Nathan Elkins

About Nathan Elkins

Dr. Nathan T. Elkins is Assistant Professor of Art History at Baylor University and a specialist in Greek and Roman Art and Archaeology. Dr. Elkins' research areas and expertise include Roman coinage, iconography, topography and architecture, and sport and spectacle. He has published several peer-reviewed articles on Roman coins and coin iconography that bear on Roman imperial communication, topography, and imperial history. He is currently interested in the social, cultural, and political significance of architectural imagery on Roman coins and is preparing articles and a book on the subject. Dr. Elkins has excavated at archaeological sites in Texas, Italy, and Israel. He is presently the staff numismatist (coin specialist) at the excavations of the Roman/Byzantine synagogue at Huqoq in Israel's Galilee region.

Nathan Elkins reflects on looting as a global threat

On the tenth anniversary of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, we recall not only the devastation and damage done to the cultural heritage of Iraq and the archaeology and art history of the ancient Near East.  But we are also reminded that looting is a global threat that does not require war or politically instability to cause concern.

The Balkan nations, and especially Bulgaria, are prime sources for looted and smuggled antiquities, especially Greek and Roman coins, that are exported in mass quantities to markets in western Europe and North America (e.g. Petkova 2004; Center for the Study of Democracy 2007; Elkins 2009; Elkins 2012).  Bulgarian news reports frequently chronicle seizures of coins and other metal detector finds that are smuggled out of the country.  And individual cases of “wholesale suppliers” who spirit mass quantities of material to western markets underscore the scale of the problem.  One dealer, who remains active, was caught with 60 kg of earth-encrusted coins from Bulgaria at Frankfurt airport that bound for the market in the United States (Dietrich 2002; Center for the Study of Democracy 2007: 186).  Additional investigations by German customs official revealed that in preceding months the dealer in question had moved one ton of material through the airport – an estimated 350,000 coins.  Many of these “wholesalers” are Bulgarian nationals living in western Europe and the United States; The Center for the Study of Democracy (2007: 186) estimates that there are between 30-50 such individuals organizing the mass export of looted material to western markets.

Nathan Elkins teaching Greek Painted Pottery course at the Blanton Museum, Austin, Texas

Some recent news, such as the repatriation of 546 coins by the United States that were smuggled out of Bulgaria, illustrate that the problem has not abated (Immigration and Customs Enforcement 21 May 2013).  Canada repatriated some 21,000 ancient coins looted and smuggled from Bulgaria in 2011 (Crawford 10 June 2011).  Commercial interests, such as the dealer lobby in the United States, have failed to become sensitive to the problem and have instead chosen to battle bilateral agreements and the law in order to maintain the status quo (e.g. see discussion in Elkins 2009; and Luke and Elkins 15 December 2011; and Elkins 2012).  Dealers charged in a recent Egyptian antiquities case (U.S. Attorney’s Office 14 July 2011) who were associated with an American lobbying organization remind us again of the interests of lobby groups.  Prior to the indictment one was a member of the American lobby group and another was a donor.  One of the dealers involved pled guilty to smuggling Egyptian antiquities and was sentenced to house arrest; the other pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge carrying a fine.

Of course looting occurs for financial gain which the market in antiquities provides.  It is up to scholars and collectors to be conscientious and vigilant against the global problem of looting and to insist on rigorous due diligence and transparent ethical practice.



Center for the Study of Democracy. 2007. Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends. (Sofia: Center for the Study of Democracy). Available online:

Crawford, A. 10 June 2011. “Canada Returns Bulgarian Stolen Artifacts,” CBC News. Available online:

Dietrich, R. 2002. “Cultural Property on the Move – Legally, Illegally,” International Journal of Cultural Property 11: 294-303.

Elkins, N.T. 2009. “Treasure Hunting 101 in America’s Classrooms,” Journal of Field Archaeology 34: 482-489.

Elkins, N.T. 2010. “The Trade in Fresh Supplies of Ancient Coins: Scale, Organization, and Politics,” in All the King’s Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on Our Knowledge of the Past (Washington, D.C.: Society for American Archaeology Press). 91-107.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 21 May 2013. “Federal Authorities Return Ancient Coins to Bulgaria,” News Releases (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security). Available online:

Luke, C. and N.T. Elkins. 15 December 2011. “First Person Accounts about November 16th Public Session of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (on Belize and Bulgaria),” Archaeological Institute of America (Site Preservation). Available online:

Petkova, G. 2004. “How to Get a 2000% Profit from Selling an Object,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 10: 361-367.

U.S. Attorney’s Office. 14 July 2011. “Dealers and Collector Charged with Smuggling Egyptian Antiquties,” U.S. Attorney’s Office: Eastern District of New York. Available online:


More False Claims about Lobbying on Antiquities Issues

David Gill has recently addressed claims made by Peter Tompa that appear to have little basis in fact. Tompa is a lobbyist who represents commercial trade interests. He has alleged that the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) “was involved in behind-the-scenes lobbying on behalf of the Cypriot Department of Antiquities, the Cypriot government body that issues excavation permits that allow CAARI affiliated archaeologists to excavate on the Island.” The assertions are not substantiated further.

Ellen Herscher, the vice president of CAARI and an independent scholar, responded to Tompa’s claims after they were posted to the Museum Security Network. She stated:

CAARI’s Director and several trustees publicly submitted statements in support of the agreement. This position is in accordance with CAARI’s Code of Ethics, which states that the organization “is dedicated to the protection and preservation of archaeological sites in Cyprus and the information they contain.” There was no “behind-the-scenes lobbying” involved.

Secondly, “CAARI-affiliation” has nothing to do with the granting of excavation permits in Cyprus. Permits are the sole responsibility of the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus.

It is unfortunate that the ACCG continues to publish these erroneous statements, despite the fact that CAARI has responded and refuted them in the past.

Gill asks the question:

Are “false claims” being deliberately planted by some of the North American coin-collecting community as part of the background to the test case over the coins seized in Baltimore? (For some more discussion of the “test case”, see Gill’s “The Baltimore Coin Test Case“).

The question is a provocative one, especially in the context of other false claims recently made by one group Tompa is involved with, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG).

On November 13, 2009 The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) convened for an interim review of the bilateral agreement with Italy and asked for public comment to be restricted to Article II. Among other things under Article II, which covers Italy’s obligations, Italy would allow long-term loans to American institutions, access to scholars, and prosecute antiquities traffickers within its own borders. Evidently, the CPAC asked that public comment be confined to Article II due to the concerns of many members of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) who felt that Italy was favoring institutions that had returned objects to Italy and that more longer term loans ought to be made. Indeed, there were several AAMD members at the interim review who gave presentations to the CPAC (their written comments have been posted online).

Immediately after the interim review, Tompa insinuated that archaeologists departed from Article II and raised the specter of coins and their potential inclusion in the upcoming renewal with Italy (see Tompa’s “Interim Review of the Italian MOU“). He later claimed, innacurately, that Stefano De Caro, who spoke on behalf of Italy’s Culture Ministry, argued that all coins made within the borders of what is now modern Italy should belong to Italy (see Tompa’s “Is the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy the Best Steward for Coins?“). However, after being challenged, he conceded that he may have misunderstood.

The ACCG’s founder, who was not even present at the interim review, then authored a press release alleging that archaeologists opportunistically raised the issue of coins; he also portrayed the AIA representative’s comments as radical (see Sayles’ “Archaeologists Plead for Import Restrictions on Common Coins“; for a more balanced view, see the AIA representative’s reflections on the interim review). While Sayles pretended as if there is not near universal agreement among the archaeological community that looting and indiscriminate sourcing for the antiquities trade is detrimental to archaeology, he failed to note that many collectors have themselves voiced concerns that the status quo, which the ACCG seeks to protect, requires some internal reforms in the trade. Some have even gone so far as to observe that the ACCG is oriented more towards the concerns of commercial dealers rather than to collectors or the interests of preservation.

Wetterstrom, president-elect of the ACCG and its representative at the interim review, then authored an editorial in the Celator (a collector magazine that he operates) claiming that archaeologists at the meeting received special treatment and were not limited in the length of their presentations. He also writes that he was cut off early while reading his written comments that the CPAC already had in front of them (Tompa has reproduced Wetterstrom’s text in his “Another Perspective on CPAC and the Interim Review of the Italian MOU“).

Sayles then solicited another online press release, prompted by Wetterstrom’s editorial (“Collectors Claim Bias Epitomizes State Department Committee Management“). Here, Sayles falsely reports that “Other speakers, who advocate import restrictions on coins, were reportedly allowed to exceed the published time limit with comments ranging up to 30 minutes.”

In spite of the repetition of the claims by ACCG leadership, they have no basis in fact.

