Saturday, 23 July 2011

Collector Buys Exported Hoard but Gives it Back

David Gill has a short piece on a hoard of 22 Archaic Greek silver coins (three didrachms, a drachm, a hemidrachm, two obols and fifteen hemiobols) which apparently surfaced on the international numismatic market in 2000 having been divided up for sale. It has now been donated to the Numismatic Museum in Athens by North American coin collector Jonathan Kagan who had bought them. Gill gives a reference to an online text in Greek, for those who struggle with the squiggles, there is another online text giving some of the details in English: N. Kontrarou-Rassia, 'A Coin Hoard from Abdera returned to Greece', ArchaeologyMatters 22 July 2011. Before donating the entire (?) hoard to a public collection Kagan had previously studied and published them (Jonathan H. Kagan, "Small Coinage and the Beginning of Coinage at Abdera", Agoranomia: Studies in Money and Exchange presented to John H. Kroll, New York 2006, 49-59). His interest was in the smaller silver fractions of the drachma, which he argued were
not destined to pay taxes or to buy grain from other regions. They were the means to cover everyday needs (food, household objects). "The larger exchanges, as the payment of taxes and long-distance commerce, where largely covered by the silver series, meaning the octadrachms and the tetradrachms", claims the director of the Numismatic Museum. The existence of this treasure shows that moneyed societies existed in very early times. It also tells us what the coinage of Abdera at the end of the 6th century was.
Of course very little of this could have been adduced had the coins been separated and divorced from their context of discovery together by going to individual collectors and being further scattered on the market. While we must rejoice that the hoard has been kept together and is available in a public collection, the circumstances by which they arrived on the London market (who was the seller?) are alarming, and shows why there needs to be closer control of the market for dugup antiquities such as ancient coins from Greece.

Mr Kagan was one of three OKS partners sued by Turkey for the return of the part of the Elmali hoard - or better known as the Dekadrachm Hoard smuggled out of Turkey in 1984 that they had bought in Munich.

How many hoards and other fresh finds have been clandestinely exported and scattered on foreign markets in the past decade with no publication like Mr Kagan's resulting and with the finds being separated and lost to public view? It is all very well attempting to justify heap-of-coins-on-a-table collecting by pointing to examples of scholarship done by collectors, but given the volume of freshly surfaced material passing through the markets such works are by far the exception rather than the rule (in the case of ancient coins: 30,849 on eBay today, 110 057 items on V-Coins today - Mr Kagan published these 22 coins five years ago) . Far more information is being lost through the way this market currently operates than is being generated.


kyri said...

even in this post you cant find it in you to congratulate and praise this very honourable collector for what he has done.not all collectors are devils,most of them are decent people with a conscience.kudos to mr.kegan.

Paul Barford said...

No, Kyri, even a moderately honourable collector (a) does not buy what seem from all accounts to be illegally exported finds fresh from the ground, no matter what he is intending to do with them ten years later, and (b) reports the offer to the responsible authorities while there is still a chance that the people who took them out of the country can be identified and caught which could lead them to the person who dug them up and failed to report the find as Greek law (as I am sure you know) requires. Now over eleven years later it would seem his buying them and sitting on them has once again let the culture-criminals get away with it.

I am sorry I do not believe that people that actually buy things where there is (and closing their eyes to) a strong presumption that the money ends up in the pockets of criminals and at least unethical middlemen is a "decent person with a conscience". Are they?

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