Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dealer Lawsuit Against the U.S. State Department to Continue

Yesterday, Peter Tompa, attorney, lobbyist and a former president of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), gave an update on the status of the ACCG's lawsuit against the U.S. Department of State.

The American dealer lobby, which I term such because every leading officer is an active or former dealer (with the exception of Tompa, who acts as a lobbyist for organized ancient coin dealers) and most of its large financial backers are also dealerships and auction houses, is joined in its lawsuit by two other dealer organizations: the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) and the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG). As many readers are aware, the ACCG and these other groups launched the suit in the fall of 2007, alleging a lack of transparency in the way that the State Department agreed to extend the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to coins of certain Cypriot type.

It was expected that the ACCG had every intention of pressing the lawsuit as far as they could since they hosted a "benefit auction" last year in order to raise funds "in opposition to State Department imposed import restrictions" (see discussion here, here, here, and here). Along with the progress report on the lawsuit, the ACCG has also announced the plan for another "benefit auction" in 2009 (note the heavy distortive and alarmist rhetoric used by Sayles that we have heard from him and the group before: see some discussions here, here, and here).

Two documents relevant to the ACCG's lawsuit are on its website: the progress report and a declaration from Jay Kislak, former chair of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee of the State Department. Curiously, Kislak's declaration all but explicitly states that CPAC did not recommend to extend the restrictions to coins. Therefore, it will be interesting to see what comes out in the end, although it remains unclear to me personally if the State Department must be bound by the recommendations of CPAC since it is an advisory committee and deliberations and decisions are no doubt often split considering archaeologists, museum specialists, and members of the trade serve simultaneously on the committee. On the other hand, CPAC members are meant to keep the activities of the committee confidential and so it appears that Mr. Kislak may have been sharing privleged information with the coin dealers the whole time - the same sorts of hidden activities the dealer lobby consistently accuses members of the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center of.

In any case, Mr. Tompa expects the court to rule on the release of further documents within the next six months. The ACCG has not shared the documents released thus far to outside parties, though its own interpretation of them has been relayed several times.

Other commentators on these developments include:
D.W.J. Gill, "Cyprus and the Coin Collectors: Yet Another Round," Looting Matters (27 April 2009)

P. Barford, "Leaky Old CPAC - Mystery Solved?," Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues (27 April 2009).

P. Barford, "'ACCG Presses Claims to Hidden Information'," Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues (27 April 2009).

P. Barford, "Per Lucem ad Veritatem, sed nemo surdior est quam is qui no audiet" ("Through light to the truth, but no one is more deaf than one who shall not listen"), Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues (28 April 2009).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Numismatics and Archaeology: One Year

Yesterday, 26 April 2009, marked the first full year of the Numismatics and Archaeology weblog. During the course of that year, 82 posts (excluding digests) were made on topics ranging from general news and announcements on numismatics and archaeology, to numismatic resources and scholarly research, and to trade issues affecting the study of ancient coins. A statistics counter added to the weblog in June 2008 shows that the site has been accessed c. 18,500 time in approximately 10 months. Data from the last 500 page loads indicate that this blog is most popular in the following countries in descending order:

1. The United States of America

2. The Federal Republic of Germany

3. The United Kingdom

4. The Republic of Italy

5. Canada

6. The Republic of Austria

7. The Commonwealth of Australia

8. The Republic of France

Things to look forward to in the next year within the scope of this website include the methodologically important edited volume on "coins in context," which should be in print and available for order by May or early June (H.-M. von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.), Coins in Context I: New Perspectives for the Interpretation of Coin Finds (Mainz: von Zabern, 2009)). When this is in print I will begin discussing different contributions from week to week here on Numismatics and Archaeology.

I have arranged an alternative time for the course I am conducting this semester (Die Bildsprache auf römischen Münzen. Methoden und Deutungen - "Picture Language on Roman Coins. Approaches and Interpretations") and so it will carry on through July with four participants here in the Institute for Archaeological Sciences; I will update this website weekly with a summary of our activities for those readers not in Frankfurt who have an interest in the topic.

