Wednesday, May 7, 2008

'Dilettanti and Shopmen': Divergent Interests in Looting and Cultural Heritage Issues

Debate over cultural heritage issues has been heating-up over the past few years. Archaeologists and other professionals are concerned about looting, which has dramatically increased with the exploitation of the internet as a sales-platform and advances in metal detector technology, amongst other things. Museums are beginning to understand the issues and concerns and are increasingly taking steps to avoid dealing in illicitly excavated and traded antiquities. However, there are still some holdouts from that community who have argued against efforts designed to protect archaeological sites and the destruction of information for commercial profit.

In a completely different category are the much more personalized diatribes that have been made by certain dealers of ancient objects against scholars and advocates who are concerned about the plunder of the ancient world. Those with a financial interest in maintaining an unchecked trade in undocumented and illicitly excavated and exported antiquities have attempted to distort the issues by claiming that there is some other motivation apart from concern for the destruction of information and the vandalization of historical sites. For example, it is often asserted that archaeologists support “nationalist” claims to cultural heritage because it is the only way they can get permission to excavate in foreign nations. They claim that the AIA, the leading professional organization for classical archaeologists in the USA, has been “hijacked by zealots” who subscribe to the absurd philosophy that looting destroys scientific and historical information, which systematic excavation preserves. They claim that archaeologists simply want to “control scholarship” on the ancient world and that an anti-looting stance is a direct attack against independent scholarship. Can one not be concerned about the systematic destruction of the foundations of a historical science?

While there have been several erudite ancient coin dealers in the past, and even some today, who have made scholarly contributions to historical sciences, it is not typical today and most dealers do not actively participate in scholarly discourses; their primary interest is in buying and selling. For example, there are over one hundred ancient coin and antiquities dealers on websites like VCoins, but only a few have published in peer-reviewed journals or actively conduct research intended for publication in a journal or scholarly press. Nevertheless, some of the most outspoken members of the dealer lobby constantly call each other “scholars” and claim to be “independent scholars,” criticizing archaeologists, and especially the AIA, for “exclusion.” Personally, I have met several independent scholars, and at-large-members, at the AIA Annual Meetings. I have read scholarly articles in archaeological and numismatic journals that have been written by unaffiliated scholars. Therefore, I do not understand this assertion that the AIA and others have excluded independent scholars. There is a simplistic equation that some dealers are drawing: collector/dealer = scholar, which may be true in some instances, but certainly not all. One dealer has even attempted to elevate a hobbyist magazine to a scholarly publication on par with serious numismatic and archaeological journals in an attempt to imply that dealers (and also collectors) know what is best for coins in regard to cultural heritage legislation and issues (see "Archaeologists don't care about coins?" and the comments). Is this not like equating Cat Fancy magazine (a quality publication I have enjoyed by the way) with the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery? These publications both cater to people involved with cats (cat lovers/hobbyists on the one hand, and veternarians/scientists on the other), but we would not confuse them as both being “scholarly” and serving the same purposes.

Contrary to the assertions of one ancient coin dealer and lobby leader, different veins of interest can be traced back well before the UNESCO Conventions and the notion of cultural property issues. Scholars were concerned about understanding the past while dealers often had a different interest at heart. Yes, many did make some valuable scientific contributions, but this was not a universal rule by any means. For example, in his letter to accept the Medal of the Numismatic Society of London (now the Royal Numismatic Society), which was read at the General Meeting in 1895 by Dr. Barclay Head, Theodor Mommsen seems to have recognized the differing interests:

“Dear Sir, - You inform me, that the medal of the London Numismatic Society has been awarded to me by the Council. I accept, not without some inward contrition. Though I have published several works, I have never pretended to be a numismatist. My historical researches led me in early years to understand that history cannot be worked at without the coins, the only department of the records of civilised ages which has come down to us in comparative integrity. The soil is a better and surer recipient of ancient remains than the libraries, and the coins, by good fortune rarely unique, present a complete series as compared with the detached fragments preserved by the epigraphical tradition. So I came to study numismatics. But very soon I saw that what I wanted was not to be found in a literature which, after Eckhel, has been left mostly to dilettanti and shopmen; and, as a young man and a rash one, I tried to write, myself, what I wanted to get written. I am fully aware that my numismatic works are far from satisfactory; nevertheless, they have contributed to bridge over the chasm between numismatics and history, and in this sense I accept with sincere gratitude the distinction the London Society is about to confer upon me” ("Proceedings of the Numismatic Society," Numismatic Chronicle 15, 1895, pp. 20-21).

