Monday 28 December 2015

British tabloid reveals the truth about detecting?

An article in a British tabloid ("Is there a fortune buried in your back garden? As metal detector sales soar, we join Britain's treasure-hunting boom", Daily Mail, 22 December 2015) - brazenly in the "Money" section - has elicited an enthusiastically approving response from an American coin dealer that the world of metal detecting is "not what Barfy would have us think it is" (presumably referring to criticisms of some of the more thoughtless aspects of the hobby by Paul Barford).

Indeed, I'm sure the dealer is quite right ... because Ruth Lythe, a writer for the Daily Mail, knows far more about archaeology than archaeologists. The best way to discover our past is for tens of thousands of people to dig up as many metal bits out of the ground as fast as they can in the hope of finding treasure and making a fortune. How could any archaeologist or historian possibly object to that?

(For those unfamiliar with British humour, I'll provide a hint that there may be a degree of sarcasm hidden in my post.)

Thursday 17 December 2015

The REAL meaning of "primary source"

Ah, I made the mistake of assuming that Dave Welsh (the "owner of Classical Coins" referred to in my previous post) knew what the phrase ""primary source" meant. He didn't. Since his response to my blog post was on a members-only list, I'll quote only a tiny extract:

"[Primary source] means "a source of the first order of importance." That specific meaning is well understood among historians. Knell perhaps did misunderstand its meaning, not being a historian."

I'm never quite sure which irritates me more: the fact that so many of Welsh's statements are utter rubbish or the smug conviction used to state them. At any rate, as usual, he is quite wrong.

Since other people may also be unfamiliar with the historiographical phrase, I'll try to clarify it ...

I suspect Welsh is confused by the word "primary", looking no further than its popular and commonest definition as "being of chief importance", whereas in this case the word is meant in its more academic and rarer alternative definition as "being earliest in time".

To an historian, the phrase "primary source" means only one thing and one thing only: the earliest evidence extant (e.g. an artefact or a document). Such evidence is typically, though not invariably (Ambraseys, Melville and Adams 1994), original.

While such evidence would normally rank first in order of preference to historians seeking reliable material, the word "primary" in the phrase has nothing to do with that rank. The word refers solely to the fact that, unlike a secondary source, the evidence is as close to the matter being examined as possible.

Nor does the phrase necessarily correlate to the "order of importance" in the composition of a work. A scholar compiling a history of, say, a town may find that by far the most important source for his narrative is earlier published books but, unless they are first-hand accounts, they are unlikely to be a "primary source" - whereas a tatty old deed, verifying a minor event so incidental that it warrants only a footnote, would be.

The sole criterion for "primary source" is the degree of originality, not importance. The fact that the source is original, and therefore more reliable, may well be of huge importance - provided that it imparts information of value - but that importance is not what defines it as "primary".

The real meaning of the phrase is indeed "well understood among historians". To turn the snide comment made by the owner of Classical Coins back on him: Welsh certainly did misunderstand its meaning, not being a person in the habit of bothering to check facts before making statements.

Sadly, it seems he knows as much about historiography as he does about archaeology. And the blindingly obvious fact that archaeological materials provide a major source of original evidence highlights the insanity of his remark that "archaeology is not a primary source for the development of history".

Both archaeology and numismatics can provide a "primary source" for historians. It's not some kind of bizarre competition - but I'll explore that fantasy contest in another post ...

Monday 7 December 2015

A classic from Classical Coins

As someone who ardently supports the private ownership of some antiquities, I cringe almost visibly when an individual who one would think also supports that belief makes such a stunningly brainless remark that the general public would be forgiven for wondering whether private individuals should be entrusted with being allowed to dress themselves let alone own an antiquity.

Some remarks are so outstanding in the sheer plumbless depth of their nonsense that they deserve an award at least for their entertainment value if nothing else. There would be no shortage of candidates, particularly among those made by some members of the ACCG, but a strong contender for this year's nomination must be this recent pronouncement by the owner of Classical Coins:

"... archaeology is not a primary source for the development of history, while numismatics certainly is." 

I'll just leave that there - with little further comment - for the sublime majesty of its jaw-dropping inanity to fully sink in.

I'll merely note that 'history' is a rather broad concept - and involves somewhat more than only kings, queens and politics. For instance, while archaeological research has frequently played an invaluable part in compiling studies of past interiors in my own sector of social history, I'm scratching my head trying to recall when coins played any part in it at all. But my distress is minor; it must baffle the owner of Classical Coins to distraction trying to work out how on earth historians have somehow managed to know so much about ancient societies such as early pharaonic Egypt or Minoan Crete before coins were even invented.


If readers are unsure of the meaning of "primary source", please see my explanation.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Yugoslavia anyone? A future for Syria and Iraq ...

