I have critiqued the goals, motives, and tactics of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) several times before (those unfamiliar with the ACCG are urged to consult a list of some relevant web-postings at the end of this discussion). For those who do not know, the ACCG is a 501 (c) 4 organization to which financial contributions are not normally tax deductible since up to 100% of its funds can be used for the purposes of political lobbying. According to its website, the goal of of the ACCG is to maintain a "free-market" in all coins. It has lobbied against legislative measures designed to protect archaeological and historical sites from destruction. A possible financial motive for its activities may be apparent in the fact that its founder and most of its officers are ancient coin dealers, and the majority of its financial contributors (especially the larger contributors) are ancient coin and antiquities dealers and auction houses.
In November of last year, the ACCG announced it was suing the U.S. Department of State under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for more transparency on the process under which it decided to impose import restrictions, at the request of Cyprus, on certain ancient coins of Cypriot type. Many who are familiar with the "blogstorm" last fall about these issues will recall that several vocal ACCG members and dealers were alleging various conspiracies between archaeologists and State Department officials (links here and here to relevant posts, some of which reference dealer accusations). A "benefit auction" for which the ACCG has been soliciting donations, which it will auction on August 17, 2008, has now sparked my interest.
In March 2008, it was announced that the ACCG would host a "benefit auction" in order "to raise funds for anticipated legal expenses in opposition to State Department imposed import restrictions on ancient coins" (for the notice on the ACCG website, dated in April after an update, click here). What I find most peculiar, and perhaps telling, about the ACCG's announcement is that it came only one month after a judge set the schedule for the pending lawsuit, in which it gave the State Department until May 9, 2008 to handover requested documents or request exemptions and the ACCG would have until June 2, 2008 to decide whether or not it would continue to pursue action. The State Department's deadline was still months away as the ACCG was soliciting donations for "anticipated legal expenses" to challenge the State Department further.
What does this mean? Is this about more than transparency? One can only speculate.
In any case, the auction itself is interesting in the context of other discussions I have had on the ACCG and its activities (again, see a list at the end of this post). As expected, the level of provenance reporting is very low; only 12 out of 265 ancient objects donated so far have any recorded history whatsoever and only six of those have a pre-1970 collection history or are recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). See Figure 1 for the level of reporting (click on the figures to enlarge). This falls in line with many ancient coin auctions. In the SAFE Feature, "Why Coins Matter..." [similar version at FeRA], I demonstrated that CNG, a major auction house for ancient coins in the U.S., only reported the history of a coin in about 20% of its lots, with only 0.17% of these pre-dating 1973 in its Triton X sale (Jan. 2007). Further research has indicated that in all of its printed sales in 2007, which included 22,681 ancient coins, 77.28% had absolutely no recorded history and only 1.89% had a history before 1973. Another major ancient coin auction house in the U.S., Freeman & Sear, offered 3,384 ancient coins in its printed auctions and mail lists in 1973; less than 5% of the descriptions provided any previous history on the coins and only 1.15% (39 coins) had a history before 1973.
Typically, auction houses are the most diligent about recording provenances; when one considers the masses of coins that are sold on eBay, VCoins, and in other venues, we can imagine over 99% of ancient coins are sold without any recorded history. One coin dealer has vigorously asserted that very little in the way of fresh material enters the market and that much of what is sold has been bought and sold since the Renaissance and the provenance merely lost. Can he really expect us believe this, when we constantly hear of reports of antiquities smugglers and looters in sources countries being caught with large caches of ancient coins among other objects and when massive shipments are intercepted by Customs officials? (R. R. Dietrich, "Cultural Property on the Move - Legally, Illegally," International Journal of Cultural Property 11.2 (2002): 294-304, discusses a literal ton of ancient coins (c. 350,000 coins) that were smuggled out of Bulgaria into the U.S. by just one dealer in a short amount of time). Even on eBay tens of thousands of soil-encrusted coins are sold each week in bulk lots and online correspondence indicates these same "wholesalers" and "importers" also supply many individual dealers in private transactions. Certainly import restrictions are designed to counter the sort of wholesale destruction of cultural heritage and archaeological sites caused in the procurement of such masses of material.
We have constantly been told that dealing in ancient coins is not a profitable venture and that it is merely the extension of an innocent hobby. Curiously, however, two of the ACCG's biggest financial backers (benefactors), are the aforementioned auction houses. In 2007, CNG reported $9.7 million in gross auction sales, excluding its 15% buyer's fees or any consignment fees. It also hosts bi-weekly internet auctions, which are not included this figure. Freeman & Sear offered $4.38 million in its printed auctions and fixed price lists in 2007; this again excludes any fees and its electronic auctions. Even the ACCG's founder and executive director (and also a benefactor) has a respectable inventory as co-owner of Sayles & Lavender. As of 14 April 2008, his online inventoried included ancient coins valuing approximately $258,583 in total.
Interestingly, the biggest financial backers of the ACCG and its efforts to combat such protective legislative measures and preserve a "free-market" in ancient coins are also dealers and auction houses. Figure 2 shows that 75% of donors to the ACCG "benefit auction" are ancient coin and antiquities dealers.
If we break down the data a bit more, it is clear that those investing the most into the ACCG's operations are those who would stand to lose the most if the trade in ancient coins and antiquities were to begin valuing documentation and the recent history of an object. At present it is very easy for an ancient coin, or any antiquity for that matter, to make it from the ground where it was removed by gangs of metal detectorists, tombaroli, or other looters, to a dealer's inventory.
To date, an estimated $26,875 worth of merchandise has been donated to the ACCG's "benefit auction" where 100% of the proceeds will go to these "anticipated legal expenses" in opposition to import restrictions. The material donated so far includes 263 ancient coins, 2 other antiquities (an Egyptian scarab and a Roman glass bracelet), a book, and five $100-gift cards for use to buy more coins or antiquities from VCoins. Over 40% of the estimated market value in this auction was donated by Freeman & Sear and CNG auction houses (see figure 3). Other dealers donated about 44% of the remaining worth and collectors and anonymous donations comprise the remaining 14%.
What about the history of the objects the ACCG is now auctioning to further their own interests? Where are they from? Under what circumstances have they entered the market? We only know for certain that 6 coins in the entire auction come from old collections or were recorded in the PAS (1 from a 1923 collection, 5 from the Braithwell hoard, recorded in the PAS). What is the ACCG trying to do with the money it raises from the sale of this material and what are the consequences of its actions? There is some irony here.
Suing the State Department must be a costly task indeed. But what about the fate of our past and the material and intellectual consequences of indiscriminate market activity and the apparent lack of concern that trade interest shows for it?
"Why Coins Matter..." SAFE Feature; similar version at FeRA
Archaeologists Don't Care about Coins? (Nathan Elkins)
Can Cultural Property Legislation Kill an Academic Discipline? (Nathan Elkins)
Codes of Ethics vs. the Financial Interest (Nathan Elkins)
Coins, Ethics and Scheduled Monuments (David Gill)
Coins, Contexts and Collecting (Fleur Kemmers)
It's All the Same: The Looting of the High Arts vs. the Looting of the Minor Arts (Nathan Elkins)
"Dilettanti and Shopmen": Divergent Interests in Looting and Cultural Heritage Issues (Nathan Elkins)
Also checkout relevant posts with the keyword "coins" at David Gill's Looting Matters blog