Thursday, May 28, 2009

Update: Unrecorded and Freshly Dug British Coins Sold in the USA

My previous post, "Having Cake and Eating it too: Unrecorded and Freshly Dug Coins Sold in the USA," prompted further remarks by archaeologist bloggers David Gill and Paul Barford and also caught the attention of Roger Bland, Head of Britain's Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

PAS officials and employees contacted the two sellers named in the previous post to seek details on the unrecorded ancient coins from Britain being sold in the United States. It also contacted the ACCG, the dealer lobby group which consistently points to the PAS as the only reasonable solution to looting.

In response to the inquiry by the PAS, seller Tony Jaworksi of Common Bronze indicated that the British coins he is selling were procured from a large number of detectorists (some actual collectors and some not) and assumes that they were accumulated over a year or more. He does not have any knowledge as to whether the coins were recorded under the PAS or not. He did not obtain an export license and stated he was unaware of the need for one.

Seller Joe Blazick still has not yet responded to the PAS' inquiry.

It appears that the PAS' contact with the ACCG may have been the impetus for Peter Tompa's post on the subject, with links to export requirements in the UK - something which one hopes future sellers will take more note of in the future when selling recent coin finds from Britain. Tompa agrees that information should be preserved, but disagrees with the "tone" of my original post. By "tone" Mr. Tompa must be referring to the questions I posed which the dealer lobby does not wish to answer or engage with:

"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."

One of the ACCG's newest active devotees, John Hooker, - collector and author of the recent series of uninformed inculcations appearing on the ACCG website under the somewhat presumptuous title of "The Hooker Papers" (some discussion here) - was more bold, having simply dismissed concern over the British coins as "amusing" while inventing a number of scenarios whereby the coins in question were too insignificant to record. Of course, since the coins were taken out of Britain without any record, it is impossible to know how useful the coins may have been for the historical and archaeological record. Let us hope that Mr. Hooker's resentment for the need to record finds in Britain does not reflect wider views in the ancient coin collecting community in North America. After all, the scheme is meant to preserve information that would otherwise be destroyed by commercial or self-interest. If, as the ACCG has constantly argued, the PAS is the perfect solution to the looting problem, then why make excuses for profiteering that does not take the time to record finds when the PAS is available?

The ancient coin collecting and dealing communities are very small indeed and various classes of dealers and suppliers often have close personal and business relationships. Sellers like those discussed, and their suppliers, will no doubt have conducted business with dealers and/or collectors associated with the ACCG. The advertisements for uncleaned coins and unrecorded British finds were made on lists owned and/or moderated by ACCG members. Should not the ACCG be expending more energy on establishing proactive market guidelines and due diligence practices that address the negative effects of an indiscriminate market than it does on vilifying archaeologists and concocting disinformation to argue to the public that ancient coins are not archaeologically significant objects even when excavated in situ?

While touting the potential of the PAS as a model for other "source countries," the ACCG leadership resists promoting or advocating due diligence by dealers and collectors. Schemes like the PAS could preserve much information that is otherwise lost by casual hobbyists, but information continues to be lost so long as consumers (i.e. dealers and collectors) are not holding their suppliers (especially bulk suppliers) accountable. Indeed, some PAS officials have expressed irritation and dismay at the way the dealer lobby has used the PAS in its agenda.

Is it time to practice what is being preached?

Week 4: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Aproaches and Interpretations"

I am in the midst of a load of work and so this will be a short post on this week's meeting.

We first began by discussing how the Lex Gabinia of 139 BC, which allowed for a secret ballot in elections, may have affected the character of Roman coinage from then onward (see links to handouts at the end of the previous post). While traditionally accepted as one of the prime causes for the change in the character of Republican coinage, we also discussed the article by Meadows and Williams which argues that general social and cultural trends were just as responsible. The authors argue that the period witnessed a growing culture of commemoration and monumentality which naturally affected the coinage.

We then discussed Alföldi's article which provided a general description and interpretation of coinage through the Republican period and examined them in terms of propaganda. We skipped over Toynbee's article and may address it in a future meeting.

