I was looking up the name of somebody who'd earlier warned collectors against believing anything they read in my blog (quite right guys, check what I say out for yourselves) and came across his V-Coins shop. Then I realised I'd been there before, Ron Bude's "Roman Lode Ancient Coins" Plymouth, MI, an ACCG Benefit Auction donor as I recall. Quite an "interesting" selection of stuff; where does it all come from? Let's have a look through it. Very little of it is provenanced, even to a previous collection. So we have to look at the typology and refer to what we know about the composition of coin assemblages in various parts of the ancient world.
Well, as most US dealers in ancient dugups, there is a large amount of material that very probably comes from the Danubian provinces and Balkans. This is the product of the shunting of huge quantities of material onto the US and European markets from looting on an industrial scale in the Balkans and especially Bulgaria, where at least part of the process was in the hands of organized criminal groups. I think that Hungarian sources may also have been involved to a greater degree than has been previously suspected, and may have been gaining in prominence more recently as the Balkan sites become increasingly unproductive (because already looted out). The market that sprang up on the back of this sudden influx of the results of Balkan looting now has to seek other sources to maintain its expansion.
Then Mr Bude has a little group of items for which a Near Eastern origin seems likely. How did that get to Michigan?
I however was rather taken aback by the amount of material in Mr Bude's -Coins shop which really can only have come from metal detectorists in the United Kingdom. While late Anglo-Saxon pennies turn up in Continental assemblages, the source of the sceattas he is selling is most likely English. Rather worrying is the inclusion of a gold solidus of Justin II ( 565-578) as a "British" find in his listings. If really a British find, this coin appears not to be known in the literature, and one wonders under what circumstances it was discovered and exported. Indeed one wonders under what circumstances any of those coins were discovered (not a single one I examined seems to have a PAS number attached) and exported (not a single one I examined mentions being accompanied by a British export licence). It seems quite a lot of the Roman coins could also have been British (or adjacent areas of the Western Empirer) in origin, but where exactly does it come from? Does Mr Bude possess any documentation of licit export for any, let alone all of these coins from Britain? Can we see it?
Or perhaps he will claim that he acquired all of this stuff from the splitting up of a pre-existing collection or collections made up of material that was, conveniently, all in the US before the AAMD cut-off date of 1970. This is the usual get-out argument used by dealers unable to show where material came from or document legal export. "Tradionally in those golden days of carefree collecting" they argue "nobody kept records like that", thus absolving themselves from having in their stock material, the actual origins of which they have no idea. They claim innocence until proven guilty, the onus being on the accuser to demonstrate in each specific case why anyone should be concerned about a given coin or group of coins. As cop-outs go, quite an effective tactic, since of course the clandestine excavation and smuggling of artefacts does not - by its nature - leave much of a paper trail by which a given group of coins could be challenged once it is anonymously in a dealer's stock trays.
There is however now another tool, and paradoxically the first example was provided by UK metal detectorists and a coin dealer from the UK. Professional Numismatist Peter D. Spencer is looking into the way metal detecting is affecting the types of coins coming onto the UK market. He has found that coin collections created before the explosion of metal detecting differ quite markedly (especially in the types and relative quantities of material from the post Roman periods) from those of the past four decades. This he gauges as a result of his own handling of the coins as a dealer active on the market for a number of decades and a study of old catalogues. Some types were uncommon in collections in the past, but today they are much better represented as a result of new finds. Part of this is caused by the sort of coins that were used in making up hoards, which before 1970 was the way coins were most easily noticed by being discovered accidentally (several kilos of silver coins in a restricted area is pretty easy to spot in the ploughsoil, while a single corroded and muddy hammered coin less easily so). Post 1970 the bulk of the coins coming onto the market was now from metal detecting finds of single coins found for the most part on so-called "productive sites" and is thus reflects coin loss (rather than coin tesauration) patterns in both on-site and off-site contexts. Spencer has a chapter in Suzie Thomas' and Peter Stone's book on Metal Detecting and Archaeology setting out what he has found. It is too much to summarise here, but the long and short of it is if one looks at the typology and nature of Mr Bude's offerings, the composition of the assemblage as a whole looks like it is made up of items taken from the pool of post 1970 finds rather than what Spencer would describe as a typical assemblage of pre-1970 collected material. In other words, it looks likely that somebody has been buying relatively fresh metal detecting finds made in the UK (ones apparently not documented to have been reported to the PAS to boot) rather than making up the stock from old collection material.
It seems to me that Spencer has provided us with a means to assess the degree to whether coin assemblages currently on the market contain material which by its nature was accumulated in collections pre-metal detecting, or post-metal detecting. His model needs refining, maybe in the form of an algorithm based on a closer statistical analysis. It also needs expanding, looking at changing compositions of local collections right across the ancient world. It is however a start in the process of verifying and challenging the "old collection" claim so often evoked as an excuse for a lack of transparency in the antiquities market.
Reference: Peter D. Spencer 2008, "The Construction of histories: Numismatics and metal Detecting", pp. 125-136 in: Thomas, S and P. Stone (eds) Metal Detecting and Archaeology, Newcastle University/Boydell and brewer Stowmarket.
vignette: Did a coin like this really come from metal detecting in the UK?