Thursday, 26 June 2014

Dirty Old Coin Dealings


Dirty Old Coins
Over on the Biblical Archaeological Review blog a gaggle of coineys has converged to discuss "preserving provenance" of dugup antiquities (or rather why they say we should not bother, because it's bad for business). Rasiel Suarez goes on to suggest that ancient coin collectors are not only passionately interested in history, but have "skills in conservation and a desire to preserve and reconnect with the past". The dealer then goes on to say that in his opinion, "illicit does not equate to immoral", which will be news to many people I am sure. He tries to claim that the onus is on the critics to show why there are negatives in the no-questions buying of dugup artefacts of unknown origins and collecting history. In the same way I am sure there are dealers in such things who might raise the same points about cars, bikes and firearms with filed off serial numbers, but I think the rest of us can see through this line of argument. Personally I would steer clear of any dealer in any commodity who was expecting me to buy possibly illicit stuff ‘blind’ like that.

Mr Suarez continues to give what he considers to be a "positive" aspect of the trade in ancient coins
I can note by way of personal example that had it not been for the easy accessibility of ancient coins I would never have taken up numismatics as a career nor, however modest my contributions may have been, that in the intervening years I can still ultimately owe them all to buck-a-coin ebay auctions. In a rhetorical sort of introspective can you think of what positive legacy your crusade has added to the collective good of mankind? 
I think we are supposed to infer from this that Mr Suarez becoming a dealer is in some way for the "collective good of mankind". It is a shame he does not say how. Dollar-a-coin eBay auctions are not exactly the sort of transaction anyone should be taking pride in, I would say, especially when they are dugups offered with no supporting documentation of licit origins and export from the source country. Mr Suarez has a lot of such coins on his "Tantalus Coins" website (606 coins for sale). None of the ones I looked at have any details up front about their origins, or documentation of when and how they left the source country. None of the coins I looked at can be verified by the potential buyer as of licit origins. Why not? Well Mr Suarez seems to think that a “just say no” campaign will not "spontaneously spring from within our community", so I guess he feels he does not have to bother persuading what must then be thoughtless oiks to buy his coins. They'll buy no-questions-asked, he is sure. Attempts by conservationists to persuade them to do otherwise using reasoning, he is sure, "will not be effective".

