Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Sword of Satire Hanging over the Collectors of Dug Up Coins in the USA

A few days ago I was discussing what some doom and gloom dugup coin collectors were saying about the US signing a bilateral cultural property agreement with Greece (Sword of Damocles). It is sometimes difficult to take what these people say with any seriousness, so readers will just have to make their own minds up how to understand this text from Moneta-L by Reid Goldsborough (though I do not always agree with what he says, self-evidently one of the more articulate and clear-thinking of the coineys, head and shoulders above most of the rest), apparently in reply to the post by ACCG's John Hooker discussed earlier.
I agree completely and consequently feel compelled to comment on this in detail. Most dedicated ancient coin collectors in the U.S. will indeed be moving to other countries as a result of these recent MOUs, in particularly the latest Greek one. In fact, I bought plane tickets for myself and my family yesterday. We'll figure out the other details when we land.

I also agree that politicians in the next U.S. election, knowing about the widespread public outrage over the MOUs, will jump on this critical issue in their speeches, berating the Obama (and previous Bush) administration for interfering in the ancient coin trade. Whoever is on the right side of this is bound to win!

Bottom line is that no jackbooted government thugs should come between us and our coins. Source country bureaucrats are even worse, corrupt and incompetent. Archeologists are worse still, monopolists of the past. None of these groups is better at preserving and learning from the past than ancient coin and antiquities dealers and collectors. These MOUs are shocking, a total surprise. Who could have foreseen that one source country government after another would successfully enlist the help of the U.S. governments to prevent their laws from continuing to be broken by the ancient coin and antiquities trade? The U.S. government doesn't need these governments. We should go it alone. Unilateralism is the right of the most powerful country in the world, and what's more important to Americans than private property?

If the elimination of the trade in new finds becomes the norm, what is to stop the government from barging into our homes and seizing the coins already in our collections? This is bound to follow, without question. It's a logical certainty. They'll go after the little guys first since we don't have powerful law firms behind us like the big museums. The secret goal is for all ancient goods to return to the countries from which they originated, and if we don't put a stop to this now, it will happen, trust me.

[...] All of this is truly catastrophic. Nothing could be worse than the elimination of the movement of new finds of ancient goods into collections. With such a calamity, ancient coin collecting would become like modern coin collecting, a closed system involving the buy and sale of only extant material. Unthinkable. Previously, a boycott of travel to source countries with MOUs was called for. Now it's said that collectors will be moving to other countries. Surely we can come up with more rhetoric that will continue to successfully make our case.
So he managed to get quite a lot of the usual coiney themes into those five paragraphs. Goldsborough also offers a comment on how this should affect the future collecting actions and responsibilities of the collector of dugup ancient artefacts from foreign lands (punctuation slightly amended for clarity):
We should continue to do whatever it takes to keep moving new finds into collections.
- Continue denying that smuggling takes place. After all,where's the proof?
- Talk about smuggling and looting as if they're the same thing -- so what if coins aren't typically looted from archeological sites, primarily artifacts.
- Continue distancing ourselves from those shady characters who supply the ancient coin and antiquities supply channel at the source.
- Preserve no contextual information about new finds because it can link these finds to source countries and lead to their seizure.
- Continue downplaying the importance of hoard and findspot evidence as scholarly tools.
- Talk about how the elimination of other liberties is bound to follow, that if these MOUs are retained the U.S. is plainly headed toward a society akin to the old Soviet Union, with no individual liberties.
- Continue calling our adversaries whatever creative names we can think of -- communists, imperialists, criminals, incompetents, etc.

There's absolutely no need to work with them to modernize the cultural patrimony laws of source countries, to build trust with them to move toward this end. Trust, schmust, who needs it? Besides, the revision of such laws can't be done. Laws such as this have never been changed and never will be. In the meantime, in working toward this fanciful goal, profits will be lost. The ancient coin and antiquities trade must be as it always has been. We are preservers of the past, after all, and the ancient coin trade must be preserved as it is as well.
Well, some food for thought there. My bet is however that the average dugup coin-fondler is not going to be among those doing it.


Anonymous said...

OMG, Paul. This is just so ridicolous. Thanks for posting. This just makes me sick.

Paul Barford said...

What, what Reid G. wrote, or what ACCG's Hooker wrote that he's poking fun at?

Chris Exx said...