I will also continue to follow developments and concerns in heritage issues as they relate to the trade in ancient coins and the study of ancient coins and archaeology.

It is also my personal goal to have completed my doctoral dissertation, "Architectural Coin Types: Reflections of Roman Society," before the second year anniversary of Numismatics and Archaeology!

I am grateful to all of my readers who make Numismatics and Archaeology a success, and especially those who participate in discussion and who suggest topics to be covered here! Please feel free to contact me via email (found in the CV link to the left) if you would like to see a special topic, issue, or article featured here. I would also be happy to entertain the proposition of guest posts from any numismatic specialists out there who should like to discuss a particular topic pertinent to the scope of Numismatics and Archaeology.

Image: Follis of Constantine the Great, 318-319 CE. RIC VII (Siscia) 55. Recovered from the American excavations (2003-2007) at the Roman fort at Yotvata, Israel. All coin coin finds from the Late Roman site will be analyzed in a chapter in the final excavation report monograph which is in preparation.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

EBay: A Solution to the Illicit Antiquities Trade?

A story from the latest Archaeology Magazine (C. Stanish, "Forging Ahead. Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love eBay," Archaeology Magazine 62.3 (May/June 2009)) has been the subject of some blog discussions lately, e.g.:

Larry Rothfield, "eBay Reduces Looting -- Maybe," The Punching Bag (21 April

Derek Finchman, "'What Fools the Curator Also Fools the Collector'," Illicit Cultural
(21 April 2009)

Stanish argues that eBay has been flooded with fake antiquities, ultimately making looting less profitable as the prevalence of fakes drives prices down. Like Larry Rothfield, I think the overall point of the article is persuasive, but I do find parts of it too simplistic.

Undeniably, the rise of the internet and online sales platforms like eBay made looting a more profitable enterprise by allowing the potential for finders and middlemen to dispose of their finds directly, rather than searching for a dealer. Additionally, internet sales widened the customer base for antiquities, making looting a more lucrative venture. One good reference, available online, is C. Chippindale and D.W.J. Gill, "Online Auctions: A New Venue for the Antiquities Market," Culture Without Context 9 (Autumn 2001)).

While eBay may now be flooded with fakes, I am not convinced this alone diminishes the profitability of illicit antiquities and thus also the incentive to loot. As Rothfield points out, as long as the customer base remains wide (and I would add indiscriminate), there will be a demand for loot and, consequently, an impetus to produce fakes. Obviously, the fact that fakes appear over and over again on eBay means that customers are buying them alongside the genuine artifacts that are sold on eBay.

Ancient coins - the class of ancient objects examined on this blog - are commonly sold on eBay along with fake ancient coins. The volume of recently surfaced genuine ancient coins remains high, and eBay is a primary venue for the mass disposal of "low quality" coins that mid-range and upper-range dealers do not wish to purchase from suppliers. The prevalence of fake ancient coins has indeed led many collectors to abandon eBay, and much (if not most) of the individual ancient coin transactions have moved to other online venues such as VCoins, which presently hosts the inventories from about 140 ancient coin dealers. Here fakes are much less common than they are on eBay, but "fresh" material still shows up in some inventories as do the bulk lots from Balkan countries. It seems to me, at least in regard to the ancient coin trade, that fakes on eBay are not curbing the demand for new material to any significant degree. It is easy enough for dealers who do not knowingly deal in fakes to organize and find an alternative online sales platform as ancient coin dealers have done with VCoins.

