Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Coin Collecting Then and Now: Something to be Ashamed of?

Peter Tompa reports:
Lord Renfrew's "undocumented" coin collection was recently sold by Baldwin's auction house using a pseudonym. I had heard some archaeologists have claimed that the use of a pseudonym is evidence of illicit origins. Of course, we should all give Lord Renfew the benefit of the doubt. I suspect the use of a pseudonym in this case was to avoid controversy and charges of hypocrisy.
Which archaeologists "claimed" this, where and on what grounds? And did they do this to Renfrew's face or just the sneaky behind-the-back comments usually directed to heritage advocates by their 'colleagues' in the industry?

I do not know anything about Colin Renfrew's coin collection, I gather that he has admitted that when he was a young man and student he bought some antiquities (shabtis were mentioned) and coins.  He was born in 1937, so his youth and student days would have been in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a fact though that in this period (and even later), reputable textbooks give people interested in archaeology the notion that making a small collection of Roman and Greek coins would be a good way to expand their knowledge of history. I remember these books, and regret I cannot now find a single reference to one - I must have thrown them out (any reader who can help....). Of course these were the days before metal detecting, it was just after the era of the ploughboy and many of the coins on the market at that time were from accidental finds and not the commercial looting which developed only a bit later. Basically, there was very little conception in archaeological circles (or anywhere) back then that this could develop into a serious problem. Young Mr Renfrew cannot be penalised today for not being precocious enough in the 1950s to see what few other people were seeing with much clarity. In the same way many birdwatchers started their hobby in the same period by raiding bird's nests for eggs to blow and collect (I've been reading recently a truly fascinating book: Steven Moss A Bird in the Bush, a social history of Bird-watching  which I can recommend despite it being rather too anglo-centric).  What is important is that Refrew began thinking about the antiquities trade as he matured, as did many egg collectors and its supporters. Egg collecting is now illegal in the UK (and was rarely taken up anywhere else) but we are right to look askance at the activities and motives of the egg collectors and unreflexive collectors and dealers of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

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