Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Those Good Old "Old Collections"

Ricardo St Hilaire has very helpfully got his teeth into the Windsor Antiquities Bust and in particular the numismatic section of the case. I was quite taken by a passage in his discussion of some documents now in the public domain, concerning the proprietor of Holyland Numismatics being concerned that ICE were not treating the ancient coins which they had seized from him with the appropriate care.

St Hilaire asserts that "Alshdaifat’s lawyer asserted that his client possessed documentation to prove bona fide ownership of the property" but no indication is given what kind of documentation this is, and whether ICE officials examined that claim in any detail. They treated his comments as a claim for their return and gave them back. Before that however, as St Hilaire notes in a passage which I have not seen discussed in any detail elsewhere:
Alshdaifat advised federal officials to store groups of coins “in open containers, not in closed plastic bags.” “The coins,” he said, “should also be stored in a dry environment, preferably with a dehumidifier.” He further recommended that authorities “[s]eparate the "diseased" coins from the rest. These coins can be identified by the green powdery substance on the surface of the coins... The diseased coins should be handled with gloves, and when doing so agents should avoid exposure in closed areas with little air circulation.” Alshdaifat also advised that “[t]he silver and gold coins should be kept in individual coin holders” and that coins found in acid baths “needed to be washed in hot, running water and dried individually.” Finally, he requested that “[t]hose coins with soil incrustation should be separated from others with similar incrustation. Because soil taken from different places consists of various different minerals and it would be impossible to know if incrusted coins came from the same soil, those coins that are incrusted should simply be separated to avoid any chemical reaction from the interaction of different soil minerals”.
This is all a bit comical, looking more like a nuisance claim than having any grounding in chemistry (if kept dry "different soil minerals" will not be reacting from mere contact for example). So since these coins were seized from his home, the guy had coins in acid baths at home? Handling coins with "bronze disease" (chlorides) with gloves is to protect the coin (from what?) or the handler (from carcinogenic corrosion inhibitor used on them earlier?). The use of gloves and the lack of circulation of air recommended seem more likely to spread chlorides if the surfaces of the objects are "powdery".

I am more interested in these soil encrusted coins. Alshdaifat claims they come from "different places" which suggests the dealer knows something of their provenance. Why then is this information so seldom passed on to the collector? How were soil-encrusted coins legally exported from the source country? Did the latter just write out an export licence blind, without even seeing what was under the dirt? What documentation of bona fide origins of this material was produced? Where and how did it leave the ground, where and how was it taken from the territory of the country in which it was dug up? Whether or not the US dealer can show an invoice that it was bought from a Munich, Dubai-based, Mexican or Hong Kong middleman (showing they sold it rather than had it stolen from them) does not resolve the question of the legality of its original excavation and export, does it?

So these tubs of soil encrusted coins, once they've been acid cleaned, had the bronze disease on some of them sorted out and sold on, what happens to them? Well, obviously these are the coins entering the market which are then claimed by coin dealers to be those remains of old collections ("people have been collecting coins since the days of Petrarch you know"). You know, the ones that lose their provenances the moment they hit the market, are separated from any old collectors' tickets and information where they were even a few months ago. But we see here that before sold on, many of them were in fact lying soil-encrusted in bulk lots in "open containers" in the form presumably in which they had been bought from the middleman. And where did a middleman get tubs-full of soil-encrusted coins? From Old collections? The crud and soil being more acceptable than cabinet-toning to the former collector?

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