Monday, 30 June 2014

Over 10,000,000 ancient coins is not enough

An article published in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review ("Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins", by Nathan Elkins, Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist) dared to point out that analysing an archaeological site is much like investigating a crime scene and that looting ancient coins destroys a vital part of the evidence ...
“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.


heritageaction said...

10 million? A lot more than that I think.The British Artefact Erosion Counter is approaching 12 million, the French equivalent is higher.

David Knell said...

I totally agree. I took the coin dealer's estimate as a bare minimum to pre-empt protests from the trade. But I have now edited the text to clarify that.

Rasiel said...

I should probably know better than to write in defense; given the tone it's clear your perception of me and other ancient coin enthusiasts is long past the point where reasoned debate has any prayer of swaying opinions. All the same, I'll make an exception.

To address what I gather is the main beef you have with me I'll repeat what I said on the BAR blog. Your "solution" did not meet with stony silence as you say. It met with rightful ridicule. Let me reiterate: there is no such thing as a market where one may buy faultlessly provenanced coins.

Despite what you and Paul Barford may believe, you would have a very, very difficult time locating a coin for sale that comes with the documentation that you both fantasize about. Don't take my word for it. Google "PAS recorded ancient coin for sale" and see how many hits you get. Now, if the realization that there are no such coins for sale is crushingly sad let me offer a silver lining. Why don't YOU begin a business offering fastidiously documented coins? The more official-looking writeups, licenses, stamps and concomitant minutiae of bureaucracy the better. I would be elated to be your first customer. Make no doubt about it, I definitely think there is a market willing to pay the extra costs involved in such a venture. Even where customers don't really care about the ethical implications they would still buy them regardless because the added documentation makes for a more compelling product. It is, in fact, the exact same principle why a $6 coin on Dirty Old Coins is sold (on the same page) as a $30 coin once it's certified!

Secondly, I see that you are hung up on a numbers game with "millions" of extant coins unable to satisfy the appetite of coin collectors. Your likening them to insatiable vampires is comical enough but clearly inaccurate. Whether freshly excavated or recycled from a hundred previous auctions what the collector ultimately cares about is filling a hole in his or her collection. Using the most basic economic principle you should already be aware that when there is sufficient supply of any one commodity there will be a proportional decrease in demand, as reflected in prices. The fact that coins of, say, Romulus Augustus (the last Roman emperor) are exorbitant is precisely because they are so rare. If your model were true one would expect that as the pool widened the price would drop accordingly. Either that or demand - by way of increased numbers of collectors - is outstripping supply. Again, this is not the case and I can provide indirect but compelling proof.

(continued in next comment)

Rasiel said...


Take as a barometer of both supply and demand the biggest market of coins, eBay. In calendar 2008 there were a total of 68,826 auctions sold in the Roman imperial section (somewhat more, actually, since auctions with prices realized under $5 were excluded). By 2010 the number had grown to 101,811 but had come back down to 74,231 by 2013. We are roughly halfway into 2014 and at 35,351 closed auctions it appears that the year will end somewhere near the 70,000 mark. Now that you have the supply consider the demand. For 2008 the average price of each of those auctions was $44, in 2010 $36, $40 last year and so far this year we're at $45. And, one last bit, while I don't have a firm number I would say that anecdotally it seems very few of those are being recycled and are, in fact, coins that are either new to market or have been held for long periods before being sold. I admit there are a number of ways to interpret these numbers but if we apply the principle that the simplest observation is the one likelier to be true we would conclude that the market is neither growing nor shrinking. In fact, 2010's bumper crop yielded a slight decrease in average prices, as one would expect to see when the supply grows in stagnant demand.

In sum I would again say that irrespective of your personal feelings (and you've already admitted to owning coins you know DAMN well came from some location you'd rather not dwell too much on) the fact is this: venting your frustrations on coin collectors is both misguided and ineffective. I did my part by launching ten years ago which provides a free service that timestamps a record of your coin along with pertinent information (including provenance) which at the very least lets the world know a date of possession.... a small utility, to be sure, but a real-world step in the right direction.

On the other hand, looking at things from your perspective, you know that if there is no current "neat" solution to acquiring what the public desires then that demand will still get met one way or the other. Rather than take the productive step of offering a more palatable alternative - to a commercial base that would by all appearances be quite receptive even - you instead choose to bellyache over looters running wild blog after pointless blog from your bedroom pulpit urging us evil collectors to mend our ways. Have at it, then.

Rasiel Suarez

David Knell said...

Thanks for your comment, Rasiel. I have replied in a new post: "A way forward?".



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