Hmm, so the West (Britain and France) created two huge artificial political "nations" named Syria and Iraq by simplistically drawing lines on a map during and after World War I - largely based on competing imperialist claims to oil but almost completely ignoring the ancient tribal/cultural differences of the regions within those artificial "nations" they created. And now, surprised at the lack of homogeneity and the inherent violent internal rivalry caused or inflamed by their short-sighted creation and exacerbated even further by their bungled attempts to "fix" what was already wrong to begin with, the West's proposed solution is to simply bomb one of the most bitter factions into submission.

Yeah right, like that's gonna work ... because a sure way to stop people being bitter about perceived inequality and injustice - so bitter in fact that their desperate situation provides a fertile breeding ground for extremists to gain power - is to make them even more bitter. 

'Islamic State' is a symptom of the frustration of that wider faction, not the cause. A lasting solution to the crisis in Syria and Iraq can only be achieved by addressing some of the basic causes of the bitterness and hostility rather than merely snipping at the symptoms. One of those causes was compounded by the political insensitivity of the West in the early 20th century.

Nations that have formed and evolved naturally over the ages tend to have done so because the overwhelming majority of its population throughout its territory broadly shares a common culture. But a "nation" created artificially by outside powers may have no such natural unity. The fabrication of arbitrary political boundaries that ignore substantial internal populations of opposing cultures can so easily be a recipe for injustice, violent friction and even genocide. Where the government of that "nation" is a dictatorship, the result can be humanitarian disaster and even where it is ostensibly a democracy, the result can be the subjugation of a very sizeable minority to the overall will of a hostile majority and widespread abuse. 

There may come a time when Syria and Iraq can overcome the difficulties of fairly and peacefully accommodating a diverse population but, in the meantime, it may be worth considering proposals to divide the territory at least temporarily into districts that more sensitively reflect the current gulfs. 

But I guess bombing people is so much easier than the West admitting the borders were totally mucked up in the first place, helping to renegotiate them properly and sensibly to reflect the reality of people rather than just oil this time around, and redrawing the stupid map.

Yugoslavia anyone? Maps - and the practice of lumping inherently incompatible cultures all together into the artificial "nations" created by them - are NOT immutable. When the old cartographic divisions so obviously ain't working and instead are causing human suffering on a massive scale, change them!


My apologies for veering from the primary topic of this blog but I am somewhat irritated by the reluctance of the West to fully acknowledge its part in contributing to this situation and to take responsibility for helping to resolve it in a sensible manner.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

"Shut yer mouth" diplomacy

You probably know the type. Here in the UK, some of us occasionally have the misfortune to come across them in the pub. If they sense you are new to the pub and see you are alone, the type - usually a somewhat ageing gent dressed as if the 21st century had never arrived and whiffing vaguely of an aftershave that must have been banned as a health hazard since the 1970s - will sidle next to you and perhaps even offer to buy you a drink. You feel slightly irked by the sympathetic look flashed to you by the bartender as he hands you the drink - after all, the elderly gent seems quite scholarly and benign - until the horrifying truth dawns during the eternity as you sip it. The bartender knows the regular clientele only too well. You've been cornered by the type - a species which in less politically correct times might have been uncharitably referred to as a 'windbag'.

Torn between a compunction to remain polite and an urgent need to find any excuse to leave the pub - at some points, even the planet - you listen as the type endlessly drones on in excruciating detail about his homespun theories on Dubonnic coinage, you try to look suitably impressed while he repeatedly drops the names of the myriad obscure scholars he once met into his monologue, and you hover on the brink of extinction while he tops it off with random snippets of half-grasped Jungian philosophy.

"Gosh," you exclaim politely, while eyeing the tempting distance between the bartender's fruit-knife and your wrists.

"I know more about the coins of the Celtic Coriosolite coins than anyone else in the world," the type responds modestly (Moneta-L, 30/7/08). He then proudly goes on to add that he collects them and that although he has never had any formal training in archaeology, he knows far more about it than people who have. And those archaeologists or anyone else who disagree with him are just suffering from 'enantiodromia' (turns out he's rather fond of big words, especially those used by Jung, and, you suspect, even more especially those he feels will showcase his unrivalled erudition and overawe you).

For instance, despite the overwhelming view of most archaeologists, only he and his inner circle know that in fact "there is no such thing as an archaeological record" (Past Times, 8/12/14).

"Really?" you rashly dare to question, caught off-guard while preoccupied with checking you still have a pulse. "I thought the archaeological record was very important and that one of the reasons museums and antiquity collectors should avoid buying items without a provenance was that it would encourage looters to destroy the record to supply them."

At this point, a bemused smile plays over the type's face as he regards you with a look between contempt and pity. You are not, after all, even remotely in his league of superior knowledge and intellect. "I see nothing wrong with buying an unprovenanced item if it can tell us things apart from that detail," he patiently explains with an air of pained condescension (AncientArtifacts, 8/8/10).

Inwardly, you wonder if trashed archaeological sites are really just a "detail" and if the historians looking at bulldozed Roman remains in places like Bulgaria would see things in quite the same way as the mental giant facing you. But you sense that any attempt at rational discussion would be a mind-numbing exercise in futility. You wisely say nothing, you gulp down the rest of your drink and, muttering that you just remembered your house is on fire, you make a frantic dash for the door.