Hi Paul and Audience,

I an ancient collector and member of ACCG. Not a dealer, though an occasional seller of unneeded coins on ebay or through auctions.

I have a hard time getting my head around the rhetoric on both sides of this issue. Can't we have disagreement and differing interests without very irrational and unacademic character assassination? I really question the qualifications of anyone who thinks this silliness makes any sense.

It seems that collectors and archeologists are in a similar position of basing their lives' work around a shrinking resource. Which is the story in so many other areas these days. Why can't we have an honest discussion about some way of satisfying both our needs?

You, Paul, must realize that there are reams of collector driven academic numismatic publications, multiple journals, and references such as the SNG series. Why pretend that this isn't the case? The ACCG was not created to address these needs. Where are the archeological publications that address these numismatic issues? Why are the coins that are recovered by archeologists not made more available for public appreciation?

And I think collectors have to affirm that an archeological find gives us one bite of the apple to collect ALL the information that both archeologists and collectors are interested in, so excavation should be done as carefully and professionally as possible. I think people who make finds should receive consideration but at the same time artifacts and their contextual information are the common property of humanity and should definitely be preserved and available to all disciplines they interest.

It seems that Great Britain made a good start in coordinating finds. You seem to question the methodology applied to digs. Are there flying squads of archeologists available to quickly do a professional excavation? Could collectors help finance such teams and extend the British model to more countries? You must agree that valuables once discovered are unlikely to be left in place unless they are secured until excavation, which means excavation should come pretty quickly.

Is this whole debate just the bloviating of fervid egos? I hope not. Archeological evidence and ancient collectibles will only be securely preserved through the coordination of all interested parties.

Chris Rose

Paul Barford said...

Thank you Chris for that long comment. Are you the same Chris that Hooker was "answering" (I use the term loosely) on Moneta-L? Obviously its going to be difficult to answer everything satisfactorily in the space the comments form allows.

1) '"Archeological evidence and ancient collectibles will only be securely preserved through the coordination of all interested parties.

True enough. Do you see any signs that the ACCG has any (real) intention of moving in this direction, to work with the archaeologists they vilify at every step? From being a close observer of their doings over the past seven years, I see clear indications of quite the opposite. So if you think like that, WHY are you an ACCG member? Why do you support these braying jackasses?

2) You question the "qualifications" of "anyone" who questions whether what the ACCG and their fellows say has any rational basis. So be it. I question the rationality of anyone who accepts it and repeats it. I see there are a lot of people who accept what they have to say without thinking about it - that after all is the purpose of an advocacy group is it not? So I question what the ACCG, among other group, says. Any problem with that?

"Why can't we have an honest discussion about some way of satisfying both our needs? You tell me. There is very little that is actually "honest" about what your ACCG officers present in their communications, blogs, press releases. They are in a constant state of denial, or opposition, all in aid of maintaining the commerce-serving no-questions-asked status quo. Posing and strutting. How would you suggest the rest of us deal with that? Basically I think all one CAN do is to show that what is being presented is irrational, posing, strutting and downright dishonest, and attempts are made to fob the rest of us off with this crap by people of somewhat questionable principles.

Now whether or not you like it or not that I discuss what I observe does not concern me, whether or not people believe me and not the ACCG does not concern me. I say what I think, and try to show why I think why I do and on what I base my conclusions. Is that a problem? Take it or leave it.

3) Of course I know there are coiney publications (I think you are commenting here on another of my recent posts, not this one), but there is a difference between publishing materials (and interpretation) and presenting the methodology and theory behind it. If what all the ACCG members are doing with their coins is "numismatics", where actually is the methodology and theory of this independent discipline set out in its current form? More to the point, why (when a leitmotif of the ACCG rhetoric is the number of coins from old collections in the market) do you need container loads of coins ripped with metal detectors from Bulgarian sites and from the scattering of unrecorded Dacian hoards to do it?

4) "It seems that collectors and archeologists are in a similar position of basing their lives' work around a shrinking resource."
Eh? How do you work that out? The archaeological resource is shrinking, among other things, by vast amounts of stuff being ripped out of sites (trashing them) in order that FRESH stuff can come onto the market. FRESH stuff means more stuff, your private commercial "resource" is expanding at the expense of the common archaeological resource. Coin collectors only imagine they are "preserving" anything.