What I do find interesting, however, is the intrinsic connection between looters/suppliers and fakes. Several times it has been demonstrated that suppliers who systematically loot to fill market demand are often times the same people who make forgeries and introduce them into the market. For example, a major sting in Bulgaria last year led to the seizure of c. 2,800 authentic ancient coins, a complete bronze chariot, a number of other antiquities, and also dies for making fake ancient coins. A move against looters in Sicily in 2007 also revealed material for making coin forgeries (discussed by D.W.J. Gill, "Operation Ghelas: Some Implications for Coin Collectors," Cultural Heritage in Danger (29 January 2008)). Some of the forgeries that have entered the market in recent years have been very sophisticated and fooled top experts in both academia and the trade. Such forgeries have appeared, with some frequency, in major auction catalogues and are sometimes discovered before the end of the sale and removed.

Just as the organized commercial interest does not wish address the looting issue in a proactive fashion, many dealers also shy away from discussion of the number or role of forgeries in the marketplace and one can easily find instances where collector-operated online forums devoted to the discussion of ancient coin forgeries are virulently condemned or simply dismissed by certain dealers who feel that a dialogue about forgeries is a direct attack on their practices. But certainly few would seriously suggest that most dealers would knowingly deal in forgeries.

In any case, there is a clear connection between the indiscriminate sourcing of fresh material for the market and the appearance of forgeries, which can easily make their way into the inventories of respected auction houses and dealerships as looters and middlemen are increasingly peppering the market with sophisticated forgeries at the same time they are selling genuine loot.

After the lecture I gave last week in Frankfurt to a local collectors society, over dinner we actually discussed the connection between the indiscriminate market demand and the increasing problem of forgeries. This is yet another reason why collectors, archaeologists, and conservationists have a common cause in demanding more transparency from dealers and suppliers. Loot and forgeries are often coming from the same sources and if you diminish the looting problem you also diminish the forgery problem. Interestingly, one collector on the Moneta-L forum remarked a few weeks ago that naturally most dealers will not address the looting and forgery problem in the same way non-dealers would (i.e. academics/archaeologists and collectors).

Thanks are due to S. Rosenblum who suggested this story be covered on Numismatics and Archaeology.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Week 2: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

Today was our second meeting for the course "Die Bildsprache auf römischen Münzen. Methoden und Deutungen." I mentioned earlier that one participant had enrolled as of last week, which had cast doubt on the future of the course, but another non-credit participant has signed up and it appears that two more students may begin attending as soon as we can arrange an alternative time slot (apparently Tuesday mornings are very popular for courses here in the Institute for Archaeological Sciences). This is good news and means that the course can carry on. I have decided, however, that the course blog will not be updated regularly since it will be easy enough to distribute course materials directly to such a small number of participants and we can easily discuss and review themes each week amongst ourselves.

For interested readers who wish to follow along, I will continue updating this blog weekly with reports on our activities and will upload English versions of our reading lists for each week. After our introductory discussion last week, we turned our attention today towards the theme of "The Relationship between Art and Coin Images" (download handout, Deutsch - English). Our first few meetings will be dealing with the historiography of the study of coin images and so I intentionally assigned some dated readings to give us a sense of 19th and early 20th century thoughts about the relationship between art and ancient coins and to provoke discussion.

We began by discussing Poole's article from 1869. Poole characterized Greek coins as important works of art in their own right, particularly related to relief sculpture, and argued that they represented local Greek styles. He further defined the stylistic characteristics of several different artistic "schools" in the Greek world, working in the antiquarian tradition of classifying and defining. By modern standards, the argumentation is weak on several points and the text contains several value judgments on artistic execution (common in literature of the period), but Poole's contribution lay in the recognition that Greek coins and other artistic media share common features. Although this may seem obvious to us today, before the mid 19th century, few critical studies sought to explore coin images in the same way that other artistic media was studied. Numismatic inquiry, as it sometimes is today, was often isolated from interdisciplinary studies. Poole, and other contemporaries, contributed to bridging that gap and placing coinage within the broader context of the study of ancient art.

Next we briefly discussed Bernard Ashmole's article from 1938. This rather short contribution examined "the community of style between coins and sculpture." Among other things, he discussed examples where coins might be used as stylistic indicators whereby we, in turn, could date sculptures.