By now, I dare say readers may have sussed that my light-hearted portrayal of this fictional 'type' is loosely based on a real person and the quotations are his - though in real life the venues are online forums and a blog rather than a pub (I hope he wouldn't really corner an unwilling listener in the latter and, for that matter, I really know nothing about his fashion sense or aftershave). I've mentioned him anonymously before - and in case he fails to see the funny side in being the inspiration for a fictional character, I'll respect his feelings and keep it that way. I'll just refer to him as 'Anon FSA'.

While Anon FSA himself simply dismisses any views that diverge from his own as the drivel of a mere mortal - a "moron" as he once described me - and likes to depict those differing views as paltry "squabbles", there are others who rush to grab their (hopefully metaphorical) baseball bats - and this is where it gets serious.

His pseudo-academic ramblings have deeply impressed some more extremist members of the metal detecting community and they have eagerly seized on his cavalier attitude to genuine archaeology as if his assertions were authentic scholarship and gave them carte blanche. One in particular, John Howland (I've mentioned him once or twice too), has aligned himself like some kind of Billy Bunter crony.

If anyone has the audacity to actually challenge Anon FSA's pronouncements instead of making a "frantic dash for the door" (as in the fictional scenario above), Howland will use every means he can think of to silence them. Apparently frustrated by an inability to form cogent thoughts or express himself in reasoned discussion, he resorts instead to playground bully tactics and engages in puerile name-calling and veiled threats. The latter consists of feverishly tracking down any personal details about the individual he can find - photograph, address, telephone number - and publishing them as widely as possible. It's clearly designed as a form of intimidation - pretty much the equivalent of a thug's "we know where you live, mate".

Since some scholars have been on the receiving end of this form of intimidation and are rightly concerned about the safety of both themselves and their family (one has received death threats over the telephone), the tactic is particularly vile and correctly condemned.

The blame for this incitement to thuggery lies not only with Howland but equally with those who allow him to publish his venom on their blogs. After seeing that Anon FSA had happily allowed two of Howland's poison intimidations as comments on his own blog and clearly supported them, I sent him the following comment on Thursday, 5 November ...

J***, while our views on archaeology and other things may differ, I had always respected you as a man of honour and integrity. I am now utterly shocked. 
While I have criticised the views of other people on my own blog, sometimes even with a degree of sarcasm, I would NEVER and have NEVER debased my criticism to such a personal 'ad hominem' level that I would even DREAM of publishing (or allowing commenters to publish) any details of their private lives - including addresses, telephone numbers, insurance numbers and so on. Such tactics are a form of gutter-level intimidation and play absolutely no part in any scholarly debate. 
I expect such tactics from your commenter; I do not expect you to permit or condone them. Blogspot allows the owner of the blog to vet comments before they are published or to retroactively remove them.  
In the meantime, I remain appalled. As a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, I would hope that you of all people would understand the standards of academic discussion and also appreciate the risk of bringing the Society you have the honour of belonging to into disrepute. Please restore my respect.

So far, almost a week later, Anon FSA has not published my comment but those of Howland remain. I still remain appalled.

Friday 30 October 2015

"There is no evidence" that these antiquities are fakes

Let's be clear: the antiquities trade is notoriously plagued with fakes and some of them can be difficult to spot. Dealers in antiquities may handle hundreds or thousands of items over a long career and it is almost inevitable that even the most expert and honest dealer among them may inadvertently offer an occasional fake now and then. Even major museums can be fooled sometimes. But if common low-grade fakes or replicas that should not fool a myopic tourist persistently occur with tedious regularity among a dealer's stock, a line has been crossed. If that dealer has been in business for a very long time and we can reasonably expect them to have acquired a great deal of experience, we have to question not only the dealer's expertise but the honesty of their intentions. Such a scenario would undermine the credibility of the antiquities trade as a whole.

Back in April this year, after an earlier post querying some bronze lamps, I questioned several items that had appeared in the stock offered by Artemission, an antiquities business based in London and owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD). In my April blog post I candidly but unwisely stated my opinion on the authenticity of those items. Artemission objected and asked Google, the blog host, to remove both the blog post itself and any links to it in its search results on the grounds that my post was "causing serious financial and reputation damage" and that it contained "defamatory and unsubstantiated remarks which are presented as ‘facts’ when there is no evidence to support the claims". Google complied.

Fair enough, I have no wish to damage an honest business. I will NOT state my opinion on the authenticity of those items. I will NOT make any "defamatory and unsubstantiated remarks". And, to avoid any unfair loading in search results, I will NOT even include the name of the company in the post title or URL.

Instead, I will merely present the same selection of seven items I queried in my original post (items sold as fakes or openly as replicas on eBay or other venues by other sellers are on the left, very similar items offered by Artemission are on the right) and just politely ask Mr Karawani himself to explain why he feels that his items (those on the right) are authentic. Perhaps my concern is misplaced. In the meantime, I will remain silent and make no comment one way or the other.

