



*The dealer was possibly the one who 'shopped' them and alerted customs. In supplying a written statement, should also have in good will informed them of the laws involved in possession of such items in his country. Never trust an antiquities dealer. 

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