Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Classical coin dealing and the Parthian connection

In a discussion here, I raised a number of questions about a newly-listed group of 17 Parthian coins of Orodes II on offer by a Californian coin dealer. Since no provenance is cited in the sales offer, I asked how the dealer and more importantly his clients can know these do not come from recent looting of archaeological sites in Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan? The same dealer has many other similar coins, again no hint of where they came from and how they got into his shop. This is a straightforward question, no “insult" there. How is the concerned client to know? The dealer has himself offered an answer.
These were received from a Spanish dealer who is among my trusted sources. Spain is not a path through which illicit coins are known to flow to the market, and there was considerable commerce in antiquity between Spain and areas where Parthian coins circulated.
It would seem from this reply to my question that in effect "due diligence" here is merely an assumption that Spaniards cannot possibly take part in any illicit trade of antiquities. So where did this mysterious unnamed Spanish portable antiquities dealer get this group of coins from? Mr Welsh offers the information that in antiquity there was “considerable commerce between Spain and areas where Parthian coins circulated”, and we understand that this is offered as an explanation how a Spanish dealer legitimately obtained these coins. I am unclear whether Mr Welsh is perhaps claiming that these 17 Parthian coins were found in Spain at the end of some cross-continental trade route from one end of the Roman Republic and Empire to another (otherwise why mention it?). If so, maybe he could explain how the story of how these coins reached California tallies with Spain’s very complex and relatively strictly enforced (vide the "Black Swan saga unfolding) antiquity protection legislation. I wonder whether he would like to show his clients any export licence he was issued together with the export of these coins if they came from Spanish soil (I understand that among collectors Spain has a notoriously complex export licencing procedure for archaeological finds).

An interesting sidelight on all this is provided by Farhad Assar (expatriate Iranian chemical engineer living in Oxford and amateur numismatist specializing in Parthian coinage). He writes on Welsh’s Unidroit-L forum (and cross-posted on Britarch) reassuring Mr Welsh:
Having browsed through your website, I found no Parthian tetradrachms of Orodes II that might have been originated in Iraq. So, if Barford is talking about those silver drachms of Orodes II (Nos. S0240/3442 - S0263/3448) some of which have a reddish patina, his remarks prove that he is numismatically illiterate. Please refer him to the publications by McDowell and Le Rider on coins from Seleucia on the Tigris to see for himself the improbability of your drachms having been found in Iraq. Parthian drachms hardly ever circulated in Mesopotamia.
Well, of course I made no mention whatsoever of “Parthian tetradrachms of Orodes II” and Dr Assar seems to confuse place of minting and findspot. Being “numismatically illiterate” (sic) I am at a loss why Dr Assar can state that (whatever the denomination) Parthian coins "hardly ever circulated" in Mesopotamia. In fact I cannot see on what basis such comments can be made when so few of the relevant coins on the market come from known findspots. A quick search reveals that several hoards with coins of Orodes II have been found in recent years but no mention is made of information on where they were found. For example this one discussed by Californian collector Thomas K. Mallon-McCorgray:
"a new hoard of Orodes II coins I looked through in early May, 2002. Although there were several hundred coins, I was able to document only 121 of them, as follows....” (no details of where these coins were found, seen, who they were shown by and what happened to them afterwards).
Another, the so-called:

"90-50 BC hoard" 2004 - reports began surfacing in August-September 2004 of this hoard which reportedly contained well over 4000 drachms issued from
Mithradates II (Sellwood 28) to Orodes II (Sellwood 43) in different grades
and a good number of unrecorded varieties.
This phrase "surfacing" of course refers to these items appearing on sale. (The same website does not list any hoards containing Parthian coins from Spain). Looking through various online sources certainly suggests that many if not most Parthian coins on the market have lost any provenance details (Dave Welsh estimated somewhere that this is the case for 98% of ancient coins generally), so I find it it odd that Dr Assar can assert with any confidence based on two old excavation reports (1935 and 1965) what can be and is being found in Mesopotamia. Provenence details are of course also information of value to numismatists, even though most collectors pay no attention to them.

Dave Welsh replies to Dr Assar on both Unidroit and Britarch lists:
Dear Farhad, Your observations are of course absolutely correct, however in my experience it is useless to point out such relevant numismatic facts to Mr. Barford. He appears only to be interested in incessantly chanting his mantra, i.e. provenance ueber alles.
These “relevant numismatic facts” however tend to be used by coin collectors rather unevenly. Just a few days before Dr Assar’s message on Britarch, John Hooker was expounding once again on the Cyprus coin import restrictions and stressing how even if a Ptolemaic coin was minted in Cyprus it can be found in different parts of the Ptolemaic realms and beyond. Likewise therefore whatever denominations were minted at Seleucia on the Tigris in the reign of Orodes II, that is no guarantee that Parthian coins of other denominations could not have been deposited in the region of modern Iraq within the Parthian hegemony at the time, and in any case surely the probability of that happening is greater than Mr Welsh’s proffered explanation that they could have been found in Spain as a result of cross-continental trade!

Despite the ironic tone with which Mr Welsh attempts to link the position I represent with the ideology of Hitlerite fascism (and who is being “insulting” now? - Cf here and here), provenance IS indeed important.

Mr Welsh comments “I believe I have every right to defend myself and the collectors I serve on archaeology lists.” This would be very interesting, perhaps the collectors Mr Welsh “serves” by various means and archaeologists will note the way due diligence appears from Mr Welsh's own words to have been applied in the case of this purchase of antiquities taken from the region where Parthian coins circulated. All that is offered is a weak argument that “Spain is not a path through which illicit coins are known to flow to the market”. I ask again, to what degree do the measures applied by its proprietor prevent the stock of firms like the Californian coin shop Classical Coins containing items from looting of archaeological sites the region where Parthian coins circulated and how is the client to know from the information presented in its sales offer? That is a perfectly valid question in the circumstances.

Mr Welsh does not have to annoy members of outside forums to present his case. He is perfectly at liberty to post a comment here as long as he keeps to the topic, avoids abusive language and facile insults referring to the ideology of Hitlerite fascism. I remind him that he himself asserted “It is not necessary to insult one's opponent to argue one's case”.

Mr Welsh neglected to supply me with the references to the two works to which Dr Assar alluded. I assume they are:
Le Rider, Georges. 1965, 'Suse Sous les Seleucides et les Parthes. (Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner)
McDowell.R. H. 1935 Coins from Seleucia on the Tigris, Univ. of Michigan Press (Humanistic Series, vol. 37). Ann Arbor.

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