(Images can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

I'm hoping the owner of Artemission will be able to clarify the reasons for the worrying similarity and, while we're at it, perhaps he can also explain why the inscription on his example of an "incantation bowl" apparently lies OVER the burial deposits. I am familiar with these artefacts and I confess to being a little baffled. The inscription does not appear to be Aramaic as described and I would have thought that if it were contemporary with the bowl, the inscription would lie UNDER the deposits formed during burial. Just curious ...

I am also curious about quite a few other items that have appeared in the stock of Artemission but Mr Karawani seems a little touchy about having his stock questioned so I'll just swallow my curiosity about those.


The legal complaint requesting removal of my original blog post asserted that "The individual(s) behind this link are intent on damaging our company". Not so. I should clarify that in fact I have absolutely no personal grudge against Mr Karawani (I have never met him) nor do I have the slightest personal interest in damaging his particular company (I am neither a rival dealer nor a disgruntled customer). I am utterly impartial. My blog is not intended as some kind of witch-hunt; any mention of individuals, companies or organisations in the posts is simply incidental to an overall theme.

My interest is in the image of the antiquities trade as a whole and, as I have previously done with other dealers (e.g. here and here), I reserve my right to question or criticise ANY member of that trade who in my opinion may not be helping that image. Mr Karawani is not only a member of the AIAD - an association prominently displaying the slogans "Purchase with Confidence, Trustworthy & Transparent Trading, Dependable Dealership, Reliability & Good Faith" - he is on the Executive Committee. The reputation of a member reflects not only on the credibility of the association to which he or she belongs but on that of the entire trade.

As I said, the antiquities trade is notoriously plagued with fakes. In common with merchandise such as fine art, autographs and other antiques, a key component in the financial value of an antiquity lies in its authenticity. A painting by Van Gogh or Picasso will not be accepted as authentic unless the dealer can prove beyond doubt that it is. The same must apply to an antiquity. It should not be a matter of having to provide evidence that an antiquity is fake; the onus must lie with the person selling the item to prove that it is not.

Nowadays, when scholars such as Elizabeth Marlowe and Oscar White Muscarella are questioning even museum objects unless they have a cast-iron provenance back to a documented excavation, the days of simply taking a dealer's word at face value are over. And when a dealer's response to questions is not to answer them but to simply stifle them by threatening legal action, the slogans of trade associations like the AIAD begin to look somewhat hollow and unconvincing. Is that the image the antiquities trade wishes to project?

Do such actions promote the aura of trade openness and transparency that conservationists have been campaigning for over the last few decades?


While I warmly welcome constructive comments from the owner of the business mentioned in this post, I would be grateful if other people refrain from passing any definitive judgement on his items in the meantime.

Note: Although made merely as a reproduction or tourist souvenir, an item becomes "fake" when deceptively offered as the real thing.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Greece: rise in looting during economic crisis

(stock image)
"The economic crisis has led many Greeks to antiquity looting and smuggling, with most of them being first-time offenders with no criminal record, says a National Geographic report." ("Antiquities Looting Increases in Crisis-Stricken Greece", Greek Reporter, 18 August 2015). And the shortage of cash has had a double impact. Budget cuts have left state agencies unable to deal with the situation. It is "estimated that in all of Greece there are only about 60 employees who work exclusively to prevent and disrupt looting".

Sunday 9 August 2015

Time for a thoughtful reduction in UK metal detecting?

It is clear that the controversial pastime of metal detecting in the UK, even in cases where finds have been officially reported, has occasionally placed so much strain on limited public funds that the treatment of archaeological sites was compromised and fell short of best standards. One such case, for instance, concerned competing claims on the public purse by events at Creslow and Lenborough in Buckinghamshire during October and December respectively last year.

In light of the recent shrinkage of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and other severe cutbacks in funding at both national and county level for the UK heritage sector at the present time, I wonder if British metal detectorists have accordingly scaled down the active pursuit of their hobby to allow scarce and already stretched resources to be focused on priorities such as dealing with genuine chance finds and discoveries or the urgent demands of emergencies and 'rescue archaeology', where sites are actually under immediate threat. There appears to be a strong case for thoughtful detectorists to curtail their digging in potential sites that are not under immediate threat and find other ways to amuse themselves in the meantime until funding to support their hobby in a reasonably responsible way has improved.

Many of those hobbyists proudly claim that the activity is primarily for the public good. Is this then a time for them to restrict their pastime willingly in response to the current situation or to simply carry on regardless?

Thursday 16 July 2015

US "returns" Syrian lamp to ... Iraq

After seizing antiquities in a raid at Deir ez-Zor in Syria, it seems the US Government handed over ALL the items to Iraq in a well-publicised ceremony.

One problem with that ceremony is highlighted by a lamp displayed with other items on a triangular blue sheet in one of the photographs (see image). It appears to be authentic and is a Syro-Palestinian type of the 3rd - 4th centuries AD. In other words, the lamp which was seized in Syria is likely to have been made and found in Syria.

