Tuesday, 6 August 2013

"Arguments for and Against Buying Uncleaned Roman Coins"

I see, belatedly, that this blog is mentioned on a coincommunity dotcom thread on "Buying Uncleaned Roman Coins". This - though it started well - quickly degenerated into the ritual chanting of coiney mantras that serves to protect the no-questions-asked market from internal scrutiny and criticism, so seems worth exploring and engaging with at some length.  But let's start at the beginning. The thread was  was started by a person from Canada asking: "Another question for the experts here. Can anyone recommend a reputable seller of uncleaned Roman coins?". Pretty soon some well-known names emerge,. Then there's a rather unusual (for a coiney forum) post, from "cursive" (United States, Posted 01/13/2013 10:51am):
What is your motivation for wanting to buy uncleaned Roman coins? There is no such thing as a "reputable" seller of uncleaned ancient coins. The only source for such things are illegal archaeological digs, often from places in the Balkans. These operations destroy archaeological information about the item, and often finance various organized crime groups. Coins sold as "uncleaned lots" have been cleaned already, and picked through for better-quality items. There are other reasons for avoiding these things, but I am NOT an expert on this. I do read the blog of an archaeologist who writes about the antiquities trade, and who has a lot more information about this thing than I do; this link should give you multiple reasons for avoiding uncleaned lots of ancient coins http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/se...?q=uncleaned
Wow. A first. But this breath of sanity was short-lived. Seventeen minutes to be precise. Another member ("Gil-galad" ["Pillar Of The Community"] United States, 01/13/2013 11:08am) jumps in:
There is a lot more to it than that. Many coins are found in areas that ain't archaeologist dig sites. And those that have found a lot of coins have reported their finds and have found many places that were studied that may not have otherwise been found. A lot of coins found and stored in a museum will be in buckets, and stored in other ways and never fully studied such as amateur numismatists would, even professionals. You can also read articles at the ACCG to read the other side of the debate and learn more.
For a start, this latter statement is actually untrue, if you examine carefully the reasons why on this blog I express concern about these bulk loads of dugup antiquities, you'll not find those points adequately answered on the ACCG website, just a load of glib Amero-centric (and American Exceptionalist) claptrap. From this pro-trade propaganda, I doubt the objective reader will indeed "learn more".As for the other points:

1) "Many coins are found in areas that ain't archaeologist dig sites". Most metal detectorists however target precisely such sites because they are what they call "productive" (I presume that by "archaeologist dig sites" he means archaeological sites, not looting of excavation projects actually in progress) .

2) "And those that have found a lot of coins have reported their finds" That is complete pars pro toto nonsense, most of the artefact hunting going on - usually again by targeting known 'productive' sites - in the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, North Africa, the "Holy Land", Syria etc etc goes totally unreported because it is ILLEGAL.

3) "have found many places that were studied that may not have otherwise been found". See 1 and 2 above

4) "A lot of coins found and stored in a museum will be in buckets", really? Hoard coins or non-hoard coins too, from occupation layers in modern rescue excavations for example? What actually are we talking about here? And in any case, "two wrongs make a right"?

5) "never fully studied such as amateur numismatists would, even professionals". Eh? But the point of curating objects in properly-documented permanent public collections as opposed to scattering them in ephemeral and poorly documented private(personal) collections is to make them available for future research. It is an established fact (because dealers dealing in it state it to be so) that material passing from one old collection to another generally loses any documentation of provenance and collecting history, erasing that source of information.

In any case, most people buying these coins (mostly Late Roman Bronzes [LRB]s) do not actually "study" them, after "zapping" them, they look them up in established reference books, largely - it would seem looking at the evidence of their 'publications' - with the aim of make up sets and finding 'varieties' like stamp-collectors. [Here's a good online example here, coincidentally by the same Gil-Galad]. This is not research.

So much for the arguments of "Gil-galad" [Pillar Of The Community] in favour of buying bulk lots of metal detected coins of mixed and unknown origins.

But then two others wade in. "DVCollector" (another "Pillar Of The Community" defending the trade, Posted 01/13/2013 3:10pm) reckons:
Recovery of coins isn't always unauthorized or detrimental to archeological sites. Buried coins don't usually figure into the most important finds
 he then cites an Early Bronze Age grave... duh. That's a novel one (his point is "grave robbers are always with us" - another artefact-centred two-wrongs argument. He then says that if collectors did not buy the things looters dig up, the ignorant natives would melt them down. I've discussed this "scrap metal" model before, issued a challenge that would test it which nobody has taken up. I consider it is nonsense.