A few comments by the president of the society, Sir John Evans, following the reading of Mommsen’s letter may be also relevant:

“For my own part, after reading this interesting letter in which Mommsen tells us how he came to write his History of the Coinage of Rome, I may say that what amazes me most in it is the modest disclaimer of the writer to rank as a numismatist."

"Though he may be neither a collector nor a dilettante attracted to the study by an instinctive delight in coins as specimens of the die-engraver’s art, and though he may not care on “rap”…whether such and such coin be rare or common, beautiful or barbarous, he, nevertheless has always recognized the inestimable value of ancient cons as permanent historical documents…"

"No one numismatist is able to boast of a thorough knowledge of all the multifarious branches of this wide study nor do we all seek from coins the same sort of information. Some of us consult them as grammar of art and archaeology, others admire them as galleries of portraits, others have recourse to them as a storehouse of mythological lore, while others, again, are interested in them chiefly as illustrating the history of currency in past ages, and some others, simply as an article of commerce to be turned into the currency of the present day, at a profit" ("Proceedings of the Numismatic Society," Numismatic Chronicle 15, 1895, p. 21). [italics are in the original text].

Later, another historian, Moses Finley, commented:

“The second example is the history of money and coinage in antiquity. Systematic study began in the eighteenth century, but it was dominated, almost monopolized, by the interests of collectors until the last few decades, and that interest still retains a strong hold. However, the function of coins, as distinct from their rarity or their aesthetics, has become an increasingly prominent subject of research and the results have been considerable” (M.I. Finley, The Use and Abuse of History. London, 1975. p. 96).

Robert Göbl, who was in fact somewhat sympathetic to collecting and dealing, also recognized the following about numismatic scholarship:

“Auch zur Numismatik führt kein Königsweg, sie muß zu einem gewissen Grad erlernt werden. Bei allem Respekt, den die numismatische Wissenschaft ihren großen Laien schuldet, denen sie oft genug methodische Innovationen verdankte, muß dennoch betont werden, daß Numismatik als Wissenschaft nicht in der Art eines Hobby’s betrieben werden kann. Die Archäologie, in teilweise sehr ähnlicher Lage wie wir, hat sich erst kürzlicher mit Recht gegen den Begriff des Hobby-Archäologen gewendet und darauf hingewiesen, daß es ja auch keine Hobby-Mediziner u.ä. gäbe. Es ist also die Festigkeit des methodischen Lehrgebäudes und seiner Anerkennung allein, an der Gebrauch oder Mißbrauch hängen....Aber es würde den Hobby-Betrieb der Numismatik ehren, wenn er theoretisch wie praktisch von jener Art von Kurpfuschertum Abstand nähme, die immer wieder und oft penetrant auftritt” (R. Göbl, Numismatik. Grundriß und wissenschaftliches System. Munich, 1987. p. 75, see also relevant discussion from 74-78).

My quick and rough translation:

“No ideal process gives rise to the study of numismatics, but it must be studied on a conscious level. In all respects, numismatics owes much to laypeople with their methodical innovations; nevertheless, it must be emphasized that numismatics as a science cannot be applied within the framework of a hobby. To some extent, archaeology is in a very similar situation as well; we first turned against, with reference to the law, the concept of the “hobby-archaeologist” and pointed out that there is no such thing as a “hobby-physician,” etc. It is therefore the cohesiveness of methodical educational premises and its acknowledgment alone on which its use or misuse depends…. But it would add dignity to the numismatic trade interest if it would refrain from every style of charlatanry practically and theoretically, which appears over and over and is obtrusive.”