The third article that we talked about, and in my view the most interesting, was Sutherland's "What is Meant by 'Style' in Coinage?" (1950). Here Sutherland was particularly concerned with highlighting the inventiveness and independence of the die-engraver and argued that periods do not have artistic styles, but rather that artistic styles come from artists. We had a long discussion over his arguments and these two points. Whether or not it was a conscious move, Sutherland's view that periods do not dictate styles somewhat contradicts the arguments put forth in Alois Riegl's Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (1901, reprinted and revised in 1927), in which it was argued that art of a given period will exhibit demonstrable features that reflect underlying cultural, social, and intellectual trends, which he termed Kunstwollen. Certainly, many readers will recognize that Alois Riegl is a very important art historian who influenced the whole of the discipline since this was essentially one of the first works where art was viewed as a tool for understanding the societies that created it, moving art history into the historical sciences and away from just aestheticism or connoisseurship. Back to Sutherland. His point that artists ultimately dictate a style was taken, but then we asked the question how far can we really say that die-cutter was a creative artisan. In this contribution, the fact that coins were utilitarian objects, mass produced for daily transactions, which necessitates that they be regular, consistent, and often relatively simplistic, remains far in the background. Certainly an average die-engraver could not be all that inventive in the style or choice of designs and must have been constrained by the rigid parameters of the medium (size of flan), tradition, and any stipulations set forth by the minting authority. Naturally, there may have been exceptions. The signed dekadrachms from Syracuse or Roman medallions represent instances where die-engravers might have enjoyed the freedom for more creativity and an ability to express "style" in different ways. We may also presume that a "master die-engraver" worked at mints and that other engraver's essentially copied his work, though the master engraver himself would have been subject to the same constraints listed above. Martin Beckmann presented a paper at the AIA meeting in 2008 in which he discussed Trajanic coin types that appear to have been produced early in a series by a "master engraver," which then served as prototypes for subsequent die-cutters. A similar phenomenon is observed by the identification of a master die-cutter dubbed the "Alphaeus Master" by C.T. Seltman ("Greek Sculpture and Some Festival Coins," Hesperia 17 (1948), 71-85. [JSTOR]). Sutherland discussed John Beazley and was undoubtedly influenced by his pioneering the use of Morellian analysis on Greek painted vases, but the ability to attribute dies to individual engravers is limited. Only in a few instances can we distinguish the work of different die-cutters, namely "master engravers."

We turned for a few moments to discuss Kurt Regling's Die antike Münze als Kunstwerk (1924), which is similar to Sutherland's contribution in several respects, such as addressing the inventiveness of engravers, though Regling often stuck to more specific examples such as Syracuse. A discussion followed on the hazards of narrowly viewing coins as artworks and, consequently, dangerously aggrandizing the creative role a die-engraver had. In all aspects of numismatic research, we must constantly remain cognizant of the multivalent roles that coins played in the ancient world. With a few exceptions, coins were mass produced currency and other functions would have been secondary.

Finally, we discussed Martin Price's article about paintings serving as prototypes for coin designs. While it is clear that sculpture and architecture influenced coin designs, far fewer paintings survive today and it is thus difficult to ascertain what coin depictions may have been based on famous paintings. He did offer us with some examples where it is probable that designs were based on painting and pointed to the conventions which allowed this to be realized, as in the labeling of figures. Much of the article was necessarily speculative, but provided much to consider. All the four readings for today showed how coin designs, and the die-engravers who produced them, could be dependent on wider artistic trends or specific prototypes and, at other times, more independent and creative. Although many of today's readings may not be so important in the modern discourse regarding images on coins, I think the first three articles provided a sense as to the state of these questions regarding art's relationship with coins in the 19th and early- to mid 20th centuries.

