Monday, May 18, 2009

Having Cake and Eating it too: Unrecorded and Freshly Dug British Coins Sold in the USA

Over the past several days I have taken note of some bulk lots of ancient coins offered for sale. Bulk lots of fresh uncleaned coins from the Balkan or "Holy Land" regions are commonly sold on internet venues like eBay and VCoins. Often times these bulk lots contain hundreds or even thousands of coins and represent the "leftovers" of the material that suppliers could not get mid-range and upper-range ancient coin dealers to buy from them (I have discussed the ancient coin trade structure before: e.g. here and here).

Clearly, much of this material has been looted and illegally exported (smuggled) into the United States and other consumer nations. Leaders of the ancient coin dealer lobby and some of its members flatly dismiss the legal and ethical concerns about the wholesale destruction of information that these bulk lots represent, instead blaming the "repressive laws of source countries" which they assert are the real cause for looting – not an indiscriminate market demand. Part of the dealer lobby’s rhetoric includes pointing to "enlightened schemes" such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in Great Britain as a solution.

I agree that schemes like the PAS could help preserve information in many countries if properly used and adhered to, but I feel that the dealer lobby and some of its hangers-on misunderstand and/or misrepresent the issues in the way that they champion the PAS scheme. As I and other commentators have pointed out multiple times, schemes like the PAS are not effective solutions against systematic looting as long as dealers and collectors refuse to conduct any degree of due diligence. The PAS, designed for casual metal detector finds from the topsoil, is a voluntary scheme in which metal detectorists report finds to be recorded in a public database for scholarly research. It is not a license to loot systematically in order to provide masses of material for market consumption.

Within just four days, two separate dealers in the United States advertised freshly dug ancient coins from Britain for sale via the Uncleaned Ancient Coins (UAC) discussion list. The first was advertised by bulk ancient coin seller Joe Blazick on 11 May 2009, who wrote:
"I am selling this lot of English Dugups for $150 for the lot shiped.A few can be cleaned to make them a lot better.Lots of large coins as you can seen in the scan." [unedited text - photo of lot to the left]

Just a few days later, on 14 May 2009, Tony Jaworski of Common Bronze, a dealership which sells huge volumes of uncleaned ancient coins from a number of source countries, wrote in a message entitled "Speaking of British coins…":
"We happen to have a fresh lot from England…here was the little blurb that we shared with our customers when they first arrived.

These coins are straight from multiple detectorist’s in England. My guy normally washes the coins something I told him not to do and he did not this time. So you are receiving the coins as I did and as he did. This is about as close to finding them yourself as I have been able to find. These coins are from a group that was detecting in the Suffolk East England area. So we are clear, they have come from a group of guys who detect for anything (some are collectors some are not). Each guy handles the coins a little differently so some look like the detector may have washed them some are literally as they came out of the ground.

They are all mostly Roman … but there is a chance you will get something that is medieval English or something else. They were not sorted as normal by my supplier! (I Think a huge plus).

Link to this lot:

In addition we have a new type of uncleaned coin … the Spanish found Arabic coins. Tom and I really don’t know anything about this type … just that they are new to us.

Link to this lot:" [also unedited text - photo of lot to the right]

It appears in both cases that none of these coins from Britain were recorded under the Portable Antiquities Scheme and were, therefore, found and are being sold without any record of their find spot. Absolutely all contextual information has been lost. British laws also appear to be broken since export licenses are required for all products of "excavation."

However enlightened they may be, schemes like the PAS are not effective deterrents against systematic looting for commercial gain unless collectors and dealers are willing to hold their suppliers legally and ethically accountable. So who are the collectors and dealers buying these coins from British metal detectorists who do not record their finds? If the PAS is to be touted as a way forward in other countries, why are not the antiquities dealers who favor the scheme actively denouncing this behavior within their own ranks? Why are list owners allowing commercial advertisements of material that is not being recorded when there are schemes such as the PAS in place? The indiscriminate market is the driving force behind looting; ethical dealers should conduct greater due diligence and hold suppliers to high standards. Conscientious consumers and collectors are the only real solution to the looting problem.

UPDATE: The sellers in question are apparently upset that attention has been called to the fact the British coin finds sold by them were not recorded under the PAS and that images of their bulk lots were shown here, even though they publicly posted these photos on the internet themselves. For the meantime, I have removed the photos here, but they can be viewed directly here and here.



I have to agree with you. Its just like in the diamond market - the only way to keep diamonds ethical is to push the blood diamonds out of the market... Same with the coins.

Roger Peartree said...

The PAS and the Treasure Act of 1996 does not require the reporting of single finds of less than 10 bronze coins. The coins offered are likely single coin finds by metal detectorists and farmers that were aggregated by a local wholesaler. There is no reason to believe that the coins offered by CommonBronze are looted hoards.

You really ought to learn the law before you accuse someone of breaking it.


Dear Mr. Peartree,

You appear to be confusing the PAS with the Treasure Act, since the "rules" you quote only apply to the treasure act. The PAS is a voluntary scheme to record individual metal detector finds.

Again, the point is that if the dealer lobby and other individuals are going to tout voluntary schemes like the PAS as solutions, then they should support them in more than name alone and should not conduct business with those who are ignoring they even exist. Due diligence and consumer consciousness are the only real solutions.

Since there is confusion between the Treasure Act and PAS in your comment, the point about "single finds" is immaterial, but I will take the opportunity to point out that lobby leaders such as Dave Welsh consistently claim most coins on the market come from hoards and not single finds. So what is the basis for saying single finds here? This is exactly the point. It is all mere speculation because dealers don't ask any questions about the people they are working with. Hoards? Single finds from one area? Single finds from multiple areas? Found six inches below the ground? Found three meters below the ground? No one knows if the material is not recorded and the destruction process of information continues and is reinforced when dealers and collectors buy without asking questions or holding suppliers to any standards.

Thank you for your interest in this website.

All best,