1) Archaeologists (note the ACCG’s use of the plural) were not afforded any special treatment. All speakers were allowed only five minutes and were told to finish if they reached their time limit. Wetterstrom, like all other presenters, received a full five minutes and was cut off only after exhausting his time while reading his letter verbatim. All other speakers made “off-the-cuff” presentations. The only individual who made a longer presentation was Stefano De Caro who had traveled from Rome for the meeting, and who spoke approximately 20 minutes. Although it is implied he was improperly given excess time, the ACCG fails to note that foreign dignitaries are customarily not limited in the length of their presentation. This is proper since they represent the countries who have petitioned for an agreement with the U.S. government. As regular attendees of CPAC meetings, the ACCG is well aware of this fact.

2) Archaeologists did not raise the specter of coins. The order of presentation clearly demonstrates this since Tompa and Wetterstrom spoke before any archaeologist. Both individuals urged the committee not to consider coins any future renewal of the agreement and both made reference to the “test case.” Archaeologists and numismatists who addressed the issue of coins during their presentations were simply responding to arguments made by Tompa and Wetterstrom that coins were not worth protecting because they are “common” or “cheap” on the market. But if one requires further proof, compare the written comments of Kerry Wetterstrom and Wayne Sayles, submitted to the CPAC in advance of the interim review, with the letter submitted by Sebastian Heath, the AIA representative. It is clear from the letters that, contrary to the ACCG’s portrayal of events, the ACCG were focused on arguing that coins not be considered in the future. On the other hand, the AIA representative made no suggestion that coins be included in a renewal and instead had prepared to focus on Article II of the MOU as requested. It was only in oral comments that archaeologists and numismatists were forced to respond to issues beyond Article II that were raised by representatives of commercial interests.

Gill’s question about whether or not false claims are being deliberately fabricated is penetrating, especially in the context of the misrepresentation of events at CPAC’s interim review. Is it indeed hoped that the spin put on these events will construct a reality that is more conducive to their litigious activities? In this regard, it is worth noting that one of the points in the ACCG’s 37 page complaint about the seizure, which they staged, states that archaeologists argued that the agreement with Italy be extended to coins, while failing to note that they brought up the question of coins in the first place (pdf here, see point 80).

Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria in Bulgaria: An Update

A while back I called attention to the appeal by the Bulgarian Archaeological Association for funds to protect and preserve Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria which – like so many sites in Bulgaria – is being targeted by treasure hunters and destroyed.

Today I received an email which appears to have been sent out to all of those who made a donation to the preservation effort and which gave a brief report on the way some of the donations are being used:

[The] Bulgarian Archaeological Association is glad to inform you that thanks to your financial support a short term archaeological expedition at the territory of Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria was realized. Several architectural and epigraphical monuments were discovered and saved for the archaeological science. Please follow the link to find our [report]:

We will highly appreciate your further help and we kindly ask you to forward the following petition to other friends and supporters:

Thank you in advance,

Bulgarian Archaeological Association

21 Tsarigradsko shosse blv. 1124 Sofia Bulgaria
+ 359 (0) 878940223

While it is great that several individuals and groups donated to the preservation efforts, more is needed and I would urge anyone who can and who has an interest in preserving Bulgaria’s heritage to sign the petition and donate

Video About the Gold Vessel and Antiquities Trading in Germany

The gold vessel from Ur that was seized from a German auction house in 2005 has been handed over to German authorities after residing in the care of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz where it was analyzed by an expert in Mesopotamian metalwork, Michael Müller-Karpe. It is now feared that the object may be allowed to go auction since the antiquities laws in Germany are rather lax, one of the reasons the reasons that Germany is an important transit market for recently surfaced antiquities.

As a follow up to this story, DW-TV has posted an interesting online video broadcast (31 July 2009) discussing the gold vessel and role that Germany plays in the international trade.

The Curious Case of a Gold Vessel from Ur

Last Wednesday, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried a story entitled “Deutsch-irkaischer Archäologenkrimi / Aus Ur oder aus Troja? Ein Goldgefäß macht derzeit den Behörden Probleme. Es soll von Raubgrabungen aus dem Irak stammen. Bagdad hat Strafanzeige gegen einen deutschen Händler gestellt” (by D. Gerlach, 29.6.2009, pp. 1,3) about a gold vessel looted from Ur that was offered by a German auction house. A slightly more condensed article in English also summarizes the story (“Mesopotamian Vase Sheds Light on Germany’s Artefacts Trade,” Deutsche Welle, 30.6.2009).

The vase was first spotted for sale in 2005 at the German ancient coin auction house Hirsch Nachfolger, when it was then seized by authorities and handed over to Michael Müller-Karpe at the Römisch-Germanische Zentralmuseum in Mainz for an expert opinion. Müller-Karpe, an archaeologist who works on material from the region and a specialist in metalwork, concluded that it was likely looted from the royal cemetery at Ur where many similar vessels have been found. Looting in Iraq has dramatically increased since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Customs officials have now asked Müller-Karpe to return the vase to them, but has refused stating that the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin has asked him not to return it to customs. Iraqi officials have warned that anyone who helps or participates in the sale would be liable to up to five years imprisonment in Iraq. Münzhandlung Hirsch Nachfolger claims the vessel comes from Troy.
(Photo from Deutsche Welle)

Gill considers the current legal action pending against the US Department of State regarding the import of antiquities

From “Why are ancient coins from Cyprus featured in a suit against the US Department of State?,” PR Newswire, 26 June 2009:


SWANSEA, Wales,June 26/PRNewswire/ –David Gill, archaeologist, considers the recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit on the US Department of State.

The FOIA suit was served in November 2007by three numismatic organizations; one of the three is based in Brussels, Belgium. The alliance objected to the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) restricting the import of ancient coins minted in Cyprus as part of a wider memorandum of understanding (MOU). CPAC was responding to concerns by the Government of Cyprus that the illicit searching for ancient objects (including coins) was destroying the archaeological heritage of the Mediterranean island. CPAC states, “The MOU offers the opportunity for the U.S. and Cyprus to cooperate in reducing the incentive for further pillage thereby protecting the context of intact sites for scientific study.”

Coin collectors were also concerned about the 2009 MOU with China. This agreement also restricted the import of certain categories of coins.

As a result, one of the three numismatic organizations decided to test the resolve of the US Department of State in April 2009by attempting to import a small number of coins from Cyprus and China in defiance of the newly established laws. These items were detained when their flight from London touched down in Baltimore.

Are these aggressive legal tactics really for the benefit of collectors, or are there other factors at work?

Read the full discussion:

Preserving Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria

The Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues weblog has called attention to a campaign to preserve Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria which lays in the northwestern part of modern Bulgaria.

Like so many other places in Bulgaria, the site is being systematically destroyed by treasure hunters. I have discussed the destruction of Bulgaria’s archaeological record and cultural heritage several times before and I am glad to see attention brought to this preservation campaign. Readers will recall that Bulgaria was highlighted in the “Under Threat” list by Archaeology Magazine, which I and Kimberly Alderman both discussed (“Archaeology Magazine’s Under Threat List Includes Bulgaria” and “2008 Archaeological Sites Under Threat“, respectively). Anyone who has browsed through several volumes of Archaeologia Bulgarica knows what a negative impact systematic looting and destruction of archaeological sites has on the material record as it has affected virtually every site in Bulgaria.

I have already made a small donation to the initiative and would urge other concerned readers to do likewise.

Individuals may learn more and donate to the preservation effort by clicking here and following the “donate” link.

Unrecorded Ancient Coins from Britain for Sale in the United States: Grumblings and a Positive Response

On May 18, I called attention to two different mass suppliers of ancient coins in the United States who regularly sell bulk lots of “uncleaned ancient coins” from all over Europe and the Middle East (“Having Cake and Eating it too: Unrecorded and Freshly Dug British Coins Sold in the USA,” Numismatics and Archaeology). These two sellers had recently offered bulk lots of coins from Britain, which apparently were not imported into the U.S. with an export license from the UK and, perhaps more importantly, were not recorded in Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) designed to recorded finds made by metal detectorists. Ten days later, I provided an update following an inquiry, launched by the PAS, to the two sellers in question and the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) (“Update: Unrecorded and Freshly Dug British Coins Sold in the USA“).

The ACCG was queried because it claims to be the voice for ancient coin collectors in the United States and is headed by several ancient coin dealers. The group has often touted the PAS as a solution to the “looting problem,” though there seems to be little self-regulation in the market itself that deals with illicitly exported coins.

Several dealers and ACCG members initially felt threatened by the attention that these two discussions gave them and, in fact, one ACCG intransigent tirelessly continues to make excuses for the lack of recording and to make personal attacks on the commentators who called attention to it and talked about it (see discussions of the attacks/excuses by Paul Barford here, here, here, here, and here).

In spite of the bluster from the one individual, some good has come of the incidents and the attention brought to it. After the PAS inquiry, former ACCG President, Peter Tompa, posted on his blog some links to export guidelines pertinent to coins and antiquities from Britain, which was followed some days later (one day after my update) by a post on the ACCG website: “UK Authorities Post Helpful Advice for Export of Coins.”