The bits and bobs handed over to Iraq are a strange assortment - including a tiny fake bust of Nefertiti, a modern metal-smelting crucible, a leather manuscript in Aramaic, pieces looted from Mosul Museum, Islamic coins, and so on. After a proper analysis of what the items really are, it is intended that any Syrian antiquities will eventually be transferred on to Syria.


Paul Barford and Sam Hardy have covered this topic in admirable depth.

Thursday 2 July 2015

Blogwarts: the fantasy world of blogging in California

You thought 19th-century pomposity was long dead after a hundred years? Think again. It lives on in a certain blog (and it just cracks me up sometimes!). The blog is run by Dave Welsh, an engineer who lives in California and deals in coins - the same ACCG member who in all seriousness refuses to accept that the looting of antiquities is primarily driven by those who pay for them. He, backed by a coin-collecting lawyer and a metal detectorist, insists that anyone who presumes to oppose his views about ancient artefacts must be able to prove they are nothing less than a qualified archaeologist with a plethora of diplomas before they are even allowed to speak.

Indeed, those who engage with his fantasy world may be excused for hallucinating that they are not that far from a snooty version of Hogwarts under Dolores Umbridge. To appreciate the full majesty of his blog, we have to understand that Welsh regards his blog not as a mere digital platform for his opinions but as some kind of august institution where he reigns as provost and a select few who fall in line with the institution's way of thinking are admitted as fellows or adulating students (presumably suitably attired in its regalia while sitting at their laptops).

After a personal attack on the credentials of Paul Barford (déjà vu?), he graciously granted him permission to enter the institution briefly and reply as a "guest". Welsh posted a special notice - grandly entitled "Comments Policy Exception" - in what to mere mortals like you or me would be just a blog comment. Under the title, in characteristically sententious and laboured prose reminiscent of a 19th-century schoolmarm, he solemnly announced the official edict to the gathered assembly:

"I have decided to permit Mr. Barford's comments to be published here even though I consider them to contravene the policy of this blog that comments must shed more light, not more heat, upon the subject of the discussion. This is an important subject, and Mr. Barford must be given every opportunity to defend his position, even if his remarks transgress blog policy.

"This is a one-time exception and it is not likely that I will extend it to other subjects Mr. Barford may be interested in commenting upon. He must realize that commenters are guests, and have an obligation to "follow the rules" of the venue. Mr. Barford does not determine the rules here, nor does anyone else who comments to my blog."

I gather that even if the "subject of the discussion" in this august institution is nothing less than a personal attack ("heat" itself surely?), the person discussed should think it a deep privilege to be allowed to enter its hallowed portals and be granted permission to speak. Ah, and there was innocent 21st-century me, naively thinking a blog was just a blog. I feel truly humbled.


But on a serious note: I am avidly in favour of an intelligent and thoughtful approach to collecting antiquities and thus protect its future. Do these people really think that posing as some pompous institution and fatuously inviting ridicule is the best way to promote its image?


Barford has also replied here and here on his own blog - though be warned: readers may find its more relaxed "policy" and down-to-earth format a shocking return to reality.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Ancient coins looted? As if on cue ...

Okay, I'll admit that there was a slight element of sarcasm in my previous post about ancient coins looted in Israel. Since, as has been noted, irony is not always recognised for what it is, I'll come clean: ancient coins ARE antiquities, they ARE looted (in huge numbers), and they ARE found in perfectly saleable condition at archaeological sites (even those not found in pristine condition are flogged off in huge bulk lots as "uncleaned").

Coincidentally, while in the midst of discussing my blog post on a discussion list, an Israeli dealer, apparently oblivious to that thread, posted his ad on the same list - almost as if on cue.

The dealer, Z.Z. Antiquities based in Jerusalem, advertised 50 kg of "bulk, uncleaned, unattributed ancient coins from the HolyLand". The coins are a mix of "Roman, Byzantine, Greek, Seleucid, Ptolemy, Judean, Islamic, Nabatean, Phoenician, Persian" and we are told that "there are approximately 350-400 coins per kg on average" - so 50 kg would be about 17,500-20,000 ancient coins.

Brandon Leon, the owner, seems a little edgy when his activities are highlighted - and I think we have to sympathise with anyone whose delinquent computer mouse is disconcertingly prone to bouts of Tourette's - but his ads do cause concern. This is not the first time that a connection between the rampant looting of ancient coins at archaeological sites in Israel and the enormous bulk lots of them offered by dealers such as Z.Z. Antiquities has been suggested. Although we are assured that "all of our antiquities come with Export Approval legal documentation from the Israel Antiquities Authority", one nevertheless has to question where 50 kg (that's over 110 lbs for those not used to metric) of ancient coins originated.

