Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Coineys, Curios and Butterfly Minds

The paid lobbyist for the International Association of Professional Numismatists (coinshop keepers) once again has written on what his clients mean when they call the coin trade a licit business. You see, according to him it is "Trade Professionals Speak Common Sense", while "Ivory Tower academics of the archaeological lobby" who consider that these claims require production of supporting documentation do not realise that such documentation does not exist. I suspect I am not to only one who fails to see in what way a trade which systematically obscures the origins and status of the commodities traded can in any way be regarded as  legitimate.  In a comment under that Dealer Dave ventures:
It is only recently that this "responsible collecting" campaign has been organized [...] . Those behind it [...] in my view have little understanding of the actual workings of the numismatic and antiquities trades, and of numismatic and antiquities collecting. [...] traceability has been difficult because there are good, sensible reasons for sellers to insist upon anonymity
Well, yes. That is the point, isn't it? There are good reasons for the origins of some of that material to be hidden. How much? Dealer Dave asserts:
Recently unearthed "illicit" coins and antiquities are very far from being the majority of items traded.
That sounds like an admission that such items are handled by the trade. But how can Welsh say how much of it there is, if the items he handles have absolutely no documentation? Dealer Alfredo suggests [on if you please] that in the case of the coins he comes across in America, it is one in a thousand which has papers.These people ask us to accept that this is perfectly normal and acceptable that they and collectors have been throwing away the documentation of 99.9% (ninety-nine point nine percent!) of objects entering the collectors' market. How on earth can one refer to that as ethical or responsible business practices? This is especially the case when the trade has a definition in Art 3 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention specifying what the term "illicit" is taken to mean - something the documentation-discarders in the international dugup antiquities trade have been ignoring since 1970.

However, not all collectors are so blasé about collecting history. Serious collectors of geological and palaeontological specimens require the name of the findspot from where the specimen was collected as the barest minimum on the accompanying label. It is the same with meteorites. These are classified according to their findspot - which has to be recorded, and the authenticity is determined by the labels showing who collected the specimen and then which collections it passed through. No meteorite collector would dream of throwing away those slips of paper detailing that, because the value (as a collectable and as material for study) would drop immensely. Of course there are teenagers who collect bits of unprovenanced stone with a visible ablation crust as "cool, rocks from space". In other words as trophy bragging pieces and curios.

Its the same with shells, herbarium specimens, and butterflies. Serious conchologists want a specimen to have not only the name of the species, but where and when it was collected. Serious botanists go a step further, they want the name of the botanist who collected the specimen and the date. Serious lepidopterists have similar requirements, they too want the name of the entomologist who collected the specimen and the date. Without these details on the label beautiful animals have died for nothing, so their carcasses can become a curio in a collector's display case. Again none of these collectors would dream of separating the specimen from its label containing these data. It has been like that almost since the beginning of this collecting in the nineteenth century (and beyond). Serious conchologists and serious lepidopterists use this information to do amateur scholarship, often of a very high standard, but to do this their reference/study collection has to be properly arranged and documented. Other people just put an unprovenanced moth transfixed cruelly by a steel pin in a case on the wall to 'decorate' the room as a curio.

So these numismatic collectors who give not a thought to documenting the coins in their possession, are they collectors of evidence  or curios? The people that sold them those items without the documentation, professionals or curio sellers?

Tim Pestell in a recent video made the point that recent studies suggest that in pre-Roman East Anglia, there were many thousands of coin dies in use. Yet of their products, only a relatively few have any kind of findspot data recorded when they have been through the hands of the archaeologists of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. If one wanted to do a study of not only the characteristics but the spatial distribution of products of a hypothetical 'Pestell group X variant 132 die', the coin market is no help, they've thrown away the documentation of 99.9% of the finds. The best the coins on the market can achieve is "here is another one". That is hardly likely to advance our knowledge of the past in any useful way.

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