Confrontations: A Young Boy’s Temptation

SAFE blog’s new series “Confrontations” invites everyone to share firsthand experiences with looting and the illicit antiquities trade. These personal accounts will illustrate the on-going problems of these issues within a global context. 

When I was young, before I gained an interest in archaeology and the ancient world, my knowledge of artefacts was merely limited to the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Though having such knowledge at a young age was purely overwhelming, especially for a young boy like myself in a country enriched with an ancient past spanning over thousands of years, it understandably got me into a lot of trouble.

Till this day, I still look back to the 1990s, when I nearly ventured into the sinister world of the illicit antiquities trade, with conflicting thoughts of morality. For a person trying to feed his or her family, on one side, there is sympathy for the person’s actions. However, on the other, there is real pent-up anger towards that person as he or she is either destroying or illegally selling what represents a valuable past that we can truly learn from.

Now, you are wondering what happened to me back in the 90s…? How did I nearly enter the uncharted waters of such illicitness that has haunted me to this present day?

It all happened during the summer holidays, when my family decided to travel to Egypt for two weeks. Unlike being expected to visit Cairo, explore the pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps take a relaxing boat ride down the Nile river, we ended up in Sharm el-Sheikh that, for us Brits, was a stereotypically ideal place for a family vacation.

A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market, Egypt A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh’s Old Market, Egypt
Flickr user Kareny13 (taken: 25/11/2010)

During our time, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh’s infamous old market on numerous occasions. The market was infused with a magical eastern vibe, various smells of spices and incense, Arabic music, and the haggling of goods, and it made me feel like I was in sheer heaven. With the exception of seeing dead carcasses dangling on every rack, there was one particular part of the market that ended my blissful experience.

Hidden away in the distance, I remember seeing an outline of this rugged man standing next to a stall with a large quantity of ancient coins. These coins looked as if though they had been recently removed from the ground… Though my Indiana Jones knowledge of artefacts proved to be limited, all I saw were these coins being beautifully displayed on this decaying wooden table.

Immediately, my whole body froze. Alarm bells were ringing. Warning signs were gathering in my head, trying to pull me away from the absolute power of these coins that continuously sparkled in my day-dreamt eyes. Yet like a child being let loose in a sweet shop, there was an irresistible urge to personally own such artefacts. This desire also lifted me off my feet, like a person floating off towards the mouth-watering smell of a delicious meal, and, within a matter of seconds, I found myself face to face with the very man who was standing right next to this collection of coins.

He appeared to be frail looking– shabbily dressed but presentable enough to look like a respectable business man. Suddenly, this man began to talk. At first, it was very unclear as to what exactly he was saying. He spoke in a mixture of Arabic and broken English, asking me if I wanted to buy priceless coins that had historical and archaeological significance.

“Hlan wa sahlan! Kayfa Halak? Taf-fadal! Special price! Coins came earlier today for you my friend. What do you want?”

At this time, I was gob-smacked.  Was this man talking to me? Was I that special someone to whom he was offering a special price…? I looked around and saw that I was the only bystander facing his direction. How could this be? Why were other people purposely avoiding this man?

Obviously, there were many reasons behind this. One could have been that that he was coming from outside the city, and therefore the locals did not know him. Another reason could have been that he was a dodgy character selling illegal artefacts, and it was thus unwise to get involved in his business.

As a young boy, it was likely that my understanding of the illicit antiquities trade was non-existent. I had never had a confrontation like that before in my life– not until that day. If I had bought a coin from that man, who knows what could have happened to me. According to Egyptian law (1983 LPA), all antiquities – be they cultural, historical or archaeological – are strictly regulated and actually owned by the State; and if  I was caught red-handed by a police officer, I could have gone to prison for my involvement, and I would not have a great life ahead of me.

While those very thoughts were in my mind, I felt a heavy hand placed on my right shoulder. My shadow began to amplify, and a low voice began to speak out from nowhere.

“Michael!…Stop what you are doing Shamah Junior! You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend!”

