Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Trends in ancient coin collecting in the US

A surprise (?) announcement has been made that the hitherto free online resource CoinArchives (a consolidated archive of summaries of old auction sales with superb photography) will now require a $600 per annum subscription to access the full archive. Ancient coin collectors are, understandably, upset and this has generated much discussion on coin forums like Moneta-L. In this a number of contributions are worth commenting on. For example, Reid Goldsborough makes some interesting remarks about the future of ancient coin collecting:

$600 a year is indeed a huge fee for this kind of service, not to mention a huge change, not a transition, from what CoinArchives previously was. It totally changes the service. Along with greatly reducing the number of people who will go to the site, it will greatly reduce its utility to the coin collecting community in general. It also is another step in the trend toward elitism in the ancient coin business. Just as the International Association of Professional Numismatists no longer shares its knowledge of forgeries with collectors, CoinArchives will no longer be letting typical collectors use its information in any practical way, to check for rarity of coin types/varieties, attribution differences, die comparisons, and all the rest. It's a further concentration of knowledge in the hands of dealers, away from collectors.
Blake Davis adds:

This appears to be another indication of how expensive ancient coin collecting is becoming […]. I really miss 2000 to 2006 – that was truly the golden age of ancient coin collecting. Heck, I thought it would last forever, and still don't quite understand how and why it ended. It does appear that the more casual collector's days are numbered. I never believed that what was outlined in the article in the Celator some months back - involvement by uber large auction companies, slabbing, and insane prices even by today's standards, and a switchover from the thoughtful collector and dealer who looked at ancient coin
collecting from an historical and ae[st]hetic perspective to one of purely for investment purposes, where coins are almost fungible objects, would ever come to pass. The wild card here is what the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is addressing - what happens to all this when the gov't comes around and puts the burden on
dealers and collectors to prove that the coins came from "legitimate" sources - and I mean not just tracing it back to the last owner, but beyond that. […]
Good grief. This collector regards it as a “burden” for dealers to prove the coins he buys come from legitimate source when we all know there is so much on the market that is of extremely illegitimate origin? The halcyon days which Mr Davis identifies correspond to the time when the Balkan archaeological artefact mines were still productive, now the most accessible productive sites have been emptied of archaeological evidence (aka “collectables”/portable antiquities) the market is experiencing problems. This is the real context of the ACCG fight.

To come back to CoinArchives, Jasper Burns observes:

I have used the site for research purposes and will greatly miss the resource. […] One of the strongest arguments against denying the public ownership of ancient coins has been the significant scholarly contribution of amateur collectors to numismatics. The CoinArchives database was a very important tool for the amateur. Its effective loss will reduce the opportunities for research by collectors and therefore undermine the argument in favor of private ownership. […] I think that coin dealers benefit greatly from a knowledgeable collector base that is actively involved in research. Perhaps this should justify the subsidizing of sites like CoinArchives by coin dealers […].
I see scope for another ACCG fund here…. :>) Well, Mr Burns might like to consider that nobody is actually trying to deny the public (sic, I think he means private) ownership of ancient coins. What is being criticized (and rightly so) is the no-questions-asked acquisition of ancient artifacts by collectors from could-not-care-less-out-for-a-quick-buck dealers which allows the looting and smuggling of artifacts to continue.

Frankly, I have never seen the “scholarship” argument as having much foundation or validity, there are an estimated 50 000 collectors of ancient coins in the US alone, and the number of scholarly works produced by private collectors in a decade is a pitiful fraction of that number.

It is risible to see that the limitation of accessibility to a single online source will reduce the opportunities for scholarly "research" by these people and will thus "undermine the argument in favor of private ownership" (he got it right that time). What will undermine the argument in favor of private ownership of archaeological artefacts is, instead of collectors taking a pride in the ethics of collecting responsibly, the persistence of attitudes which regard it as a "burden" to document the practice of due dilligence in their acquisition. After all, that is what those who in future who will be treating the acquisition of ancient coins (a finite resource) as an investment will be requiring of the present generation of collectors.

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