Saturday, 1 September 2012

Dear Diary, A Funny Thing Happened....

I was not expecting to enjoy today. The 1st weekend in September was going to be the opening of the "Monety Expo Warsaw" coin fair where a number of international dealers were planning to "open up the eastern market" - including for ancients. So I was up early, fed the cats and girded my loins to face the enemy. I got there as it opened, parking the car was a doddle, not too many people there. Paid the entrance fee, picked up a catalogue and started exploring.  It turned out that some of the people on the list of participants that had been announced had not turned up - perhaps just as well (well, that's what the lady at the info desk said, maybe though they'd been detained at the airport?). The event however seemed well organized, with security men where security men should be and a food stall with some good cakes and interesting sushi. Lots of nationalities represented. There were a lot of "World" (modern) coin dealers and some postage stamp nerds. Beats me why so many people came to Poland with bags and bags of Soviet and Russian coins, do they think we have none and want more? Idiots.

In the end there were just a few dealers (all foreign) with ancients. Among them several guys from England. One group (helped by a rather pretty Polish translator supplied by the organizers) were the only blokes with early medieval coins in the whole event. They also had lots of Roman, though not I would have thought composed primarily of English dugups. Their prices were rather high for the state some of them were in. Just across the way from them one of the larger international dealers had 46 very similar gold solidi which looked suspiciously like they'd come from a mid seventh century hoard ...  not nice. I decided against starting a conversation about them, I might risk learning something that I would be obliged to do something about, so walked on, like most other archaeologists do anyway when stuff like this is sold under their noses. I now feel quite guilty about that.

Then in the far corner a bloke, from Spain. Table covered in dugups, artefacts, coins,  all in little piles - and a couple of things that looked like ivory carvings... grrrr.. Artefacts were mostly Roman types, the sort of things Danubian sites are full of, but some encolpion crosses, an Avar earring and two mounts which could have been Avar, a radiate brooch of Danubian/Mazurian type, lots of trilobate bronze arrowheads, some Roman or Early Medieval iron ones including some of recognizably SE European types. The coins were Roman (in a dreadful state, obviously well picked-over, and some chemically cleaned, one fake). Lots of Early and Middle Byzantine, a heap of scyphate coins, some little Medieval silver denarii of Hungarian type (I thought of Peter Tompa)  and various post medieval belt fittings and suchlike stuff. I picked up a Justinian coin and waving it in his general direction and, trying to make it sound like an innocent question, asked the dealer "Is this all from Spain?". "Nah", he said, admitting what I already knew without a hint of shame: "is frrrom Bulgarrria, Makedonya, Grrriece and Turk". I might have guessed (well that's apart, I presume, from the copper alloy junk Sultan of Delhi coins thrown into one of the piles to bulk it out with something looking more exotic). I did not ask about export licences, but walked away saddened. More saddening still was that people were buying the crap at prices between 4 and 20 euros. Sickeningly the decontextualised 'Slavic' fibula was not a fake in my opinion, we have so few from proper contexts that commercial looting of the sites containing these poorly-understood artefacts is the last thing we need. I regret now that I did not ask him when he bought the Bulgarian stuff, my impression is that the flow of stuff there has almost dried up as the sites are exhausted. 

I was then amused to see some nice Late Roman Bronzes in one display on the far side of the room (not for sale) which I am pretty sure were some of those Serbian fakes that appeared about three years ago. Now how did they get to Warsaw? I bet there's an interesting story there too.

I saw two attempts of people trying to flog coins to the dealers, one (apparently a Jordanian) was turned down by the dealer, while another foreign dealer happily bought four hammered silver coins brought to him by a Polish stranger. I heard no questions asked and the seller disappeared pretty sharpish afterwards.  As well he might, though the coins may have been from outside Poland (although I could not see them up close to identify, I saw he he had wire-coins as well). So, such is the way Polish law is misconstructed on this issue, border-line legal here.

I cannot remember how the conversation with the German dealer who'd turned down the Jordanian started, a few coiney pleasantries (about a rather nice coin of Domitian), and then, nonchalantly, I asked her why she'd not even looked at what the Jordanian had brought.  The answer was what I hoped to hear, and we had a bit of a chat. Pretty quickly I had to admit what my interest was, and what I do. They don't read my blog much in Germany (though I see I have a few Swiss 'fans') so fortunately the name did not mean anything. When I passed her table again, I offered to bring her a coffee as having come alone, she could not leave her coins. When I brought it, she invited me to come behind the table and continue the conversation.

When I got up this morning I'd intended to go to the fair for two hours and return home to deal with an editor's comments on my boring text on archaeological theory which goes to print on Tuesday. I must admit that the last thing I thought I would be doing that day was that I would instead spend five hours in cosy conversation with an ancient coin dealer. And charmed onto the wrong side of the table to boot. But that's how it went. It turns out that dealers in dugup coins can be lovely, warm, honest, sensitive and sensible human beings. (Who would have thought it from the crowd I usually come in contact with in the pages of this blog?) We talked about all sorts of things, including a number of the cases mentioned in this blog, some of which she knows from the other side. Of course (how could it be otherwise?) I was told all the reasons why ancient coin collecting is "a good thing" and I really can have no quarrel with much of what she said there. But the general context of those factors is the current state of most of the market, which is not quite so "good" for anything much. We seemed to be in agreement with the issue of no-questions-asking coins, within 15 metres of us was the Spanish guy with his piles of coins who unwittingly served as the living, breathing example of what was wrong with the trade. I was sure that it was no act put on for my benefit when she told me a little about her own business practices, I would not have sat there if I had. It is sad that dealers like this are dragged down by the dealers who cannot ascertain where their stock comes from, who are not going to wait for the export licence and who are not going to try and 'do it by the book'. She claims not to have much of an idea what the ACCG are up to (though has met Peter Tompa in - it seems - another capacity). 

This lady had many coins on sale with about as reasonable collecting histories as one sees in ancients, and miracle of miracles has been buying ancient coins from Italy and getting the export licences for them (and making her clients wait for them).  She also insisted that in her experience the market was changing, and that her clients were paying far more attention to collecting histories. She assured me that things would continue to improve. Well, she was very persuasive. Certainly a lot to think about.

I took a wrong turning on the dual carriageway thinking hard about it on the way home...


thesleeperwakes said...

Paul, I stumbled across your blog in my quest for an ethical dealer in Roman coins. By "ethical" I mean someone who sells coins with as much evidence of providence as possible and preferably from old, established and recorded collections, rather than the standard definitions I've found that seem to refer only to selling forgeries. I hope that you don't think that I am a terrible person for wanting to possess a few coins. Perhaps you will find it reassuring that there are people like me who are only interested in collecting common, low-grade roman coins for their history and beauty. I don't want archaeological sites and the information that they contain to be destroyed so that I can do so.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks for your comment.

Possessing beautiful and interesting coins is not "terrible". Personally I'm not sure Roman coins are particularly "beautiful" (as opposed to some Greek), but there's no accounting for taste (!). They are however interesting.

An alternative to what you suggest is to seek out coins from the UK with PAS numbers, that have been recovered according to (we hope) "best practice" by a responsible collector, duly reported and recorded, and the PAS have given it back. I imagine building up a good representative collection of decent coins all recorded by the PAS would be no small challenge, but worth doing I would have thought. Then pass the documentation on to the next owner with each coin.

All the best in your search.

thesleeperwakes said...

I didn't think of looking for newer finds with PAS numbers, thank you for that suggestion. It might be difficult to build a collection this way but I do like a good challenge (and being able to sleep at night).

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