We see the same thing, nay worse, on his Dirty Old Coins portal (he is a part-owner here). Just look at this.  Dirty Old Coins claims to be "leading educational company that brings this rich historical legacy to life through hands-on learning".
Our surprisingly affordable uncleaned Roman coins are real antiquities that have been recovered still with the sediment accumulated over centuries under ground. Learn how to clean and restore them using the same methods museums would, then learn how to identify which ruler among hundreds is featured.  Our Roman Emperor in A Box kit provides everything necessary in order to launch a lifelong interest in Roman history and archaeology making it a perfect homeschool project or a gift for the budding history scholar. 
The only thing they do not educate their clients in is the conservation issues connected with looting and smuggling of ancient artefacts. There is nothing about that fundamental issue on their "educational" site. But that is because the pretend education is a front for a shop. And look what it sells:
Uncleaned Coins From Balkan Region (Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavian countries). 3rd—4th Century $3.00/each,
High-Grade Roman coins recovered from France. Gaul was the prized province of the Romans and last to fall $6.00/each, [nonsense actually],
Restored Balkan-Region Late Roman Coins $6.50/each,
Recovered from Spain, these coins date from ancient Greek times through to the 19th century $3.00 each,
“Holy Land” coins. Here we have a nice assortment of coins found in the Middle East, primarily from Israel and bordering countries. [...] locally minted small Roman coins of the late fourth and fifth centuries there is good representation from other periods such as Byzantine, Judaean, Nabatean, Greek and other exotic origin (sic) civilizations.
Meet the big money. These large and thick Roman coins dating to the first two centuries AD were from the early period of the empire when the economy was at its peak. Careful restoration should yield a keeper in every case! $15.00 each
, [now take a look at the photograph of the totally worn slugs they are selling in this category and decide for yourself how much the sellers' word is worth in this case, come on, who are trying to kid?]. 
And so on, you get the picture. Now these 'Dirty Old Coins' are all coming from countries which have laws about taking metal detectors and spades to the kind of places where you dig up ancient coins (there are online databases of heritage law in English translation if any collector wants to check that out before clicking "add this to your basket"). What are missing from their offer are coins from the UK, where detecting on archaeological sites is legal, objects reported by responsible finders to the PAS and exported (as the law requires) with a UK export licence. Now, why would that be? Why are these Dirty Old Coins so "surprisingly affordable"? What about the export licences here? Why is there  absolutely no (as in zero) information about this on the Dirty Old Coins website? Now, you can get Bulgarian export licences, I saw some at the Warsaw coin show last year, so has Mr Suarez and his partners got them for these coins? And where did they come from? How did they get on the market in the first place? The old apotropaic formula "Old collection, predating the legislation and conventions" really seems difficult to apply here, to Dirty Old Coins, still dirt-encrusted. Oh and that "conservation" which coin collectors are supposedly so good at?
you will want to preserve it for display or storage. If the coin has not fared well in cleaning you may try restoring a suitably "ancient" look by using one of several re-patina methods available. If you are satisfied with the way the coin looks as is you could give it any of a number of treatments (see "finishing") to keep it looking its best. 
 That's what Dirty Old Coins calls "restoration" which has nothing to do with proper means of conservation. There are no books in this "educational" store on metal corrosion, stabilisation of corrosion products, preventive conservation either. No, it's a sham. Then we have the twee "Roman Emperor in a Box" kit ("a perfect homeschool project or a gift for the budding history scholar" - before dumb-down, we used to call them "books").
But for something truly impressive to add to your collection nothing beats owning a handmade coin from thousands of years ago! Our uncleaned coins come exactly as they were found in Europe still caked in hardened dirt so that you can have the fun of lovingly restoring these antiquities. For your reward YOU will be the first to see the coin as the last Roman who owned it. You can't help but make an instant connection with our long ago ancestors. Who could have lost this coin? A Roman soldier, a luckless citizen, a slave? What could have been bought with it? And for every question only your imagination for answers! 
No, a thoughtful and informed kid's imagination would dwell on who dug this crap up, what they trashed in doing so, what laws they broke selling them to persons unknown (oh, just "imagine who that could have been, real life cultural racketeers maybe, what they were up to alongside this - shudder"). The thoughtful kid might dwell on who might have got a backhander for turning a blind eye to the passage of this stuff out of the country, across the continents and oceans (with what other illicit commodities, another thrill of excitement, eh?). They might then speculate about who then could have received and warehoused these artefacts in the US and what connections might the thoughtful child consider they may have with criminal groups outside the country, and a thoughtful child might reflect whether financing such criminal links is in the interests of the USA. I would say that the thoughtful child, imaging all that would then have sleepless nights. Of course, it's all going to be speculation, because the person he bought them from cannot and will not tell them whose hands they passed through. I do not think anyone who's getting homeschooling in the US and is bought this kit by their homeschooler is really going to be thinking of any of that. More like "wow, cool!". They probably are Creationists too

I think we may all suspect, from all the information that, as the result of recent research and discussion, is  currently emerging in the public domain about the antiquities trade and how it really works, that the manner in which the bulk lots of 'uncleaned' coins reach the market these days involves a whole spread of trashed historical and archaeological sites all over Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa, a lot of less-than-licit dealings and most likely a whole trail of human misery caused by the very people that clandestinely bring those coins to the market. If Mr Suarez wants to claim that in a dirty old business, it is otherwise in the case of those dugups sold by Dirty Old Coins, he is of course perfectly at liberty to prove it by documenting their licit and wholly clean origins. His attitudes towards his clients, the collectors, cited above must be the only explanation of why he has not done that up-front on the web portal so far.

But do have a good look at this website and consider in what way Mr Suarez becoming a coin dealer has had "added a positive legacy to the collective good of mankind".

1 comment:

McNall Mason said...

Paul. I was married to him for 8 yrs. Divorced now for 10 (thank God) you might have some idea how deep this vein runs. I am ashamed to say I helped build his coin biz, was duped by his skewed views and walked away from it in 2007. Thanks for outing this problem. Contact me if I can help.

 
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