I applaud the ACCG for highlighting this information. I do hope this reflects a growing sensitivity within the trade community and that the ACCG leadership will, in the future, be more proactive in addressing the looting problem directly rather than simply lobbying against and challenging protective legislation. Knowledge will only be preserved if all stakeholders, including dealers and collectors, start to value it over purely commercial and self-interests. The preservation of information is something we should all be concerned about and something which we all ought to work towards, especially for those of us who study the past or buy and sell pieces of it.

EBay: A Solution to the Illicit Antiquities Trade?

A story from the latest Archaeology Magazine (C. Stanish, “Forging Ahead. Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love eBay,” Archaeology Magazine 62.3 (May/June 2009)) has been the subject of some blog discussions lately, e.g.:

Larry Rothfield, “eBay Reduces Looting — Maybe,” The Punching Bag(21 April 2009)Derek Finchman, “‘What Fools the Curator Also Fools the Collector’,” Illicit Cultural Property (21 April 2009)

Stanish argues that eBay has been flooded with fake antiquities, ultimately making looting less profitable as the prevalence of fakes drives prices down. Like Larry Rothfield, I think the overall point of the article is persuasive, but I do find parts of it too simplistic.

View the full discussion at Numismatics and Archaeology.

December 2008 Edition of Kunstrechtspiegel Online, Back Issues Available

In December the fourth 2008 installment of the Kunstrechtspiegel (“Art Law Looking-Glass”), a publication of the Institut für Kunst und Recht (IFKUR – “Institute for Art and Law”), was placed online. Back issues are also freely available online.

The Table of Contents of the latest issue includes:

Editorial: Die Bekämpfung des illegalen Handels mit archäologischen Kulturgütern: Neue Wege auf der Internetplattform eBay
(“The Abatement of the Illicit Trade with Archaeological Cultural Goods: New Ways on the Internet Platform eBay”)

Kerstin Odendahl


Antiken, Recht und Markt
(“Antiquities, Law and Market”)

Reinhard Dietrich


U.S. Declaratory Judgment Actions Concerning Art Displaced During the Holocaust

Jennifer Anglim Kreder


Rückführung illegal verbrachter italienischer Kulturgüter nach dem Ende des 2. Weltkrieges (Emanuel C. Hofacker)
(“The Repatriation of Illegaly Traded Italian Cultural Goods after the End of the Second World War”) (Emanuel C. Hofacker)

Annette Froehlich

Der Einfluss des Urheberrechts auf die Restaurierung von Werken der bildenden Künste (Daniel-Philipp Häret)
(“The Influence of Copyright on the Restoration of Works of the Visual Arts”) (Daniel-Philipp Häret)

Erik Jayme

Die Nadel und der Heuhaufen – ein Einblick in den Bereich der Provenienzforschung
(“The Needle and the Haystack – a Look in the Area of Provenance Research”)

Jörg Wünschel

Kunstsammlungen im Zugriff von Fiskus und Erben: Vortrag von Prof. Dr. Carl-Heinz Heuer in Heidelberg
(“Art Collections in the Access of Finances and Inhertance: Lecture of Prof. Dr. Carl-Heinz Heuer in Heidelberg”)

Nicolai Kemle

Handbuch Kunst und Recht (Thomas Hoeren et al.)
(“Handbook of Art and Law”) (Thomas Hoeren et al.)

Nicolai Kemle

IFKUR – News 4. Quartal 2008
(“IFKUR – 4th Quarter 2008 News”)


Zahi Hawass: Digging for History

Zahi Hawass is one of the most famous and popularly known archaeologists in the world. Hawass’ stardom among the general public is almost comparable to that of the fictional Indiana Jones; he has recently raised over $500,000 for a children’s museum by selling replicas of his own signature style “explorer hat” in conjunction with the traveling King Tut tour. has posted a video outlining how his passion for archaeology developed, his duties as Egypt’s head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, his plans for a large new museum, and his efforts to repatriate stolen Egyptian antiquities.


ICOM Releases Red List of Looted Afghanistan Antiquities

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has released a “Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk.” ICOM distributes red lists to museums, professionals, law enforcement, and customs to raise awareness about trafficked and looted antiquities. It is well known that the cultural heritage of Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered as results of instability following the respective invasions. Some people have taken advantage of the instability as means to loot historically significant sites and museums and spirit that material out of the country.

It is hoped that this new red list will promote the return of illicitly removed goods Afghanistan and raise awareness about the problems of looting there. The effectiveness of past red lists is chronicled in the current list of antiquities from Afghanistan. Already there are some optimistic signs coming from the international community following the release of red list on Afghan antiquities since a squad from the Metropolitan Police of London have volunteered to “clamp down” on looted Afghan art (“Police to clamp down on trade in looted Afghan art,” Telegraph, 21 October 2008).

It is also interesting to note that ICOM named SAFE as one of its partners in the current red list. For a complete list of partners, see page 4 of the red list.

Why coins matter: Trafficking in undocumented and illegally exported ancient coins in the North American marketplace

Ancient coins are among the most widely collected and demanded objects among American collectors of antiquities. A vocal lobby of ancient coin dealers/collectors has arisen to protect the importation of undocumented material into the United States and also seeks to make a distinction between antiquities trafficking and that in ancient coins. Coins are an equally important historical source and are no less important ‘antiquities’ than a Greek painted vase. I examine the scale of the trade in ancient coins in North America and address some points made by proponents of a continued unfettered ancient coin trade.

An overview of ancient coin collecting

The collecting of ancient coins as an avocation has existed since at least the Renaissance, an outgrowth of the antiquarian movement that originated withPetrarch (1304-74). However, the ancients also collected and exchanged coins for reasons that had nothing to do with commerce. For example, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus (63 BC – AD 14), was known to have collected coins, which he acquired and dispensed at festivals (Suet, Aug. 75). This form of collecting surely existed centuries earlier, perhaps even since the invention of coinage.

Michael Setboun
Figure 1. Gold ‘medallion’ (double daric) possibly struck during the lifetime of Alexander the Great. Obverse (‘heads’) shows Alexander wearing elephant headress; Reverse (‘tails’) shows an Indian elephant.
Note: Since this unique piece entered the market without documented context, it is impossible to secure its authenticity.

The issuance of the first coin-like objects that were minted in limited edition, not as coinage, but as medallions or commemoratives to commemorate some historic event, publicize a ruler’s self-proclaimed divinity or omnipotence is evidence that medallions and commemorative pieces, like coins, were visually examined by ancient people and perhaps even kept as mementos or keepsakes. The honored few who received such items during ancient times, such as the gold ‘medallion’ (double daric) likely issued during Alexander the Great’s lifetime, commemorating a military campaign, would likely have kept them as evidence of their social rank and treated them as a collectibles or heirlooms rather than a medium of exchange (figure 1). Such medallions and commemoratives were minted during Hellenistic times and well into the Roman period, when their production increased significantly.

The fact that Augustus and others chose to collect coins and coin-like objects is evidence that other Roman nobles may have done likewise. Apparently, coin collecting may also have extended far down the social ladder. An observation by Pliny the Elder (c. AD 23-79)—that some people would pay more for silver coins of Mark Anthony, struck a half century earlier, because they had been debased with iron and were thus a curiosity (Pliny, NH 33.46) — suggests not only a widespread fascination with coins during Roman times, but also the existence of a marketplace in which coins could be analyzed and traded.
Today, with the increased employment of scientific techniques and interdisciplinary approaches in all academic disciplines, numismatics is more important than ever for our understanding of the ancient world. However, outdated techniques and approaches to an increasingly useful and scientific discipline, coupled with an overwhelming increase in demand for ancient coins, are causing problems for both archaeology and the serious study of coins alike.

Because it evokes an immediate and close connection to the ancient past, one that we can literally hold in our hand, the collecting of ancient coins has become an almost addictive pastime for many people today. For example, many collectors like to think of their coins in their original context, wondering, “Who might have held them?” “What might they have once been used to purchase?” and “What historical events might they have been witness to?” “If only the faces on those old coins could speak!”

Such romantic notions also captivated me and, after purchasing my first ancient coin for $1.75 in the mid 1990’s when I was 13 or 14 years of age, I fell in love with the history and ideology celebrated by various designs on Roman coins. For me, ancient coin collecting sparked an insatiable desire to learn as much as possible about the Roman world; thus, I began studying archaeology at college after graduating high school in 1999 and continued to collect coins occasionally as student finances allowed. Yet after beginning my doctoral studies in 2003 and after having discussions with some prominent scholars and numismatists (coin specialists) at theAmerican Numismatic Society Graduate Seminar in 2004, I began to re-evaluate the ethics of ancient coin collecting. I became aware of the irrevocable destruction of information caused by systematic looting at historical sites in search of ancient coins to sell on the market.

