Monday 1 June 2009

Lots of fresh ancient coins on sale today via the internet

Given the unseemly fuss I mentioned here which was being kicked up last week by some US dealers about just two lots of “English dugups” being discussed by Frankfurt University numismatist Nathan Elkins, I thought I would take a look to see how typical of the material being offered for sale this morning they actually are.

On Monday morning at 7.00 am CET on eBay there were 6875 items being offered in the “Ancient coins” section of eBay(US) of which 721 finish in the next 24 hours. Some of these coins are fakes, many are single offers of selected cleaned coins. Others however are similar to those being sold by the three dealers discussed in these pages and by Nathan Elkins earlier. These are multiple lots of coins of less select condition, many are roughly cleaned or still have layers of earth on them. Most of these seem likely to be the remains of bulk shipments to the seller from which more presentable coins have been selected for individual sale. Most of them are described as “lots”, which is the search term I used. The eBay search engine told me that this morning there were 446 bulk lots of coins on sale in eBay's "ancient coins" category. That is quite disturbing if we take into account that some of them are “1000” coins, “500 coins”, “hundreds of coins” or a “kilogramme of ancient coins”. Matters are not so simple however; looking through these 446 lots (and I did) shows that not all are multiple dugups, a number are single coins, two coins or three similar coins (usually semi-clean of cleaned, so potentially from the splitting up of old ordered collections). I decided to ignore groups of three or less coins. Most of the ones I saw though were considerably more.

The breakdown of these coins was interesting, there were a large number of lots of Roman coins. There were was 232 Imperial, 33 “provincial” and 34 “Republican” (though in the case of bulk lots the division between the three was somewhat fuzzy, judging from the photos, the sellers of these items do not really have any idea of what the word "Republican” means in Roman numismatics - which in itself is telling). In total, on eBay this morning there were thus 299 lots of Roman coins – mostly uncleaned and many cases the seller exclaiming they were “direct from the excavator” and not infrequently specifying a region of the Balkans as the source.

There were 18 lots of Byzantine coins listed and another 18 in eBay stores. The coins from “Biblical Times” (so from the area of modern Palestine) were scattered throughout several categories (primarily “Other" and "Greek") when collected together there were 22, mostly so-called “widow’s mites” (how could they not be?). What is interesting is the eBay seller definition of the word “Medieval”. Being a medievalist, I was particularly interested in this category, but although eBay reckons it is selling 19 lots, there were really only seven (including a group from Poland but these were post-Medieval in fact). We are constantly told that collecting coins is a "gateway to history" (or some such claptrap). Well, here is aperiod of coin-rich history about a thousand years long which does not seem to be eliciting much interest and are invisible to the homegrown numismoscholars of eBay-land.

More interesting still was the section labeled “Greek”. This encapsulates very nicely the extent of the problems with the ancient coin trade. Misrepresentations abounded here. The first lot I clicked on were egregious [Bulgarian] fakes of Istrian (Istros, Thrace) coins. The second were copper alloy Seated goddess/seated king coins of Kashmir (like these ) of which there were several lots by the same seller mislabeled “Greek”. As mentioned above there were some Judean in this category too. In the end I discovered there were seven lots of Greek coins, though this includes two lots of Athenian tetradrachms being sold from Dubai and looking for all the world as part of a hoard (similar lots have been sold from here in the past both on eBay and V-coins). There is a section of ancient coins called “Persian, Indian and Asian” which has three real “lots” but 80 in eBay stores, mostly from India (which as we know restricts export of such material). Again Dubai is a source of some of the bigger lots in this and the next category, Islamic, today 20 lots. China the subject of the ACCG coin import stunt is represented by 12 lots (six listed, six stores) including three which would be covered by the US MOU if no paperwork is provided. I am sure though it was/will be.

What is significant is that most of the larger lots are clearly being offered by US sellers. This is more evidence that large quantities of the erdfrisch coins now entering the market are going to the American market. We should remember that many bulk lots of “dugups” are sold outside ebay from bulk sellers to smaller dealers or advertised on lists like “uncleaned coins”.

ACCG President Bill Puetz’s V-coins hosts 138 dealers in ancient coins. Today the homepage says it has 92,238 items on sale (so that is 13 times the total volume on offer on eBay today) and the joint worth of them is over 18 million dollars (aver. 196 dollars a coin). Using the search engine to find “lots” indicates that V-coin sellers have 1455 “lots” of coins… but searching through them quickly reveals that the name covers a multitude of sins. Some of them are not coins, and many are not even artifacts. In the first page of 200 items brought up by the search 65 were not bulk lots of coins, so although I found it a depressing experience to look through the whole site, let us assume this is representative and which would mean that the number of bulk lots being offered here is somewhere about 940. That is still more than eBay.

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