Wednesday 14 April 2010

Where have all the coins GONE?

A while ago (here and here) I drew attention to the implications of the estimated figures for the number of ancient coins in private collections derived from the investigations of the Cultural Property Research Institute. In their report 'Unprovenanced Ancient Objects in Private US Hands' (Cultural Policy Research Institute Research Study #1 Project November 10, 2009) the institute authoritatively affirms the "estimate of specialists" that the number of unprovenanced Greek and Roman coins in private hands, "likely number not less than 700,000 (200,000-300,000 Greek, 500,000-600,000 Roman)". I discuss these here in several posts which provoked some (rather abusive at times) discussion in collecting circles. Here I'd like to return to the wider implications of the data given in this report with reference to the proposed renewal of the Italy MOU and the likely consideration of the inclusion of coins. It has many times been sugested that to introduce coins to the list of items for which US customs can demand to see a valid export licence would lead to the demise of the collecting of ancient coins themselves. While obviously there is a great deal of hyperbole involved in such arguments, perhaps we should examine the role of imported coins in the US market. I did so in the paper above, which angered some coin collectors who pointed out that "Petrarch collected coins" and the market is full of coins legitimately imported before metal detectors and internet portals made emptying of archaeological assemblages of coins became an industry. So, how full?

The size of the market today is equally difficult to ascertain. The CPRI puts the figure for total number of coins owned in private US collections at just 700 000. There was a recent contribution to the discussion made by Wayne Sayles who estimates that in the US there are 50 000 collectors of ancient coins.

The number of coins held in old collections in the US is a very difficult figure to ascertain. Wayne Sayles has tried in the past - and got the numbers completely round his neck in the process. He estimated that in several centuries of collecting before the rise of the modern market, some 250 million coins were accumulated. There is a logical flaw in his argument however and the number of these old collections quite clearly is significantly less than Sayles was claiming in the text mentioned above. I have suggested in this blog that the figures he gives should be corrected downwards concluding tentatively that, "the actual value would be more likely somewhere around 40 million ancient coins consumed by the entire USA market since 1800". Forty million coins is still a lot, but nowhere near the 250 million Sayles claimed was left behind in the USA by previous generations of collectors.

But then, if there are today just 700 000 of these coins left in US private collections, where are the other 39 300 000? Thirty nine million coins that arrived in the US after 1800 have simply vanished from private collections? Some will have gone to museums, the AN$ collections have 600 000 coins, other museums (Metropolitan for example) have deaccessed them in recent years and they came back on the market. Others may have been re-exported back to the continent by US dealers, but surely not in such numbers leaving the home market bled dry? These figures show a 98% wastage. All those coins imported into the US, and "carefully curated" in private collections and then simply vanished.

For the sake of accuracy it should be mentioned that in the article by Sayles quoted above, the author attempted to estimate the number of ancient coins bought in the US a year. This gives a slightly different value from the CPRI (who make no mention of rival estimates and why they were rejected). Sayles suggests that 500 000 ancient coins are being bought in the US each year. If we estimate that an 'average collection' (in truth figures on collecting patterns do not exist yet - maybe they should) is accumulated over thirty years before being redispersed, that would mean that the pool of coins being recirculated between ephemeral collections would be about 15 million. That is more than twenty times the estimate supplied by specialists to the CPRI. Even if we accept the higher figures rather than those of the Research Institute, it means there are 25 million coins missing (62%).
But there is another piece of information which suggests the coin loss could be much worse. In the posts cited above which caused so much angst a while ago, I pointed out that just one documented shipment mentioned in the literature (and who can deny that it was just ons of many?) was enough to supply a large part of the 700 000 coins of the CPRI estimate. So we have claims of figures that would suggest that extremely high numbers of coins from old collections have gone missing, and information that an extremely high number of fresh coins is documented as coming into the country and going into current collections. Now these two pieces of information using the same figures (the CPRI and ACCG estimates) produce somewhat conflicting pictures, but it should be noted that neither is to the credit of the US market for dugup ancient coins.
Whether one accepts the estimated figure of 98% or "just" 62% of the coins formerly in old collections now gone missing, these figures show that the number of coins in previous estimates of the contents of old collections still on the market is far higher than the number of coins currently needed on the same market. So why does the market still "need" fresh imports? Why could American coin collectors not look after the forty million coins they have already consumed in past collections?

Vignette: Interviewed in his Arezzo home, Petrarch sneered disdainfully at the mention that a group of collectors from the wild lands in Ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules were now claiming to be his spiritual heirs. When asked if he had a message for them, he replied: "ey, you utter Philistines, what have you done with my coins?"

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