Saturday, 23 May 2009

A Controversial Coin from California

Artifact hunters searching grass road verges at the junction of South Beverly Drive and West Pico Boulevard in Beverly Hills, CA 90212 made a lucky discovery a few weeks ago; a very large coin bigger than even a Morgan dollar, apparently Roman in very nice condition. The object is now being offered for sale by Ira & Larry Goldberg in their pre-Long Beach sale which starts tomorrow and is described in their online catalogue thusly:
Lot 1931 Valentinian I, AD 364-375. Silver Multiple of 24 Miliaresia (48 Siliquae) 104.3 g. 66 mm., minted at Antioch, AD 369. Diademed, cuirassed and draped bust right of Valentinian. Reverse: Legend in four lines within laurel wreath; below, "AN" (mintmark for Antioch). Unpublished, and apparently unique […] Some light porosity and displaying stray marks. Minimal wear results in the net grade of Extremely Fine. This, the largest silver coin known of the Roman Empire, is a silver multiple weighing one-third of a Roman pound of silver. Remarkably thick in comparison to contemporary silver coins, it was struck at a time when silver, as a metal, was scarce. […] This gargantuan gift was no doubt presented to a high-ranking Roman officer or dignitary. One theory that has been advanced is the possibility that Count Theodosius himself, peacemaker of Britain at the time, was the recipient of the medallion. A likely occasion for this honor was Valentinian's quinquennial celebration, held on 25 February AD 369. Estimated Value $300,000 - 400,000. Provenance: With supporting certificates of authenticity from David R. Sear and Frank L. Kovacs.
The finder Mr Ivor Tecta is reported as saying “me and my man Bazza was jus’ ‘tecting this piece of grass by the side of the road, like, we had all the proper permission and all that. But we was like finding nothing but ring pulls, spent PD bullet cases and a few wheaties and a Barber dime; and I was like saying that we should give up and go back to the trailer park when I jus' got this really loud signal, like, and I bent down and picked it up. You should’a seen the look on Bazza’s face !” Mr Tecta who lives in a Santa Monica mobile home park went on. “It’s kinda nice researching the history of this part of Beverly Hills, all the things the Old Timers left behind, it makes history come to life, like, an' gives you a funny feeling to hold in yer hand what somebody held in their hands all that time ago".

David Classic, local antiquities dealer was the first to see the find. He too was amazed by the size and condition of this coin: “I immediately recognized the importance of this coin when Ivor brought it to me. Its not surprising to find it here, after all Parthian coins are found in Spain, so why not Roman coins in California? Roman soldiers used to bury their savings by the sides of old roads on their way to battle, and sadly, not all made it back to retrieve them. This is what it must have been, there must have been a big battle near here two thousand years ago”.

The decision to sell the coin has roused the anger of local residents and educators in the Beverly Hills area. They argue that an object of this importance and appeal should not find its way to some private collection, but should be displayed in a local or national collection (such as that of the American Numismatic Society) so that it can be appreciated by all members of the public and contribute to their knowledge of the rich cultural heritage of the classical world and its contribution to the rich cultural mosaic of the land they live in.

Mr Phil E. Stein, a spokesman for the US Ministry of Culture says that he understands the critical voices of those citizens, but says however: “We believe this object should be sold to the highest bidder and if it ends up in the private collection of a foreign businessman or dictator, well that is just too bad. We cannot be seen to be putting the cultural needs of people of this country before those of other people”. Mr Stein added that although some have argued that this piece is clearly of exceptional artistic, archaeological, historical and numismatic importance and is of great importance to the local culture of Beverly Hills, the Ministry of Culture will not be withholding the issue of an export licence for it. “my government feels that such retentive policies are nationalistic in their origin, and the American people are not nationalistic”. In any case, he added, even if a licence was refused, the new owners could easily take it out of the country at any time they wanted without one; “we all know our borders are as leaky as a sieve” he candidly remarked. There was always somebody who would turn a blind eye outside the country who would be willing to trade with artefact smugglers and buy it. "In fact, if someone just concealed it about (or within) their person and took it through airport checkin, it would save us a lot of boring old red tape".