Upon being confronted with the reality of the situation, I reflected on my past participation in the trade and soon came to the conclusion that my passion for the ancient world lay not in the object itself and its acquisition, but rather in the historical information about our common cultural heritage that these coins can relate—information that is lost when a looted coin is ripped from its context. Therefore, for approximately three years, I have not purchased any ancient coin that does not have verifiable documentation attesting its existence in a collection in or before 1973, according to theAmerican Journal of Archaeology ethical guidelines, which follows the 1970 and 1972 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Conventions. I am not alone in my views. Many scholarly numismatists of the present generation do not collect, or no longer collect, ancient coins because of similar concerns. My personal decision essentially translated into a moratorium on my collecting habits, given the fact that coins from old collections or other verifiable provenance are difficult to find and command a premium on the market. Why is this the case?

Market snapshot

In 1993, it was estimated that 80% of all ancient coins openly sold on the market had been dug up within the past 30 years (McFadden 1993; see also discussion in Beckmann 1998: 25). Now, I suspect the percentage is even higher given that the supply of ancient coins on the market surged during the 1990s, particularly from Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In addition, the increasing use of the Internet for commercial activities has allowed dealers and collectors to network as never before and made auctions and dealer inventories easily accessible to a global audience, thus fueling a growth in demand (that has outstripped the supply of previously documented and provenanced antiquities, including coins, prompting the search for fresh sources (Chippindale and Gill 2001; Elia 2001; von Kaenel 2004: 152-154).

Figure 2. Screen shot of the coin dealer from Germany

To illustrate the scale of the traffic in undocumented ancient coins, it may be helpful for us to consider a few statistics. As one prominent scholar and numismatist recently reported, a single seller on eBay (the German site) recently claimed to have sold more than 170,000 ancient coins from Serbia, which the seller alleged were taken from in and around Viminacium. These coins were sold in the approximately 2.5 years since the seller became a member on the site in November 2004 (von Kaenel 2007; figure 2). A quick look at this individual’s feedback record indicates most of his customers are North American.
Several auction houses and ancient coin dealers host auctions each year in the United States and dozens more in other parts of the world. One of the largest auction houses in the United States, Classical Numismatic Group (CNG), hosts three printed auctions per year and regular bi-weekly electronic auctions on its web site. Each January, CNG holds its largest sale of the year, known as the ‘Triton Sale’. In the latest Triton Sale, Triton X, some 19,087 ancient coins were sold, the vast majority having no reference to any previous collection (see figure 3).

Figure 3. Level of documentation for coins from the CNG Triton X Sale (8 Jan. 2007). Coins dating beyond c. AD 1200 were excluded; the vast majority of coins included were Greek or Roman. Individual lots 1-904 and bulk lots 1480-1645 comprised the data sample. Some medieval and world coins comprised other lots, but were largely excluded for simplicity and clarity of argument. The coins that commanded the highest premiums were ancient.

The value of the total lots sold (94%) resulted in a cumulative hammer price of $5,963,565. CNG’s normal autumn sale, prior to the Triton X sale, realized a hammer price of $1,325,917. By my count, only 32 of the 19,087 ancient coins in the latest Triton sale were sold referencing a pedigree pre-dating 1973, while others referenced only the names of modern collectors or more recent auction references. Approximately 80% of the lots provided no previous record at all.

In addition to auction houses, dozens of ancient coin and antiquities dealers operate in North America. For example, on VCoins, a web site developed to compete with eBay, 109 ancient coin dealers are actively selling coins (all VCoins data checked 22 June 2007). Eighty-one of the 109 dealers on VCoins are located in the U.S. and Canada, with 17 of the total selling bulk lots of ancient coins, and 48 selling other antiquities as well. According to the VCoins homepage, approximately 73,000 lots are being offered for sale, but it is unclear whether or not this includes the inventory of ‘sold coins’ that some dealers show. The 73,000 lots also include books and supplies, but factoring these out the figure drops to about 69,000 lots. However, when figuring in bulk lots of ancient coins, the number rises to approximately 75,000 coin-lots and has the potential to increase substantially when considering that many of the bulk lots advertise a price per coin with no disclosure of how many are actually available. According to the VCoins homepage, the total market value of the lots available for sale is approximately $14.5 million.

Between June 4 and July 2, 2007, I tracked listings in the Ancient Coins section of eBay (the U.S. site) and found that, on average, approximately 5,000 to 5,300 lots of ancient coins are sold per week. A number of dealers sell bulk lots of uncleaned ancient coins fresh from the ground (e.g. bags of 1000, 100, or priced per piece), often indicating that such coins were ” excavated ” in Eastern Europe— especially the Balkan countries. If one assumes that this one-month period reflects trends throughout the year, one may conclude that between approximately 260,000 and 280,000 coins are sold each year on the eBay-U.S. web site, not counting bulk lots. These rough numbers indicate the large-scale importation of ancient coins from the Old World and the potential movement of between half a million to a million coins sold in the North American marketplace annually, taking no account of local coin dealers who sell ancient coins in various cities and towns throughout the country. The trafficking in undocumented coins is clearly a multi-million dollar industry in the U.S. and Canada alone.

A coin’s journey to the North American marketplace

How does material enter the U.S.? Although the prospecting for antiquities (including coins) and the exportation of such objects without a permit is illegal in many countries, the U.S. has only adopted import restrictions on ancient coins with Cyprus, while the prohibition on import of coins from Iraq is based on the general sanctions against importation of illegally removed cultural materials from Iraq. This means that once a group of coins is illegally robbed from an archaeological site or its material context and smuggled from the country of origin, it is openly and easily sold on the American market in most cases since the origin of coins, which could travel widely in the ancient world, can be difficult to trace once divorced from their original find spot. The illicit excavation of ancient coins does not differ from the systematic looting of other antiquities, and some good investigative work has demonstrated the way ancient coins from Israel, for example, are most often procured and then ‘legally’ exported by falsifying pedigrees (see Kersel 2006: esp. 194-198). It has been reported that at least one coin dealer has suggested avoidance of honest provenance-reporting on eBay auctions in order to avoid suspicion regarding illicit imports from Cyprus (see David Gill’s blog entry “Coins, eBay and the ‘Coin Lobby'”)
Clearly, there is systematic looting for ancient coins in places like the Balkans as well. One documented case reports the seizure of 60 kg of ancient coins (19,860 specimens) at the Frankfurt airport that had been smuggled from Bulgaria (Dietrich 2002; von Kaenel 2004: 154-156). The shipment was bound for the United States and the individual shipping them had previously been arrested multiple times for antiquities smuggling and was associated with high-ranking politicians. For jurisdictional reasons, the coins were transferred to Munich where they were released by the Prosecutor’s Office and have presumably reached the United States for commercial profit.

Customs officials in Frankfurt continued to investigate the shipment and determined that this was one of several which had passed through Frankfurt to the U.S. They also estimated about one ton of ancient coins (c. 340,000) from Bulgaria had been shipped to the U.S. by this single individual, presumably spoiling dozens of archaeological and historical sites in the search for them. This was not an isolated incident; a similar shipment from Eastern Europe was seized on the German-Austrian border in 1999 (Szemethy 1999a; 1999b; 2000). Despite the increasing awareness of the general public and the professional community about looting and cultural property issues, the trade in undocumented ancient coins continues to grow and remains a serious problem for those wishing to preserve valuable information about the past and protect our common cultural heritage.

Coins in context

Figure 4. Clandestine vs. archaeological excavation. Chart by Nathan Elkins, translated and modified from Fasold, Stutzinger, and von Kaenel 1995: 26

When an historic or archaeological site is prospected by metal detectorists and dug up, the stratigraphy (the various layers of occupation that archaeologists study when excavating an archaeological site) is disturbed. As a result, one of the most reliable means to date various occupation levels is removed, and potential study of the economic conditions and demographics of the site are forever destroyed. The ancient coin dealer lobby in the U.S., the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) has become increasingly organized and influential amongst certain groups in recent years. The lobby frequently argues that archaeologists only care about coins for the dates they provide and then allow them to disintegrate in improper storage conditions. This, however, is a gross misconception and an exaggeration: although one may cite a few isolated incidents from the past, this hardly represents the standard in modern archaeology. It is true that coin finds are not always given the thorough treatment they deserve by excavators and are not always properly published; nevertheless, treatment of coins by archaeologists is not as grim as the lobby portrays and the study of coins in archaeological contexts has improved over the past few decades and continues to do so. In any case, does the simple fact that a few archaeologists have not published their coin finds in a timely manner excuse plunder?
When coins are found in situ, their exact find spots and archaeological contexts are recorded and the coin is stored in a warehouse or museum where it can be properly conserved and studied (see figure 4). Some specimens will enter museum collections where they are made available for the public and results are published, either with the excavation report or separately. In Israel, for example, artifacts are housed at the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which employs numismatists to study numismatic finds. On the other hand, coin collectors and dealers frequently store ancient coins in flips (plastic holders) which are made of PVC (a chemical that can harm coins) or in rigid PVC-free flips that can wear down the details of a coin. Some collectors carry ancient coins in their pockets as ‘good luck charms’ and others make ancient coins into jewelry (ShopNBCadvertises ancient coin jewelry on its network and other specimens can be found on eBay and VCoins).

