“Let’s think of an ancient coin as a murder weapon. No one would disagree that going into a crime scene before the investigators arrive and absconding with the bloody knife, cleaning it and then putting it in a private collection would seriously compromise the case. But this is what happens when looters descend on an archaeological site and remove coins and other artifacts: They disturb objects, their relationships with one another and remove evidence that may well be the ‘smoking gun’ for an excavation.”The announcement of the article was greeted with a long series of hostile comments by outraged coin dealers and lobbyists, some of them trying to convince us that the innocent article was all part of a dastardly political plot to prevent anyone collecting ancient coins. One amateur lectured the archaeology professor on what archaeology is, another darkly threatened that coin collectors far outnumber those wishing to conserve historically sensitive sites, and so on.
Among the more disingenuous tactics used by the coin dealers and lobbyists was the alarmist 'straw man' argument set up by a dealer who specialises in importing ancient coins in bulk from the Balkans and elsewhere. The simple explanation why he has “yet to see a compelling reason why John Q. Public should not be allowed to own ancient coins” is that no one has ever said he shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with owning ancient coins; I own a few myself. The theme of the article merely emphasised that buying ancient coins blindly will encourage looters to source them by trashing archaeological sites.
Apparently miffed that anyone would question his right to trash archaeological sites, the dealer then set a challenge to suggest an alternative source - "a viable source of ancient coins where one may purchase free of guilt" - clearly thinking that that was impossible.
I think "guilt" is all relative. The main goal of those of us concerned about archaeological sites is to protect them from looting. The only looting that can be prevented is that taking place now or in the future; it’s a bit late to stop the looting that took place in the distant past and a bit late to feel guilty about that. The real “guilt” is in encouraging the looting to continue.
Since I am very familiar with how the ordinary antiques trade works, I would have thought that “a viable source of ancient coins” is blindingly obvious. Antiques are sourced through auctions, fairs, markets, other dealers, collectors, and so on. The coin trade is forever droning on about how many millions of ancient coins are already in private collections. Wayne Sayles estimated some 10 million of them over ten years ago (Ancient Coin Collecting, 2003, p.76). Yes, that is 10 million ancient coins just in private hands - and constantly being recycled on the market at some stage - not those tucked away out of reach in museums.
In reality, I suspect that Sayles's estimate is far too conservative and the true figure today is likely to be in the several tens of millions at least. The unrelenting import of huge bulk lots from the Balkans and elsewhere must have boosted the figure enormously in the United States alone over the past decade or so. Nevertheless, even if we accept 10 million as the very bare minimum for the sake of argument, the amount of ancient coins in private hands is truly staggering. All the trade has to do is properly record the coins that have been around for many years so people can distinguish them from fresh loot and collectors can purchase them relatively “free of guilt”.
My solution met with stony silence. Many collectors of other antiquities are quite happy with recycled items - typically treasuring the record of past ownership as part of their provenance - but I gather that is not the case with these coin dealers. Recycled ancient coins are not good enough. Like some demonic vision out of a vampire movie, they simply must have fresh blood. The coins must be fresh. Not satisfied with the mere 10 million ancient coins they already have, they are desperate to encourage and justify the continued trashing of archaeological sites so they can have still more.
I have to wonder when is enough going to be enough for them? Perhaps when every single site on the planet has been obliterated just so they can make money and their customers can salivate over yet more fresh goodies? Will that suffice?
Note: My compiled image (at the top) is not intended to depict ALL dealers or collectors of ancient coins but it seems to be a worryingly accurate portrayal of a significant proportion of them. If anyone thinks the bulldozer shown is an exaggeration, please note just one example of many.