New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently supported a seminar organized to question the rationale behind part of the US International Cultural Property Protection Program. I found that disturbing and have written to her to ask why, and whether she supports this program and feels it should be strengthened or disabled. Members of SAFE – particularly those based in New York – might want to do the same.
Tag Archives: dealers
Alexander Joffe’s article (Feb. 2) on the, fortunately minor, looting of the Cairo Museum is misleading and, indeed, paradoxical for an archaeologist, omits to mention, let alone discuss, the sole cause for this and all other looting and worldwide plunder. It exists to acquire “treasures” to be sold to customers: no customers, no looting or plunder. This reality is the beginning and end of all discussions on local plunder and looting. Such actions are initially conducted by thieves, not the “people” (“Iraqis,” “Egyptians”), who, as Joffe unfortunately claims, should “decide whether to preserve or destroy” their heritage. Both the thieves and local plunderers (who often commit violence in their activities), are employed by antiquity dealers, who arrange the smuggling abroad, and in turn sell their goodies to, museums and private collectors worldwide. The former purchase the plunder seeking to be labeled “encyclopaedic museums,” and “Guardians of the Past,” which goal in the United states is unknowingly and unwittingly paid for (many millions of dollars a year) by taxpayers; the later for social, prestige reasons. These are the plunderer’s employers, the very sponsors of all looting and plundering. Joffe mentions the looting of the Baghdad and Kabul museums, but not the five museums looted in 1991 under Saddam Husseins’ reign, or that at Corinth: all sold to their sponsors abroad.
Joffee and I agree that plundered artifacts “must be returned,” but clearly, if inadvertently, seems to support plunder in general by assuming they will be “safer in Europe or America,” again omitting to mention how the countless thousands of plundered antiquities reached Europe and America in the first place. Joffe’s attacks on Egypt’s Zahi Hawass conflate his justified claims for return (yes, the Nefertiti head was stolen from Egypt by the German archaeologist Ludwig Burchardt) with his flamboyant claims, and, crucially, does not mention that Hawass’ demands for return were made before the present chaos in Egypt, and were in some cases not “misguided.”
Oscar White Muscarella,
New York City
This morning, while browsing the web for current Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade news to blog about, I came across the webpage of a company/auction house that, to me, seems as brazen in their sale of unprovenanced and/or recently surfaced artifacts as the world’s largest wholesale auction houses. Indeed, they occasionally have their own auctions! This time I’m talking about Arte Mission (or artemission.com), based out of South Kensington, London, and specializing in “ancient art from Egypt, the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, in Islamic Art and Ancient Coins.” With apparently 40+ years in the business, and with “major galleries and museums” as both recipients and guest appraisers of artifacts, their website provides prospective buyers with everything from a Membership list, a searchable database, website translation into a number of different languages, a recommended reading list of books and articles at a “Reader’s corner,” two-day item reservation, and email contact.
If you’ll allow me a brief segue, there’s even a link to an online store called “Ancienne Ambiance,” with the express purpose of fostering one’s inner “antiquity sensibility.” In the words of company founder Adriana Carlucci, after “having helped customers step back in time through the use of fragrance, extensive customer feedback to the site indicated a strong interest in even more luxury consumer products reflecting an ancient theme.” She then teamed up with artemission.com and jewellery designer Claire van Holthe to offer jewellery “made using authentic beads, stones, amulets and pendants from different ancient civilizations and modern gold.” Ironically, some of the proceeds of these sales are given to the charity PACT (diligently fighting against child abduction), but the “abduction” and reuse of the world’s archaeological heritage is perfectly ok? As an archaeologist myself, I can assure readers that “antiquity” as I’ve experienced it (i.e. in graves, historic period privies, wells, ancient houses, research laboratories) certainly DOES NOT smell like lavender! In the end, the commercialization of products based on the smell of antiquitiy (whatever that is) is irrelevant, and there is honest disclosure that the use of the antiquities is to enhance the appeal of the jewellry, the end result is still the reuse of archaeological artifacts ripped from context so as to appease/enhance the status of the wealthy.
Returning to my original discussion of artemission.com itself, one can see that their catalog contains quite the diversity of artifacts within their stated geographic area of expertise. These range from cuneiform tablets, to Egyptian faience, shabtis, and scarabs, cylinder seals, numerous artifacts from various European cultures, plenty of jewellery, glass artifacts (primarily Roman), coins (Roman and Greek), weapons, manuscripts, and a separate category of “Under $400” miscellanea; “excellent to start or complement a collection, ideal as an interesting and unique gift.” Besides the usual promise to include a “certificate of authenticity” with each purchase, two other aspects of artemission.com’s “code of ethics;” namely, “we undertake to the best of our ability to make our purchases in good faith,” and “we undertake not to knowingly deal in any cultural objects that have left Iraq after 6/8/90, in compliance with The Iraq (U.N. Sanctions) Order 2003 (S.I. 2003/1519).”
“Good Faith” implies trust that the middlemen providing the dealers with antiquities (or the dealers providing the customers) have done their part to double check the veracity of what they purport to sell. However, it seems that in this case “good faith” applies merely to questions of authenticity, as very few examples of past-provenance information was observed attached to online catalog entries for any item, and those that did once again derived “from an old collection,” “private collection,” or a different auction house, frequently post 1980s. However, to be completely honest, I must point out that a few items, such as a few cuneiform tablets, provide the name of the individual person who assembled the collection the item came from, and suggested pre-1970s surfacing. The catalog overall, however, suggests that secure provenance is more or less irrelevant to the modern trade, especially online. In strange contrast to that, they swear to uphold the recent U.N. sanction on the trade in looted antiquities from Iraq, probably due to fear of bad press over perceived “war profiteering.” As this cylinder seal shows, for example, artemission.com readily acquired Iraqi (Mesopotamian) artifacts from the 1990s-present as long as they were said to have surfaced before then. To quote Dr. Chippindale from an earlier post of mine, “said by whom, to whom, under what circumstances, and with what intentions?” The separate coins webpage demonstrates that this dealer, like others, exhibits the cognitive dissonance required to not view ancient coins as “antiquities,” let alone artifacts that once had their own unique contexts.
Discussion of a short article by Peter A. Clayton, FSA (Founding Chairman of the Antiquities Dealer’s Association, 1982) is also relevant here; made available to all artemission.com potential customers in the “Reader’s corner,” for purposes of “education” and encouragement. It is important that this rhetoric be further exposed, as it is geared primarily towards those who might stumble onto their website (and into collecting) by accident, or with previous reticence to buy. The article primarily centers around the opinion that “it is often not realized that just because an object may be centuries, or even several thousand years old it does not have to be financially inaccessible;” stressing that recent very expensive auction sales only represent the “extreme end” of the market. If an amateur collector is willing to take on the “high degree of specialist approach” and “get to know dealers who stock items that interest them” (so that the dealer “can get to know his clients requirements and keep an eye on the market for available pieces”), then both parties can “enjoy and learn from the contact.” Clayton distills the entire purpose of the trade thusly: “The point about collecting antiquities is that they provide the opportunity to reach back across the centuries and actually handle the past to, if you like, feel a rapport with the original ancient owner.” Textbook summation of the “Connoisseur’s View,” is it not? To archaeologists and heritage professionals who monitor the trade, this is familiar rhetoric…but documents such as these in the hands of potential new buyers AND with a major catalog provided, is fuel for the fire.