Some dealers and collectors even tool or rework details of a coin to make it more visually appealing. A search on the Internet will also reveal a number of different cleaning methods used by dealers and collectors to clean coins, many of them potentially harsh and harmful to the coins. Indeed, one may find some instances in which archaeologists have mistreated objects from archaeological sites (especially in archaeology’s earlier days), but the notion that collectors and dealers generally treat ancient objects with greater care than trained professionals is a highly specious and debatable claim, which only detracts from the core issue: the value of ancient coins for scientific inquiry and the impact of the trade on it.

The notion that, once a date is obtained from a coin, it is disregarded by professionals is also completely erroneous. In recent decades, all fields of ancient studies (history, archaeology, etc.) have become increasingly interdisciplinary and must take account of developing approaches in other fields. Numismatics is a field that also incorporates such interdisciplinary approaches and relies on archaeological contexts for valuable information (see, for example, Finley 1975: 87-100; Howgego 1995, xi-xii; Sheedy and Papageorgiadou-Banis 1997; Rotroff 1997; Walker 1997). In addition to dates, coins in archaeological contexts provide information about human activities, the growth and contraction of settlements through time, and also the economy of the period (for general information, see the AIA’s new page on coins and archaeology).

Since 1960, the Frankfurt School has been producing volumes for the series Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Deutschland (FMRD—’Coin finds from the Roman period in Germany’) which catalogues coin finds from hoards and sites throughout Germany; similar initiatives have begun in other European countries. These are valuable catalogues for scholars wishing to study the ancient economies and circulation patterns. The Fundmünzen der Antike group also sponsors an important monograph series, Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike (SFMA —’Studies on Coin Finds from Antiquity’), which publishes extended analyses directly relating to coins in archaeological contexts; monographs can be published in English, French, German, or Italian. The study of coins in archaeological contexts provide unique insights that undocumented and looted coins cannot offer, including the study of ritual (for example, Haselgrove and Wigg-Wolf 2007; Creighton 2000), special supplies of coin types sent to certain groups to disseminate imperial ‘propaganda’ (for example, Kemmers 2005; 2006a: 219-244), and various economic studies at site-specific and regional levels (for example, Kemmers 2006b; Peter 2001; von Kaenel 1999). The archaeological and scholarly numismatic world realizes that there is greater application for the study of coin finds in context than just dates.

Common misconceptions

It is often asserted that ‘collectible’ coins sold on the market come from hoards found by metal detectorists in the middle of fields away from any sort of proper historical or archaeological site (for example, Tompa 1998: 73-75; Tompa and Brose 2005: 205, 207-210), sometimes with the reasoning that most coins were buried by Roman soldiers before battles. One great flaw in this reasoning, however, is that many other types of ancient coins are sold on the market in addition to Roman coins! Additionally, it is clear that coin hoards are not only found in the middle of fields devoid of associated archaeological remains, but can comprise a large percentage of coin finds from archaeological sites. At the Magdalensberg, for example, approximately 38% of coins were found in hoards at the site (FMRÖ 2.1; and forthcoming unpublished research by S. Krmnicek). In western Germany, one can also see how common hoards are in places such as Cologne (Köln), Trier, and Mainz, where hoards can make up significant percentages of coin finds in ancient settlements (refer to the appropriate volumes of FMRD).

The argument also defies logic since someone looking for coins to sell for profit (rather than a weekend hobbyist) would naturally begin looking in a known area of habitation rather than empty fields; furthermore, it is well documented that many sites have been spoiled by metal detectorists looking for ancient coins and other metal objects. For example, after the publication of some Iron Age coin finds from Roseldorf, Austria, (Dembski 1991), metal detectorists flocked to the site and robbed it of coins, causing significant damage in the quest for their own personal profit and greed (Dembski 1994; 1995). When Frankfurt University began excavating at Groß-Gerau, a site near Frankfurt, Germany, they were perplexed by the lack of coin finds until they determined the site had already been robbed of coins by a local metal detectorist (per discussions with individuals at Frankfurt University).

Nathan Elkins
Figure 5. Bronze coin Constantine the Great, from Yotvata (L3a, B135), RIC VII (Siscia) 55

At Burghöfe, Germany, two metal detectorists leisurely despoiled the site of approximately 5,000 coins and 3,000 other metal objects over the course of ten years (Keller 1992; von Kaenel 1994: 7; 1995: 218). Carnuntum, in modern Austria, is also frequented by looters and causes significant problems with the study of the coin finds (Alram and Schmidt-Dick 2007: 64). It is often asserted that ‘collectible’ coins only come from hoards, where they are better preserved (Tompa 1998: 73-75; Tompa and Brose 2005: 205, 207-210). Single finds of excavated coins can be just as well-preserved or ‘collectible’ as hoard coins, contrary to the arguments of the lobby. For example, at Yotvata, Israel —a Late Roman site with a particularly corrosive soil—a large number of the single finds are rather well preserved (see for example figure 5, publication of the coin finds from this site is forthcoming). In short, a collector or dealer who does not demand viable documentation has no notion regarding the origin or circumstances in which that coin was found. Most coins on the market are undoubtedly single finds from archaeological sites or from hoards ripped from their original contexts and associations.

Those who argue that proper archaeological sites do not produce large numbers of coins are simply unfamiliar with the scholarly literature. Many large hoards and thousands of single finds can be found at sites of varying sizes. Familiarization with the FMRD volumes and similar publications will show that coin finds frequently are found in great numbers at civilian and military sites alike, as the numbers from Burghöfe illustrate. The idea that large hoards, devoid of any archaeological context associated with settlement-remains, satisfy collector and dealer demand is a fallacy; in fact, the selling practices of many coin dealers betray this notion. For example, when looking at bulk lots of coins on eBay and VCoins, one can read in the descriptions various disclaimers that there may be a mixture of Greek, Roman, Islamic, Medieval, or even modern coins in the lots; clearly, these are not the contents of an ancient hoard, but rather the accumulation of coins robbed from multiple archaeological sites with different periods and ranges of occupation.

Ethics and ancient coin collecting

Nathan Elkins
Bronze Coin of Cronstantine the Great (L3b, B33), RIC VII (Lugdunum) 53

The vocal ancient coin dealer lobby has arisen to protect its interests in the importation of ancient material, the vast majority of which has no documentation and may well have been procured through suspect means. Thus far, few academic numismatists have commented on the trade, perhaps, in part, because there are a number of numismatists that come from the old scholar-collector tradition. Nevertheless, the number of numismatists who are more sensitive to contextual study is growing and scholars have recognized that ancient objects are more than aesthetic objects: in a recorded context they are invaluable historical sources.

The professional community and the public at large cannot continue to remain silent about these issues. The search for coins to fuel market demand contributes to the destruction of valuable information for serious numismatic research and archaeology. When an object is looted and removed from its context (without proper documentation and recording), it also robs the world of cultural heritage and information about our past that we might otherwise be inheritors to, and that heritage and information is lost forever. We cannot think that ancient coins are less significant than Greek vases—when looted, both are forever divorced from their historical and archaeological contexts and irrecoverable information is lost when the site from which they came is vandalized. The relative abundance of ancient coins to Greek vases, for example, is irrelevant.

Although ancient coin collecting has a long historical precedent, not all practices accepted in humanity’s past are still considered ‘ethical’ today. For example, the ivory trade, which also had millennia of precedence, once flourished until the African elephant became increasingly endangered; only after laws were passed to protect the elephants did it become widely accepted that the ivory trade was unethical. Like the African elephant, our common cultural heritage is an endangered species.

Already, some ancient coin collectors and dealers are complaining about rising prices on Internet discussion groups. These price increases may be a result of the already dwindling supplies from Eastern Europe or could be attributed to the price-control practices routinely exercised in the antiquities market (Watson and Todeschini 2006; Mason 2005). All of the wonder that holding or seeing an ancient coin evokes: “Who once held it? What was it used for? Where was it used?” is information that only contextual study can hope to provide any meaningful answer to, but this is erased when a coin is looted and enters the market devoid of context. Although appearing on the market in large quantities, ancient coins are a finite resource and each one that is ripped from an archaeological site and its original context, without a record, forever lessens our ability to understand the world of our forbearers.

Nathan Elkins
Bronze coin of Maximian (L2065, B20760), RIC V.2 (Max. Herc.) 607

For those seeking to preserve cultural heritage and information about our past, the trade in illicitly excavated and exported ancient coins is perhaps one of the greatest threats to cultural heritage since ancient coins are the most widely collected ancient objects. Perhaps it may be possible for scientific inquiry and private collecting to coexist, but at present it is clear there is very little self-regulation occurring in the ancient coin trade and this is causing significant damage for mere self-interest. Legislation alone will, likely, do little to curb the trade and protect sites without more stringent enforcement in importing or source countries (countries from which antiquities are taken). Public education and dialogue are the only ways to begin addressing these problems. Coin collectors share with us a great passion for the ancient world; these collectors are the ones we should seek to educate about the issues, as these are the people who can force dealers to change the ways they import material by refusing to buy undocumented coins. Many collectors have expertise in identifying ancient coins. It may be useful to encourage these people to volunteer as staff numismatists at archaeological sites so they can see where ancient coins really come from and better understand the type of information that comes to light when they are found in context. It would also allow the collector to participate in the thrill of discovery rather than buying bulk lots of coins by the pound or an undocumented coin for their cabinet. Such a prospect, I believe, would be beneficial to both sides, especially since many scholarly numismatists are overburdened with material, and more numismatists are needed to process coin finds in the field.