This course is devoted to images on Roman coins, but I thought it necessary to give participants a taste of the nature of images on Greek coins and the current understanding and analysis of Greek coin images in terms of Bildsprache. Therefore, for next week, we will be discussing "Greek Art and the Nature of Images on Greek Coins" (download handout, Deutsch - English). The first two articles are from the 19th century and are assigned to provide a glimpse into the conception of Greek coin images at this time. The final two assigned readings come from Stefan Ritter's Bildkontakte. Götter und Heroen in der Bildsprache griechischer Münzen des 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (2002), which is one of the few extended studies which applies the concept of Bildsprache to Greek coin images in a consistent and critical fashion. By contrast, much more has traditionally been done in the study of images on Roman coins. I also provide a list of further readings to get anyone started who may wish to pursue questions relating to images on Greek coins. The section I list in Barclay Head's book contradicts the articles of Burgon and Curtius, which I assigned. In some respects, Head's short section summarizes, even if in a simplistic fashion, the way that images on Greek coins have traditionally been understood and approached by many modern scholars. After next week, we will stick strictly with Roman coins for the remainder of the course.

Bis nächstes Mal...

Problems with Downloads

It has come to my attention that some readers have experienced troubles downloading some of the files linked on the left hand side of this website, such as the lecture I delivered last week. If you are experiencing difficulty with any of these, please send me an email (found in the CV link to the left). Alternatively, you can post a comment to any post and state that it is a private communication and that you would like to request a specific file. Be sure to include your email address as blogger comments don't typically include them when they are forwarded to me. When that comment comes for moderation, I can delete it after emailing you the file, keeping your identity/email address safe.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Approximately Six Weeks to Register for the XIVth International Numismatic Congress in Glasgow

Approximately every six years, numismatists from around the world from diverse educational backgrounds and persepectives convene for the International Numismatic Congress to assess the state of research in the discipline and to present new research. The last Congress was in Madrid in 2003 and the next one will take place August 31st through September 4th, 2009 in Glasgow. Registration materials are now online and must be submitted by May 31st, 2009 in order to avoid incurring late registration penalty fees.

A Word on Posting Comments to Numismatics and Archaeology

This morning I received a long comment from an anonymous reader on a post made last summer. I have rejected this comment on the grounds that 1) it is simply a personal attack with no substance and 2) the comment was unsigned.

When I started this blog, I made it clear that I am happy to post comments as long as they remain civil and respectful. Although I thought it was common courtesy to sign your name to your own comments, it seems I should also clearly indicate I expect all future comments to be signed. Angry and personal comments like the one I received today can easily be dismissed as the activities of an internet troll, especially when the individual has not even the gumption to sign his own post.

Amid a string of attacks, the anonymous commentator criticizes the picture of the Constantinian coin on the left as being itself "loot." To the contrary, it comes from the excavations at Yotvata, Israel where I am processing the coin finds. Some keen readers may recognize it from the illustrations in "Why Coins Matter..." or "A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Coins: A Case Study on the North American Trade."

Digest 3: Posts 51-75

"Reflections on an Acquisition" was the 75th Post on Numismatics and Archaeology. Now a couple of posts overdue, I present you with "Digest 3." For a list of all previous posts click keyword "Digest" here or on the keyword list on the left side of the page.

51. Ulterior Motives in Discussion of Looting Issues?

52. Now Online: The University of Virginia Art Museum

53. Zahi Hawass: Digging for History

54. Third Century AD Battlefield Discovered in Germany

55. Archaeology Magazine's "Under Threat" List Includes Bulgaria

56. Large Byzantine Gold Coin Hoard Found in Jerusalem

57. Abstracts for Two Numismatic Sessions at the AIA/APA Annual Meeting: "Contextual Numismatics..." (AIA) and "Coins and Identity" (APA)

58. Cultural Heritage Issues at the 2009 AIA Meeting in Philadelphia

59. The 110th AIA/APA Joint Annual Meeting Concludes: A Personal Reflection

60. Italy Returns Thousands of Looted Coins to Bulgaria

61. Another Antiquities Dealer Selling Egyptian Archaeological Goods is Arrested

62. 'Import Restrictions Imposed on Certain Archaeological Material from China'