What to do? I like to think of the multi-pronged response that S.A.F.E. and others are taking as the “Triple E” model: “Education, Exposure, Enforcement.” This corresponds to education at the local supply level, education and exposure BEFORE new “customers” make that first purchase, and enforcement intervening at the local in-country level whenever possible, but at the very least BEFORE the artifact enters the (online) market place, where dispersal becomes very easy. I know, I know…easier said than done…but the more that major dealers/smuggling rings are either shut down, or brought into compliance with ALL global heritage laws, the greater the repercussions down the entire supply line. Constant vigilance!
A few days ago, a very shocking and depressing addition to my personal monitoring of the global antiquities trade, especially in regards to Southeast Asian artifacts, was brought to my attention. I’m talking about a distributor called BC Galleries (http://www.bcgalleries.com.au). Formerly a member of sothebys.com, and with clients ranging from individuals, to museums, to other galleries, they have operated out of Melbourne, Australia, since 1976 (with a website for international transactions online since 1999). The company has two major financial associates that lend their operations the air of legitimacy. CINOA (Confederation Internationale des Negociants en Oeuvre d’Art, or International Confederation of Art and Antiquities Dealers Associations) is based out of Brussels, a city notorious for antiquities trafficking in its own right. It represents over 5,000 dealer organizations in 22 countries, all of whom must sign the membership charter to be legally allowed to use the CINOA logo for marketing. Within Australia itself, BC Galleries is also a prominent member of the Australian Association of Art and Antiquities Dealers (AADA). This nation-wide confederation of dealers allows those interested to browse affiliated galleries by State/Territory, or by primary category of antiquities for sale. Their website even contains a message board on which exclusive viewings of specific collections are advertised to the well-to-do visitor or local of the major Australian cities (Sydney, Melbourne, etc.), with the rare objects on view described with the same “hidden jewel,” and “National treasure” language that galleries catering to the super-rich tend to employ world-wide. Although, admittedly, much of what is offered for sale by most listed dealers will have nothing to do with the looting of ancient archaeological sites, what I uncovered in my perusal of the BC Galleries’ website and on-line catalogues demonstrates that BC Galleries isn’t one of them. One can only assume, then, that the stated “goal” of CINOA to “encourage high ethical standards within the trade” must only apply to the aggressive and concentrated use of expert appraisers to remove forgeries from the collections of signatory galleries. It appears that this “ethical concern” does not, howerver, cover the very brazen sale of recently looted antiquities.
The site is organized into two major catalogues; one for “Antiquities,” and the other for “Tribal Art,” both of which contain artifacts from around the world. The “Tribal Art” catalogue consists solely of artifacts of ethnographic, or relatively recent ethnohistoric, provenance (with “provenance” in this case usually being the name of the ethnic group from which the crafts-person derives, or at the very least, the region/country where the object was acquired from). Importantly, no ‘paper trail’ is provided up front to explain how these often rare or bulky items came to be for sale through BC Galleries (with a few exceptions being objects that are stated to come from “old collections”). Although a potential buyer can fill out a form to “request more information,” what certainty is there that the information provided will be accurate? This problem is even more severe in the case of the “Antiquities” offered for sale, which also span the globe in their source locations. They range in listed date from late 19th/early 20th centuries backwards (to the inclusion of a few mounted collections of European Palaeolithic stone tools), and even include 185 items under the category of “natural history” (fossils, insect specimens in amber, meteorite fragments etc.; all of which have their own illegal harvesting problems).
A basic tabulation of the raw numbers of artifacts for sale (determined from the number of individual entries in each section of the “Antiquities” catalog, segregated by general geographic region and/or time period) reveals some interesting, but unsurprising, patterns. The most obvious pattern is that specific regions of the world currently undergoing conflict, instability, or just generally suffering from insufficient monitoring of the antiquities trade comprise the largest categories of artifacts for sale. For example, “Southeast Asia” as a whole produced 325 entries on the days I monitored the website, while 250 entries come from “South Asia,” 193 entries derive from “Bactria” (read Afghanistan), 147 under “Pre-Islamic Iran” and 257 items under the very broad category of “Islamic Art.” Rather high tallies under the categories of “New Kindom” and “Late Period” Egypt, “Neolithic” and “Shang-Han Dynasties” China, and “Mesopotamia” might be partially due to “accidental finds” entering the market after, say, a farmer, discovers small artifacts in his fields and sells them to a middleman. Some of them also derive from the decommissioning of old museum collections or auction house lots (Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Mossgreen Auctions being just three examples listed on catalog records), but certainly not all of them. Even if a particular artifact can be shown to have passed through a different auction house before it was offered for sale again through BC Galleries, this says nothing about the conditions under which that artifact initially arrived on the market.
Very importantly, no distinction whatsoever is provided to the website viewer/potential buyer to discern how and when an artifact entered BC Gallerie’s possession. Granted, some of the artifacts in the larger categories, especially “Islamic Art,” are ethnohistoric pieces dating (reportedly) from the 19th-20th centuries, but the diversity, and occasional rarity, of objects for sale, especially those small and easily transportable artifacts coming out of currently “hot” areas like Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, practically guarantees that recent loot is being sold. I suspect that there’s no section of the catalog specifically labeled “Iraq” because, with so much attention focused on the high profile artifacts looted from new sites, old sites, and the National Museum of that country, the perceived risk was just too great. This is in opposition to the very small item counts for every other category, especially those archaeological cultures and countries in the Classical World for which the looting problem has been much more publicised and actively pursued, such as Greece, Turkey, and Italy. This is not to say that looting has been stamped out in those locations (far from it), nor that low tallies for a specific category (e.g. “Pre-Columbian”) on the days I devoted to searching the website should be viewed as reflecting the permanent state of the market. Indeed, the dealers that supply the global antiquities trade would always have to contend with fluctuations in “product” availability.
Through whose hands are these artifacts passing before arriving at the warehouse? A perusal of those very few individual catalog entries with a previous source listed (no more than 2-3%, by my estimate), reveals a diversity of network contacts, some from decommissioned collections, and others from active dealers elsewhere. Some are based in Australia (e.g., East Australia Trading, Sydney; the Buttonshaw collection, Melbourne; the Whitbourne collection, Melbourne), and some come from overseas (e.g., the Howard Rose Gallery, New York City; the Dr. Giuliana Zanetti collection, Bologna, Italy; the Mohit Collection, out of an undisclosed location in India, and the “private” collection of one Virginia Williamson, out of New Hampshire, USA). The few other collections I found record of did not state any specific location or time period, especially pre-1970s, during which the collection was supposedly amassed. Perhaps this information is only available upon request? It seems more likely that its not offered because its not known. What is apparent, however, is that BC Galleries is one of the better connected wholesale dealers of looted antiquities in Australia today.