I am grateful to Prof. Dr. Hans-Markus von Kaenel (Frankfurt) for his comments on a draft of this paper, his encouraging comments, and our many discussions about these issues. Dr. David Wigg-Wolf and Stefan Krmnicek (Frankfurt) also improved this paper with their apt observations and their willingness to provide honest commentary. Rebekka Senart-Garcia and Bobby Mann graciously edited and commented on drafts of this paper for online publication. All views expressed in this paper are my own. Any inadvertent errors herein are my own responsibility. I am currently preparing a more substantial study of these issues for printed publication; that study will also include a discussion of possible solutions to the problem and opportunities for dialogue between polarized factions.
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Dembski, G., 1994. Überlegungen zu einigen Neufunden von Keltenmünzen aus Niederösterreich. MÖNG, 34.4: 61-73.

Howgego, C., 1995. Ancient History from Coins, London and New York: Routledge.

Creighton, J., 2000. Coins and Power in Iron Age Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haselgrove, C. and D. Wigg-Wolf (eds.), 2005. Iron Age Coinage and Ritual Practices, Mainz: von Zabern, SFMA 20.

Sheedy, K.A. and Ch. Papageorgiadou-Banis (eds.), 1997. Numismatic Archaeology, Archaeological Numismatics, Oxford: Australian Institute at Athens, Oxbow Monograph 75.

Mason, C., 2005. The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s Auction House Scandal, Rutherford: Putnam.

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Tompa, P.K. and A.M. Brose., 2005. A Modern Challenge to an Age-Old Pursuit: Can Cultural Patrimony Claims and Coin Collecting Coexist? in K.F. Gibbon, ed., Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law., New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press: 205-216.

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Kemmers, F., 2006. Coin Circulation in the Lower Rhine Area: Deliberate Policy or Laissez-Faire? in C. Gaiu and C. G?zdac (eds.), Fontes Historiae: Studia in Honorem Demetrii Protase, Bistri?a and Cluj-Napoca: Editura Accent: 735-742.

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FMRÖ 2.1 = Bannert, H. and G. Piccottini., 1972. Die Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Österreich, Kärnten 1: Die Fundmünzen vom Magdalensberg.
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von Kaenel, H.-M., 2004. Kritische Anmerkungen zu aktuellen Diskussionen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, in W.-D. Heilmeyer and J.C. Eule (eds.), Illegale Archäologie?, Berlin: Weißensee Verlag. 149-156.

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Szemethy, H., 1999. Profis mit Metallsonden. Sichergestellte Münzen stamen aus Raubgrabungen. Salzburger Nachrichten, May 14: 4.

Keller, E., 1992. Raubgrabungen mit der Metallsonde—zur Situation in Bayern. Denkmalpflege Information, 97: 2-5

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Szemethy, H., 1999. Schatz geschmuggelt. Archäologisch wertvolle Münzen in bugarischem Lkw. Salzburger Nachrichten, May 6: 4.

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von Kaenel, H.M., 1999. Zum Münzumlauf im augusteischen Rom anhand der Funde aus dem Tiber – mit einem Nachtrag zur geldgeschichtlichen Bedeutung der Münzfunde in Kalkriese, in W. Schlüter and R. Wiegels (eds.), Rom, Germanien, und die Ausgrabungen von Kalkriese. Internationaler Konress der Universität Osnabrück und des Landschaftsverbandes Osnabrücker Land e.V. vom 2 bis 5 September 1996. Osnabrück: Osnabrücker Forschungen zu Altertum und Antike Rezeption 1, (Germany): New Rules on the Selling of Archaeological Materials

A new policy for the selling of archaeological materials on (Germany) went into effect on July 1, 2008 (Press Release from “Neuer eBay-Grundsatz zum Handel mit archäologischen Funden,” 1 July 2008). A link in the press release provides full details on the new rules (“Grundsatz zu archäologischen Funden“).

The new policy defines “archaeological finds” as follows:

“An archaeological find is an object of historical, artistic or scientific importance, which laid for a time in the ground or under water.”

“Ein archäologischer Fund ist ein Objekt von geschichtlicher, künstlerischer oder wissenschaftlicher Bedeutung, der vorübergehend im Boden oder unter Wasser ruhte.”

It continues in providing non-exclusive examples of certain objects covered by the new policy, which include:

  • coins (Münzen)
  • weapons (Waffen)
  • grave goods (Grabbeigaben)
  • ceramics (Keramik)
  • jewelry (Schmuck)
  • tools (Werkzeuge)
  • sacral objects (sakrale Gegenstände).

Appended to the list are also items of geological and paleontological importance: fossilized animal and plant remnants and minerals (tierische und pflanzliche Überreste der Erdgeschichte (Fossilien); Mineralien).

The new policy requires sellers of antiquities to provide documentation (pedigree) for their auctions and to picture and describe it within the auction. For example, an object must have a document demonstrating that the find was reported to the ministry or have a history of being in the trade before going to auction at Ebay. Items originating from other countries must have a valid export license. For full details on each category of documentation and what the seller must provide (and how the seller can obtain such documents), see the new policy. (Germany) should be applauded for being more sensitive to the role it has played in the illicit trade in antiquities and taking proactive steps to diminish its use as a market for recently looted material.

Internet auction platforms, such as Ebay, play an important part in the trade of recently looted material. For a general essay see Chippindale, C. and D.W. J. Gill, “Online Auctions: A New Venue for the Antiquities Market,” Culture Without Context 9.

Cross-Posted at Numismatics and Archaeology: “ (Germany): New Rules on the Selling of Archaeological Materials

The ACCG "Benefit Auction"

I have critiqued the goals, motives, and tactics of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) several times (those unfamiliar with the ACCG are urged to consult a list of some relevant web-postings at the end of this discussion). For those who do not know, the ACCG is a 501 (c) 4 organization to which financial contributions are not normally tax deductible since up to 100% of its funds can be used for the purposes of political lobbying. According to its website, the goal of of the ACCG is to maintain a “free-market” in all coins. It has lobbied against legislative measures designed to protect archaeological and historical sites from destruction. A possible financial motive for its activities may be apparent in the fact that its founder and most of its officers are ancient coin dealers, and the majority of its financial contributors (especially the larger contributors) are ancient coin and antiquities dealers and auction houses.

In November of last year, the ACCG announced it was suing the U.S. Department of State under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for more transparency on the process under which it decided to impose import restrictions, at the request of Cyprus, on certain ancient coins of Cypriot type. Many who are familiar with the “blogstorm” last fall about these issues will recall that several vocal ACCG members and dealers were alleging various conspiracies between archaeologists and State Department officials( links here and here to relevant posts, some of which reference dealer accusations). A “benefit auction” for which the ACCG has been soliciting donations, which it will auction on August 17, 2008, has now sparked my interest.

…Read the rest of the post at Numismatics and Archaeology: “The ‘ACCG Benefit Auction’ and Intrinsic Interests.”

Good Faith, Due Diligence, and Market Activities

Recently, I have been taking note of the use of the term “good faith” and particularly how the term is used by opponents of import restrictions on antiquities that do not have proper documentation, repatriations of looted material, and advocates of a “free-market” in ancient objects.

Yesterday, David Gill reported that a relief fragment from an Egyptian tomb was repatriated to Egypt after it had been withdrawn from a sale at Bonhams (London) earlier this year, when someone from the Metropolitan Museum of Art recognized it from an Egyptian tomb, where it was once in situ (“Tomb of Mutirdis (TT410): Update,” Looting Matters, 30 June 2008). A spokesperson for Bonhams would not identify the individual or dealership from whom they acquired the object, but stated that it appeared to have been acquired in “good faith.”