Juanez Juno (author of the best-selling book "You Can Own Their Past") the newly appointed government advisor on cultural policy agrees: "Displaying this object in a foreign universal museum alongside other similarly shaped objects from different cultures such as those quaint native sculptures and lip-plugs and the artistic products of cargo-cults will allow the place of the ancient cultures of our land to be seen in its pluralistic global context and be another way of expressing American cultural supremacy through the ages".

Sayne Wales of the Ancient Coin Dependency Group (ACDG) based in Tompa Florida however has expressed outrage at such ideas and the short-sighted cultural policies by the current administration. “This nation does not deserve a Ministry of Culture", he fumed. "If this item is exported from the US as a result of the short sighted cultural policies of this Administration, my organization will immediately be making a Freedom of Information request to find out what back door dealings lie behind such a decision”. Wales suggested that there was a huge government conspiracy to deprive the American people of their cultural heritage. “This is unconstitutional and we will defend the right of our members to have access to such material for study in this country. It is unacceptable that our members would have to go to collections and museums in other parts of the world to see objects that have been taken from our soil”.

There are other controversies connected with this sale. Washington lawyer Pietro de Hamlyn represents the American Committee for the Ethical Trade in Antiquities (ACETIA) and is an avid observer of cultural property issues. He is very sceptical of the account concerning the findspot.
Although the trade is keeping very quiet about the whole business, in reality it is highly unlikely to have been found in the State of California or the United States at all. I seriously doubt the story of the finding of this coin by Mr Ivor Tecta in California, indeed, I think it entirely possible that the man himself does not even exist. Rumours however are circulating that this was part of a hoard which also contained coins of Priscus Attalus (Emperor of the West in 409-10) found abroad. As such, it was almost certainly illegally exported from the source country (I cannot seriously imagine any other country – apart form the US –  which would issue an export licence for such a unique item found on their soil). As such its import into the US cannot have been ethical or in accord with international legislation. We have signed international treaties you know, and the UNESCO one obliges our law enforcement agencies to stop any process likely to lead to illegal transfer of ownership. Not that this makes much of a difference, action is all to rarely taken in this country against those that flaunt these laws. More disturbingly, all too often the foreigners smuggling items like this to our shores are mixed up in all sorts of other illegal business such as drugs and human trafficking, and our border personnel and homeland security officials should be doing more to investigate these connections and break the smuggling rings. That in a civilised country like ours they do not is unacceptable. Our Committee is committed to drawing attention to this problem and goading the administration into taking action".
de Hamlyn noted that if US border personnel were unable to stop the import of 100 grammes of illegally exported ancient silver coin into the country, what confidence can US citizens have that they are stopping 100 grammes or more of illegally exported Strontium 90 powder for dirty bombs or 100 grammes of military-grade anthrax spores?

North Carolina coin dealer and trade watchdog Olin Von Arksdahl is of a different opinion on the lack of firm information on provenance. "It's a fake isn't it?" he asks rhetorically. "That is why they cannot say where it really comes from ! Just look at it, coins of Valentinian I have broad flat areas like this one, but are generally chunkier. This coin is too flat, the lettering too spindly and all over the place, the style is wrong. Look at that portrait, it has the appearance of a laboriously studious copy. Generally the relief is too flat, has no 'body' to it. The wreath looks like something on nineteenth century European coins and not like the wreaths on Roman coins and medallions. In any case, whoever heard of a hand-struck silver coin with a diameter of 66 mm? To strike this would need a coin press like those used by Chinese and Lebanese forgers - and isn't it interesting that the mintmark is "Antioch" - is somebody trying to tell us something? Where did it REALLY come from?". Our interview was cut short by Mr von Arksdahl complaining of a severe headache. The no-questions asked US trade in portable antiquities seems full of them.

Photo: The 'Goldberg' medallion, work out for yourselves what in the above is true and what is allegory.

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