Most unfortunately, as suggested above, the vast majority of items for sale only give rough temporal and geographic information by way of “provenance,” and the genuine antiquity of most looted artifacts for sale (whether recently ‘surfaced’, or brought to market many decades ago), is highlighted to reassure buyers’ of authenticity. Many artifacts have their usewear, repair, soil accretions, ‘verdigris patina,’ or chipping emphasized as clear signs that the purchase is authentic. Not to mention the occasional item with thermo-luminescence (T-L) dating paperwork provided! I wonder if the T-L laboratory workers (at Oxford or the University of Wollongong by my observation) had any idea that the artifacts they dated for their clients were looted, and/or were soon to enter the global antiquities market?
Further insult to injury is added via another disturbing, but perhaps inevitable, phenomena that many international antiquities dealers (including BC Galleries) engage in; the use of published academic archaeological references to bolster their authenticity claims. For example, the thorough and relatively current textbook Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia, a c. 2002 overview of Southeast Asian prehistory, was consulted by the writer of the catalog entry for this clay bull figurine (with the atypical inclusion of iron horns). To an archaeologist, this is a characteristic artifact of the late Bronze Age archaeological sites on the Khorat Plateau, northeast Thailand, most commonly found as a grave good. The first such site to be discovered was the eponymous site of Ban Chiang, but several other contemporaneous sites in the vicinity are known to share artifact types and mortuary customs (thought of collectively as the “Ban Chiang Culture”), while even more sites remain to be found, or have already been lost to looting. What is the archaeological community to do? On the one hand, we must be responsible and ethical in publishing site reports and data in as timely a manner as possible. On the other, the last thing we hope to see is our work “used against us” to further the demand for and selling of genuine artifacts… A real catch-22…
I will close with a discussion of a specific photograph from the “new acquisitions” portion of BC Gallerie’s catalog which serves as a great example of how the very unscrupulous antiquities trade can come “full circle.” The photo (and see above left) is of a segment of a bronze spiral bangle, still containing a concreted section of the original grave fill soil and substantial pieces of the forearm of the person interred with it perhaps as much as 2,500 years ago! Although a “Dong Son” (northern Vietnamese Iron Age) affiliation is listed for it, I myself saw identical examples in central and southern Vietnam, and they have also been recovered from salvaged sites in Cambodia. According to the owner of a “souvenir” shop in Hoi An whom I spoke to when last there in January (documented in an earlier post), the most detailed provenance he could recall for a similar, but cleaned-up, bangle (one of many late prehistoric artifacts for sale, including bells and beads) was “from the My Son area.” Most famous for its large complex of Chamic temples, the surrounding area was inhabited for centuries before that, but the late prehistory of Central and Southern Vietnam is very poorly known, meaning that there are undoubtedly many undiscovered domestic and cemetery sites from which artifacts can be accidentally or deliberately removed. As documented, small-ish items at that shop like bangles, small bells, rings etc. would sell for no more than $200USD…and only $650AUD will net you the gruesome “antiquity” in the photo above.
Torn from context, we’ll never know exactly where this came from, nor anything about the person wearing it…and that’s not even mentioning the ethics of having a section of someone’s arm on your mantelpiece! In the 30+ years that BC Galleries has been operating, who knows how many other one-of-a-kind, or equally macabre, artifacts or “specimens” have passed through their doors? What seems clear, however, is that the big names in global antiquities dealing don’t just come from the northern hemisphere. Constant vigilance remains a necessity everywhere.
Spotlight, a weekly presentation of investigative reports from around the world for Link Tv, reported recently on the European art trade. The selling of stolen or smuggled art in Europe has been a problem for as long as the trade has existed. However, the looting of archaeological sites in Afghanistan has now become a major concern. Spotlight reports that the exploitation of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage is helping to finance terrorism and the Taliban.
The report begins in The Royal Museum of Art & History in Brussels where crates of illicit antiquities are being kept – they had been impounded by customs. Items from looted sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including examples of Nal ceramic art and Buddhist art from the Indus plain, had found their way to Belgium. Artifacts from the 3rd millennium BC, the Islamite period and the Buddhist period, valuing hundreds of thousands of Euro, had all been confiscated. These pieces were allegedly headed for the large antiquities market in Brussels. Belgium is reported to be a centre for illicit antiquities due to its strategic location in Europe, easy access to wealthy dealers and most significantly pieces can be sold without documentation. According to Spotlight, artifacts from freshly looted sites with sand still visible on them can be seen for sale in a city where the EU’s headquarters is based.
Spotlight’s reporters made good use of hidden cameras during their research and one art dealer explains on camera how he knows that certain items have been looted, adding that “it is obvious if a piece comes from Afghanistan it is stolen”. Ancient artifacts quickly become little more than merchandise once they have been looted. Art dealers usually claim that items for sale are legal and have been bought from an old private collection. Another dealer emphasizes the disregard shown for what these artifacts could tell us. He says he does not care where an item comes from and he describes one example as originating in Northern Pakistan which in reality he admits came from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
Another individual admits his source to the reporter, “I have a friend in Afghanistan” he says, ” I trained him, he is an Afghan”. When asked about how they clear customs, he tells us that if it fits in a suitcase no one will stop you. He also tells us that the customs officials in Afghanistan can be bribed if you get caught. The next dealer secretly interviewed for camera tells us he used to go to Afghanistan himself but now his contacts come to him making it much easier- he no longer has to take the risk of being kidnapped. Things are not so easy for a French archaeology team working in the war torn country; the team has to carry weapons and the threat of land mines is a very real danger. Indeed, it is reported that many archaeological sites in Afghanistan look like they have been shelled due to the number of holes dug in the landscape by looters.
Most of the looters are local villagers who give varying reasons for being involved. Some say it is better than doing nothing at home while others tell us they have to put food on the table. Sometimes heavy rain has exposed pottery that has been buried in the soil and it is easily lifted out. One local villager shows the camera a 3,000 year old artifact he had found.
The wider problem of illicit antiquities dealers generally is underlined by one particular individual who would not disclose his sources. He argued, unconvincingly, that “there will come a time when Afghanistan is again rich and powerful and it will buy back its heritage”. This statement completely misses the point that important archaeological context is destroyed when a site is looted therefore limiting what a piece can tell us about the past. Unfortunately, stolen art does not appear to be a priority for the police or the legal system in Belgium or Holland. Spotlight speculates that powerful public figures and aristocracy are involved in the illegal art trade and so authorities cannot dig too deep.
The FBI and Interpol have linked the antiquities trade to terrorist organizations; 5 billion dollars of stolen antiquities is traded each year with a large proportion of this allegedly funding terrorists. For example, Mohamed Atta, who flew an aeroplane into the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, was known to have financed, or intended to finance, his operations by trading stolen Afghan art in Germany. It was revealed in 2005 by Der Spiegel (a German magazine) that Atta had visited an art professor in Germany in the early part of 2001, prior to the 9/11 attacks. He had reportedly brought with him numerous pieces of stolen art and wanted to know where he could sell it; his reason for wanting to sell the collection was that he intended to buy an aeroplane.
The Taliban are reportedly funded by the sale of heroin and illicit antiquities and this is what gives them the resources to continue a war. One local villager describes how the Taliban would come and dig tunnels into tombs. The locals did not know what they had found but the Taliban had stayed digging for over a month. They then went house to house confiscating what the villagers had previously found. Sites such as these were looted over and over again by locals once the Taliban had left (see above photograph; taken from Spotlight).
