Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Baby and The Bathwater

Ever the provocateur, paid trade lobbyist Peter Tompa excels at the art of finding subjects to spin and snipe, even the most benign.  The post here from February 17, 2013 summarizes an international conference on ancient coin iconography held last fall.  Tompa muses ("Tail Wags Dog"):

The archaeological establishment has preached at CPAC meetings and elsewhere that coins—like other artifacts--lose all their meaning without context, and that import restrictions are necessary to encourage academic research.  But all the workshop topics about coin iconography (including one Elkins himself chaired) simply belie this claim.  

The study of ancient coin iconography can be worked at multiple angles.  Yes. So?

Anyone who read the summary or announcement of the workshop that was posted here should have understood that exploring the various ways that coin iconography can be approached was the whole point of the workshop.   Tompa, it seems, would have us discard the importance of archaeological context simply because there are other ways that coin iconography can be studied too.  If we are playing with tired idioms, forget about "tail wagging dog," Tompa would have us "throw out the baby with the bathwater"! 

Tompa boldly claims "But all the workshop topics about coin iconography (including one Elkins himself chaired) simply belie this claim." Why the deception? Why ignore the fact that the workshop did include a session on "Coin Iconography in Numismatic and Material Contexts"? In case the session title is not clear, some papers in that session approached the study of coin iconography through the lens of find contexts (i.e. material context).  For further clarification this means through hoards and/or archaeological excavation.

Coin iconography is, of course, not only worked at via find context and cannot be approached through material context alone, but to ignore its place in the workshop to promote one's own agenda is surely dishonest.  And to imply that coin iconography cannot be approached through this route displays an ignorance of recent peer-reviewed research by several specialists on coin iconography that has appeared in-print within the last 5-10 years.  The subject of Roman coin iconography is especially fruitful; our understanding of Roman imperial communication via the coins continues to be enhanced by attention to archaeological context.

It is simply wrong-headed to suggest that just because there are other ways of approaching subjects that other methods are irrelevant.  We can read ancient historical texts that have survived the ages.  Does that mean the study of art and archaeology is irrelevant?  No.  Art and archaeology can answer questions that texts cannot or can be deployed in conjunction with texts and other forms of evidence to reconstruct a more complete picture of the past.

The lobbyist's attempt at deception and sniping are characteristic of a debate that has become overly polarized, entrenched, and lacking of critical thought though rife with emotion.  Would it not be better to acknowledge the importance of archaeological and material context and to seek ways in which both context and ethical collecting can be preserved so that avocational passion and scientific study can continue to coexist?  More moderate and reflective voices must prevail.



"more moderate and reflective voices must prevail"
hear,hear,from all sides,
kyri.[a collector]


Fully agreed, Kryi, and a point I echoed in a recent publication.


Hmm. I’m all for moderation too, but is it moderate to call for import restrictions on coins based on their place of production rather than their find spot, particularly when those same unprovenanced coins are widely collected abroad, including in the very same countries (Italy, Greece, Cyprus and China) for which the U.S. State Department has granted import restrictions?



"Hmm. I’m all for moderation too..."

Really? Why did you then 1) choose to misrepresent the content of the iconography conference? And 2) why in the context of an exchange of my 2012 article did you state that I force the 1970 benchmark for coins when my article actually has a very different take on 1970 benchmark date? I would hope you would offer an apology for that kind of behavior.

As to your question:

As long as the dealing community and more significant portion of the collecting community will come to the table to talk about feasible, balanced approaches, instead of trying to promote the damaging status quo, I think most will see import restrictions as an interim solution to help stem the problem.

Also, I do not think it is fair to say that calls for import restrictions on coins are based on place of production. Import restrictions have only been placed successfully on coins based on place of production AND find spot. A look at existing restrictions proves this. For example, in Italy only aes signatum, the cast coinage, and the early Roman Republican struck coinage, as well as the colonial issues, are subject to import restrictions. These were made in Italy and also circulated primarily in Italy. If restrictions were based on place of production alone, we would have restrictions on almost all the Roman Republican and Roman imperial coinage, right? The same is true of Greece where only the locally circulating coinages are covered. "International coinages" like the Athenian owls are not covered. Clearly, import restrictions are not based on place of production alone, but also where certain types are primarily found.


Dr. Elkins, I don’t think I’ve misrepresented what you say or what your conference was about. I would suggest you re-read my posts. If you choose to read more into them than intended, I simply can’t help that.

