Sunday, 3 August 2008

A Renewable resource or irresponsible self-delusion?

Over on the US-based numismatic forum Moneta-L, the discussion, precipitated by the new eBay regulations in some European countries, is still going on about how utterly harmless and even socially beneficial (sic) collecting of unprovenanced portable antiquities is today. In a depressing show of group solidarity and intellectual inertia, the same tired old defensive mantras are being trundled out and mouthed. It would be useful to make a typology of them, but this will have to wait for now.

There has however been in the past few days some playing with numbers which is highly revealing. (The reader is also refered to Nathan Elkins' several recent texts on the numismatic trade in his blog and elsewhere.)
Wayne Sayles, US coin dealer suggests that in the US there are perhaps 50,000 collectors of ancient coins. He also accepts that on average these collectors each probably buys ten coins per year. This means that over a ten year period the US market alone consumes five million pieces of the past taken from the archaeological record of the "source countries". His conclusion is surprising:

"Does that not prove the point that they are common?"

Sayles delves deeper into one other aspect, I am going to quote him in extenso to avoid accusations of “twisting his words”:

“Now lets take that average, which I think will stand up even in the early years of collecting (fewer collectors but lots more of them had unlimited wealth and bought everything in sight) and apply it to the years since ancient coin collecting began in earnest - about AD 1500. I think that is 508 years x 500,000 coins are roughly 254 million coins. That does not, to me, seem like an unreasonable estimate of the number of ancient coins floating around the world in collections, dealer stock, museums, grandpa's trunk in the attic, etc. It may even be a little conservative.”
Who spotted the serious non-sequitur there? “Floating around the world?” In his obvious desire to explain away the concerns of the whole conservation lobby, Sayles loses sight of one important fact. The number of collectors quoted as each buying ten coins was for the United States ALONE. Sayles gets to the point lower down:

”We constantly hear from Mr. Barford that the bulk of the coins in collections are "illicit". That, to an archaeologist, means they entered the market since 1970. Can anyone with a straight face say that 200 million ancient coins have entered the market since 1970? If so, there is a huge market that I have never heard about.”
Well, let’s stop him there a moment. The first comment needed here is that Sayles aparently has temporarily forgotten what we mean by the term “illicit”. Its not the date when they were dug up that matters, but how they appeared on the market. Thousands of ancient coins appear in Great Britain on the market today (38 years after the 1970 Convention) totally licitly and ethically after having been reported through the Treasure process(es). Many of them are multiple finds from hoards. Some of them go to US dealers. Some are even in the ACCG “benefit auction” (among the only very small percent which have any kind of provenance given). The second point is a non-sequitur, the figure “200 million” (=254 million above) was a ballpark figure calculated on the basis of them having BEEN on the market since “1500”. It seems to me that Sayles is losing the track of his own argument. He goes on, picking up mathematical steam:

“If Mr. Barford is right and five million coins are purchased over a ten year period, then a decade of market activity represents the sale of about 2% of the ancient coins extant. So, I guess that means that over the 38 years since 1970 some 19 million coins have been sold. OK, let's accept that. I guess that means that a bit less than 7.5% of all coins extant changed hands during that period. Even if NONE of the coins entering the market before 1970 were traded during this period (which we know is not the case), the highest conceivable number of new market entries is a very very small fraction of the whole. So thank you Mr. Barford for explaining what I have said for ages — the market is overwhelmingly legitimate.”
Well, I have “explained” nothing, Mr Sayles, you made all that up yourself. Let’s have a look at this claim.

The first question is (even if we talk just about the USA), how valid is it to extrapolate the current state of the market into the past? I do not have the figures to hand of the number of ancient coin collectors active in North America in the first decades of the sixteenth century, no doubt Mr Sayles would be better placed than me to answer that, but my bet is that until well after 1607 he’d be hard-put to find 50 000 of them each getting shipments of fresh ancient coins from the Old World. Indeed, if the number of ancient coin collectors in the US is proportionate to overall population numbers in 1940 there would have been less than half the current number, and in 1900 we are perhaps looking at a quarter of the current numbers (<13000 maybe), declining further in America’s past. The effects this will have on Sayles overall figures are quite dramatic. Instead of “254 million”, the actual value would be more likely somewhere around 40 million ancient coins consumed by the entire USA market since 1800, many of them presumably continually circulating between collections, so the actual number taken to the USA in this period would have been smaller.

Undeniably, from 1500 onward in many countries, especially those affected by the Renaissance and European Enlightenment, each generation would have held a number of collectors of ancient coins. The number of coins circulating among them must collectively have been relatively large, most of them removed from the surfaces of ploughed fields by ploughboys and shepherds etc. So actually how many ancient coin collectors have there been active in Europe and the New World in the period since 1500 until the present day? One can only guess. Likewise one can only guess how many coins the average bourgeois collector (as opposed to the magnates) would have had. We have some information about the latter, little about the former.

Sayles totally fails to recognize that the state of the market in 1608 AD or even 1908 is completely different to that today. The number of collectors (and dealers) has risen exponentially globally in the last century together with the ease of advertising and selling (for example through mail order and then, and probably particularly, the Internet). The metal detector has revolutionized the supply of coins to dealers. Whereas in the nineteenth century dealers might get visits of farmworkers bringing coins in tens and hundreds (evidenced for example by the diary of William Wire, clockmaker, antiquary, coin collector and one-time antiquity dealer in Colchester, England) after the widespread use of metal detectors, artefact hunters have them to dispose of by the carrier-bag full. Now instead of collectors buying choice coins singly a whole new generation has taken to buying them by the kilo and for entertainment “zapping” them (destroying them by dissolving the original surfaces within the corrosion layers in electrolytic cells).

Mr Sayles may attempt to use “statistics” of his own making to prove that the coins on the market today are “not illicit”, but since his figures are quite plainly wrong, until he can show the documentation that these coins were taken from the ground legally and exported from their place of origin in accordance with the relevant legislation and international conventions, we need not believe him. Indeed, such clutching at straws suggests that this is the best at least part of the dealers’ lobby can do. And it's clearly not good enough.

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