We briefly discussed the section in Crawford's book about "Designs and Propaganda" which discusses textual cases where ancient coins are described and how they are used by ancient authors. There is also an interesting speculative discussion on what persona "chose" coin types. A good general reference. We then moved on to discussion of Shotter, who discussed the significance of coins in the study of Roman history and especially understanding coins in terms of ancient texts.

R. Wolters article was similar to Alföldi's as far as interpreting "propaganda" on coins, though his focused on the imperial period. Wolters, however, included more explicit methodology and critiqued the term "propaganda" and the role of Roman coin images.

Next time we will discuss reactions against the iconographic mode of inquiry and then some methodological reevaluations that followed (handout Deutsch - English). From there, in future meetings, we will discuss the potentials of approaching coin images from archaeological and art historical perspectives.

Apologies for the rushed post. Hopefully, I'll have more time to write about next week.

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?

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.

Week 3: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

After a couple of scheduling conflicts and delays, we finally gathered last week to discuss our third theme, "Greek Art and the Nature of Images on Greek Coins," in the course (download handout, Deutsch - English).

We began by discussing some nineteenth century scholarship and the way that images on Greek coins were understood at the time. We read articles by both E. Curtius and T. Burgon (full citations in the handout) which argued that both the selection of Greek coin types and the invention of coins were governed by religion. We considered the factors that led such scholars to come to these conclusions and the flaws in such a regimented view on the motives of selection. Although the reading was not required, we also discussed the dismissal of these viewpoints by later nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars such as Head and MacDonald, who offered a slightly more complex accounting for the choice of Greek coin types. The citation to head in the handout can be said to summarize, in a very abbreviated fashion, the current understanding of Greek coin images.

The last part of the course was spent discussing sections from S. Ritter's Bildkontakte. Götter und Heroen in der Bildsprache griechischer Münzen des 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (Berlin, 2002). While following the modern understanding of ancient Greek coin images, as sketched out by Head, MacDonald, and others, Ritter discusses Greek coin images further in terms of Bildsprache (picture language). His themes examine the emergence and evolution of specific images through time and contextualizes them in terms of comparative representations in the coins of other Greek states. The subtleties of pictorial elements or style could play a significant role in the meaning of a Greek coin image and it is clear that states were expressing different and competing ideals in subtle ways via coin images (e.g. the section "Polarisierung: Die Athena-Bilder Athens und Korinths im 5. Jahrhundert").

This excursus into Greek numismatic images was limited to one meeting since studies of Roman coin images are more prolific and is the main subject of the course. I would also argue that, from a methodological perspective, there is more systematization (or at least developing methods) for the critical study of Roman coin images. In our next meeting, which must be postponed until next week, we will return to Roman coinage with the theme "Traditional Methods and the Historical Context: Roman Coin Images as 'Propaganda'" (download handout, Deutsch - English). We will read and discuss some essays by text-based historians that developed or perpetuated the understanding of Roman coin images as "propaganda," and term which is sometimes still used today in discussing Roman coin designs. We will discuss the problems of the label "propaganda" as applied to Roman art and coin designs and subsequent meetings will develop their understanding not as instruments of mass propaganda per se, but rather as part and parcel of a visually complex semantic system. Ultimately, we will address the interdisciplinary methodologies (i.e. historical, art historical, and archaeological) that provide the most potential for understanding the function, meaning, and reception of coin images in the Roman world.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ACCG Challenges Import Restrictions by Staging the Import and Detention of Restricted Coins

The ACCG announced yesterday that it now plans to challenge U.S. State Department import restrictions on ancient coins from Cyprus and China outright. This announcement follows the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit that it filed against the U.S. State Department in regards to Cyprus in the fall of 2007, and the more recent announcement that the ACCG was planning to press for more documents in that case.

In the release on its website, "Coin Collectors to Challenge State Department on Import Restrictions," the ACCG explains its action:

"As a British Airways jetliner touched down in Baltimore on April 15th , many U.S. citizens were busy writing last minute checks to the IRS....

