Sunday 21 February 2010

So much for the "old collections"

The reader might have observed that I am somewhat sceptical of the argument of the pro-collecting lobby that "unprovenenced does not necessarily mean looted" which reasons that "people have been collecting antiquities since the Renaissance" and postulates that antiquities from these old collections are the basis of the current market. This "Petrarch collected coins" assertion crops up as a frequent mantra in collecting circles, and it is a common accusation that preservationists like myself ignore it. This is mainly comes from the coineys, collectors of decontextualised ancient dugups.

Sadly, it is not my side of the argument which is ignoring the implications of the data. Although the assertion is most often used to defend the collecting of unprovenanced ancient coins, it is precisely in this area that there seems to be evidence from two recently published sources that the view that material recirculated from old collections forms the basis of the current market is untenable.

In a series of papers on the US market in ancient coins, Nathan Elkins discusses the evidence for the size of the market in freshly-excavated coins exported from the source countries like Bulgaria without export licences. One case for which he is able to give concrete details (most recently Elkins 2009, 483-4) is a series of shipments through Frankfurt airport, where officials established that one Bulgarian coin exporter between the end of the 1980s and March 1999 exported to the United States a metric tonne of coins through that one airport alone. This weight Elkins calculates is 350 000 coins. This is one airport and shipments of one dealer over about a decade. This was all going from just one country to the US market. We know there are other dealers exporting from Bulgaria as well as coins coming to the US through other airports from other source countries. But let us stick with that attested figure of 350 000 for the moment.

This figure may be compared with the data for the overall holding of unprovenanced Greek and Roman coins owned by private collectors in the US given in the report "Project on Unprovenanced Ancient Objects in Private US Hands" published recently by the US Cultural Policy Research Institute. Here we read that in November 2009, the number of "unprovenanced Greek and Roman coins in private hands", was estimated by specialists to "likely number not less than 700,000 (200,000-300,000 Greek, 500,000-600,000 Roman)". Not less? But how much "not less"? Because if we accept that the total is 700 000 it means fifty percent of them were contributed by the 350 000 coins we know were exported by one Bulgarian dealer through one airport in one decade. There are however 30-50 people currently engaged in this trade in Bulgarian coins alone (Centre for the Study of Democracy... 2007, 186) thus the total number of illegally exported coins imported into the US over the past few decades which (if we assume that the coins comoing into the US are not simply evaporating when they get there) suggests that the majority of the "unprovenanced Greek and Roman coins in private hands" in the US are coming from recent imports of freshly-procured material from places like Bulgaria. This is the case even if we take the upper figure of 900 000 coins of the CPRI report. However one wants to manipulate these figures, the bottom line is that there seems not much room in the published CPRI figures for the material from old collections that the coin dealers' lobby claims is so prevalent in the market.

By the way, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild claims that in the USA are 50 000 collectors of ancient coins, if so, the overall figure of 700 000 means that on average, these "collections" contain no more than 14 coins each. Hardly enough to do any top-grade scholarship with, one would have thought.

Something tells me that once it realises the problems wiuth the figure they gave, the CPRI is going to re-examine its published figures and revise them upwards. But since they have already published an estimate in their report, they will be obliged to explain the manner of calculation and to explain the discrepancy. Also of course there may be problems increasing the numbers, for once we get into the millions the "number of unprovenanced coins held in private hands in one country alone" starts to sound like a symptom of something really bad going on with the world's finite and fragile archaeological resource. Some collectors we know have hundreds of coins in their collection. We await with interest further developments in the numbers game.
[my related post on the SAFE blog].

Elkins N. 2009: Treasure hunting 101 in America's classrooms. Journal of Field Archaeology 34(4), 482-489.

Centre for the Study of Democracy, 2007. Organized Crime in Bulgaria: markets and trends, Sofia.

Vignette: Petrarch (1304-1374) had impeccable dress sense and collected coins.


Nathan Elkins said...

Hi Paul,

Actually the one "wholesaler" and market supplier that was shipping via the Frankfurt airport in the 1999 case moved a literal metric ton of coins in a matter of weeks before the March 1999 interception!

All best,

Paul Barford said...

Thanks Nathan, I think we will very soon see some backtracking on that "700 000" estimate. Perhaps, since this clearly has a knock-on effect on how we would see "collectors rights" if true, the ACCG would like to comment on the CPRI's conclusions?

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