Israel passed an Antiquities Law in 1978 and dealers claim that the items they sell all come from inventories which predate that law. But it is hard to believe that the 100,000 artefacts that leave Israel each year all come from that source (Blum 2003). Rather, it is credible that the lax situation in Israel, where antiquities are openly sold, enables dealers there to source their stock not only from modern illegal excavations within Israel itself but also from those in neighbouring countries and territories.

An ACCG coin dealer on the discussion list refused to accept that looting is "driven by the existence of a collecting market in Europe and North America". Admittedly, the US dollar is an international currency and its use, together with the English language, in the ad by Z.Z. Antiquities cannot prove it was aimed largely at the American market. But "N. America" and "Europe" are listed first as regional targets for sales by the Israeli dealer and, despite protestations from the ACCG, I think it safe to say that those markets play a primary role in encouraging the looting of archaeological sites for ancient coins.

A few years ago, Nathan Elkins, Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist, wrote about coins being smuggled out of Bulgaria. Among other things, he mentioned that one individual ALONE had shipped approximately one metric ton of ancient artefacts from Bulgaria to the United States within only a few months. That individual is a known supplier and dealer of ancient coins in the United States. To put those shipments into perspective, one metric ton would be about 350,000 ancient coins.

Where do we suppose that one metric ton of material came from? Legal excavations? The evidence is overwhelming that the three tongue-in-cheek statements bulleted in my previous post were actually total b@#*$%?&!!!

Oops, sorry about that last word; my computer mouse seems to be playing up again ...

Saturday 2 May 2015

Ancient coins looted? That can't be right!

"Israel Border Police on Thursday announced that they had arrested seven individuals for allegedly engaging in unauthorized excavations at a historical site. [...] Authorities said that the men had stolen ancient coins from the Roman and Byzantine periods [...] The men were found to have shovels and metal detectors." ("Police arrest alleged antiquities thieves for stealing 2,000-year-old coins", Jerusalem Post, 30 April 2015).

But wait, that can't be right! As many coin dealers of the ACCG persuasion will tell you:
  • a) Ancient coins are NOT antiquities. Yes, they are objects and they are old but they are round metal disks that were used as money so they cannot possibly be antiquities. They are sort of ... kind of ... in some way ... well ... different.
  • b) Ancient coins are NOT looted. They are all found in hoards far away from anything else ... so somehow that is not looting ... or scattered on the ground ... so somehow that is not looting either. They are never ever found at "historical sites" like antiquities are. And they are never ever dug out of those sites with shovels and metal detectors "causing irreparable damage". Because coins are ... sort of ... well ... different.
  • c) Even if ancient coins were found at "historical sites" like antiquities are, NO ONE would loot them because they would all be in awful condition and unsaleable anyway. Unlike metal antiquities which may be found in superb condition at "historical sites", coins are ... sort of ... well ... different.
But I can't help wondering if those dealers may be  ... sort of ... well ... completely wrong?


(UPDATE: For those who may have missed the mild sarcasm.)

Thursday 16 April 2015

Seizures of antiquities: a glance at the law behind them

Seizures of antiquities by government agents are a recurring theme in the United States - and sometimes the seizures seem to be carried out on only the flimsiest of evidence that the items may be contravening the law. Outraged dealers and collectors typically cry that the frequently successful outcomes of such actions where evidence is relatively weak are a flagrant breach of a legal principle enshrined in national law: surely, they protest, something must be "innocent until proven guilty".

Well actually, that principle still holds true in such cases - the seized items are indeed "innocent until proven guilty" (much like a person being arrested) - but the clue is in the word "proven". "Proof" is not a universal paradigm in law; what may be demanded as proof in one type of legal action may not necessarily be required as proof in another.

A Canadian coin dealer recently suggested that the prevalence of seizures in the United States as opposed to Canada or Britain was the result of a difference in legal systems: whereas Canada and Britain are governed by "common law", the US has no such protection. In fact, he was quite wrong. The legal systems of Britain, Canada and the United States are all largely based on "common law" (a system originating in England and grounded on judicial precedent as opposed to "civil law" grounded on statutes, etc.). The legal systems vary between those nations in the way in which they are implemented and by other factors but their systems are all founded on common law.

The differences in what counts as proof arise from differences in the type of legal action - between "criminal cases" and "civil cases" - and that distinction exists in both Britain and the United States. Most of the American cases of antiquities confiscation come under the heading of "civil forfeiture" (more commonly known as "civil recovery" in Britain), more specifically "in rem". Whereas in a criminal action, the burden of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt"; in a civil action in rem, the government sues the property itself (in rem) and all it needs is a "preponderance of the evidence" ("balance of probabilities" in Britain), a far lower burden of proof.

That may explain why American seizures of antiquities are seldom accompanied by a conviction of the people involved. A civil action in rem is far easier than a criminal action (or indeed a civil action in personam) and far more likely to be successful. Even if the artefacts are licit, the cost of legal defence is often not financially viable, especially in the absence of documentation. Cynically, it might be said that the US government gains the political kudos of repatriating antiquities to their countries of origin and the favourable publicity of proactively being seen to do the "right thing" with the minimum of effort. Whether the seizure was truly justified or not seems almost irrelevant from that perspective.