Without a doubt, I recognised that quote from one of the Indiana Jones Trilogies, The Raiders of the Lost Ark… (The best Indian Jones film that was ever made, I must say), and I knew exactly who it was.

I looked round and saw my father, looking stereotypically Middle Eastern with an Arab moustache, his big body with broad shoulders, and with very tanned skin; indeed, he was known for using film quotes in his sentences.

Without a word, I was tugged away, leaving this unfortunate man behind, not knowing where he would be in the course of time.

Me at a young age, back in the 1990s Me at a young age, back in the 1990s
Michael Shamah

As stated earlier, I still look back to that exact scene in Sharm el-Sheikh’s old market. In addition, you will find me exploring and dealing with similar confrontations in the upcoming blogs– especially those regarding the desecrations of various sites, or, as in this particular instance, a confrontation with a person selling a priceless artefact which has “illegal” written all over it.

Since this first experience, I have had conflicting thoughts, a broader understanding of the illicit world, and I am better at recognising potential signs of looting or at least something illicit. As an archaeologist, I have begun to care more about the preservation of cultural heritage, and it has been rather upsetting to think of how sites which convey significant cultural and historical meaning, have been affected by human activity. Although in the eyes of some, these actions might be considered as a good thing… It is now understandable why these motives take place.

Especially in an unstable Middle East – which I am quite familiar with, due to my heritage and the focusing of my speciality in this specific region – and for sectarian, political or economic reasons, countless sites have, unfortunately, been targeted. Nevertheless, as seen from my first encounter, there are some sheer beauties of the past that attract potentially irrational visitors who may just want to fill their pockets.

From what consequently ends up in the illicit antiquities trade, this beautiful memorabilia of the past has become absorbed into a sinister world which is loathed by most of us.

Thus, I would like to end this blog with the very questions that hang in the back of my mind.
What were the motives behind the act? Were they rational?

But also, what may be seen as an act for survival or greed and is believed by some as a person’s worst nightmare,  it may sequentially be seen by others as a heavenly treasure trove.

If you have had similar experiences that you would like to share, it would be great to hear from you; and for my next shareable experience…Stay tuned. 

Prominent coin dealer and hand surgeon thought he was selling real stolen coins

Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, a prominent Rhode Island hand surgeon, a professor of orthopedics at Brown University School of Medicine, and a dealer in ancient coins, pleaded guilty on July 3, to attempted criminal possession of stolen property, a misdemeanor offense, for trying to sell what he thought were authentic ancient Greek coins that he believed had been looted from Sicily. But the coins are, in fact, forgeries. Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos told the court, the coins are “exquisite, extraordinary, but forgeries nonetheless.”

Dr. Weiss was arrested on January 3 during the 40th Annual New York International Numismatic Convention at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in possession of a silver coin that purported to be an early 4th century BC Greek type known as a Katane Tetradrachm, which he valued at $300,000-350,000. According to the criminal complaint, Dr. Weiss told a confidential informant: “there’s no paperwork. I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago…. I know where this came from.”

Authorities seized the coin, having been informed by Captain Massimo Maresca, of the Italian Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, that “Italian law, namely the Code of Cultural and Landscape Heritage, has vested absolute and true ownership of all antiquities found in Italy after 1909 in the Italian government, and that the Italian government never gave Dr. Weiss or anyone permission, consent or authority to remove said coin from the ground or removed it from Italy,” according to the criminal complaint.

Investigators soon discovered that Dr. Weiss was also trying to sell another coin, an Akragas Dekadrachm, purportedly dating from 409-406 BC, which Dr. Weiss valued at upwards of $2.5 million, and a third coin, which were soon to be auctioned by Nomos AG, which is co-owned by Dr. Weiss, as part of a collection dubbed “Selections from Cabinet W.” At the request of the NY District Attorney’s office, the three coins were examined by academic experts, who considered the coins to be genuine. To be certain, Assistant District Attorney Bogdanos had the coins analyzed using an scanning electron microscope, which revealed them to be modern forgeries.

