Tuesday 16 March 2010

Petrarch Did Not Buy His Coins in Uncleaned Lots

In the Coin Collectors' Manifesto presented in Newcastle, part time coin dealer Wayne Sales had this to say :

Nationalist archaeologists who criticize the unregulated sale of uncleaned “junk” coins, mainly through internet venues, naively think that they see and understand the international market and its history that extends hundreds of years beyond recent internet transactions. If they are not so naïve as they appear, one can only conclude that they are feigning ignorance.
That insulting remark appeared on page 8. Naïve Nationalists feigning ignorance? What is he talking about? The passage occurs in the context of the "this trade is legitimate because..." series of mantras that get trundled out. Sayles and Welsh are saying that the trade has been going on legitimately for centuries (Petrarch collected coins don't ya know?) and a few problems with uncleaned coins should not be allowed to prompt people to question whether the trade cannot carry on as always indefinitely.

Well, I think it should and for a very good reason. The antiquities trade today is not the same one as it was, and has become immeasurably more damaging to the archaeological record than it ever was.
Back in the old days when coin collecting was a genteel pastime, the coins which got into the coin shops were those picked up from the surface by ploughboys, or more invasively, workmen hand-digging building foundations, drainage ditchs and so on. The percentage of the total metal content of the site which could be recovered by "eyes-only" searching is limited, and therefore so is the damage done. The metal detector allows the artefact hunter to "see below the soil" and pull out a much higher percentage of the artefactual content of any site searched, thus damaging it to a far greater degree.

Sayles and Welsh contemptuously dismiss these bulk lots of coins as "junk coins". So where do they come from? How come large numbers of such coins are being sold off by sellers in (among other places) the United States? How did they get there, why and when?

Now I am betting that in reality, both Wayne Sales and Dave Welsh being part-time dealers in ancient coins and other dugups know jolly well the answer to those questions. But in fact finding the answers to those questions does not need much searching. In a series of recent papers on the US coin trade Nathan Elkins [links on his blog and also "Treasure hunting 1001 ..."] has gathered the information (and gives sources where readers can check out the nature of the evidence used). There is also the article "saga of an ancient coin" by Susan Headley founder of the Uncleaned Coins list - so presumably knowing something about where these thousands of coins with the earth still on them come from.

Basically what is happening is that metal detector using looters are ripping ancient metalwork out of the ground on archaeological sites in southern Europe as well as elsewhere. Trashing the sites. The material thus gathered is sorted in several stages for the better preserved pieces which ultimately end up in the 'posh' coin dealers' shops. What is left is sold off as "bulk lots" for collectors to try and "zap" to see if anything can be retrieved. Often though the result is severe damage to the original surface of the object. This process is facilitated by the metal detector and the Internet which opens up a vast new market for the "junk" material that would have been unsaleable in the Golden pre-Internet Yesteryear of Coin Collecting.

Sayles and Welsh disingenously pretend that the "junk" coins are not the symptoms of a serious problem, one in which every ancient coin dealer selling no-questions-asked in the United States coins obtained from certain middlemen and those whom they supply could be part, and about which is surely aware if they know their business.

But it should be stressed that the problem is not that the coins themselves are in the United States, "repatriation" is not the issue. The people buying them no-questions-asked are creating the demand that creates the market which makes the process of looting a financially viable proposition. It does not matter to anyone concerned about the archaeological record whether the looting is financed in dollars, yen, pounds or euros, or Bulgarian levs, or where the illicitly obtained coins end up - our primary concern is with the trashing of the archaeological record this trade causes.

So here is some criticism of the unregulated sale of uncleaned “junk” coins, mainly through internet venues. I have no illusions that I am seeing the same sort of trade that went on in the international market "hundreds of years beyond recent internet transactions". Quite clearly this trade is something different and much more damaging. It is that which should be a matter of concern of all who care about the preservation of the remains of the past. What concerns preservationists now are precisely those new types of transactions (and the ones behind the scenes that we do not see through the lack of transparency of the antiquities market) and what they mean for the archaeological record of all the regions affected by such looting. Does that make me a "Nationalist"? Hardly. Is it "naive" of me to see these bulk lots as the results of precisely the type of operations I have discussed? Perhaps - but then in that case, part-time dealers Sayles and Welsh can put us all right on where they "really" come from if not from large scale metal detecting of archaeological sites as a byproduct of the search for higher-end artefacts for sale. I think they actually know this and are themselves "feigning ignorance", hoping that by being merely insulting about the preservationists, calling them names and intimating they are ignorant, they will deflect attention from the real issues.

The real issue is that the current state of the market in dugup antiquities is unsustainable.

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