"DVCollector" further pontificates:
Specifically to coins, some say that every coin dug outside the auspices of a regulated dig represents a "loss of culture". Naturally, this depends on the context of their burial and what the government considers their cultural history [...] states are free to define their cultural antiquity as it suits them. 
That's decent of him isn't it? But of course he is reducing the question to one of so-called "national patrimony" (which he then develops according to the usual coiney song-sheet: "is a Roman coin found on German soil a "cultural artifact"--whose culture precisely?"). He thus neatly brushes aside the question of archaeological sites and assemblages as part of the common heritage of the past, trash a site to produce saleable coins and you destroy that cultural resource. "DVCollector" goes on:
 I see coins more as artifacts of trade than culture. Since coins are often dispersed far outside their cultural point of origin, and were used (and later buried) for monetary worth, what story they tell is more on the coin itself than its context of burial. 
Apparently he sees no illogic there. They can only tell us about trade patterns when we know where they were used, which means, among other things, knowing where the finds come from. I've asked collectors before, but I'll do it again, can they give me an up-to-date distribution map (with or without a supporting list with references to the individual finds that make it up) of - for example - one of the more common Greek coin series, the hemidrachms from Cherronesos, Thrace? To come back to the bulk lots of LRBs of the thread, evidence has emerged, from studies of findspots, that certain reverse types were targeted for certain social categories of recipients, what chance is there of checking that if most of these coins on the market are coming in mixed bulk lots without precise findspots? "DVCollector" reckons:
Coins stand on their own as individual pieces of history--representing the politics, beliefs, and art of the particular state where they were minted. .
They may "represent" this through the pictures and writing on them, but (though it may satisfy the superficial mnds of those who just want to "touch the past" through coin-fondling), that is by no means the full story. Indeed coins by themselves may mislead, take the ongoing debate on the 'Koson' series for example, the controversy over some recent(ish) Apollonia Pontica 'hoards', or the recent Syracuse Dekas and Proculus coin. Drawing information from such contextless "surfaced" items requires first some subjective assumptions to be made, which again is no basis for proper 'research'.

Then along comes another one with variants of the same arguments. "bobbyhelmet" ["Pillar Of The Community" from the United Kingdom, currently a seller with disturbing quantities of 'Saharan' flint points, Posted 01/13/2013 3:19pm) contests the statement " There is no such thing as a "reputable" seller of uncleaned ancient coins" ("This statement is incorrect, they do exist" - but for what? I rather think we are talking at cross purposes). Bobbyhelmet suggests "there is no such thing as an "answer" to this debate":
I've seen it argued 000's of times. I can see both points of view, Archaeologists and detectorists, neither are 100% correct or without blame.
Blame? Another two-wrongs argument? The no-questions-asked buying of dugup artefacts by dealers and collectors (especially in bulk) unquestionably encourages the looting (and therefore trashing) of archaeological sites. Nothing else is to "blame" for this but the no-questions-asked dugup antiquity market with its pathetic "justifications" (the mantras seen above). Bobbyhelmet suggests "The truth is they need each other". Complete nonsense. Nobody "needs" looters. Nobody (except collectors) "needs" archaeological sites to be trashed.

Bobbyhelmet goes further: "Archaeologists don't find new sites on the whole, men in muddy fields with detectors do", adding, "remember they are working for nothing all over the country". I think Bobby (a UK metal detectorist maybe?) has just redefined the notion of heritage "work".

Since when has conservation been solely about "finding new sites"? Conservation is about finding site and then preserving them, not finding sites and trashing them. Poachers may find more rhinos in the wild than academic ecologists, conserving them however does not consist of letting the former blast the animal's guts all over the grassland to lop off the horn because of this. The PAS has a lot to answer for, because it is simply not making this clear to the public who pays for it.

In any case the statement as written is untrue. Over most of the world, sites are generally found by proper systematic archaeological survey, using a variety of tools (now airborne LIDAR radar for example), not local artefact hunters with detectors "in muddy fields". If truth be known (and if we are talking about "sites" as opposed to findspots), I doubt that this is even true of the UK (England and Wales) where the tendency more is for artefact hunters to "research the area" and locate productive places to target.

Finally, Bobbyhelmet goes further:
To suggest that all coins should be turned over to the authorities shows massive ignorance, recorded maybe but even then I suspect it could be information overload. In truth the authorities would not be interested in keeping 99% of what is found. 
he seems to be suggesting that, by not obeying the law, and not handing over finds when required to do so, the looters, smugglers and dodgy dealers are really doing the authorities a favour, preventing them from acquiring so much information about the (their) past that they (poor ignorant brown folk) would not know what do do with it. The arrogance of such an approach is obvious. If the law requires finders to hand over what they've found then it is simply wrong of a collector (even if he lives in a foreign country) to buy freshly found material which has not been dealt with as the law requires. Sort of like buying clothes made in foreign sweat factories employing underpaid and coerced children (no law broken in your OWN country, after all). People do it, no law against it, but it is wrong and leads only to the persistence of this form of exploitation. Just say 'no'.