Part of the cargo of BA 229/16 that day was a small packet of 23 very common, inexpensive, Cypriot and Chinese coins being imported by a collector advocacy group, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG). The entry of these coins, forbidden by DOS under bilateral agreements with Cyprus and China, marked the launch of a test case to determine whether the State Department has banned their importation properly under a 1983 law dealing with the protection of cultural property.

As mandated, U.S. Customs detained these coins being imported from the United Kingdom. The ACCG now plans to use this detention as a vehicle to strike down the unprecedented regulations banning importation of whole classes of ancient coins, The collectors’ group claims that, among other abnormalities, the decision process for these agreements was orchestrated contrary to the spirit and intent of governing law. Moreover, they claim that the State Department misled Congress and the public about its decision not to follow the recommendations of its own Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) — a group of experts charged with advising the president on how best to balance the goals of protecting cultural heritage against the needs of a legitimate trade in cultural artifacts."

In spite of its name, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is a lobbying body that is most concerned about the interests of no-questions-asked dealers and importers. This is made evident by the fact that rather than attempting to address ethical and legal problems of indiscriminate collecting and dealing in a proactive and transparent way, its leaders have prefered to challenge protective legislation in favor of private and commercial interests. Rather than engaging in an equitable and informed dialogue with archaeologists and government officials/advisors, they have prefered to distort the issues and resort to the tactics of intimidation and abhorrent name-calling against those who oppose their views. The most prominently displayed financial backers on the ACCG's website are dealerships and auction houses. Every ACCG leader listed on its officers pages is a former or active ancient coin dealer, including its founder and executive director. Even some collectors themselves have recently commented on various online discussion fora that it is increasingly clear the ACCG is representing a purely commercial and dealer/importer-driven interest, being less concerned about the "rights" or interests of the private collector.

At least these latest antics by ACCG leaders clearly show what their true goals have been since it filed the FOIA suit in 2007: to strike down protective legislation that only affects dealers and importers who have no real concern for due diligence processes.

Surely, U.S. Customs officials acted properly in detaining coins of Cypriot and Chinese type that were imported without any previous documentation and one would think our border protection officers should be commended for effectively implementing bilateral agreements and controls, especially operating under the likely assumption that one of the ACCG officers provided U.S. Customs with an anonymous tip to ensure the coins would be detained as planned. The ACCG indicated these coins were chosen for their scheme because they have no previous history, which begs the question where they came from and how recently they appeared on the market. Were they looted? What information was lost in the process? The dealer lobby, of course, is not concerned about such things and sees it differently, planning to use this "test case" as a means of overturning import restrictions. It will be interesting to see if the ACCG's buffoonery in this "test case" will be taken seriously by the courts.

Interestingly, in their ignoble ploy to invent a cause to strike down bilateral treaties on import restrictions via legislative measures, the ACCG leadership may have violated their own Code of Ethics, which states "Collectors and Sellers...will comply with all cultural property laws of their own country."

At least now the ACCG's leadership is showing its true colors perhaps more than ever before and its true aims and interests are becoming increasingly apparent.
(Image: The King of Spades)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Program for the International Numismatic Congress 2009 Now Available

The International Numismatic Congress is held approximately every 6 years so that numismatic scholars from around the world can gather to take stock of the state of research on the discipline and to present new research. The Congresses are the largest single gatherings of numismatic scholars in the world.

The XIVth International Numismatic Congress will be held in Glasgow from August 31st through September 4th, 2009. Details from the program have now been made available online:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Week 3 postponed: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

Last week was meant to be our third meeting for the course, but several people could not attend even with the schedule change. This week I have a previous engagement that necessitates I cancel today and so, for those readers who have been following along, you will find a short discussion about week 3 ("Greek Art and the Nature of Images on Greek Coins") here next week. The following week, I have another engagement abroad and so we will have another canceled session before going to "week 4." Since there was some extra time at the end of the course for "long reports," we still have adequate time to make it through all discussion topics before the end of the term in mid-July.