These are just a few of the several examples where numismatists themselves have commented on divergent commercial/personal and scholarly interests in numismatics.

We all have a passion for the material culture of the ancient world, but the expression of that passion varies from scholar, to dealer, to collector, and to layperson. If real progress is to be made by all concerned parties on protecting the physical remnants and knowledge of the ancient world from destruction, then the trade interest needs to be more transparent about its activities, abandon the deceptive sorts of charlatanry described above, and address the issues outright. The question is about the material and intellectual consequences of looting and what WE all can do to reduce the destruction of historical sites and the resulting loss of information.



Nathan- This is an interesting post. A couple of quick points after a quick read. While I acknowledge that some popular numismatic magazines are not all that scholarly, I would not discount the importance of the popularization of ancient cultures. Scholarly publications by their very nature are directed to very limited groups of individuals and there will only be support for the preservation of artifacts if there is a popular aspect to it. Also, coin publications (like coin clubs) help keep interest in ancient cultures alive and that in itself should be something that is promoted.

Also, I think you overemphasize the financial aspects of dealing in ancient coins. There are actually a limited number of ancient coin dealers who do this full time. Most in fact are part timers who deal in coins as an outgrowth of their collecting interests. Overall, ancient coin dealing seems to be a lot less lucrative than other types of art sales (or even dealing in US coins). If you look at the value of the inventory on the V-coins web site, and compare it to the take at even one Sotheby's sale you will have some sense of what I mean.

Finally, I personally know a number of well-credentialed archaeologists who either deal in or collect ancient coins. Frankly, they keep a fairly low profile because they are afraid of being "black balled" by other members of the archaeological community who take a dim view of collecting. In the olden days, well known archaeologists like Evans did not see a problem with this at all. Every once in awhile, one of the coins from his collection come up in the trade.

Best regards,

Peter Tompa


Dear Peter,

Thank you for your comments. As I had indicated in the post, I do not mean discount the role of popular literature on ancient coins. They do serve a purpose and a niche. What I am critcizing are the efforts by some to equate this with other scholarly journals, especially in the context of those assertions. The argument essentially runs: "the coin magazine is printed more regularly with more articles by collectors and dealers. This means dealers and collectors are better informed about coins and so when it comes to coins in regulatory legislation, we (dealers and collectors) obviously know more than archaeologists or degreed professionals." In my view, this is far too simplistic and the only reason this is being called scholarship within this particular context is to promote an agenda.

Popular literature on the ancient world can and does spark wider and more serious interest in the ancient world, but so too do archaeologists and other professionals some of whom frequently volunteer for public projects or agree to assist popular television with educational programming. I think public interest is a great thing, but the public deserves to be informed about proper and ethical practice when it comes to the removal of ancient objects from the ground.

While I do recognize that many dealers are only part-time, many are not. There seems to be handsome profits to be made in the importing and subsequent wholesaling of ancient coins to other dealers. One of these "wholesalers" indicated on a public discussion board that in the late 1990's one could make $4,000-$6,000 a week. One of the more aggressive dealers I have referenced is a full-time dealer with a respective stock. I'm not trying to lump all dealers or all collectors into the same category. There are some with an axe to grind, however, and do so in the most vociferous manner and, yes, I do question those actions and motives.

Yes, the "first archaeologists," would be treasure hunters by today's standards. But were not the first scientists often mystics trying to understand the workings of the supernatural? Was early zoology not influenced by those who sought exotic and rare species as trophies for their collections? Do scientific disciplines not have the right to evolve and change in regard to methodology and ethical practice?

All best,


Dear Nathan;

Why beat around the bush, if you want to talk about me just use my name and avoid the great mystery. I'm not going to sue you for libel, you'd have to stand in line.




Pertinent to this post, see now
"A Long Legacy of Protecting Cultural Heritage"