Wednesday 2 March 2016

"Ancient coin Collecting" Strike Three

Artefact decontextualised by
no-questions-asked commerce
Veteran dealer Wayne Sayles announced a few days ago he was making a fresh start (the third) with his blog and was going to "avoid cultural property issues", but (as was the case last time he said this) it did not take long before he was berating  ('An Intellectual Curiosity') archaeologist Morag Kersel for her recognition in a Past Horizons article that collectors and dealers are stakeholders in the past. He immediately jumps on that and assumes it means "coin collectors" and furthermore those involved in the international market (rather than collector citizens of the countries studied by Kersel).  One wonders how much "vested interest" in any particular site (what Kersel was saying) the clients of Wayne Sayles Antiquarian coinshop have seeing as none of the items he sells are given even the vaguest provenance let alone traceable to a specific site - like this coin

The dealer activist claims a special status for coin collecting, a sort of numismatic exceptionalism. He  brashly describes it as "a learning discipline that is older than any university in the world". To replace fantasy by fact, I doubt very much that coin collecting can actually be shown to have become systematised as a "discipline" still less a "learning discipline" before the reputed date of the foundation (850 AD) of the University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco, or that of the University of Bologna, Italy, in 1088 - or even the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland (1364).

Regular readers may recall the disgruntlement that met my labelling of heap-of-loose-coins-on-a-table collecting on this blog as "coin fondlers". It is therefore interesting to note Sayles' own characterisation of the "discipline" as one that gives its ("passionate") adherents "their tactile learning experience" and "that remarkable experience" the experience of feeling-up ancient metal discs. In other words, coin fondling, as I said. A collector "experiences" the past through touching old things, rather like "celebrity contamination" from Elvis's tie or St Benedict's left big toe.

In further claiming a special status for his clientele, dealer Sayles apparently cannot raise his eyes further than the edge of his coin cabinet and interprets the wording "vested stakeholders in preserving the past" in a wholly object-centric manner, ignoring the obvious fact that Dr Kersel is discussing sites and landscapes. If sites were preserved, the artefacts (archaeological evidence) they contain would still be in the ground, and not in Waynes Sayles coin cabinet for him to kid himself that by buying undocumented artefacts he is somehow "saving them". All he is saving them from is being bought by some other carefree collector who does-not-give-a-damn. In other words "saving" is here a euphemism for pure and simple selfish greed.

Targeted digging by artefact hunters whose activities are enabled
by dodgy middlemen and the no-questions-asked approach of
a major part of the international antiquities market

It is therefore utterly ridiculous for a dealer whose stock comprises on the whole artefacts with not even rudimentary collecting histories showing how, where and when they entered the market to claim: "While few of them [collectors] ever interact directly with looters, they clearly suffer the consequences of looting as much as anyone else who has a love of the past". Collectors in the US buy from dealers and the dealers are not saying where they got the constant flow of freshly-surfaced artefacts from. They want us to believe that the expanding modern market is solely fed by the recycling of material coming from the dismemberment of personal collections of a much smaller population of collectors of a mythologised byegone golden age.** The ability of dealers today to obtain a constant flow of fresh stock (almost all of which 'just happens to have lost' all documentation tracing it further back than the catalogue of the last auction where it was bought) is noteworthy.  It does not take much imagination to wonder quite seriously about the link between that remarkable phenomenon and the increasing numbers of holes in productive sites documented by people like Morag Kershaw (see the photo above)* to ask whether the collectors' "love of [buying relics of] the past" from foreign countries is not leading to the products of that looting ending up in their personal artefact collections and coin cabinets. In other words this would mean, contrary to the denials of interested parties such as coin dealers, that far from "suffering the consequences of looting", the no-questions-asked coin trade is fuelled by it.

Apparently, though, coin dealers like Mr Sayles, with all their whining and special pleading, seem to lack that imagination. They imagine something else, they apparently believe in Coin Fairies taking away the stuff from the holes we see in the photos so some Disneyesque 'Happy ending' never-neverland, while Coin Elves supply the market with kosher provenanceless artefacts made by elven magic for dealers like him to sell to his clients. I leave it to the reader to decide for themselves where they think the freshly-surfaced coins coming onto the no-questions-asked market actually come from, artefact hunters or elves. 

* An image of looting episodes — holes — at Fifa in Jordan, taken by a fixed wing drone in 2013 as part of site documentation and monitoring by archaeologist Morag M. Kersel, an assistant professor at DePaul University. Image: Austin “Chad” Hill of the Follow the Pots Project

** The American Numismatic Association has a membership today of  about 24,000 members. To see how this relates to the number of collectors around before 1970 it would be useful to know how many members it had in each decade of the twentieth century. Can anyone provide those figures for us? 


David Knell said...

"[...] none of the items he sells are given even the vaguest provenance let alone traceable to a specific site - like this coin"

To be fair, the description for that coin does mention that it is "Ex: Triskeles 2, lot 249" (the auction took place April 2013). Not much of a provenance but better than absolutely zilch and at least a step in the right direction.

I've been tracing the relative origins of archaeology and numismatics (distinguishing it from mere coin collecting) for a future post. Despite the frequent assertions by US coin dealers that the latter pretty much predates the Big Bang, my research so far suggests the reality is that it is a little less antediluvian.

Paul Barford said...

Well, you can be as "fair" as you like to this obstructive old man, but the link to an auction site means nothing at all about how and when it came on the market (ie left the ground and source country). This falls precisely into the category of produce mentioned a little below that link:

"fresh stock (almost all of which 'just happens to have lost' all documentation tracing it further back than the catalogue of the last auction where it was bought) ...".

Who sold it to "Triskeles" and where had they got it from? Triskeles is as much a "provenance" and "step in the right direction" as "a bloke in the pub". You can name the pub ("the Duck and Bucket, Dursley"), but that does not make the object any the more legit.

The point I was making though is that he is claiming that his clients "care" about site conservation as much as Kersel et al, which is shown to be completely untrue because the vast majority of coins sold (we are asked to believe of legal provenance) cannot be linked to the point where they ("legally") left the ground, ie the sites which Kersel is writing about. "Triskeles" is not an archaeological site. We are again hearing chalk for cheese from the collectors and dealers.

Sayles aims to disrupt and confuse the discussion, not contribute in any way which is meaningful. This is why I say people like him need not be included in a discussion they have absolutely no intention of engaging in properly. They are alienating themselves.

This is his "Fresh Start". \

David Knell said...

By "a step in the right direction", I meant precisely that: a "step". The provenance is clearly far from ideal (for example, there is nothing to show that coin did not come from the kind of wholesale looting I mentioned here) but I welcome even the tiniest step towards acknowledgement that a provenance, however inadequate, is as important for a coin of low financial value ($35) as that for a marble statue. Archaeological sites are destroyed to supply mundane artefacts every bit as much as they are to supply exceptional ones. How genuine that acknowledgement is, is another matter.

I think you know my opinion of the ACCG and their attitudes from numerous posts on my own blog and elsewhere. Sadly, I doubt we will ever really get a "Fresh Start" from its Executive Director; whether due to genuine ignorance or willful obfuscation, the misguided and outdated views he expresses are unlikely to change.

His 'concern' about site conservation and that of people like Morag Kersal have about as much in common as Genghis Khan and John Betjeman.

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