News that the Weiss coins are forgeries — and so well made that even leading experts could not detect them — has the close-knit fraternity of high-end coin collectors abuzz. Surely coin collectors must be asking:

1. Where did these top-quality forgeries come from? How were they made (pressure molded or struck)? How many more examples by the same forger have circulated, and when did they first appear?

2. If experts who examined the coins at the request of the NYDA’s office were unable to determine the Weiss coins are forgeries, what hope do dealers, auctioneers, and collectors have when the next undocumented Greek or Roman coin with scant provenance and a six-figure price tag appears on the market? Will this case prompt coin dealers, auctioneers and collectors to agree that verifiable provenances and scientific testing are necessary for all coins above a certain price level.

Dr. Weiss was sentenced to 70 hours of community service (providing medical care to disadvantaged patients in Rhode Island), was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for each of the three coins in the case, and forfeited another 20 ancient coins that were seized from him at the time of his arrest. The judge also ordered Dr. Weiss to write an article for publication in a coin collecting magazine or journal warning of the risks of dealing in coins of unknown or looted provenance. The awareness raising impact of that article should be significant.

Contrary to a report on the case published in the July 3 New York Post, no order has been issued by the Court for the forgeries to be destroyed.

Cultural heritage attorney Rick St. Hilaire provides a cogent legal analysis of the Weiss case here.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos is a 2006 SAFE Beacon Award recipient and the author of “The Thieves of Baghdad,” about the looting of the Iraq Museum and resulting exploding black market in its antiquities in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Read more about the case and Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss here.

UPDATE: $500 million worth of shipwreck loot remains property of Spain, court rules…again

Odyssey Marine Exploration’s appeal of the court’s ruling that the 17 tons of silver and gold the salvage company dug up from the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes (known as “Black Swan”) was rejected by the court, reaffirming a ruling earlier this year that the Black Swan treasure is Spain’s “natural, legal patrimony.” Details of the case, involving what is “reputed to be the most valuable find in history,” was explored in a joint AIA/APA Annual Meeting workshop organized by SAFE, which included leading authorities from the archaeological and legal worlds.

Import restrictions on Italian antiquities extended

Today’s Federal Register announced that import restrictions imposed on certain archaeological material originating in Italy have been extended for another five years. The material represents the pre-Classical, Classical, and Imperial Roman periods of its cultural heritage, ranging in date from approximately the 9th century B.C. through approximately the 4th century A.D. The determination was made under the terms of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act that implemented the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

In addition, coins have been added to the list of items covered by the restrictions.

SAFE supports the decision and applauds the Cultural Property Advisory Committee for continuing to recognize import restrictions as an effective deterrent against the destruction of cultural heritage, and the fact that coins “are an equally important historical source and are no less important ‘antiquities’.

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).

Court rules: Black Swan treasure is Spain’s "natural, legal patrimony"

U.S. district judge Steven Merryday today ruled for the return of half-a-million coins and hundreds of gold objects to Spain. The artifacts, which had been recovered by the Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. had been “illegally taken.” Spain’s cultural ministry said.

According to an AFP report, Odyssey (the NASDAQ-traded corporation that specializes in salvaging shipwrecks) “had argued that even though the coins were Spanish, that did not mean they were found on a Spanish ship.” Also, “since the vessel’s mission at the time was commercial, and that most of the coins were owned by merchants ‘and were never owned by Spain.'” Odyssey plans to appeal. Read Odyssey’s press release on the ruling which it plans to appeal here.

A year ago, in a workshop at the Joint AIA/APA Annual Meeting moderated by SAFE Board Member Eric Powell, leading authorities from the archaeological and legal worlds discussed the specifics of the Black Swan controversy and its broader implications for both cultural heritage policy and the practice of archaeology.

Today’s decision should cause all commercial treasure hunters to admit the fundamental flaw in the Odyssey’s business model. Admiralty law matters. And the court has spoken.