However, political motivations aside, such seizures do serve as a warning that dealers and collectors of antiquities would do well to heed. Insisting on documentation of items considered for acquisition is not only a responsible means of stemming the flow of recently looted artefacts, keeping and preserving records is a vital precaution in increasing the chances of holding on to those licit items they already own.

Cases of civil forfeiture seem to have become almost an epidemic in the United States and far commoner than in Britain. Their prevalence has been deeply controversial and an absolute nightmare for some. "America - Land of the Free"? Perhaps more like "America - Land of Litigation" (and a carnival for lawyers). But also a timely reminder for those buying and owning antiquities to take their responsibility seriously.


Many thanks to Derek Fincham for glancing through my draft before posting. Any errors are my own.

Artwork is my own - with a little help from James Montgomery Flagg.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

A flash of candour or just wishful thinking?

I just glanced at the title of a blog post by trade lobbyist Peter Tompa ("Let’s facilitate Lawful Trade and the Appreciation of Italian Culture it Brings", 8 April 2015) and literally misread it for a second as "Let’s facilitate Awful Trade and the Appropriation of Italian Culture it Brings". Is it just me subconsciously hoping the coin trade has finally brazenly admitted the effects its approach may have on conservation or is his blog sending a subliminal message of contrition?

Nah, back to reality ...

Saturday 11 April 2015

Margaret Rule CBE

Very sad to learn that Margaret Rule CBE passed away on Thursday, 9 April. Her passion for archaeology was highly infectious and I fondly remember her warm and enthusiastic support for my own research. 

She is perhaps best known for her work on the Mary Rose and I offer a link to this BBC video from two years ago as a tribute.

Monday 23 February 2015

Now that's what I call a mark-up!

Authentic lamp (Christie's)
Ancient lamps made from "bronze" (or to be more technically accurate, copper alloy) can fetch a good price on the antiquities market but real examples that allow the trade a reasonable profit margin can be hard to come by. However, one "leading" antiquities dealer in London - Artemission, owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD) - seems to have chanced on a remarkable supply. It must be a pretty large and pretty old supply because they have been selling a substantial quantity of their distinctive bronze lamps with a curiously uniform 'patina' for some years. Unfortunately for their customers, there is a slight hitch  ...

The Bulgarians have been making fake Roman bronze lamps for years. At first, they tried selling them as the real thing on eBay and other outlets - but most of them are blindingly obvious rubbish, buyers eventually got wise to them, and many are nowadays openly sold as "replicas" (though of course for much lower prices than real ones).

They are very recognisable. Here's one of them, sold for $24.99 in 2011 ...

An amazingly similar lamp turns up in Artemission's magic supply. All they have to do is plunk it on their posh website selling "Antiquities and Ancient Art", describe it as "Roman Bronze Oil Lamp ... c.1st Century A.D." and ask their customers for $1,800 ...

Not bad - but Artemission can do better than that. Here's another Bulgarian bronze lamp on eBay - sold openly as "modern" ...

And here's another one (though this one was mistakenly offered as genuine and crazily priced) ...

The eBay example failed to attract any bids at $99. But not to worry, Artemission come across a more refined version (the Bulgarian repertoire offers slight variations) in their legendary supply. Okay, it's still got big unarticulated eyes, tiny pointed ears, and that silly meaningless* lug on its forehead - so still pretty obvious it's rubbish - but it's got a nicer base. Add a little elbow grease and the fake patina is much prettier too. Just plunk it on the posh website, describe it as "Roman Oil Lamp ... c.1st Century A.D." and for this one, ask your customers for $2,500 ...

Hey, that's not bad at all. Assuming Artemission bought them at the going rate - or maybe a bit cheaper with trade discount - so far that's a profit margin of about 97% or over $4,100 profit on just two lamps alone.

Sadly, life is not always so good and sometimes the dealer has to be less ambitious. Well, let's be honest, this Bulgarian monstrosity (below) is even less convincing than the first two and even a punter with one glass eye and a patch over the good eye ain't going to be fooled by it. Even the Bulgarian sellers ask only around $25 for this sort of grade. But Artemission innocently grab one from the uglier part of their supply, plunk it on eBay instead of their website, describe it as "Byzantine Bronze Oil Lamp ... c.6th-8th Century A.D." and ask a mere $500 ...

I'm not vindictive but I do get tired of seeing this rubbish from them year after year. We have to be charitable and assume either that, despite his "over 40 years" in the business, Karawani is astonishingly naive or that his eyesight is no longer what it used to be. Of course, there is a possibility that if his customers ever find out he sold them fakes at high prices and suspect he actually knew very well what he was doing, they may take a somewhat dimmer view.


* The lugs on real lamps are meant for hanging chains from; thus they tend to be flat and of course pierced. (The central protrusion on the hair of the genuine lamp shown at top left is in fact a lidded filling-hole, so not a lug at all in this case.)

