Thursday, April 9, 2009

Reflections on an Acquistion

Part of the rhetoric used by the dealer lobby, and hangers-on, against those who advocate due diligence and transparency in the market to lessen the deleterious “material and intellectual consequences” of looting includes the use of derogatory labels. Such labels serve to reassure proponents of the indiscriminate market of the lack of a need for any oversight or concern and paints preservation advocates as undesirable “others.”

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.

I have not purchased anything for several years for multiple reasons: As a doctoral candidate, things like rent, food, and books take priority over collecting. Secondly, on principle, I no longer wish to purchase from certain American dealerships that provide substantial financial support for a profit-oriented lobby that refuses to acknowledge or address the indiscriminate commercial force that drives the systematic destruction of the material past and the information that goes along with it. Instead it seeks to protect and further those interests.

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



Nathan- Thanks for sharing your last purchase and providing some personal "context" as well.

I respect the fact that you only want to collect coins that can be traced back to 1970, but it would be interesting to learn if you think there is anything wrong with collecting coins recorded under the British Treasure Act. It would seem to me that the number of provenanced Roman coins dating before 1970 is relatively small and that properly recorded material sourced to the UK would seem to provide an option for collectors as yourself who don’t want to encourage the sale of unprovenanced material in the marketplace.

Also, assuming you could force collectors only to purchase coins with a provenance history dating back to 1970, what would you propose to do with the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of "orphan" ancient coins floating around in the trade and in collections?


Peter Tompa

Anonymous said...

Mr. Elkins says he buys only from old (pre-1970) collections. But his images, and his coin, which is carefully unsourced, appear to be from a 2006 catalog that is filled with unprovenanced, almost certainly post-1970 material. Could Mr. Elkins be good enough to explain why he does not see a conflict in his patronization of such a sale?

Warm regards,

Arthur Houghton


Hi Peter,
Thanks for your comment. Naturally, I would see no problem with people purchasing “fresh” coins that are properly and legitimately recorded under schemes like the PAS.
Nobody is talking about “forcing” to collectors to do anything, but I do know that a great many collectors feel that the status quo that the market would like to maintain is damaging and would like to find a way to change it. I suggest choosing a date because if a great number of collectors would do this it would put pressure on dealers and suppliers to change their ways if the customer base is not willing to buy recently surfaced items.

I understand some dealers and importers are frightened of this notion and why some
insisting on the use of inaccurate and distracting labels such as “anti-collector” and try to twist the subject away from the negative effects of looting into an alarmist rants on “nationalism.” The irony, of course, is that the position that American collectors and dealers should be able to buy whatever they want from other countries, even if it is illegal do so because, simply we don’t like their “authoritarian” laws is even more nationalistic. The viewpoint itself is rooted in “American Exceptionalist” philosophies of the sort repeatedly offered on venues like Fox News. It is worth mentioning our own nation (USA) has laws against unlicensed excavations and export. And so if Western European nations are to be condemned as “authoritative” and “nationalist,” so too must the U.S. if one is really going to try to use that argument.

Anyway, I got sidetracked. Back to my point. My suggestion to choose a date is to put pressure on market that is not at all concerned about the deleterious effects of looting. You do bring up a good point about “orphaned” coins if someone chooses a c. 1970 date. I chose the 1970 for my own reasons, but I understand others may choose different dates. Ultimately, I think the way to solve these problems is a registry scheme of the sort several collectors have discussed before which could be used as a market guideline for the buying of selling objects and an end date for that registry could negate the flow of looted material into the market – if the registry were used. I have alluded to these schemes several times here before.

All best,


Dear Arthur,

I think you might have missed something in my post. Neither the image of the coin nor the sale from which it was purchased are “carefully unsourced.” You may have overlooked the end of the post where all known ownership history of the piece is provided, including a citation to the 2006 sale from whence I acquired it.

Your question, however, brings up a good point and one upon which I did not get to expand in the main post. As I stated, there are multiple reasons I have not be an active collector for over three years now. One of those is precisely that which you bring up, which is reconciling buying from sellers who sometimes offer material from older collections, but who also have absolutely no qualms about the sourcing of fresh material. My research has shown that great bulk of coins sold annually by North American auction houses surface for the first time that year in their sales. In 2007, 95% of all the coins sales from Freeman & Sear were offered with no history prior to being sold by that firm. CNG was nearly 80% for the same year. Only between 1% and 2% of their offerings in 2007 had an ownership history before c. 1973.

I am also now aware that the auction house from which I bought this medallion purchased a rare coin from an individual who is known to have been employed by the late notorious antiquities trafficker, Nino Savoca, but that after the circumstances of the sale of the coin was uncovered it was returned to Greece. These sorts of business practices by major dealerships, which appear keen to handle and acquire recently surfaced material without much concern due diligence, is another one of the reasons I have not collected actively for a few years.

Thank you for allowing to me expand on an aspect of this post and thank you for your interest in Numismatics & Archaeology.

All the best,


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