As for the State Department, the statute limits restrictions-- assuming all other criteria are met -- to artifacts both “first discovered in” and “subject to the export control of” a specific country. As Urice and Adler have confirmed, the restrictions as written are based on place of production rather than find spot, contrary to the plain language of the statute.

ACCG has indicated the statutory requirements can be met by clear, uncontroverted evidence the coin in question was either actually found in a particular country for which import restrictions were given or clear, uncontroverted scholarly evidence that such coins are only found there. We can agree or disagree about the circulation patterns of certain coins, but certainly the current restrictions encompass certain coin types for which there should be no disagreement, for example Hellenistic Tetradrachms struck in Cyprus.

The State Department received very detailed papers about the circulation patterns of Italian, Greek and Cypriot coins, but they appear to have largely ignored them in favor of “picking a date” and restricting everything and anything before that date. The one exception has related to Greece where certain well known trade coins, like the Athenian Owl, remain exempted. As for China, no detailed study was done, but I have read earlier issues circulated outside China as well. Also keep in mind that Chinese coins circulated for A LONG TIME so it’s quite possible coins made in an early period when coins did not circulate outside of China, circulated later on with others in trade. When coin strings were withdrawn from circulation in the 1920’s, 1000 year old coins were found mixed in with later ones. In closing, I’m all for moderation, but that should include strict adherence to the requirements of governing law, particularly because for the failure to do so-- for which the government had been given cover by the archaeological community-- has resulted in damage to private coin collecting, which of course, provides most of the financial support to the academic study of coins here in the U.S.

Peter Tompa


Mr. Tompa,

I read nothing more into your statements that what you said. You attempted to negate the importance of context by stating that none of the research presented in the iconography workshop made use of context. That is false. And even if it were true, your reasoning for dismissing the value of material context is shoddy. Secondly, in discussion with Sayles on my 2012 article you claimed I hold fast to a 1970 benchmark for all private collectors. This is not the case as pages 104-105 clearly take on a different approach. You either chose to criticize the article without reading it and projected content into it, or chose to misrepresent it.

Back to import restrictions, which is not the original subject of this post. I am familiar with the arguments and information that ACCG has submitted to CPAC and I am familiar with Ulrice and Adler. Ulrice and Adler rely too heavily on ACCG arguments and are too willing to accept them at face value, in my opinion. Yes, ACCG makes the claim that coins could circulate anywhere and therefore cannot be reasonably subjected to import restrictions. This is not accurate. While some coins did circulate widely, other types tended to circulate locally or regionally. This is true with the types that are covered in the Italian and Greek MOUs. Hoard publications and archaeological evidence show for some types that while a proportionally small number of coins circulated well outside of the areas they were produced the majority of those coins did not circulate out.

ACCG presents one side of the story to CPAC, pointing out exceptions where coins circulated far beyond. But they ignore the weight of the evidence showing where local types circulated locally. This was a subject I successfully rebutted at the recent hearing on the Cyprus renewal by showing that the evidence from Cyprus itself indicated a primarily Cypriot circulation.

If you and Ulrice and Adler are correct in stating that import restrictions were based on production alone, then again I ask why are not Athenian Owls protected in the Greek MOU and why are the majority of Roman republican and Roman imperial coinages protected in the Italian MOU? Roman republican silver and most roman imperial coisn were struck at the mint of Rome. But they also circulated widely. Clearly, CPAC has been appropriately taking the find spots of coins into consideration.

The situation appears to me to be quite plain, but I expect we continue to disagree.


I suspect Roman Imperial were not included because that would have been very hard to explain, particularly given all the public comment about it and the Washington Post article that focused on a collector of such coins.

I don't disagree some coins circulated more than others, but that does not excuse restrictions based on place of production rather than find spot. Also, if you are that certain of your research, I would suggest you post it on line so it will be available to others to judge for themselves. I believe Wayne Sayles posted his research on line, which was the basis of your own work.


We still disagree. Those coin types that did circulate primarily locally are those that are subject to restrictions. It is, in my view, within the CPIA to protect objects that are predominantly found in a country of origin.

To be clear, I referenced Sayles' arguments to the committee, but it alone was not the basis of my presentation. I largely discussed finds of Cypriot coins in Cyprus, which were wholly neglected in ACCG's presentation of evidence. The sources I cited were mostly the same sources ACCG cited; the only difference was I also looked at was found in Cyprus, which Mr. Sayles did not do. The evidence is therefore easily accessible.