Local Afghan dealers photograph their merchandise and send them to potential buyers to generate interest. Pilots and government officials are allegedly bribed and illicit antiquities are smuggled together with heroin. Customs officials in Brussels do not have the expertise to recognize looted items and have to call embassy officials if they find something suspicious; airport security can not be expected to recognize all world art. One dealer tells the report that shipping an illegal artifact can cost 500-800 Euro in bribes but this is all included in the selling price. The UNESCO treaty of 1970 was meant to make it more difficult to sell looted pieces but it is proving very hard to establish that a phantom dealer who died 30 years ago and whose collection is now for sale did not actually ever exist. It is reportedly still business as usual in many countries that ratified the treaty long ago.
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.
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.”
“Who Owns the Past?” “Who Owns Antiquity?” “Who Owns Culture?” “Who Owns Art?” “Who Owns Objects?” “Who Owns History?” A flurry of similar-sounding questions has been circulating in the media for some time now. Varying on the same theme, they are used as headlines in an array of formats: books, articles, lectures, panel discussions, etc.
While these questions raise some interesting points, we would like to ask some of our own:
1. “Who Owns __?” advocates imply: The right to ownership and possession of artifacts trumps all other considerations.
SAFECORNER asks: By focusing on ownership, are we neglecting the single most important point: the discovery of our yet-unknown past through protection, and the proper excavation of, ancient sites and tombs and burial grounds? What about the “past” / “antiquity” / “culture” / “art” / “objects” / “history” that remains underground? What part do these arguments have in stemming the plunder of cultural heritage caused by looting and the illicit antiquities trade?
2. “Who Owns __?” advocates contend: International conventions and national laws have failed because looting persists.
SAFECORNER asks: Instead of challenging the best legal mechanisms we have, should not more effort be made to observe and respect them? We don’t throw away the criminal justice system because crimes are committed, do we?
3. “Who Owns __?” advocates insist: The importance of archaeological context is overstated, because virtually everything we need to know is inherent in the object.
SAFECORNER asks: If not found in graves, or in context, what could the Tilya Tepe hoard tell us about ancient Bactria if it had been discovered as loose pieces of beautiful gold jewelry? One doesn’t need to be an Afghan to appreciate the value inherent in discovering an untouched ancient site. Conversely, aside from speculations, what do we know about who was buried in the now-looted tombs of Cerveteri? What do we really know about the Vicús culture, which has been looted to near-extinction, or the civilization that created the artifacts looted from Batán Grande, now on display at the Met?
4. “Who Owns __?” advocates suggest: The stakeholders in these debates are archaeologists versus acquirers: museums, dealers, and private collectors.
SAFECORNER asks: What about the rest of us? Many people from all walks of life who are not archaeologists, collectors, museum curators, dealers, nationalists, or socialists also feel very strongly about these issues. Our opinions also matter. After all, it is public opinion that shapes politics and policies and the politicians who create them. UNESCO is an organization of member nations that choose to join. And sovereign nations are governed by politicians who exercise power on behalf of the public, for the most part.
5. “Who Owns __?” advocates argue: Nations that did not exist in ancient times have no inherent right to ancient artifacts found within their territories. For example, does Italy really have the right to claim objects taken from institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which was actually built before the Italian state was formed?
SAFECORNER asks: Is a nation ever too young to assert its sovereignty or jurisdiction? What about the United States? Barely over a couple hundred years old since our founding fathers created the nation, should we give up all claims to Native American artifacts? Revoke the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)?
Finally, we recommend that ALL stakeholders ask themselves this question: what are we going to do to stop the continued destruction of our “past” / “antiquity” / “culture” / “art” / “objects” / “history”?
The notion that classical archaeologists do not care about ancient coins, or are ignorant of the utility of their study, is a myth repeatedly perpetuated by vocal members of the coin dealer lobby. One evident example is on the FAQ page of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG):
“Aren’t archaeologists good custodians of ancient coins?
While a few dedicated archaeologist-numismatists do care about coins and have used them to make important contributions to the study of numismatics, many, if not most, archaeologists view coins as just one means to date archaeological sites. Most well preserved specimens that numismatists prize do not even originate from archaeological sites. That is because most large hoards rarely come to light at archaeological sites; the ancients typically sought to hide their savings away from the prying eyes of neighbors. Instead of large hoards of well preserved coins, archaeologists typically find large numbers of ancient “small change” that was lost over time. Such coins are often so corroded by direct exposure to the soil as to be deemed uncollectible. Archaeologists tend not to treat such coins as important historical objects in themselves. Instead, after they serve a limited purpose as but one means to date archaeological sites, coins are all too often dumped into plastic bags and left to deteriorate in storage that usually lacks proper environmental controls.”
While there are some small grains of truth in aspects of this statement (e.g. some archaeologists and numismatists are slow to publish and make finds available for study), the claim that is made (essentially that archaeologists are not competent enough to study coins) is unsubstantiated and false; furthermore, the absolute contrary is demonstrable (see, for example, “Why Coins Matter,” “Misunderstanding the Portable Antiquities Scheme.” The Intellectual Consequences of Collecting Classical Coins,” “It’s All the Same: the Looting of ‘High Art’ vs. the Looting of the Minor Arts,” “Coins, Contexts and Collecting,” and “Can Cultural Property Legislation Kill an Academic Discipline?“).
The falsehood that archaeologists are too incompetent to advocate for the the protection of ancient coins from archaeological sites, even though they are important archaeological objects routinely found at archaeological sites, is evidently perpetuated by vocal members of the dealer lobby in order to present themselves as more appropriate custodians of ancient coins, in an attempt to lend credence to their arguments that ancient coins should be freely traded without a concern for the circumstances concerning their origin and journey to the market and to protect “trade secrets.” The latest unsubstantiated assertion of this idea was posted yesterday by one of the lobby’s top leaders, Wayne Sayles, who is the founder and Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG). In the blog entry “Intrinsic Interests,” he attempts to contextualize the interest of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) in cultural property issues relating to ancient coins as “sudden” and as an assault on private collectors, referencing the AIA’s post on Archaeology Watch about “Coins and Archaeology”. Mr. Sayles has routinely criticized classical archaeology in general terms and the AIA more specifically for its concerns relating to the protection of cultural heritage and archaeological sites (see for example “Hijacked by Zealots” and “Archaeology: a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?“).
In his latest post, Mr. Sayles disparages the AIA and classical archaeologists in general by saying:
“The more that archaeologists learn about coins from antiquity, the more they will realize that the context within which they are found is merely one aspect, and a small one at that, of the tremendous historical resource that coins present.”
“Unfortunately, the AIA’s motives for this blossoming interest are suspect. Having virtually ignored coins for scores of years, why is the AIA disposed now to highlight the value of coins to archaeology? The answer is really quite basic. The numismatic community, comprised primarily of independent scholars, has argued effectively that archaeologists do not have a preeminent claim to the acquisition or study of ancient coins, much less to the dissemination of knowledge about them and about the past from whence they came. If the AIA were to acknowledge this simple fact, it would expose a chink in the armor of their perceived supremacy. So, be prepared to see a lot more ink spilled by the AIA and other archaeological support groups regarding the “importance” of coins. Oddly, collectors have always known that coins are important. This awakening by archaeologists is probably a good thing if they really consider the issues rather than just fill the web and print media with institutional propaganda.”