Image: Coinlink

Coins matter

In the SAFE feature article “Why coins matter” numismatist Nathan Elkins wrote “Ancient coins are among the most widely collected and demanded objects among American collectors of antiquities.” “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.” Elkins continued. SAFE agrees.

We are therefore pleased to announce “Coin Matters” as the latest addition to our growing Resources section. Please assist us in keeping our resources fresh and current. We welcome any additional new and relevant links you may have, both on-line and off-line, and appreciate your contribution to our shared interest in increasing the public’s knowledge on cultural heritage issues. To submit your resources and keep this site growing please email

Photo: Nathan Elkins

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.

When will US eBay follow suit?

According to the Museum Security Network posting “eBay Cancels Auctions of Ancient Coins” German eBay has put into practice the policies it announced this past July.

A translation of the German policies in the above posting indicates “It is forbidden to offer archeological findings whose lawful acquisition and possession the supplier cannot prove on eBAY.” While SAFECORNER joins all those who applaud German eBay’s contribution to the effort to safeguard cultural heritage, a question lingers: What about US eBay?

A search on US eBay today 11.26 AM (EST) under “ancient coins” yielded more than 7,300 results.


1) How many of these coins would be deleted if the German eBay policies were applied in the US?

2) If eBay in other countries will take the steps to help regulate the trade in antiquities, why not the US?

The US government continues to contribute to the international effort to stem looting with import restrictions, isn’t it time for the private sector to also step up its efforts? Let’s hope that US eBay will take the lead.

Brent Benjamin to join CPAC: "An outrageous appointment…"

The Museum Security Network has started a discussion over the appointment of St. Louis Art Museum director Brent R. Benjamin as a member of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. “Doing so the USA will defame itself internationally.” Ton Cremers, one of the Museum Security Network’s moderators and creator of the original Museum Security Network mailing list protests. The St. Louis Art Museum has been criticized by Zahi Hawass, secretary general for the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, for “not returning the mask and has threatened to turn the dispute over to authorities.”

Members of the coin collecting and lobbying community have called the appointment “positive news” and “as protecting the rights of collectors.” Are the political powers of lobbying winning out over issues concerning cultural property?

Read about the controversy here and on the LOOTING MATTERS blog, in which David Gill asks, “Does the Bush administration mean to send out a signal that it does not care about claims on cultural property in North American museums?”

SAFE hopes this appointment does not represent a change in direction for CPAC. To date, CPAC has not turned down a single MOU request from any country, a laudable record among those of us who are concerned about stopping looting worldwide.

Photo: St. Louis Commerce Magazine

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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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.”

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.”

Operation Ghelas: Some Implications for Coin Collectors

There is news that there will be the first hearing for those on trial in connection with a Sicilian group allegedly exporting antiquities. Perhaps the detail that is worrying for collectors of coins is the mention that, during police raids in January 2007, evidence was found that the group were not only “smuggling genuine artefacts” but “they also made false ones to sell” (“Italian archaeology smugglers uncovered”, ANSA, January 31, 2007). Apparently,

Equipment was discovered which was clearly used to make ‘ancient’ coins and vases.

Details of three galleries have now appeared. The Art Newspaper reported yesterday (“Italy awaits biggest ever trial of tomb robbers“, The Art Newspaper, no. 187, January 28, 2008):

Alessandro Sutera Sardo, the public prosecutor, … said the “four-celled” network of international collaborators distributed stolen antiquities through intermediaries in Switzerland, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the US, including Munich’s Gorny & Mosch auction house.

In 2004 this Munich auction house returned a sculpture stolen from the Amphiaraeion Museum, Greece back in 1991 (“Stolen artefact returns to Greece after resurfacing in Germany”, AFP, May 28, 2004).

The artefact unexpectedly resurfaced in May, when German archaeologist Matthias Roecke of the Justus Leibig University in Giessen alerted Greek colleagues that it was on a June sales list of Munich auction house Gorny and Mosch.

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.