What Bobby means is he wants the coins, and really does not care where they came from and how. That is the esence of the no-questions-asked market in a nutshell.

"BenByfield", another "Pillar Of The Community", from the United Kingdom puts in a plug for the benefits the Portable Antiquities Scheme spplies (at tax-payers' expense) for the dugup antiquities industry:
speaking of the antiquities trade, I like UK dug coins because I know these are always dealt with properly.
Of course that is only true if the coins come on the market with a PAS record number (though I would question the automatic use of the phrase "always dealt with properly" even in the case of PAS-reporters, or whether this is the proper way to deal with the fragile and finite archaeological record).

I do not think the initial questioner really understood what he was told:
Thanks for the information. To those in the UK is there any way for a novice collector to contact the "European detectors" directly. I cannot wait to begin my adventure with these coins.
There you are Bazza Thugwit, your chance, contact Mr Hatter through the forum and make a coiney very happy.

Vignette: Do not buy this sort of stuff.


Anonymous said...

Very well dissected.

Incidentally, even the original answer had it wrong:

"The only source for such things are illegal archaeological digs"

No,no,no, lots come from legal digs, nearly all targeted at archaeological sites. In Britain. And mostly they too "destroy archaeological information about the item".

What a crying shame Americans are unaware that supplies from England are almost as likely to come from archaeological sites and to destroy archaeological information as supplies from the Balklans and that the only difference is that in the Balkans the grubby and morally dubious is illegal whereas in Britain it isn't.

Who's to blame? Those who flog the stuff? Yes. PAS for falsely implying most detectorists are well behaved amateur archaeologist? Yes. American dealers for saying the same thing? Yes. And collectors, for not taking the trouble to check the truth? Yes, worst of all. Or am I making it all up for no good reason?!

EmilyL said...

I came across your blog while doing research on buying Roman coins. I'm a year three Latin student, and thought it would be a kind gesture to give my teacher a few coins. At first I wanted to get her cleaned coins, but then when I found out about the uncleaned coins, they seemed like a fun project (almost like a treasure hunt). Like in the forum, I was looking for a "reputable" seller, and at that point, I was more concerned about being scammed or ripped off. But thankfully I clicked on this post! You cleared up a lot of my questions, and stopped me from making a big mistake. A lot of what I've learned about Roman culture has come from what archeologists discovered from dig sites. Purchasing those coins would have funded the people that destroy those sites and prevent the future knowledge of ancient civilizations that students like me wish to study. Thank you very much for helping me learn this :) I will not be purchasing those coins lol

Paul Barford said...

THANKS, Emily for letting me know. It really makes a difference to know that someone somewhere got some benefit from my tapping away here ...
This post
here might also help strengthen your resolve.

As for a present, how about going to EBay and buying a replica coin? Some of them are really awful as copies, but some are really rather attractive objects in their own right. No site was destroyed, and you have something you could frame, write a nice carefully composed handwritten dedication and give it to the teacher - and then tell them the story you just told me. I think that would be a great present to show your appreciation.

Unfortunately Roman coins are not generally very pretty, Greek ones have more "eye appeal" How about an Athenian tetradrachm, with Athena (goddess of wisdom) on it? There are a lot of them around. Try and choose one that looks more like the real things (see a coin website for real ones) and if its a bit beaten-up it will look more authentic and you might get it cheaper in an auction.*

I looked just now and for some reason liked this one http://www.ebay.com/itm/BEAUTIFUL-REPLICA-OF-A-GREEK-COIN-ON-STRAP-/271482958327?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item3f35a531f7 (though personally I'd fill in the hole and not wear it on a thong...).

Good luck, and thank you for thinking of your teacher. It's a tough job, and its good that some students show some appreciation. Most don't give it a second thought.

*Sadly if you are based in the US (you don't say) your nannying eBay has something against replica coins and discourages their sale. Log on to eBay.UK (or any other) and you may find more, but then more postage to pay...

EmilyL said...

I think a few replica coins would be a great gift! I am in the US, but there are a few companies that make sets of denarii with the emperors' busts. Although definitely not as pretty as the Athenian coin, she could share them with future classes when talking about the caesars.

Claasified said...

Hello, I see this post was made about two years ago. I would like to give my reasons on Why Ancient Coins Should Be Collected. It is a balanced argument, with me including facts "for and against".

Claasified said...

Hi again, just for a small intro into my discussion, I noticed that your conclusion has valid reasons, there are some deeper not so good consiquences of an idea like this. I am not looking for a "fight", rather I would enjoy a fair debate on this topic.

Paul Barford said...

Be my guest, please -- let us hear why you think ancient coins "should be" collected (by the way nobody is saying they should not - the issue is over how)

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