Also on David Gill’s weblog, and elsewhere, there has been discussion of the Association of Art Museum Director’s (AAMD) new guidelines for the acquisition of antiquities (“AAMD and Antiquities: a Revised Position,” Looting Matters, 5 June 2008). In light of this, he has recently discussed the use of a 1970 vs. 1983 date in response to Lee Rosenbaum, who suggested the 1983 cutoff date for repatriations (D.W.J. Gill, “Towards a Ceasefire in the ‘Antiquities Wars': a Response to Lee Rosenbaum,” Looting Matters, 26 June 2008; id., “The ‘Antiquities Wars': Further Thoughts,” Looting Matters, 27 June 2008; L. Rosenbaum, “Towards a Ceasefire in the Antiquities Wars: The Next Step (Part I),” CultureGrrl, 25 June 2008; id., “Towards a Ceasefire in the Antiquities Wars: The Next Step (Part II),” CultureGrrl, 27 June 2008). Peter Tompa, current president of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) and an attorney, has also weighed in on the debate (“Memo to AAMD Members: Pick 1970 or 1983 as a Trigger for your Cultural Property Returns,” Cultural Property Observer, 26 June 2008). While Gill and Rosenbaum prefer different dates based on various legal and ethical precedents, 1970 (as per the 1970 UNESCO Convention) and 1983 (as per US legislation subscribing to the UNESCO Convention via the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA)), respectively, Tompa suggests that repatriations be based on the date that a foreign nation’s request for import restrictions on cultural property is recognized by the U.S. Department of State be used as the guideline. He also makes the statement early on that “Repatriation decisions should never be taken lightly, particularly when lack of provenance information does not necessarily mean lack of good faith.”

Last week, it was brought to the attention of the Iraq Crisis Discussion List that some rare Iraqi Jewish books were smuggled out of Iraq and traded in Israel (“Rare Iraqi Jewish Books ‘Surface in Israel,'” Yahoo! News, 27 June 2008). There has been a protracted discussion on the Iraq Crisis Discussion List, to which many have contributed, including Jeff Spurr, Dorothy King, Paul Barford, Michael Balter, John Robertson, Patty Gerstenblith, Donny George, Peter Tompa, and others (visit the June and July archives to view individual contributions to the thread). Mr. Tompa and Mr. Barford have both blogged about the discussion and pertinent issues (P. Tompa, “Jewish Books Smuggled from Iraq to Israel,” Cultural Property Observer, 28 June 2008; P. Barford, “‘Stuff Happens': US ‘Torah Rescue’ from Iraq?Cultural Heritage in Danger (SAFECorner), 30 June 2008). In regard to a related issue on these Iraqi Jewish books, Tompa again brings up “good faith”: “In any event, the Torah described in the article would not easily fit into either category so I think we must assume (unless proven otherwise) that all concerned have acted in good faith.”

It was also reported this month that a Norwegian soldier who served in Afghanistan attempted to donate a hoard of coins and an ancient bottle he acquired there to a museum in Oslo and that Afghanistan is now seeking the return of the illicitly exported – and probably looted – material (N. Berglund, “Afghanistan Seeks Return of ‘Stolen Treasures,'” Aftenposten: News from Norway, 18 June 2008). Dorothy King provided a short discussion of it on her blog (“A Little Afghan Looting…Updated,” PhDiva, 23 June 2008). In the comments section of this post, Peter Tompa commented:

“This soldier should be given the benefit of the doubt. It is likely he bought these artifacts in good faith from desperately poor farmers who found the material, and I will assume this to be the case unless and until someone proves otherwise. This only became a story when the archaeological blogs picked it up. I suspect they helped egg on the Afghan Museum authorities to demand the repatriation of this material and an investigation. Before the Communists and Taliban took over, the government tolerated sales of minor artifacts such as this. A change of sensibilities in the elites that run the archaeological establishment, will not change the facts on the ground. Desperately poor farmers will sell whatever they find to whomever will buy it. Better to put in some system akin to Treasure Trove, that records everything, rather than assume Afghanistan has the funds and archaeologists necessary to conserve every piece of ancient history in its museums.”

A comment by Sebastian Heath in response to Tompa on the same entry is worth reading as well as his “Say What?Mediterranean Ceramics, 23 June 2008.

The purpose of this post is not to “slam” Mr. Tompa. I have respect for him and he uses more discretion and reason than many of the dealers with whom I have tried to have discussions in the past (to be clear, Tompa is not a dealer, but rather a collector). Instead, I am trying to highlight a fundamental difference in perception and argumentation that people on different sides of the “antiquities debate” have. Tompa, for example, seems to present the notion that “good faith” and “the benefit of the doubt” are enough for the trading of antiquities. On the other hand, David Gill, among others, have argued the need for stronger “due diligence” processes in the acquisition of antiquities by dealers, collectors, and museums.

In the early spring of 1999, a 60 kilogram parcel of ancient coins, which was only part of a larger shipment, estimated to be in the neighborhood of a ton (literally), was intercepted at Frankfurt Airport (R. Dietrich, “Cultural Property on the Move – Legally, Illegally,” International Journal of Cultural Property 11.2 (2002): 294-304). The coins were falsely declared and were spirited out of Bulgaria and destined for sale in the United States. The Bulgarian national was and still is an active coin dealer and wholesaler to other dealers in the United States. Online correspondence on ancient coin discussion lists indicate this dealer was selling coins en masse to other dealers and collectors at a major North American coin show just a few months after customs officials released the parcel under peculiar circumstances (see the article for fuller discussion of the release from customs). Many collectors were excited by these coins and I am certain they purchased them in “good faith,” but does this excuse the way in which they made it to the marketplace? Although they may have been buying in “good faith,” were the dealers and collectors that purchased from this importer practicing adequate “due diligence”? Were they asking about how he acquired them, and if so, simply taking his word for whatever answer he might have supplied?

A couple of years ago, Classical Numismatic Group (CNG) acquired a very rare coin of Brutus commemorating Caesar’s assassination and paid approximately $23,000 for the coin (a wholesale price), which it in turn would have tried to sale for around $30,000 (D. Alberge, “Swoop by Customs Returns Brutus to Scene of the Crime,” Times Online, 15 June 2006; L. Worden, “Ancient Coin Buyers, Beware,” COINage Magazine 42.11 (Nov. 2006)). The Greek government claimed the coin was smuggled out of Greece and the coin was returned. Mr. McFadden of CNG acted in “good faith” in buying the coin and returned it to the Greek embassy when asked to do so. But how extensive was the “due diligence” process? The Times Online article stated:

“Mr McFadden, whose company is regarded as one of the world’s leading specialists in Greek and Roman coins, told The Times: ‘He did some work for Nino [Scavona] in the 1980s … One doesn’t refuse to deal with someone because he has a slightly shady background.

‘One looks at the deal on the table. We’re business people. If there’s any indication something’s not legitimate, we don’t deal in it.'”

Here is an excerpt from the COINage Magazine article:

“‘After the cash was seized,’ McFadden said, ‘his daughter kept phoning up, asking when her father could get his money back.’ That provided a clue that the man was indeed the seller. ‘That’s something that happened after the fact,’ McFadden said. ‘Not only did I not know about it, but I couldn’t have known about it.’ After all, it was the coin dealer who vouched for his ability to sell the coin. ‘If someone brings a coin in to you and says they own it and they can sell it to you and they guarantee the authenticity — obviously I’m aware of any recent reports of theft, so if the coin had been reported stolen, I would have known about it — then there’s nothing more one can do,’ McFadden said. Longtime coin dealer Wayne Sayles, executive director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, agreed. ‘There is no tradition in the world market for the background-checking of sellers, nor is there any real reason for it,’ Sayles said. ‘There are pertinent and applicable laws in most countries that deal with import, theft, etc., and dealers do, in my experience, try diligently to follow those laws as they apply at the point of sale.’ Sayles lamented that ‘we may have lost an opportunity to contest a claim that seems to be arguable on several grounds.’

It is clear that existing due diligence processes in the antiquities trade are not as rigorously applied as one might hope and much of the existing processes seem to rely very much on the mere word of profiteers and suppliers. “Good faith” purchases and dealings are not enough. Dealers and collectors would add dignity to their activities if they were to follow the example of the AAMD and adopt more stringent due diligence processes and acquisition guidelines. This would decrease the demand for recently looted material by diminishing the market for it and profitability of it.

(Image of an Egyptian relief withdrawn from a Bonhams sale and now repatriated to Egypt. Source: D.W.J. Gill, “Tomb of Mutirdis (TT410): Update,” Looting Matters, 30 June 2008)

This post has been cross-posted from Numismatics and Archaeology: “Good Faith, Due Diligence, and Market Activities.”

A Long Legacy of Protecting Cultural Heritage

A couple of days ago I visited the AIA’s Archaeology Watch resource page. I have visited the site several times before, but I have always glossed over the first little paragraph at the top of the page. This time, however, the little blurb about the Antiquities Act caught my eye. I was well aware that the AIA (Archaeological Institute of America), founded in 1879, was chartered by an Act of the U.S. Congress in 1906, but I had not realized until then that its charter coincided with President Theodore Roosevelt’s passage of the Antiquities Act and the role the AIA played in it is development. This may not be news to anyone but me, but I founded it interesting for a couple of reasons.

The Antiquities Act was supported by the AIA and lawmakers in order to give the American president power to counter looters and ‘pot hunters’ from destroying Native American cultural heritage in the American West [a Wikipedia article on the Act is also available – caveat emptor].