These comments reflect either a lack of knowledge regarding both classical archaeology and academic contributions to numismatics or a desire to gloss over them. Instead of responding to sweeping generalizations and unsubstantiated assertions with the same, I shall respond with some facts:
Fact 1. Contrary to the assertions, classical archaeologists have always cared about ancient coins and DO study them (the Archaeology Watch webpage in question addressed the value of coins in archaeology); additionally, numismatists regularly participate in AIA activities and are an integral part of that organization. Please do not take my word for it, but take the evidence into account. A keyword search of “coins” from the online abstract archive for the 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 AIA meetings returned 57 papers directly addressing or relating to numismatic topics; I include the full list of results:
Abstracts from the 2007 Meeting
-The Philaïd Coinage of the Thracian Chersonesus, Sarah Bolmarcich, University of Michigan
-Symbolic Rivalry on the Imperial Coinage of the Island of Lesbos, Matthew F. Notarian, University at Buffalo-SUNY
-Icaria: History and Coins, Evangelia Georgiou, University of Ioannina
-Political Ideology and Roman Architectural Coin Types of the Republic and Empire, Nathan T. Elkins, University of Missouri-Columbia
-Roman War and Republican Coin Types, Rosemarie Trentinella, New York University
-Cistophori and Identity in Roman Asia Minor, Marsha B. McCoy, Austin College
-Research at the Castle of Marko in the Republic of Macedonia, Michael Fuller and Neathery Batsell Fuller, St. Louis Community College
-Excavations at Sarhoyok-Dorylaion in Phrygia Epictetos/Turkey, Taciser Tufekci Sivas, Anadolu Universitesi
-Discovery of the Roman Forum of Buthrotum (Butrint): Current Excavations, David R. Hernandez, University of Cincinnati
-Spectator Galleries on Honorary Arches: An Overlooked Function of Roman State Architecture, Martin Beckmann, Wilfrid Laurier University
-Maxentius and the Temple of Roma, Elisha Ann Dumser, Ursuline College
-Hellenistic and Roman Coins from Gordion: A Case for Monetization, Kenneth Harl, Tulane University
-Traces of Hellenistic Petra: Excavations on the Temenos of the Qasr al-Bint, Petra, Jordan, Andreas J.M. Kropp, University of Nottingham
Abstracts from the 2006 Meeting
-Starry Heroes in Late Ancient Rome, Dennis Trout, University of Missouri-Columbia
-Dharma or Diplomacy? A Reassessment of Cultural Policy in the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Jed M. Thorn, University of Cincinnati
-The Heroon at Messene: New Observations on Order, Style, and Date, Pieter B. F. J. Broucke, Middlebury College
-New Glass Finds from Cyprus: Evidence for Ritual, Dating, and Trade, Danielle A. Parks, Brock University
-Images of the Illustrious and the Reconstruction of the Past on Titus’s Restored Coins, Sarah E. Cox, Columbia University
-Monumental Messages: The Meaning of Changes in the Representation of Architecture on Roman Coins in the Early Empire, Martin Beckmann, University of Heidelberg
-Determining the Function of the So-Called Temple of Romulus in Rome, Elisha Dumser, University of Pennsylvania
-The Intensive Urban Survey Project at Kastro Kallithea, Greece: First Results, Margriet J. Haagsma and Sean Gouglas, University of Alberta, Athanasios Tziafalias and Sophia Karapanou, 15th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities
-The Last of the Scythians, Nancy T. de Grummond, Florida State University
-Presenting the King: Herod the Great and Political Self-Presentation, Adam Kolman Marshak, Yale University, and Rebecca Donahue, Boston Society of the AIA
-Italian Bronze Age Pottery and Twenty-First-Century Scholarly Communication, Susan S. Lukesh, Hofstra University, and R. Ross Holloway, Brown University
-Harboring Fantasies in Roman Crete, George W. M. Harrison, AIA Member at Large
-Numismatic Paronomasia and the Case of Caesar’s Elephant, Edward Zarrow, Yale University
-Augustus’s Altar-ed State: The Altars of the Lares Augusti on Augustan Quadrantes, Lea Cline, The University of Texas at Austin
-The Origins of the Commemoration of Women on Roman Coinage, Tracene Harvey, University of Alberta, Edmonton
-The Function and Distribution of the Flavian Colosseum Sestertii: Currency or Largess? (Results of a Die Study), Nathan T. Elkins, University of Missouri-Columbia
Abstracts from the 2005 Meeting
-The “Numismatic Habit”? Roman Coins and Roman Inscriptions from Augustus, Edward Zarrow, Yale University
-Stone Offering Boxes (Thesauroi) in the Ritual and Administration of Greek Sanctuaries, Isabelle Pafford, UC Berkeley
-The Bust-Crown, the Panhellenion, and Eleusis: A New Portrait from the Athenian Agora, Lee Ann Riccardi, The College of New Jersey
-The “Skyphos Sanctuary” on the North Slope of the Acropolis, Kevin T. Glowacki, Indiana University, and Susan I. Rotroff, Washington University in St. Louis
-Imperial Cult in the Colosseum, Nathan T. Elkins, The University of Missouri, Columbia
-The Use of Die Studies as a Corrective to Late Seleucid History, Oliver D. Hoover, The American Numismatic Society
-Royal Women in Nabataea: The Case of Rabbel and Shuqailat, Bjorn Anderson, University of Michigan
-Conceptions of Rome: The Meta Sudans on Roman Imperial and Provincial Coinage, Brenda Longfellow, University of Michigan
-Under the Gaze of the Empress: Succession and Political Participation in Severan Coinage, Julie Langford-Johnson, Indiana University, Bloomington
-Communicating Royal Power in the Bosporan Kingdom, Patric-Alexander Kreuz, Freie Universität Berlin
-Keeping Up with the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, Olga Palagia, University of Athens
-Hellenistic Geronthrai: Archaeological Evidence for the Changing Life of a Perioikic Community at the Foot of the Parnon, Mieke Prent and Joost H. Crouwel, University of Amsterdam, and Elizabeth Langridge-Noti, The American College of Greece
-The Origins of Pompeian Domestic Architecture: New Evidence from the House of the Surgeon, Rick Jones and Damian Robinson, University of Bradford, and Steven J.R. Ellis, The University of Sydney
Abstracts from the 2004 Meeting
-False Fronts: Separating the Imperial Cult from the Aediculated Facade in the Roman Near East, Barbara Burrell, University of Cincinnati
-A Late Roman Settlement “Explosion”? The Continuity and Reuse of Sites in the Eastern Corinthia, David K. Pettegrew, The Ohio State University
-A Sample of Bullae from Zeugma, Sharon Herbert, University of Michigan
-Embellishing the Garden: A Glimpse of Private Life in Julio-Claudian Cosa, Jacquelyn Collins-Clinton, Cornell University
-The Apadana Coin Hoards, Darius I, and the West, Antigoni Zournatzi, The National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens
-Ponēra Khalkia: Towards the Contextualization of Archaic/Classical Plated Coinage, Peter van Alfen, American Numismatic Society
-Regional Economy and Reconstruction: The Stymphalos Hoard of 1999, Robert G.A. Weir, University of Windsor
-Beyond Payment: Alternate Uses of Coins in the Ancient World, Sebastian Heath, American Numismatic Society
-Excavations in the Athenian Agora, John McK. Camp II, American School of Classical Studies at Athens and Randolph-Macon College
-Preliminary Report on the Hellenistic Material from the Dutch Excavations at Geraki (Geronthrai) in Laconia, Elizabeth Langridge-Noti, American College of Greece, and Mieke Prent, University of Amsterdam
-The Emperor, the Sun, and the Son: The Arch and the Colossus in Constantine’s Rome, Elizabeth Marlowe, Columbia University and American Academy in Rome
The 2008 meeting’s preliminary program is also online and includes several papers and panels directly addressing numismatics.