63. Memory in Greek and Roman Coins: Call for Papers

64. Disaster in Germany: The Royal Collection of Hannover for Sale!!!

65. Celator, Caelator, or Signator: What was a Roman Die-Engraver Called?

66. Police Action with Antiquities and Ancient Coins in Germany: Some Clarifications and a Call for Reason.

67. Illegal Metal Detecting in Britain and the World

68. Some Recent Discussions about Nighthawking and the Ancient Coin Trade

69. Numismatics and Archaeology on Facebook

70. The Geldmuseum of the Deutsche Bundesbank and Chocolate Euro Notes

71. Wildwinds Hacked

72. Commodification of Antiquities as a Means of Protection?

73. Course: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

74. Donation of Auction Catalogues by Prof. T.V. Buttrey and the Staff of the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge

75. Reflections on an Acquisition

Thursday, April 16, 2009

We Need to Change the status quo

Yesterday evening I delivered an invited lecture, "Der Handel mit antiken Münzen in den USA," to the Frankfurter Numismatische Gesellschaft, a local society of collectors, at Frankfurt's Historisches Museum in Römerplatz. I discussed the many problems with an unregulated and unconcerned market, the distasteful nature of the dialogue that has developed in North America, and the urgent need for thoughtful collectors, archaeologists, and law enforcement to find common ground in the face of organized and unconcerned commercial interests.

The presentation lasted approximately one hour and we had a very good discussion afterwards that also lasted about an hour. I also enjoyed conversing further with several members of the society over dinner in a traditional restaurant in Frankfurt’s historic Römerplatz.

Most of the participants in the discussion understood the inherent problems with the current status quo and many were interested in actively working towards proactive solutions. Other activities on these issues are tentatively scheduled later this summer. It was a very open and welcoming group and I would like to reiterate my thanks to them for their invitation and hospitality.

I have put the text of my lecture online, with selected slides from the presentation. I have also put the lecture in the list of links on the left hand side of this webpage.

(Image: Römerplatz - Frankfurt am Main)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Week 1: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

Yesterday we had our first meeting for the course "Die Bildsprache auf römischen Münzen. Methoden und Deutungen."

At present, only one participant has signed up for the course and so its future is uncertain. The University of Frankfurt has a very peculiar modulized system for its course requirements which can make the choice of courses inflexible for many students. I am also told that due to the scheduling of introductory departmental meetings for students in other departments, like Classical Archaeology, that other potential students may have been unable to attend the first meeting. Therefore, it is a possibility that more students may come to register next Tuesday. We will see. If no one else shows up, I will see if the one registered participant wishes to continue independently or if we should cancel altogether. Should we continue, the course will become a more informal discussion on the historiography of the study of Roman coin images and the potential of developing numismatic, art historical, and archaeological methodologies to the understanding of images on Roman coins. If there are very few participants, the course blog will probably be dropped since it will be easier to distribute course materials directly, though I will still post reports for those interested in the topic here.

In the meanwhile, I thought interested readers might like to see what we did during our introductory session. As presented in the handout for week 1 (Deutsch - English), I posed four discussion questions:

The first dealt with the question of why coin images are important. We discussed that Roman coin images have traditionally been viewed as instruments of "propaganda" or sometimes likened to "newspapers" that could convey important events taking place in the Roman Empire (these approaches and understandings will be critically examined later in the course). It was also remarked that in the absence of literary evidence, we might turn to coin images for some information as in the third century when our literary evidence is either lacking or unreliable.

The second question was "what can coin images tell us about the past," a question similar to the first but more pointed. We again turned to examples in the third century where one might look to them as historical sources in the absence of literary evidence, but also supposed that close attention to coin images might be able to inform us about how the Roman state conceived of itself and that the personal use or transformation of coin images (e.g. deliberate defacement of coin portraits or the selection of certain types to be buried with the dead) could tell us how individuals responded to or understood certain images.

