One such label frequently banded about is “anti-collector.” I view this term to be unhelpful and inaccurate. It is no more accurate than it would be to call the average collector “anti-archaeology,” or “anti-history,” “anti-science” or even “pro-looting.”
I have often been called “anti-collector” by various participants on the “other side” of the debate, in spite of the fact that I have never advocated an end to collecting. Such commentators also seem to forget that I am myself a “collector,” though it has been a while since I have been active and that I collected in a restricted manner in the final years of being active. Personally, I have chosen only to collect objects from old collections, before c. 1970, since I know these were not the fruits of recent looting, an activity I do not wish to support. My own c. 1970 cutoff coincides with the rise of the metal detector, which modernized and multiplied the negative effects of looting and made it an even more profitable enterprise.
In any case, I thought some readers might enjoy seeing my last acquisition (pictured) and some discussion of it. Of course, I view it as the obligation of collectors to pass on all previous ownership information of their objects to future owners and I fully intend to do the same. The following is a translated excerpt from a lecture about the ancient coin trade that I have been invited to give to the Frankfurter Numismatische Gesellschaft next week (on that, stay tuned). The FNG is a local group of collectors and researchers in and around Frankfurt.
“To begin with, I would like to show you a picture of my last acquisition as a collector. It is a medallion of Marcus Aurelius, struck in December AD 173. It is a remarkable specimen, unique because it is the only known example of this type in lead. The obverse die matches some known bronze specimens. This medallion comes from an old collection, that of the famous literary scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbot, auctioned by the J. Schulman auction house in 1969 [after Mabbot’s death]. On account of the documented history of this object, I had no concerns about buying it because I knew it had been long divorced from its context. Naturally, we must all understand that practically all ancient objects that have been bought and sold through the course of time come from undocumented excavations, even if looting was not recognized for what it is in times past. I bought this medallion because I have a particular interest in Roman medallions and also the reign of Marcus Aurelius, which I personally find a fascinating period in Roman history. This medallion can be appreciated for its high artistic and aesthetic qualities and we can recognize its historical significance on the reverse design, which celebrates the emperor’s campaigns against Germanic tribes. But since this object was ripped from its original context we cannot answer other important questions about it. Although relatively rare, Roman medallions survive in some quantities and most have long been in the large museum cabinets or private collections and new specimens often surface for the first time on the market with some regularity. Only a small number of Roman medallions have documented find spots and find contexts via archaeological investigation. Therefore, it is still today not possible to say with any certainty what purpose or function that Roman medallions served in the Roman world. This medallion is not like most [second century AD] Roman imperial medallions that are known to us today since it is made from lead rather than bronze. Since such rare lead-struck medallions are not known through archaeological context, we can only speculate as to their purpose and function as well. It is often supposed that such lead examples were “test strikes,” but without written or material contexts it simply remains a hypothesis. This medallion was taken out of the ground decades ago, probably at a time when little distinction or difference was made between the methodology and goals of archaeological excavation and treasure hunting. It has long since been recognized that unscientific excavation (looting) is the destruction of historical information.
We might collect coins from older collection so that we can be sure that they were not recently taken from the ground and that we are not supporting looting today. If, however, we do not ask any questions of what we buy and do not concern ourselves with the destruction of historical information, commercial interests will destroy our past…”
Yes, this medallion is a unique rarity and has important historical significance, and it is a great novelty to know it was once owned by a prominent individual of our era, but one important dimension of this object is not known and is forever lost on account of its unrecorded separation from its context: that is the physical history of the object. Roman medallions are some of the most interesting ancient numismatic objects there survive, but it is not surprising that J.M.C. Toynbee’s Roman Medallions (New York 1944), written more than a half century ago, remains the authoritative treatment on this class of objects when so few have been examined with recorded contexts. Toynbee provided an excellent discussion of these objects and eruditely offered suggestions as to their possible functions, but even she remarked that a lack of recorded contexts meant that we could not say anything specific or determinate about their function.
Just as crime scene investigators reconstruct crimes through various strands of material evidence and their relationships to one another, archaeology reconstructs the human past by examining objects and their relationships. The material and intellectual consequences of looting, therefore, are analogous to someone taking evidence from a crime scene, an action which could make it impossible to say anything meaningful or certain about the past and how objects were used by people in various circumstances.
The value of context has proven itself time and again and continues to do so, even in ways that one might not readily expect context to contribute. I provide another translated excerpt from this upcoming lecture:
“Iconographic representations on Roman coins have long been the subject of study. In this way, Roman coins have been understood as embodying a concentrated picture language that could transmit ideological messages to the viewer. The study of coins in context has added another dimension to this field of study. Fleur Kemmers has demonstrated in her analysis of the coin finds from the legionary fortress at Nijmegen [F. Kemmers, Coins for a Legion: An Analysis of the Coin Finds from the Augustan Legionary Fortress and Flavian canabae legionis at Nijmegen. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 21 (Mainz 2006), 189-244, esp. 219-244] that the soldiers stationed there were supplied by the Roman state, deliberately, with coins bearing militaristic themes. Through a comparison of the coin finds from local civilian settlements and the corpus of coin finds from Rome, and through a thorough study of coin circulation and coin supply, she showed the fundamental quantitative differences in coins that were supplied to the soldiers there and to other regions and settlements. The semantic system deployed on Roman coins can now be understood as being more nuanced than we had previously thought and the potential applications of her research for the study of Roman coin iconography are clear [see further discussion in N.T. Elkins, “Coins, Contexts, and an Iconographic Approach for the 21st Century,” in H.-M. von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.), Coins in Context I: New Perspectives for the Interpretation of Coin Finds. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 23 (Mainz 2009), 25-46 (this collection of essays should be in print by May 2009)]. Some of my own current research is now concentrating on the geographic distribution of Flavian and Trajanic coin types with architectural designs and preliminary results are showing that certain types were intentionally directed at specific audiences [-The results of this research are to be presented at the XIVth International Numismatic Congress in Glasgow]. For example, coin types that celebrated the construction or reconstruction of a specific building in Rome are more frequent in Rome and Italy, but ‘connotative’ types that communicated more general ideas, such as the Ara Providentia types of Vespasian, which referenced the emperor’s foresight in naming an heir, are very common and particularly abundant in excavations in the western Roman provinces. These few examples indicate how numismatics and attention to context can provide new perspectives and understanding of the ancient world.”
There is more to a coin or to antiquities than the object itself which we can admire. As a onetime active collector, I understand the passions of collectors and the thrill of establishing a physical connection with the past by the purchase of antiquities. However, if we are to be responsible stewards of the past and really do have a concern for understanding the world of our forbearers, and for preserving the potential of future generations to realize that knowledge, then we must consider the sources of what we are buying and the effects of our actions. Great progress could be made if every collector would put some limits on their acquisitions, such as coming up with some cutoff date for their purchases. If every collector today were to say I will not buy anything that is not documented as having a recent history before (DD/MM/YYY) then he or she could be rather comfortable in knowing he or she were not funding more recent exploits, which would decrease the demand for and profitability of freshly looted material. We all need to change the detrimental status quo and the greatest power to force that necessary change lies with the consumer.
Image: CNG Triton IX (10 Jan. 2006), lot 1487 = Ex John F. Sullivan Collection = Ex Thomas Ollive Mabbott Collection (Part II, J. Schulman, 27 October 1969), lot 4792