Fact 2. In addition to scholarly numismatic journals, such as the Numismatic Chronicle or the American Journal of Numismatics, other journals frequently host articles on numismatic topics, especially archaeological journals. Since July 2005, the American Journal of Archaeology(AJA), a publication of the AIA, has hosted at least four articles that address numismatic topics:
The Date of the Sardis Synagogue in Light of the Numismatic Evidence
Author: Jodi Magness
Volume: 109.3, Pages: 443-475
New Archaic Coin Finds at Sardis
Author: Nicholas Cahill and John H. Kroll
Volume: 109.4, Pages: 589-
Archaeology of Empire: Athens and Crete in the Fifth Century B.C.
Author: Brice Erickson
Volume: 109.4, Pages: 619-
Visualizing Ceremony: The Design and Audience of the Ludi Saeculares Coinage of Domitian
Author: Melanie Grunow Sobocinski
Volume: 110.4, Pages: 581-602
The AJA is a quarterly academic journal, which typically hosts between 3 and 5 articles per journal; and thus, numismatic topics can comprise a rather significant part of intrinsically related disciplines represented in the journal (e.g. ceramics, numismatics, topography, etc.), considering the journal addresses classical archaeology as a whole. For our readers that have JSTOR access or live in proximity to a good library, one can see that back issues of the AJA contain a plethora of numismatic articles and that the AJA is an important resource for numismatic research (more specifically see Sebastian Heath’s recent comments, on Sayles’ blog entry, about the history of the AJA and its long association with numismatists and numismatic publication). Other archaeological journals, which may be unfamiliar to many collectors and dealers, such as the Journal of Roman Archaeology, frequently host numismatic topics.
Fact 3. Contrary to what some members of the dealer lobby would have the general public and their constituents believe, the AIA has a strong relationship with numismatists. For example, the current AIA president is an alumnus of the American Numismatic Society graduate seminar on Greek and Roman numismatics, has taught graduate seminars on numismatics, and also has published books and articles that incorporate numismatic evidence. There is also a numismatist currently on the AIA’s Board of Academic Trustees. Additionally, one of the AIA’s largest “interest groups” is the “Friends of Numismatics,” which is comprised of alumni of the American Numismatic Society graduate seminar and other numismatists; the Friends of Numismatics meet annually at the AIA meeting. (Note: the “Friends of Numismatics,” associated with the AIA, should not be confused with the ACCG’s “Friend of Numismatics” award, which the lobby uses to honor individuals who “advance” or “protect” ancient coin collecting).
Fact 4. Unlike the AIA, the ACCG is a new organization, founded within the past few years, which arose in response to cultural property advocacy efforts that conflict with the interests of ancient coin collectors and especially dealers, who comprise most of the organization’s officers, all of its “benefactors,” and the majority of its “patrons.” The ACCG’s goals are highlighted on its “objectives” page. One of the ACCG’s primary aims is “to fight for the continued existence of a free market for all collector coins.”
Mr. Sayles pretends as if archaeologists know nothing about coins, objects which are commonly excavated at classical archaeological sites, and attempts to portray advocacy efforts to protect the contextual study of ancient coins and archaeological sites as misguided, since (in his mind) archaeologists should know nothing about coins. In my view, the AIA’s Archaeology Watch page, which Mr. Sayles rails against, reflects a concern many archaeologists have had for decades about looting and the role of the antiquities trade – which includes the trade in ancient coins – in the destruction of archaeological sites and historical information.
Why was the Archaeology Watch page on “Coins and Archaeology” posted this year? Anyone who has been following the discussions on ancient coins and cultural property (for example, on Looting Matters, SAFECORNER, or elsewhere) knows that Cyprus’ request for import restrictions on ancient coins and the U.S. State Department’s subsequent recognition of that request has caused an outcry from the coin dealer lobby, a lobby that attempts to thwart any legislation or protective measures designed to protect archaeological sites and cultural heritage should that legislation include anything that may hinder a completely unregulated and “free market” in ancient coins. Although I am not privy to the immediate circumstances regarding the AIA’s decision to post the “Coins and Archaeology” page, I suspect the ACCG’s outspoken activities, its unceasing assaults against the AIA and classical archaeology in general, and its gross oversimplification of the issues might have contributed to it.
The unregulated trade in ancient coins is responsible for some systematic looting and is forever destroying an important avenue into critical historical inquiry. These issues have already been examined in “Why Coins Matter” and a more substantial work is in preparation. The dealer lobby consistently downplays the value of context and asserts that collectors and dealers are the only people able to produce “scholarship” on ancient coins (see “Can Cultural Property Legislation Kill an Academic Discipline?”). Indeed, context is not the only aspect of numismatic or scholarly inquiry, but it is an important one and one that is essential to serious economic, circulation, and even iconographic studies. Context is an highly important aspect of any archaeological object or historical document and this aspect of an object should not be destroyed or ignored if at all possible. What if the Reka Devnia hoard had been found by a looter or metal detectorist and sold on the market with no record of its find spot or context? (The Reka Devnia hoard is one of the largest, if not the largest, ancient coin hoards ever discovered and contained c. 350 kg of silver Roman coins; it was excavated at Marcianopolis (see David Gill’s blog entry “Misunderstanding the Portable Antiquities Scheme” and comments there)).
In his newest blog post, Mr. Sayles betrays his misunderstanding of archaeology and has again drawn a distinction between “collectible” coins and “worthless” coins that are on the market. Another numismatist has commented that what Mr. Sayles has egregiously labeled “junk” and “trash” are invaluable historical sources. To an archaeologist and field numismatist, all coins are essential to understanding our history and the conditions under which our ancestors lived.
It is constantly claimed by vocal members of the ancient coin dealer lobby that classical archaeologists and cultural property advocates are driving a wedge between numismatists and the academic community. The facts do not support this spurious claim; as was related above, the AIA, for example, is an organization that embraces numismatists and numismatic research. In fact, it is the ancient coin dealer lobby painting a picture of discord, perhaps to rouse action from collectors and lawmakers in Washington to protect their ability to import and trade in “fresh” material indiscriminately, regardless of that material’s origin or the conditions regarding its acquisition (see again “Why Coins Matter” on the source of much of the new material presently on the market; also cf. Hall, J.L. 2007. “The Fig and the Spade: Countering the Deceptions of Treasure Hunters.” Archaeology Watch. 15 Aug., on how groups with a financial interest in trading in antiquities attempt to win public approval by portraying themselves as practicing serious scientific and scholarly activities). If ACCG leaders seriously want a “constructive dialogue,” let us stick to the facts and avoid the reactionary emotional responses and unsubstantiated generalizations and assertions that lack veracity.