Note: Apart from the first lamp shown at top left, ALL the lamps illustrating this post are demonstrably modern. 


UPDATE: Five years later ...

Friday 6 February 2015

Constant Vigilance: Lamps found in Syria

The widespread looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, exacerbated by the deep civil unrest in that area since the spring of 2011, are well known. Looting is driven by market demand and it is therefore vital that anyone considering the acquisition of any ancient object that may have originated in Syria should be particularly vigilant.

Archaeological sites are trashed by looters searching for common saleable objects every bit as much as they are by looters searching for rare treasures. Supplementing the somewhat inadequate Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk issued by ICOM in September 2013, and in recognition of guidelines outlined by the EU (Council Regulation No 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013), I thought it might be useful to publish a small selection of the types of ancient lamps that are typically found in that region.

Open image in new tab to enlarge
It should be noted that while some of the lamps shown are peculiar to Syria, most of those shown were also produced or distributed in neighbouring countries in ancient times. Many thousands of these lamps were legally exported from the Levant over the years and the huge number of those that are still circulating need cause no concern.

Nevertheless, all the lamps illustrated represent types commonly found in Syria and, since in the absence of records it can be difficult to distinguish between artefacts which were legally exported years ago and those which have been smuggled out during the current upsurge in looting, an extra degree of caution is demanded. Due diligence should of course be practised in the acquisition of any ancient artefact whatever its region of origin at any time but it is good to be aware of those whose acquisition may pose a particular threat to archaeological sites in the present crisis.

While the clandestine nature of the trade in illicit antiquities prevents a realistic estimate of the precise amount being smuggled, it is clear that a vast number of Syrian artefacts are making their way through middlemen in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the UAE. Some will be sold on immediately to buyers in the West or elsewhere, while others will be stored until media attention has abated and eventually surface in international markets at a later date.

Note: The composite image of lamps above, formed entirely of my own material, is released into the public domain and free to use.

eBay Antiquities: treasures or trash?

An article about the online auction site eBay in the Daily Mail ("How eBay became an auction house for ancient TREASURES: Dealers turn to auction site to sell rare, authentic artefacts", 5 February 2015) posits "Buyers can purchase authentic coins, clothing and relics at the click of a button ..." and ironically illustrates it with some of the most outlandish fakes imaginable. You gotta love those "Roman" sculptures and the "Greek" pots with strategically-placed blobs of patina.

There is a blessing though. At least the muppets indiscriminately buying this rubbish pose no threat to the archaeological record - as long of course as they don't inadvertently stumble across the real thing.

Friday 23 January 2015

Hermes revisited

In my previous post about a fake head of Hermes prematurely announced by Turkish authorities, I mentioned that there were many other cases involving obvious fakes which should have been detected before going public. Paul Barford has drawn attention to a similar scenario in Thailand. Among thousands of "looted" artefacts seized from disgraced former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan, the Thai Fine Arts Department has identified sixteen that appear to be of Cambodian origin and has announced that five of them will be returned to Cambodia ("Pongpat 'treasures' fake, P'Penh says", Bangkok Post, 23 Jan 2015).

Sadly, Cambodia is unimpressed: "Cambodian experts who reviewed pictures of the artefacts, some of which Thailand dated back to the early 15th-century Kulen era, said the statues are obvious fakes ..." ("Statues are ‘treasures'", Phnom Penh Post, 23 Jan 2015). "'I don’t know why they think the statues might be real,' said Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum."

As with the Turkish case and many others too numerous to list here, a worryingly large number of seizures of "looted antiquities" seem to be more in the nature of posturing and feelgood exercises than genuine victories in the fight against looting. Ultimately, such negative publicity only serves to undermine the credibility of nations seeking to protect the heritage. The protection and conservation of the archaeological record deserves to be a serious undertaking, not merely a political game.

Saturday 17 January 2015

Hermes - who is being mugged?

While Turkish police have proudly announced the seizure of a "large number of historical artifacts, including the head of a 2,000-year-old Hermes statue" on 13 January ("Head of god Hermes seized in Anatolia", Hurriyet Daily News, 16 Jan 2015), Dorothy King has noted that the head is in fact an obvious fake ("Introducing the Master of the Miami Vice Hermes", 17 Jan 2015).

Since one of Hermes's attributes is a purse full of gold, I thought at first that the gun-flanked image on the Turkish website (top left) showed him being mugged. But apparently not. It seems those being made to look like a mug are the Turkish police (who prematurely announced a raid of an "historical artifact" without first checking their facts); "Cumhuriyet University academics" (who apparently fell for it too); and of course an alleged buyer (who is said to have paid $1 million for it three years ago and who then attempted to smuggle it abroad).

Certainly, anyone buying this unprovenanced rubbish thinking it is genuine deserves to be fooled (and worse): a) for having no common sense, b) for encouraging looting and c) for engaging in smuggling. But the authorities in cases like this (there have been several involving unsuspected fakes) also need to check their facts a bit better before going public and making themselves just look silly.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...