Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lobbyist Celebrates "Collectors' Rights" Victory in Bulgaria, but What About the Continuous Destruction?

A Washington lobbyist and former of president of the American dealer lobby has recently celebrated a court ruling in Bulgaria which makes it easier for Bulgarian citizens to own looted minor antiquities.

Astute collectors however recognize that the ruling does not lessen the scale of destruction and the resulting loss of knowledge that is taking place in Eastern European countries like Bulgaria. One collector remarked:

"This change may be a victory for collectors, but I don't see that it has any impact on the looting problem.

It seems that Bulgarian collectors will be able to keep and 'legitimize' their collections (which in turn may then be eligible for legal export and sale?). But the provenance will be 'so-and-so's collection' as opposed to anything useful....

Of course, I would love to see a PAS-type system there [Bulgaria] in the future, but the first priority with a dying patient is to stop the bleeding."

Many collectors like this one realize that large scale demand and unconcerned attitudes in the acquisition of objects for resale drive the loss of knowledge caused by looting. After all, the U.S. is a market nation which imports looted material from countries like Bulgaria by the ton. Even in collector magazines, collectors have written editorials begging that something be done and proposing ways that collectors and dealers might address how market activities contribute to the problems and work on remedies. But these individuals, their concerns, and their ideas are often dismissed or ignored.

Why is the commercial lobby, which claims to be "anti-looting," unwilling to acknowledge or address the problem and the way that the current market structure contributes to it? If, as its titulature suggests, it caters to a collector interest, why are the concerns of conscientious collectors not being addressed?

I suggest that the archaeological community ought to distinguish better between collector and commercial. It ought to embrace that element which acquires objects out of a passion for history and a love of learning. The consumers are concerned and, if they feel empowered to do so, can be agents of proactive change. Others are content with a detrimental status quo.



I'm not sure I understand the difference between collector and commercial.

What do you propose the difference between 'collector' and 'commercial' sectors is or should be?


A constructive and insightful post. Having sold off the bulk of my coins, I'll soon be joining the ranks of the "ex-collectors", so I will no longer "have a dog in this race" so-to-speak. However, I will still reflect fondly on the positive impact which collecting has had on me personally:

It inspired me to read and learn a great deal about the cultures and civilizations of the past. It inspired me to return to school and pursue a related degree. It is the sole reason why I'm currently in the process of applying to grad school in pursuit of a PhD in a related field. It is not the slightest exaggeration in any respect to say that none of these things would have happened in my case had I not been a collector of ancient coins.

Of course, along the way I became more and more aware of the problem of looting and the loss of potential knowledge which results from it. Having formerly been an occasional customer of Mr. B and other Balkan ebayers, I'm sure I contributed my fair share to the problem and that doesn't sit well with me. At the same time I'm well aware that properly provenanced material simply isn't available in the current marketplace for a variety of reasons. This is why I support the British system and hope to see the model adopted elsewhere. Because it's perfect or even ideal? No. Rather, because it is the best trade off between saving the "archaeological resource" and involving as great a cross-section of society as possible.

One cannot over-emphasize the potential impact that "holding history in one's hand" can have when it comes to inspiring serious interest in history and archaeology--despite those who derisively mock the concept. Interestingly, when I recently took an intro to Classical Archaeology class taught by archaeologist Crawford Greenewalt, director of the Sardis excavations, he generally brought several artifacts and coins to class each day to pass around among the students. It's one thing to hear a lecture about the kings of Bactria, for instance; it's quite another to listen to it while handling genuine coins that were minted by those kings thousands of years ago. Greenewalt brought those artifacts for the students to SEE and TOUCH because he knows the impact and immediacy of such items when it comes to making history spring to life and inspiring the students to get involved and learn more.

Now consider the impact of the Treasure act and PAS in the UK. Significant finds are being made on an increased basis, the media covers these finds, the public is engaged and interested, young scholars of the future are taking an interest in related fields of study. The greatest amount of good with the least amount of damage--a model worthy of imitation.

Voz Earl


Hi Emma,

What I mean is that instead of lumping "collector interests" together with those same groups who lobby against any and all protective measures and who actually import sell material en masse to supply the market, it is better to make a distinction.

I think many collectors understand the problem and would be willing to discuss honestly and openly and work towards solutions. After all, I do believe most of them are in it "for the history" just like most people doing archaeology are.

Those lobbying against protective legislative measures and characterizing the unscientific and destructive sourcing of bulk material as a scholarly endeavor have other interests at heart I think.


Hi Voz,

Thank you for your informed comments.

I agree that PAS-like schemes have potential elsewhere provided that market consumers would hold themselves to the standard of buying only recorded/registered material or if such schemes had a greater force of law behind them.

Best of luck with your applications!

All best,


Why do you care what the ACCG acknowledges?

We have a situation where there were no property rights for ancient coins, no market for provenance information, and willing buyers. The willing buyers unconcerned attitudes aren't the driver of the loss of knowledge. It's the interplay of the three.

An individual collector becoming concerned can't effect the market very much. If I stop bidding at auction it just means the price of coins goes down one increment. I can try to raise awareness of other collectors through writing but I don't have much leverage.

A better way to fight the loss of knowledge is to offer cash prizes for the knowledge. Some archaeological organization could offer money for photos and findspots of looted coins entering the market. You probably don't want to do that, though!


Hi Ed,

It is important what the lobby group does or does not acknowledge since this informs us about what it is trying to accomplish.

I disagree that buyers' attitudes are not the driving force behind systematic looting in Bulgaria. This activity takes place, and at such a large and organized scale, precisely because there is a market demand for the material. Many other analogous activities in this world take place because of demand.