*Since I am responding to criticisms leveled against the AIA specifically, but also classical archaeology as a whole, I should note that although I am a member of the AIA, the views presented here do not necessarily reflect the individual views of the AIA’s leadership, the general membership, or its institutional stances. Instead, I respond here in my capacity as a classical archaeologist and a numismatist sensitive to issues relating to looting and the widespread destruction of archaeological and historical information, and as an individual concerned about the future our ability to critically examine and understand humanity’s past – the forbearers of modern civilization – through disciplines that incorporate the study of material culture via the application of a scientific methodology.
Appended to the rather brief list is this statement:
“The ACCG Board of Directors also agreed that the standards of conduct of museum professionals and archaeologists ought to include certain issues like conservation, publishing responsibilites, respect for private ownership and public access. These concerns will be communicated to the appropriate organizations or associations in the form of an ACCG petition for consideration.”
In the interest of dialogue, can I take the opportunity to give some feedback on ACCG point 1?
“Coin Collectors and Sellers will not knowingly purchase coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites or stolen from museum or personal collections, and will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country.”
Elkins has already commented on the clause “comply with all cultural property laws of their own country”. But we have seen with the return of antiquities from North American collections to Italy that objects apparently purchased or donated and in compliance with US laws were still deemed to have left their country of origin illegally. (See observations by Gill and Chippindale on the Boston return.) There were good ethical (and professional) reasons for distinguished institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the J. Paul Getty Museum to co-operate with the Italian authorities.
But what about the first section, “coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites”? In the UK “scheduled” has a distinct meaning. But I presume that this part of the code suggests that it is unacceptable to remove coins from known, listed (“scheduled”) archaeological sites. But what about the archaeological sites that have yet to be discovered? Is it acceptable to destroy undisturbed archaeological contexts because by “chance” the site is unknown to archaeological science?
Then there is the phrase “will not knowingly purchase coins”. Elkins has commented on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. So an ethical policy needs to ask questions. A purchasing strategy needs to be rigorous.
So can I presume to make a humble stab at rephrasing code 1? (And can I suggest three clauses?)
a. Coin Collectors and Sellers will seek to be rigorous in establishing the collecting history (“provenance”) of the coins that they acquire.
b. Coin Collectors and Sellers will not buy coins that they know or reasonably suspect were removed from archaeological sites or stolen from museum or personal collections.
c. Coin Collectors and Sellers will comply with all cultural property laws of the countries associated with the material that they aspire to acquire.
It is curious that some groups of antiquities dealers have adopted “Codes of Ethics,” which do not seem to be rigorously enforced or acknowledged in practice. One group of ancient coin dealers that claims to advocate for cultural preservation, while opposing any legislative efforts designed to curb looting and the trade in illicit antiquities that also affect the unregulated trade ancient coins (routinely found in archaeological contexts), has adopted such a code. The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) has adopted a “Code of Ethics” for its members, which states: “Coin Collectors and Sellers will not knowingly purchase coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites or stolen from museum or personal collections, and will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country.” VCoins, an online “coin show” hosting multiple dealer inventories, also has a similar statement in its “Code of Ethics.” The careful wording of the ACCG “Code of Ethics” seemingly allows the dealer lobby and its members to skirt the actual problem of provenance by stating that they will not trade in coins that come from “scheduled archaeological sites.” Does this mean they can feel free to trade in coins robbed from historical sites that are not currently being excavated?
The vast majority of ancient coins imported by dealers and subsequently sold have no recorded find spot or an old pedigree, so where do they come from anyway? Who knows! Additionally, the statement that the ACCG “will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country,” along with the relative lack of enforcement, allows for the potential to import illegally excavated and exported material with a clean conscience since the U.S. does not have import restrictions on ancient coins with many foreign nations (except Iraq and, recently, Cyprus), although it is illegal prospect for or to export coins from most source countries without a permit – especially important source countries like those in the Balkans.
Generally, among the North American ancient coin dealing community, there appears to be a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in effect regarding their participation in the trade of undocumented and potentially illegally excavated/exported material: import and sell the material, just “don’t ask and don’t tell” where it came from (for example see some dealer suggestions to circumvent legal issues with illicitly imported coins in David Gill’s blog entry, “Cyprus, eBay and the Coin Lobby”). Should American citizens and coin collectors expect or even accept such unscrupulous activity from sellers? It is documented that similar practices amongst dealers of other sorts of antiquities exist (see Cook 1991, 533-534; cf. Karich 2006). Dealers of uncleaned ancient coins have also adopted a “Code of Ethics,” which deals only with selling practices and does not make any presumption to prohibit the import of coins that were illegally exported or excavated.
A number of the ACCG’s donating ‘patrons’ actively import ancient coins in bulk and often sell them in bulk without any record of provenance. In fact, one ancient coin dealer and patron of the ACCG is also, curiously, the president of a customs clearing company in New York and is one of the more important suppliers of bulk lots of uncleaned coins in the U.S. This individual also deals in other types of antiquities, many of which appear to be of Balkan origin and has online storefronts on VCoins.
Despite the rhetoric and token “Codes of Ethics” subscribed to by some groups of antiquities dealers, it is clear that antiquities and ancient coins are being systematically looted from historical and archaeological sites at an alarming rate in order to supply for market demand. This activity is destroying valuable contextual and historical information in the process, harming not only archaeological and historical inquiry, but also – in the case of ancient coins – the “science of numismatics” (for further discussion see the article “Why Coins Matter…,” which should be made available on the SAFE website within a week).
Cook, B.F. 1991. “The Archaeologist and the Art Market: Policies and Practice,” Antiquity 65.248: 533-537.
Karich, S. 2006. “Der Bundesverband Deutscher Kunstversteigerer hat einen neuen Verhaltenskodex für seine Mitglieder aufgestellt. Transparenz ist bisher nicht immer vorhande,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 180 (05 Aug.): 47.
To those of us who advocate for cultural property protection, it is impossible to think that such efforts would have anything but positive effects on the preservation of information and cultural heritage. However, one lobby, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), opposes such protective measures as they relate to the uncontrolled trade in ancient coins and assert that if cultural property legislation were to affect the trade in ancient coins it would kill numismatics (the study of coins) as a science. (This is a common theme, among others, in the blogs of ACCG officers and activists such as Wayne Sayles and Dave Welsh). In so doing, members of this lobby (the majority of its officers and leadership being dealers as well as all of its benefactors and most of its patrons) assert that they are protecting the interests of “numismatic scholarship.” Does this claim have any validity to it? Can cultural property legislation kill numismatics as an academic discipline?