The third question dealt with how we could correctly interpret Roman coin images and what prerequisites are necessary to understand coin images. Here we spoke about several contexts including the historical context in which an image was produced and the numismatic context (other coins struck at the same time). I also emphasized that we had to understand Roman visual culture in order to unpack the meaning of images. I showed a slide of several coins from different eras (ancient and modern) with eagles on the reverse. We could see that eagle conveyed different meanings in all instances. On the Ptolemaic coin it was an attribute of Zeus and on the coin of the deified Marcus Aurelius it signified his consecratio as eagles are commonly shown in imperial art as bearing the souls of the divi to the heavens. On the American half dollar, the eagle (part of the Seal of the President of the United States) conveys freedom and independence. As an American more familiar with our visual culture, I easily understood more subtle aspects of the design such as the olive branch in the right claw and the arrows in the left, which conveyed the ideal that peace and diplomacy ought to be sought before war. The final two coins showed were German: one from the World War II era and a modern euro coin. When I asked what the eagle symbolized to Germans, it was clear and expected that the German student had a greater understanding of the eagle as a German symbol than I did. He better understands German visual culture. The eagle on the WWII era piece was depicted aggressively and clutches a swastika in a laurel wreath in its talons. We discussed the aggressive depiction of the eagle in the context of the ideology of National Socialism and discussed how other representations of eagles from this time period in both Italy and Germany were modeled on Roman representations as the fascist movements in these two countries were conciously presented as rebirths or incarnations of the Roman Empire. Eagles with spread wings clutching laurel wreaths are very common in Roman art and often resembled the eagles that were carried as standards in German military parades during WWII or that adorned government buildings at the time. By contrast, the eagle on the modern euro coin is executed in a contemporary artistic style and symbolizes the modern German state, but with a meaning and intent is very different from that produced over a half century ago.

The final question was "what does Bildsprache mean." We discussed how it implies that images on Roman coins had a communicative property. We also discussed that just as several characters make up a word or just as several words make up a sentence, so too could several independent or co-dependent symbols in a coin design formulate a particular message. I also introduced the concept of "connotative" or "denotative" types. The former tends to rely the most on abbreviated symbols or personifications which could communicate broad ideals or concepts, but which may require more thought or reflection to unpack the meaning. Denotative types are "more to the point" and may convey a meaning with straightforward representations, often accompanied by descriptive legends. I then showed several slides of Roman coins and we discussed the various symbols used on their reverses in the context of Roman visual culture and whether or not we might consider them to "connote" or "denote" a message.

I have put the Power Point slides for our first meeting online.

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

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Donation of Auction Catalogues by Prof. Ted Buttrey and the Staff of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A couple of months ago I contacted Prof. T.V. Buttrey (Emeritus) at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University about some images of Colosseum sestertii from additional auction catalogue references I had found. Prof. Buttrey is always helpful in providing images from the museum's excellent collection of auction catalogues to other scholars and collectors.

Through the course of our discussions Prof. Buttrey learned I was managing the cast collection and the photo and auction catalogue archive at Frankfurt University with a colleague and told me that the Fitzwilliam had a number of duplicate catalogues they wanted to part with. I was happy to learn that he found several duplicates that would fill gaps in our collection. My colleague and I were astonished to learn a pallet with 280 kilograms of auction catalogues was waiting for us today! We have yet to begin accessioning these catalogues, but there is no doubt that this substantial donation, for which we are most grateful, will greatly improve our archive here in Frankfurt.

Image from coinarchives.com: Sestertius of Balbinus, AD 238, with Liberalitas reverse (Auction Adolph Hess, Lucerne and Gilhofer & Ranschburg, Vienna, 22. May 1935, lot 2613 = UBS Gold & Numismatics 78 (9. Sept. 2008), lot 1832).