Monday, May 25, 2009

Ancient Coin Traffickers Sentenced in Germany

A few months ago, there was mass concern among German ancient coin collectors about media reports on the seizure of ancient coins and antiquities from private collections. Seizures were being made because certain objects had been illicitly sold and acquired (for a balanced article, see “Vorsicht, Erdfrisch!,” Focus, 20 April 2009 [discussed by P. Barford here]. There continues to be some concern among German collectors, but steps are being taken to promote an equitable dialogue between collectors, archaeologists, and law enforcement in the BRD about the need for some changes in market structure and buying/selling practices.

In the United States, the dealer lobby exploited and misrepresented the news of seizures in Germany in order to promote their own agenda and urge American collectors to contribute to their lobbying efforts (see discussion in "Police Action with Antiquities and Ancient Coins in Germany: Some Clarifications and a Call for Reason").

In various online discussion lists and blogs, leaders and members of the dealer lobby painted an alarmist view of rampaging German police going door-to-door, singling out ancient coin collectors and taking their coins away. One of the American ancient coin dealer lobby leaders, Dave Welsh, who has been decorated by the group (discussion here and here), went so far as to advertise the insensitive comparison that one irate German dealer made between the actions of German police officers in these cases to that of the Nazi Gestapo. Welsh also made personal attacks on a German law enforcement officer. This ACCG leader is well-known for dismissively portraying archaeologists and preservation advocates as Nazis rather than addressing the issues (e.g. discussion here). Another dealer and honoree of the dealer lobby accepted skewed versions of the events presented to American collectors and added:

"I'm not shocked or surprised to see this happening with China which is a communist (and therefore statist and totalitarian regime) government do this, for their government it is par for the course. Nor am I shocked that it is happening in Germany because they have flirted with fascism and gone back and forth with mild forms of socialism over the years. But it is still disturbing nonetheless because of the precedent it sets for other governments to follow, they can point to Germany now and say, 'they do it, why not us?'" [emphasis added].

And we all know what he means here as "German fascism" is shorthand for "Nazism."

Following such alarmist discussions, which one can only view as sad, but laughable, symptoms of wider right-wing American political tactics today, the dealer lobby’s Executive Director sought to exploit collector fear by plugging ACCG membership and asking for financial support.

In spite of the speculation and fear-mongering that has surrounded the events in Germany, one enlightening case has been prosecuted in Germany successfully. On 14 May 2009, it was reported that two people were prosecuted and sentenced in Germany for trafficking in stolen (illicitly imported/exported) ancient coins and details on the events that led to the conviction were provided ("Eine gute Lösung für politisch brisanten Fall," Oberhessische Zeitung).

In March 2008, the home of a 68 year-old woman and her 45 year-old son was raided by police with a search warrant for stolen coins and antiquities. Coins were seized and determined to have come from the Black Sea region, circulating in the Bosporan Kingdom in the area of the modern Ukraine. The market value of the coins was about € 40,000 (c. $56,000). Other coins had previously been sold by the two to dealerships and auction houses in Munich (labeled "Bavarian dealers" in the published report) and known sales were in the neighborhood of € 70,000 (c. $94,000). Let us keep in mind that large auction houses of the sort in Munich are what are typically viewed by the ancient coin collecting and dealing communities as "reputable sources." They were working with suppliers who were importing illegally from source countries and selling stolen property.

Police investigation of the two individuals began when the 45 year-old Russian man was stopped by police in December 2006 while driving erratically on the Autobahn. At that time police found several parcels of ancient coins in plastic bags, wrapped in black tape. The composition of the coins being transported at that time were similar to those confiscated in March 2008.

According to the article, study of the coin types indicates they circulated in the area of the modern Ukraine, while other circumstances appear to indicate that they compose part of a small museum collection that was likely hidden during the Second World War. In any case, the coins were illegally spirited out of the Ukraine to supply the inventories of western dealers and collectors.

Instead of obfuscatory and ignorant fear-mongering, is it not time that collectors and dealers ask questions of their suppliers and the circumstances surrounding the recent history of those objects? Can groups like the American ancient coin dealer lobby (ACCG) continue denouncing archaeologists and law enforcement while arguing against the value of context only to promote self- and commercial interests? Is a wholesale lack of concern for the physical destruction of history and the disdain for scientific inquiry and international law really a viable position? Will the ACCG laud the successful efforts of German law enforcement for stopping these criminals? Or will this case, like others before it, be misrepresented to further the ACCG’s agenda in working to maintain an indiscriminate and unconcerned market that thrives on loot, back-door dealing, and secrecy?




Your charges are purposely misleading and distorted. When this issue came to light, I personally called for collectors to refrain from comment until the facts were accurately determined. The ACCG, as an organization, did not make any public comment about the issue and certainly did not inflame the issue in any way. I have repeatedly advocated the effective enforcement of cultural property laws in any venue where they have jurisdiction. If a criminal act German law was prosecuted and a perpetrator was found guilty in this case, then the law will have worked as intended and that is good for all concerned (except maybe the perpetrator). Your constant mischaracterization of the views, motives, goals and nature of ACCG is petty and really beneath the stature of the discipline that you purport to represent.