I do acknowledge, however, that it is a multi-layered issue. In this case, while legal ownership has been acknowledged by the court ruling, the problem of destruction is still not remedied, which was an aspect of Voz's post to Moneta-L. Sure, we can agree that registry schemes like the PAS could go some way to preserving information in countries like Bulgaria should they ever be implemented. But even here is not the attitude of the buyer important? Many in the U.S. have touted the PAS in Britain as a solution for other countries, but there is still a market for bulk lots of coins from Britain that are not recorded under the PAS precisely because some collectors and dealers are willing to purchase the material in spite of Britain's PAS system (examples
). This is why I advocate an increasing sensitivity by consumers of all sorts and also the force of law behind schemes that would register and possibly help regulate the sale of archaeological materials.

I think I am perhaps more optimistic when it comes to the potential power of the consumer. American history has demonstrated that consumers as a whole can affect the way that suppliers and industries operate. One of the most prominent examples I remember from my own childhood is the Tuna-Dolphin Controversy. There are collectors out there, like yourself, who have written and tried to raise some awareness and offer some ways forward on the problem and it does help. Sure it may often feel like no one is paying attention, but every little bit does help. Even if people get mad about it or dismiss it, it is starting to stimulate a wider discussion which is desperately needed. The more and more people talk about the problem, the greater the likelihood that something will ultimately be done about it. And, as was an aspect of this post, I am starting to see an increasingly pronounced difference in the writings and thoughts of certain types of consumers, which I think is an encouraging sign. I also think that some archaeologists have often unfairly lumped conscientious collectors together with groups who are really not interested in addressing a growing problem and so I think it would be beneficial if these collectors were better incorporated into the dialogue by archaeological groups and foreign governments.

I agree it is both impractical and undesirable to try and stamp out collecting altogether. This is one of the reasons I find it very encouraging that many collectors are acknowledging a desire for some fundamental changes in the way the market currently operates. Collectors have made great contributions to numismatics and it is great to see them working on this problem as well to help protect the future of both numismatic and archaeological sciences. Collecting can be a great gateway into history and archaeology and I myself acknowledge that I came study numismatics by buying Roman coins in junior high school. But certain attitudes about sourcing for the market need to change. I think collectors could stave off potentially undesirable legislation and even encourage the establishment of licit markets and PAS-like schemes in some source countries by seeking ways to address the problem within the structure of market itself. But maybe here I am being too optimistic. I would hope not.

(continued below)


(continued from above)

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt in your last couple of sentences. I don't think you really meant to write "Some archaeological organization could offer money for photos and findspots of looted coins entering the market. You probably don't want to do that, though!"

Or maybe I missed your humor (which I admittedly often do in typed exchanges). Of course, I think it is a bad idea to reward looters, though I have heard some seriously try to make the argument that if looting were made legal and were it not called looting anymore then there would be no problem. Yes and we could also say carjacking is legal and not call it carjacking anymore! But does it solve the problem? Would it encourage it? With looting, there would still be destruction and loss of knowledge, but maybe certain individuals could work with a cleaner conscience.

I think instead you may have meant a PAS-like scheme that rewards casual finders? Sure, I'd support that in most any country. But I think we have to be clear that in Bulgaria what are seeing are not casual surface finds by individuals or small groups being bought and sold, but rather tons of material (literally) being stripped from sites by organized groups who in turn export it to North American and European markets. The PAS in Britain was not designed for this type of systematic destruction nor should any PAS-like system reward that type of activity. As cited above with the example of Britain, those people trading in bulk are not interested in registering finds even in Britain where schemes do exist. It is in situations like this where collectors can be agents of change.

All best,



Thank you for that clarification.

My main fear with that sort of differentiation is that 'commercial' and 'sales' would become ugly and derogatory terms, which I always felt was something of an unfortunate trend in the academic/archaeological community anyway.

Archaeologists certainly need to recognise that there are "good people" among the traders and collectors, who seek to educate and use good practise, and those who are "less good people" Maybe I'm naïve and inexperienced with the coin collecting community, but whether money is made and the number of coins that trade hand per year seem like an easy but flawed distinction.


Hi Emma,

This is a good point. Thank you for bearing it out.

At present,I think little distinction has been made between any of the groups and so that's why I suggest differentiating the conscientious collector from that group.

But Certainly you are right that even among the "commercial" there are also honorable and respectable individuals and firms. There are a couple of ancient coin dealers I know personally, continue to correspond with, and have great respect for their integrity. Some dealerships in other types of antiquities, such as Sotheby's have established compliance departments to start conducting business more ethically and avoid possible legal troubles.

I think that the organized efforts of some whose only interest is their continued unhindered import and their opportunity to profit from it, no matter the consequences elsewhere, damage the image of other groups, namely conscientious collectors and ethical dealers.


great posting
What do you propose the difference between 'collector' and 'commercial' sectors is or should be?




I attempted to address that question above.

Again, the most vociferous element of the "collector group" are in fact shopmen, many of whom profit financially from importing material wholesale with no questions asked. The element that is always blogging and lobbying are not interested in preserving the archaeological record or in historical study, in spite of what they say. They have proclaimed themselves the voice of collectors.

I think that collectors, who do not acquire material to make financial profit, have the potential to make change since they are the consumers. Many of them have strong scholarly interest in numismatics as well. Already, several collectors have changed their collecting habits and even published views about ethical collecting that contradict the radical and uncompromising viewpoints of the tradesmen who claim to speak for collectors.

Distinguishing better between the profiteers and collectors, and engaging the latter group, would be beneficial and there would be greater potential for proactive change since collectors have other interests at heart.

All best,