In short, my point of view is the quite contrary; ancient coins must be considered by cultural preservationists no differently than any other ancient object and that protective efforts can only preserve valuable numismatic information (for the value of coins studied in context and the need for greater awareness of and attention to the unregulated trade see, in general, Beckmann 1998, von Kaenel 1994; 1995; 2007). When ancient coins are found in archaeological contexts they provide a wealth of information that does not come with undocumented coins that appear on the market, lacking any context or provenance. Additionally, the majority of ancient coins enter the market the same way that most antiquities enter the market – through suspect means (see Kersel 2006 for one of the most recent discussions of the way ancient objects make it to the antiquities market – she discusses ancient coins in particular). Archaeological sites throughout Europe and the Middle East are systematically looted in order to provide ancient coins for the market, which are frequently smuggled in large quantities to destination countries. One published account records the interception of approximately 20,000 ancient coins (originating from Bulgaria) at Frankfurt airport, a shipment bound to the U.S.; customs officials determined this one shipment comprised just one of many others which had previously gone through the airport recently and the total smuggled out was in the area of a ton (c. 340,000 ancient coins; see Dietrich 2002). This quantity represented only the actions of a single smuggler in a relatively short period of time.
Perhaps just behind pottery sherds, ancient coins are the most common archaeological finds. This is certainly the case at Yotvata, a remote auxiliary fortress on the Roman Empire’s borders, where I work as the site’s numismatist. In addition to dates, coins in archaeological contexts provide information that can help numismatists and archaeologists to understand the expansion and contraction of settlements, areas of importance and the movement of peoples within a specific settlement. Additionally, coins in context are invaluable to studies of the ancient economy and circulation studies. In fact, contextual study of ancient coins is an increasingly important aspect of serious numismatic and archaeological research. Entire research centers can be devoted the study of ancient coins in archaeological contexts as at Frankfurt University, where one department publishes the inventories of coin finds from archaeological contexts in Germany, Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Deutschland – a project which has inspired similar projects in other countries. Additionally, this department sponsors a very important numismatic monograph series that publishes contributions in English, French, Italian, and German that study ancient coins in archaeological contexts (Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike). From October 25-27, this department is also hosting a three day conference on “Coins in Context.” (For additional information on the scientific value of coins in archaeological contexts, see the AIA’s page and my forthcoming article on the SAFE website).
One vocal lobby member and officer recently proclaimed:
“Numismatics is a much older science than archaeology, which has made many important contributions to the historical record and whose teachings (to which archaeology has contributed very little)are used by archaeologists as a stratigraphic dating tool. It is ironic that this venerable and beneficial field of study is now threatened by a discipline that could hardly be said to exist until the twentieth century, and really began to take shape only after the end of WWII. There are very few (if any) archaeologists who have any knowledge of numismatics, its accomplishments or its importance.”
In my view, the lobby’s rhetoric and assertions that archaeologists know nothing about numismatics are simple fabrications that have no basis in fact and are easily disproved. Dozens of archaeologists are also numismatic experts and some of the leading authorities on ancient coins are archaeologists employed by museums and universities (http://msn-list.te.verweg.com/2007-August/007945.html; for other lobby tactics see David Gill’s blog entries: “Coins, Cabals…and Huff and Puff,” and “Coins and Cyprus: Listening to the Coin Forum”). Familiarity with serious numismatic research also indicates the contrary. Numismatics contributes to archaeology and archaeology contributes to numismatics. One of the best examples of how contextual archaeological study has contributed to the study of ancient coins is from Morgantina, where stratigraphic excavation allowed archaeologists and numismatists to establish a date for the introduction of the Roman denarius.
I am well aware that coin collectors have often contributed to serious numismatic research, but is the continued “free market in ancient coins” necessary for good “numismatic scholarship” and is the fact that some collectors have contributed to such scholarship an excuse for indiscriminate collecting? Perhaps the question is best answered by framing the question in terms of other disciplines. Is it necessary for archaeologists to collect ancient objects to produce scholarship on archaeology? No, the vast majority of archaeologists today do not privately collect objects and view the practice as detrimental to scientific study. Is it necessary for anthropologists to collect arrowheads and old pots to study prehistoric and primitive civilizations and human society? No. Is it necessary for zoologists to trade in endangered species to study them? No. Ancient coins are no different. In fact, when coins enter the market through suspect means – without provenance, without archaeological context – all useful information regarding its find circumstances are lost and part of history is irrecoverably destroyed.
What is to be done? Currently the unchecked trade in undocumented ancient coins is a severe problem and requires increased activism on the part of cultural preservationists. However, direct dialogue with the dealer lobby seems unlikely given its inherent financial interest in maintaining a completely unregulated and unchecked trade and the willingness of some of its members and officers to act irresponsibly and untruthfully in their writings no doubt engenders a great degree of distrust.
In my view, we can only hope to be successful in preserving the future of numismatic research by activism that specifically addresses the trade in ancient coins and public education. Without a doubt we share a passion with ancient coin collectors about ancient history and the ancient world. I believe most ancient coin collectors are either unaware of the way in which ancient coins are procured and the damage that the demand for them causes, or buy into the lobby’s rhetoric since they are hearing only one distorted perspective (Lobby officers control the most popular ancient coin collecting magazine, the Celator, and sympathetic coin dealers own and moderate most every online ancient coin collecting discussion forum including the most popular one, Moneta-L). I, myself, actively collected ancient coins until I educated myself about the issues and the facts. It is the collector to whom we must reach out and educate.
Most ancient coin collectors in the U.S. enter that hobby by first collecting American coins and as a result make little distinction between the two forms of collecting, even though the sources of the objects are very different and are at the heart of the debate. We must highlight the differences between source of coins for collectors of U.S. coins (family collections, directly from circulation) and the source of coins for ancient coin collectors (the ground, very few on the market come from pre-UNESCO collections, most are looted, illicitly excavated and illicitly exported and are openly sold without documentation or appropriate pedigrees). Many excavations do not have academic numismatists in the field because many are employed at museums and many are overburdened with material. I recognize that many collectors have great expertise and capability in attributing ancient coins. It is my opinion that it would be useful to invite such competent individuals to participate in field excavations as site numismatists. The archaeologist would benefit from a specialist to provide dates for the coin finds and, with some training in contextual numismatic research, who could also prepare them for scholarly publication. The collector would benefit from seeing firsthand where ancient coins come from and how invaluable they are to archaeological and contextual research; the thrill of discovery would also be much greater and interesting than the simple acquisition of a coin from an auction or a batch of uncleaned coins. This is one simple suggestion and clearly further discussion on the complex issues currently dividing the academic and collecting community regarding ancient coins is needed. At this point, however, the opinion of the collector – not the dealer – is the most crucial.
Beckmann, M. 1998. “Numismatics and the Antiquities Trade,” The Celator (May): 25-28.
Dietrich, R. 2002. “Cultural Property on the Move – Legally, Illegally,” International Journal of Cultural Property 11.2: 294-304.
Kersel, M.M. 2006. “From the Ground to the Buyer: A Market Analysis of the Trade in Illegal Antiquities,” in N. Brodie, M.M. Kersel, C. Luke, and K.W. Tubb (eds.) Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade. Gainesville: University Press of Florida: 188-205.
von Kaenel, H.-M. 1994. “Die antike Numismatik und ihr Material,” SchMbll 44.173: 1-12.
von Kaenel, H-M. 1995. “La numismatica antica e il suo materiale,” Bollettino di Numismatica 13.1: 213-223.
von Kaenel, H-M. 2007. “Gauner, Gräber und Gelehrte. Antikenraub und Archäologie im Lichte der aktuelle Gesetzeslage,” Paper read at the symposium, Gauner, Gräber und Gelehrte at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität, 4 May, Frankfurt am Main.