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Algeria, Marcus Aurelius and the Views of (Some) Collectors

Last month I commented on the return of a Roman marble portrait of Marcus Aurelius to Algeria. It all seemed straightforward as the head had been stolen from the Skikda Museum in 1996.

Wayne Sayles has commented:
The imperial busts used throughout the empire were typically made in Italy and sent out to show the world what their emperor looked like. Does the display of an object thereby make it the cultural patrimony of a country? Should a Roman coin stolen from a display in New York be returned to NY or to Italy? This whole concept is a mine field with lots and lots of booby traps and a million possible scenarios to account for. Cultural Property Nationalism is simply an unworkable concept in a world of globalism.
When challenged, he clarified his position:
The reason to return the MA [Marcus Aurelius] bust to Algeria is that in our small window of world history the object belonged to Algeria when it was stolen. To the extent possible under international law, recognizing that there are statutes of limitation and other legal issues in some cases, an object proven to be stolen should be given back to the people it was stolen from. That is a matter of justice, not of heritage. Trying to apply issues of heritage to a place that did not even exist in antiquity and to a people who now occupy the land by conquest and have no vested interest whatever in the culture before them, is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. As I said, Cultural Property Nationalism is simply an unworkable concept in a world of globalism. I'm surprised that you would try to defend it.
Can the theft of archaeological material from a collection, and its legitimate return, really be misinterpreted in this way?


Wayne G. Sayles said…
The Algerian event itself was quite straightforward until your colleague Nathan Elkins distorted the whole incident and subsequent discussion. Why did you not post his comments rather than clip mine and butcher the context? Frankly, I'm not too surprised because that's the way both of you operate as a matter of course. Nevertheless, I have said repeatedly that as a matter of law the bust was rightfully repatriated to Algeria. What is your problem?
David Gill said…
Dear Wayne
I always read your comments with great interest.
Why, in particular?
Because you clearly feel passionate enough about your collecting to take a legal action against the US State Department.
Do you really believe that Nathan Elkins is distorting the discussion? Is he raising some difficult ethical issues? Or is he drawing out uncomfortable implications?
Best wishes
Wayne G. Sayles said…

Thank you for understanding that it is a passion for collecting that motivates my engagement on cultural property issues. That interest, as you have probably noted, is very narrowly focused on coins. I have always thought of myself as an independent scholar rather than as a "self serving dealer", but I suppose we all justify who and what we are in whatever ways satisfy our own needs. You might have noticed that I have never argued against requests for import restrictions that did not include coins. I am not philosophically opposed to cultural property protection, but I truly believe that most coins are a completely different "bag" than unique national treasures. Note that I say "most", not all. The law in Britain allows for unique and historical coins to be preserved by the state and I fully support that law and the PAS.

Mr. Elkins does indeed distort the discussion and it would take more space than available here to recount all of the ways. Anyone who really has an interest in knowing the whole story can read his posts on Unidroit=L, on my blog, and on the SAFE blog. I believe that anyone with an open mind will conclude that there is considerable distortion in those posts.

The issue of ethics is important to any worthy discipline and it is one that ought to be discussed. You have criticized the "code of ethics" of organizations supporting the coin trade, and also the ACCG "code of ethics". I could just as easily point to the lack of credible ethics and enforcement of ethics in the archaeological community. Pointing fingers will not make the world more ethical.

Mr. Elkins may be drawing uncomfortable implications, but that is part of the problem. Implications are not sufficient to alter the way we govern or the world is governed. I have stated religiously and repeatedly that there are laws in place to deal with theft and illicit transfer of objects between nations. Effective law enforcement within source countries and internationally is key to preventing crime. Have you ever seen me bemoaning the arrest or prosecution of a smuggler? Tossing out the presumption of innocence is, however, not an acceptable alternative to adequate law enforcement in any case.

My passion for antiquity is no different than that of Mr. Elkins or yourself. Can you imagine how either of you would feel if source nations uniformly passed laws preventing archaeological excavations by anyone other than a native (national) archaeologist? No permits for outsiders? There would be outrage in the global archaeological community. Why is it so hard to understand the outrage of private collectors and independent scholars who have a 600-year-old tradition behind them?

Thank you for your courtesy and courage in allowing me to post my views in this venue.


David Gill said…

Do we differ over the view of coins as part of the archaeological record?

Thank you for reading my postings and making such full comments.

Best wishes
Wayne G. Sayles said…

I don't think we disagree at all on the point that ancient coins are sometimes part, and sometimes an important part, of an archaeological record. They can in some cases be of considerable value and interest to archaeology. I think we would agree that it is always preferable to know the details of a coin's life history.

Do we agree that sometimes coins are not part of any distinguishable archaeological record? And, that even if they are not part of an archaeological record they can still be important? And that even without any archaeological context they can help illuminate our understanding of the past? In other words, would we agree that the study of ancient coins, irrespective of their provenance, can be valuable to disciplines like history, art history, religion,economics, political science, metallurgy and other disciplines?


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