Sunday, August 10, 2008

"...A Free Market for all Collector Coins" - Another Look at the ACCG "Benefit Auction"

Last month I evaluated the ACCG "benefit auction" (see "The ACCG 'Benefit Auction' and Intrinsic Interests," 8 July 2008, for the previous discussion and the background to the present post). The ACCG's auction, which closes in the middle of this month, is meant "to raise funds for anticipated legal expenses in opposition to State Department imposed import restrictions on ancient coins." As I remarked in the previous post, the majority of the ACCG's leaders, its biggest financial supporters, and most contributors to the present "benefit auction" are primarily coin dealers, especially the more profitable ones. The ACCG opposes any legislation that might in any way hinder a "free-market in all collector coins," even though such legistlation is designed to protect archaeological sites and cultural heritage from plunder.

Some have tried to argue that coins are not found at archaeological sites (sic!) and that they should not be considered "archaeological objects," but there is more than ample evidence indicating that ancient coins frequently come from the same sources as other antiquities and that historical and archaeological sites are systematically destroyed as "suppliers" seek to profit and fill market demand (on the internet see, for example, N.T. Elkins, "Why Coins Matter...," SAFE Feature 2007; id., "A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins: A Case Study on the North American Trade," Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde 7 (2008): 1-13).

The purpose of this post is to update some of the figures that I compiled from the auction list last month and to comment on another asepct of the auction. As of 2 August 2008, 150 more ancient objects had been donated through single or multiple lots, making 315 the total number of ancient objects up for auction (313 coins and 2 antiquities, a numismatic publication was also recently donated). As before, the bulk of donations and those who contributed the lots with the highest estimated values are mostly dealers. In July, I reported that $26,875 in material had been donated in order to help ancient coin and antiquities dealers and collectors in their battles with the U.S. State Department, but, as of 2 August 2008, an estimated $43,700 in objects had been donated. As before, the reporting of recent histories is sparse; for example, only 8 ancient coins (3%) in the entire auction are recorded as having been in a collection before 1970 or are recorded under the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Two other coins have a possible pre-1970 history, listing only a former collections, while 6 more have a possible, but improbable, 1970 history listing former collections of long time collectors who collected until very recently. Six coins are referenced to auction catalogues within the last ten years. The bulk of the material, 95.42% of it, has no recorded history.

In the former discussion, I pointed out that some of the more profitable auction houses were donating generously to the ACCG "benefit auction." It is interesting to note that another class of dealer is also donating to the auction: the importer/wholesaler.

It is well known that ancient coin and antiquities dealers are often supplied by foreign nationals of source countries who live in market countries. Some of these individuals have worked closely with "finders," as is the case in the Balkans (for example, see the report on Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends, pp. 177ff.). In at least one case it is known that one of these ancient coin dealers and "wholesalers" even arranged the smuggling (this is referenced in previously cited report, but see also R. Dietrich, "Cultural Property on the Move - Legally, Illegally," International Journal of Cultural Property 11.2 (2002): 294-304).

Presently, there is at least one contributor to the ACCG "benefit auction" that is a self-identified importer and wholesaler of ancient coins and antiquities from the Middle East. On its website, the dealership states that it gets material "from the source" and sells to "major dealers in the industry." In May the dealership's website indicated that they had an office manager in Dubai who could help people with "storing and shipping" (this has since been stricken from the public website). Does this indicate that this individual imports Middle Eastern material into North America via Dubai? Dubai has become an important transit market for undocumented Middle Eastern antiquities in recent years (see for example, M. Al Serkal, "Federal Law Needed Fight Smuggling of Antiquities in UAE," Gulf News, 18 May 2008).

A look at the seller's history shows dozens upon dozens of massive "dealer lots" that contain thousands of coins, some of which have sold for $150,000 - $200,000 each. All of this material appears to originate in the Middle East.

Find spots and histories are not recorded by this seller, who claims to supply other dealers in the industry. The UAE serves as a transit market for antiquities, so we may not even be sure in what country many of these coins were found. Where are these coins coming from? Are they hoards or accumulations of single finds? The importer/wholesaler also deals in other antiquities in mass quantities, from where are they coming?

The auction does indeed seem to symbolize "free market for all collector coins." But, to borrow a phrase coined by Chippindale and Gill, what are the material and intellectual consequences?