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.)



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