The AIA has been actively involved in raising awareness on problem of pillage and advocating protective legislation now for over 100 years. The AIA is frequently targeted by dealers for its stance on cultural property issues. In light of this fact, I find it even more peculiar that several antiquities dealers attempt to characterize the AIA’s position on the illicit trade in antiquities and looting as 1.) a recent development and 2.) a deliberate attempt to exclude “independent scholars” [i.e. dealers/collectors] from participating in academic discourse (for example, see my discussion at Numismatics and Archaeology: “‘Dilettanti and Shopmen': Divergent Interests in Looting and Cultural Heritage Issues,” 7 May 2008). Is this just one component of the tactics employed by profiteers, who attempt to portray their activities as scholarly in their public-relations battle with archaeologists and cultural preservation advocates? (cf. J.L. Hall, “The Fig and the Spade: Countering the Deceptions of Treasure Hunters,” AIA Archaeology Watch. 15 Aug. 2007).

For a very long time there has been a clear difference between the interests of scholars and scientists and those who exploit our history for mere financial profit. The public should not be deceived. The AIA has a long legacy of supporting efforts to protect cultural heritage from destruction.

Harrison Ford and the AIA

Cross posted from Numsimatics and Archaeology: “Harrison Ford and the AIA” 13 June 2008.

Several weeks ago, I reported on the Archaeological Institute of America’s (AIA) appointment of Harrison Ford to its Board of Directors (Numismatics and Archaeology: “‘That Belongs in a Museum!’” 21 May 2008). Harrison Ford is popularly known for his role as the dashing, adventurous archaeologist, Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., in the Indiana Jones films. Since Harrison Ford’s appointment to the AIA Board of Directors, there has been some controversy over the appointment (there are some links to these discussion in the comments section of my previous post).

SAFECORNER recently posted a reaction by Oscar Muscarella, a well-known scholar and advocate against the illicit trade in antiquities and an active AIA member (“‘Indiana Jones is a Plunderer.’ What do you Think?” 5 June 2008). SAFECORNER has asked for public comment on the controversy and has received a dozen comments so far.

In the AIA article announcing Ford’s appointment to the Board, the AIA President, Brian Rose, stated: “Harrison Ford has played a significant role in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeological exploration.” Surely, this is an accurate statement and the films have cult status among many young archaeologists. As an undergraduate studying archaeology and classical studies, I was a member of my university’s “Archaeology Club,” which organized trips to local archaeological sites, “pot parties” (not what you are thinking – these consisted of purchasing cheap Wal-Mart ceramics, smashing them and then gluing them back together again), and other social gatherings. One of the most popular events were the regular Indiana Jones movie marathons. I recall several students in archaeology that I went to college with said that the Indiana Jones films were partly responsible for their desire to study archaeology. As archaeologists, we are fully aware of the differences in archaeological practice and ethics used by the fictional Indiana Jones and archaeologists working in the real world. But what about the general public?

The controversy does not seem to be so much a question of whether or not the Indiana Jones films will inspire someone to loot an archaeological site, but what message the AIA is sending by putting the actor behind Jones’ character on its Board of Directors. The AIA has adopted a bold stance on archaeological ethics and has supported research on and legislative measures against the illicit trade in antiquities. Does the appointment of “Indiana Jones” to the AIA Board then exacerbate public perception that artifacts are there for the taking by anyone who comes across them? This seems to be the question at the heart of the controversy and is a question well worth asking. For example, when I tell people I am an archaeologist, I am always asked at least one of two questions, “So you’re into dinosaurs?” or “Do you get to keep what you find?” Muscarella’s concerns are justified.

I wonder, however, if it may be too early to assess the capacity in which Ford will work with the AIA. Indeed, the first line of the AIA article reads: “‘Indiana Jones” shows his commitment to real archaeology.'” Ford himself stated, “Knowledge is power, and understanding the past can only help us in dealing with the present and the future.” It has been reported that Harrison Ford has lent his star-power to advocacy against wildlife trafficking in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State and WildAid. Will Mr. Ford also use his celebrity status and his Indiana Jones stardom to help raise public awareness on the problem of plunder and the illicit antiquities trade in his new role at the AIA? I hope so.

Already, some from the collecting and trade community seem concerned about Harrison Ford’s new role at the AIA. Two prominent members of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), a lobby of ancient coin dealers and collectors that I and others have discussed elsewhere (relevant posts at SAFECORNER and Looting Matters), have expressed fear that Ford will help raise public awareness on looting and the trade in antiquities. Jim McGarigle, an ancient coin dealer who lobbied Republican Congressmen in Wisconsin, on behalf of the ACCG, to put “collectors rights” on the state’s Republican party platform, apparently with no concern regarding the source or nature of collected material, recently stated on the Unidroit List:

“I predicted something like this would occur over a year ago [Ford’s appointment]. Be ready for the AIA to pull out the big guns on collecting with an easy celebrity reference where they can put on the ‘White Fedora’ and try to place the black one atop the heads of ancient and world coin collectors.

Maybe it’s time to start writing scripts about a heroic ancient numismatist [dealer/collector] who beats up the bad guys, saves the world and gets the girl or an antiquity collector who solves a murder every week.”

Peter Tompa, the ACCG’s current president, recently blogged about Ford’s support of the State Department and WildAid against wildlife trafficking and expressed concern that he would also help the AIA in its efforts to raise awareness on antiquities trafficking:

“I also have to wonder if Harrison Ford and the State Department are also working on PSAs that will expose the evils of collecting ‘illicit cultural property’ now that Ford has joined the AIA board.”

Like many people, I am sure Harrison Ford has an interest in archaeology and ancient history and I am delighted he is so enthusiastic about it that he decided to become an active part of the leading professional organization for archaeologists. I am anxious to see in what capacity Mr. Ford will be working with the AIA and wish him the best in his exciting new position.

Stakeholders and Interests in Cultural Heritage Issues

Archaeologists, museums, dealers, and collectors are the most frequently referenced “stakeholders” in cultural property issues. Archaeologists and other scholars are concerned about the destruction of information resulting from looting. Museums are concerned about mainting the prestige and integrity of their collections and exhibiting to the public. Collectors have a passion for the ancient world that is expressed through personal acquisition and often enjoy the physical or tactile connection the past. Dealers acquire objects and sell them at a profit to those want to acquire them. The general public is often ignored as one of the stakeholders, but SAFECORNER recently commented on the public’s interest.

One group of stakeholders, those who profit financially, have been heavily involved in the issues and are waging a sort of public relations battle, claiming to be “better scholars” than trained professionals, in order to distance themselves from their inherent commercial interest as tradesmen (see for example, Jerome Hall’s “The Fig and the Spade” and my post on SAFECORNER “Archaeologists don’t care about coins“). In light of some recent activity, I have discussed the divergent interests, and asked why some dealers often allege archaeologists and other scholars have ulterior motives for their stances on cultural heritage issues. Read the post at: “‘Dilettanti and Shopmen': Divergent Interests in Looting and Cultural Heritage Issues.”

Towards a Forum for Constructive Dialogue

Although I have critically examined the trade in ancient coins, I have never proclaimed an “anti-collecting” position; instead, I have been concerned with destruction and the problems caused by indiscriminate collecting. Over the past several months it has become clear that our viewpoints diverge on philosophical and statistical elements, e.g. the relative value of contexts and scale of the flow of ‘fresh’ materials into the marketplace. Although we differ on these issues I hope we can agree that there are valid points that emerge from the concerns of both ‘sides': e.g. collectors have a genuine interest in and passion for the ancient world; collectors can make (and have made) important contributions to serious numismatic research; the destruction of sites and information is deplorable; and the market at large is supplied by freshly dug material to some degree, as multiple collectors and dealers have acknowledged on various discussion lists.

I think if we can agree on such points we can perhaps move forward with a more constructive dialogue that goes beyond our electronic exchanges and works towards addressing the concerns of academics, cultural heritage preservation advocates, collectors, and dealers in a way that may lead towards solutions that are amenable to all concerned parties. Collectors and dealers wish to trade in ancient coins as they have done; others believe that a controlled market will contribute to curbing the destruction of sites and information. Perhaps we can come together and have a meeting of minds. For example, I have seen proposed models of databases, which might curb the flow of recently dug material into the market if they were used as registries and universal market guidelines were adopted concerning the sell of unregistered material; several weeks ago some of these were discussed on the Unidroit list. I note that one active ACCG member, Jim McGarigle, was the author of one interesting suggestion/model. One thing that I discussed with a colleague several weeks ago was the prospect of a sort of conference or panel that would explore solutions and discuss various methods of implementation.

Such a conference or panel would be hosted by some mutually agreed upon organization, which has no special interest in one ‘side’ or the other and a mutually agreed upon moderator could be chosen as well. Different groups could, perhaps, send a certain number of delegates/presenters to discuss some models that would both work toward establishing greater transparency of market activity in an attempt to diminish the role market demand plays in active looting and facilitate cooperation between academics and members of the trade community at large and establish an atmosphere of greater trust. After the conference, a panel or committee consisting of members from different groups could explore the feasibility and implementation of such models. If it is agreed some event like this would be beneficial, I would look forward to working with interested parties towards that end.