Monday, 26 November 2012

Arab Spring Sayles : Islamic Coins Reach new popularity

As the fallout from the so-called "Arab Spring" disrupts the old world order, somebody is profiting from the unrest. Coin dealer Wayne Sayles reports sales of Islamic coins are on the up-and-up. As an example we may take the "James Theselius Collection", "a highly important collection of Islamic coins",  one of the largest US private collections of Islamic and Turkoman coins to be sold in recent years. And Wayne Sayles is selling it. This was created through a series of purchases over two decades (so all relatively recently) "from major auctions in the U.S. and abroad as well as from bourses primarily in the Midwestern U.S." and consisting of "approximately 800 coins from the Ummayad (sic) Caliphate to Persian Civic Coinage with a heavy concentration on coins struck under Turkoman, Ilkhan and Central Asian dynasties". This "important collection" is now being split up apparently without having ever been properly studied and published first. The remains are however selling like hot cakes. "The popularity of these nonclassical coins among [US] collectors is increasing every year", says Sayles.  "Of the nearly three hundred lots posted for sale to date, about half have already been sold, new lots are being posted on a continuing basis".

US coineys have a set of stock arguments explaining why they really should not be asked to collect dugup ancient coins with any thought for their precise origins and the effects of their activities. One of them is that the coins of "the Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome" are THEIR heritage, as the United States of America is the only true torchbearer of the democratic and republican ideals embodied in the Englightenment. The rest of us are just "retentive cultural property nationalists" unworthy to stand beside them in that regard. I'd like to ask just what institutions they see in the United States of America as having their roots among the Turkmen states of the Near East and Central Asia. Not so long ago they were proclaiming a Clash of Civilizations, now the American neo-colonialists of Globalization want to rip off the heritage of Islamic nations too and claim it for their own. What do they give in return? US-made tear gas cylinders in Tahrir Square, "Reverend" Terry Jones, and political assassination drones is what comes first to mind.

Then there is the argument that by collecting these decontextualised coins in heaps on tables, US coineys are contributing to our "understanding of the past". An "important collection" - Sayles says -
"earns respect for having accomplished something of purpose and value [...] to the numismatic fraternity [one that ....] adds to our overall knowledge and appreciation of numismatics as an art and science [or...]  might provide insights that enrich the understanding of other disciplines.  

This  "highly important James Theselius Collection" which Sayles is now selling off piecemeal, with its wide geographical and chronological scope, what purpose and value (apart from financial profit) has its accumulation achieved? Collector James Theselius is/was the author of which monographs on early Islamic social and economic history (or even coin typology/iconography) based on his extensive coin collection and its close study? Or on Roman Egypt based on the ones flogged off in 2008? Or did this collection simply serve as a private wotta-lotta-stuff-I've-got trophy for him?

What "insights" did collector James Theselius' 800 coins imported to the US goodness knows from where, when and how, individually or collectively contribute to "enriching the understanding of other disciplines" (such as archaeology)? Let Mr Sayles produce the full bibliography of the intellectual fruits of this "important collection" and its study before he flogs any more off.  

Now where are these coins coming from? Obviously it is possible that some coineys believe in the coin elves which supply "major auctions in the U.S. and abroad as well as from bourses primarily in the Midwestern U.S." with coins that magically "surface" from nowhere and have no relation to the coins that enter the market illegally at the other end of what others would see as a chain of supply. For the rest of us, here's the realm of the Umayyads (correctly spelt that time): 
Where the coins collected by Rev James Theselius came from
Those "Turkmen" realms that so excite Wayne Sayles (cos their coins have pictures on them) are more or less in the middle of this map.  So Theselius got a lot of ancient dugup coins from these countries. Many of the countries shown in brown on this map have legislation which makes any ancient objects found in ths soil the property of the state and people of those countries. Walking off with them is therefore theft. Jesus reputedly ate with thieves, but there is no record of him buying stolen stuff from them. So, to what extent did Rev. Theselius ascertain or care that these ownership laws were not violated in the removal of these objects first from the archaeological sites where they were found, and then the country to find their way to "borses and auctions" half way round the globe in the New World?  To do that' he'd have to have a record of their collecting histories. Did he have a documented collecting history for each and every one of those 800 coins? If not, what is Wayne Sayles (aparently a dealer careful about his "reputation") doing handling them? How can he say that he gives a buyer "clear title" to objects which he cannot himself document his own clear title to?

Obviously the fact that, despite this, he's managed to flog off "about half" of what he had on offer to date indicates that he is catering for clients who could not give a tinkers about where the coins they are buying come from, and how they got there.

So, as the fallout from the so-called "Arab Spring" disrupts the old world order, criminals in source countries will easily profit from the unrest by stealing, smuggling and selling off dugup antiquities of all kinds to foreign collectors who will willingly buy and circulate on the market any nicely-priced fresh stuff, no-questions-asked. Sales of freshly surfaced Islamic coins will continue to be on the up-and-up.

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