Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Californian coin dealing and the Bulgarian connection

In an earlier post here I discussed the accumulations of Roman provincial bronze coins from Thrace and lower Moesia which a Californian coin dealer is offering. I asked where they came from and how they got to California. In reply, the proprietor of the firm, coin dealer and pro-collecting activist Dave Welsh tells readers of his Unidroit-L list:

They were acquired from a long established, reputable dealer in Canada. Canada is a signatory to UNESCO 1970, and I had observed that Revenue Canada was very scrupulous in enforcing Canadian import regulations. I did not doubt that these coins were licitly imported.
So once again we have the employment of a variant of the “Customs officers had no objections” argument which I have earlier discussed here as a totally dubious justification which sometimes used by dealers who cannot be bothered to comply with the export regulations of the countries which are the source of the exported archaeological material. I am sure though that Mr Welsh meant to say that the (unnamed) Canadian dealer was able to show his customer (Classical Coins) a copy of the export papers which were required to get them through the rigours of Canadian customs.

I am however a bit puzzled by the fact that earlier Mr Welsh talking of these same coins wrote:

"I had, and still have, no idea of where or when the coins were discovered. They were acquired licitly in the USA and Canada. […] I make all reasonable efforts to avoid acquiring anything that may have been stolen or that I think has been smuggled into the USA. It would, however, be absolutely unreasonable to require me to prove beyond all doubt the actual origin of everything I buy". [my emphasis]
To judge from a juxtaposition of these two statements talking about the same process, one might conclude that these “all reasonable efforts” consists of little more than buying from a dealer whose suppliers for one reason or another have not been stopped by US and Canadian customs of sending archaeological material abroad. The admission that some of these coins were purchased in the USA however takes on a new irony in the light of the fact that Mr Welsh is very visible as an ardent campaigner aiming to get the lifting of existing US import restrictions on certain types of archaeological material, including coins. Mr Welsh apparently sees no ambiguity in relying on the existence of import restrictions to justify his claims of the legitimacy of his own business practices as an artefact dealer while at the same time being an active campaigner for their lifting.

Surely due diligence in cases like these does indeed require the buyer to “prove beyond all doubt the actual origin of everything” they buy when the commodity is notoriously known to be one which includes a substantial admixture of material of completely illicit origin. Such as precisely ancient coins of the types found in the Balkans and Bulgaria, in other words precisely the type of material under discussion here. It is not “unreasonable” at all for a responsible and ethic dealer to take every possible step to identify the origin of material like this, and if that is impossible, not to touch it. This is not a case for "innocent until proven guilty" but simple good practice.

There is nothing “gratuitously insulting” in pointing out the ambiguity of the situation concerning these job lots of provincial Roman coins offered to its customers by Classical Coins, held up by its proprietor as a paragon of virtue, but in fact no different from several hundred sellers engaged in the selling of bulk lots of objects some of which may reasonably be suspected by its purchasers in the light of evidence to the contrary as having come from the illegal metal detecting of archaeological sites in central southeastern Europe which we know is occurring on a massive scale. On his own Unidroit-L site, Mr Welsh comments “I believe I have every right to defend myself and the collectors I serve on archaeology lists.” Perhaps the collectors Mr Welsh “serves” and archaeologists will note that instead of a meaningful assurance that these coins can be documented as being of legitimate provenance, all that seems to be being offered is a weak argument that “Canadian customs had no objections to their import”, but that some of them were in any case bought in the USA.

I ask again, to what degree do the measures applied by the proprietors of US firms like Classical Coins prevent their stock containing items from illegal metal detecting in the Balkans and how is the client to know from the information presented in its sales offer? That is surely a perfectly valid question in the circumstances and one that should not be dismissed.

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