I might have given pause to reflect your fiery words had you not already leveled such lofty accusations against the entire archaeological community and anyone else who calls attention to the problem of an indiscriminate market many times already.

Your countless diatribes are recorded in the Internet, many of them chronicled here, and anyone can examine them for themselves. In spite of the constant double talk and distortion that comes from your side, it is more than apparent that those setting the ACCG agenda and its most vocal leaders are not interested in anything except protecting a damaging and unconcerned industry. You and your organization have no real interest in addressing the looting issue, so be up front about it. You and your group tout the PAS as a solution to looting and then turn a blind eye to sellers who import masses of unrecorded British coins to supply the market. Why? Is it because recognizing that market demand for objects hurts your agenda?

Your tactics and the tactics of many of the more vocal leaders in your group are underhanded to say the least and this has even been recognized by some collectors themselves for many years. If you have real arguments and issues to present then do so. Thus far name-calling and fear-mongering seem to be primary the way the organization and some of its leaders motivate people and try to raise funds and membership.

You should point out where you asked people to refrain from speculating on the events that have taken place in Germany, because I do not see it on your blog or on the Moneta-L or Unidroit list where discussion was taking place. What I DO see is the message from the Unidroit list that I linked to in the present post in which you stated you agree that talk of confiscation is worrying and that collectors must unite in the face of “aggression.” You then ask collectors to support the ACCG. Your comments come on the heels of alarmist discussions from your colleagues (other ACCG leaders and honorees) like those I cited in the present discussion.

Now you retreat and claim that the ACCG made no pronouncements on the happenings in Germany and it is true nothing was written on the ACCG website, but it did appear in the blogs of ACCG leaders and honorees and on the discussion lists which they own and moderate. But what I also see is a message from you on the Moneta-L list on 26 July 2008 stating:

“Mr. Barford is seemingly unaware that the three individuals named (singled out) in his comment below are elected officers of the ACCG. They serve as the voice of and at the will of the guild membership.”

[continued in next comment]


[continued from above comment]

So when it is convenient you tell us these people, some of whom consistently engage in the most absurd fashions of fear-mongering, are “voices” for the ACCG and then when it is not convenient you tell us they are only personal views. Which is it, Mr. Sayles? According to your cited passage, it seems very much that the ACCG did have a stated position on the German situation since Tompa, Welsh, and others, commented on it. Do your writings and those of Mr. Welsh and Mr. Tompa (the “three individuals named”) truly not represent the ACCG values, goals, or agenda? It seems to me like this back and forth argumentation is more "having your cake and eating too".

It is clear to any observer that – without the facts in hand – leaders and honored members of organization were fear-mongering and exploiting that fear to further the ACCG’s agenda and goals. While you were not as bold as others in whipping up fear, you did take the opportunity to plug the ACCG and ask for support.

It is also worth mentioning that after I offered some clarifications about the German situation here on my website, one of your more recently involved activists, I discovered, was emailing a colleague of mine just a few doors down from my office attempting to exploit some falsely perceived notion that there was discord between us on account of the collecting/looting issue. He came and told me right away, asking who the person in question was. He obviously thought he was representing the ACCG, since he identified himself to my colleague as a member working to further organization. Fear-mongering and other backhanded tactics are not the behavior of gentlemen or scholars.

It is the ACCG's activities and the vocal half of its leadership which does numismatics and other material sciences a great disservice. The advances that have taken place in archaeological method over the past 40 or so years are extremely important for the understanding of our past and those advances have been applied to numismatics since the late 1970s and with renewed intensity and reformulation since the late 1990s. You would have us discount those methodological advances and the value of contextual information so that dealers could continue importing from treasure hunters with ease and maintain profits with little or no oversight. You would have us hold numismatics within the constraints of the state of the discipline in the mid-19th century.

If you (and the ACCG) valued numismatic science and the preservation of information that can be recovered by scientific investigation as much as you value collecting and dealing, then you would insist on some fundamental changes in the way the market works rather than arguing material context has little or no value, you would ask dealers and collectors to conduct stringent due diligence procedures rather than exploiting fear about protective legislation and enforcement, and you would work with law enforcement and archaeologists rather than demonizing them.

The report under discussion shows these two individuals who have been successfully prosecuted were dealing in stolen coins and selling them to “reputable” auction houses in Munich. Perhaps you would like to tell me what exactly would have then kept the stolen coins from being purchased by an ACCG member or leader. Loot enters the ancient coin market very easily, Mr. Sayles, and is handled by virtually every dealer and collector whether or not he/she is consciously aware of it. Is it not time for the trade community to ask questions and start holding themselves and their suppliers to higher standards if indeed there is something more at stake than the bottom line and self-interests?