This is what the AGCCG hides too, talking about all those "old collections" ("since the days of Petrarch"). This is just another example of the sort of crap we have to get through BEFORE we can start any kind of sensible discussion. When collectors and DEALERS stop being in constant denial, then we can talk.

5) But of course that will never happen. Will it? So what do we do? Ignore the problem? Or try to act on social opinion?

Paul Barford said...

6) "so excavation should be done as carefully and professionally as possible" So that's like killing all the rhinos now so we don't have problems with their conservation in the future, isn't it? It should be abundantly clear to anyone who has spent a moment or two here, that as far as I am concerned, what is of importance is preserving the archaeological record for future planned use and not digging it up just to get the "OBJECTS" out. We don't want people taking potshots at the rhinos. We want the rhinos. Why is this so difficult for collectors to understand?

7) "It seems that Great Britain made a good start in coordinating finds"> No, it's a pathetic cop-out' getting us nowhere. Neither in Scotland or England and Wales has the problem been adequately dealt with (and information from Northern Ireland is next to impossible to gather). Expanding the English system will not preserve sites.

So from that point of view, I certainly would not advocate extending it anywhere.

Though of course the ACCG does, but for reasons which have nothing to do with archaeological site preservation, but commercial interests.

Anyway, why are you asking these questions of me? Go along to the next ACCG annual general meeting and ask them, and don't be fobbed off with their bloviation. Press them for some real answers as to how they see the hobby in ten, twenty years' time - because it cannot go on much longer as it has been.

FlaviusSextus said...

And of course there is a large body of numismatic literature authored by archaeologists, classicists, and art historians. One simply has to visit a research library, not rely solely on the Celator or the odd google search. There is a wealth of information out there that many collectors or dealers are unware of.

Paul Barford said...

Indeed Mr Sextus, there is. One might remark that one of the noisier ACCG crowd cannot stop himself quoting the studies of archaeologists Haselgrove, Cunliffe and Rodwell (and the earlier efforts of Evans) on his pet subject of Celtic coins - but is completely at a loss to show anything comparable to them produced by a coiney.

It is all very well Mr Exx saying that the ACCG does not collate information of this type. I would ask, why it does not. The argument that "numismatists" (ie their no-questions-asked coin-fondling members) produce knowledge-changing studies of their collections. Why do they not invite their 5000 members to send full bibliographic details of their published works on the subject over the past decade (or ACCG's seven years) and publish it on their website, and then an annual update. In this way everybody can see and assess the rate knowledge about the past is increasing as a result of the numismatic trade? Why not? Mr Exx, how many articles about your collection in peer-reviewed journals in the last decade?

I think the problem here is the way these people compartmentalise the study of the past, rather than seeing it as the result of collaboration between various disciplines and specialisations. Imagine if malacologists and palaeodendrologists took the same attitude. The only difference is there is no commercial market for Bronze Age land snail shells and oak charcoal.

As I say, if these people want us to believe that they are an independent discipline which has something to contribute on its own, let them produce the methodological and theoretical basis on which this claim is based.

Chris Exx said...

Thank you for your answer Paul. I now understand that your position involves leaving the artifacts in the ground. In a way it is as anti-archeology as it is anti-collecting.

When I talked about questioning qualifications what I solely meant was that I question the qualifications of anybody who has to pepper their arguments with insults. Calling people "coiney" or "geeks" or whatever distracts from the real content of your argument and is surely not a mark of intellect or someone who feels that they actually have the stronger valid argument.

I think you do raise valid concerns, but ones that you are unlikely to address without some agreement with collectors who will continue to do what they want in the absence of any sort of dialog. I made an attempt to open dialog and by your myopic almost automatic response I can see the dialog will not be with you.

Flavius, of course collectors use academic resources from all fields. We also probably wrote most of the books you refer to.

Rage on, Gentlemen!! I will be enjoying my collection.

Chris Rose

Paul Barford said...

Hmm, it is no more "anti archaeology" to protect sites from being looted, bulldozed, mined, washed away, than preserving rhino communities in the wild is anti-ecology. I am talking conservation here.

"Calling people "coiney" or "geeks" or whatever distracts from the real content of your argument" well I feel using such abbreviations helps to cut down the verbiage. "Coiney" is a (disappointing) state of mind and its a term I use to describe a certain group of people that deal with coins. Yes, what coineys do would indeed be considered Geekish by the outside observer.

I think if we are to cut through the "rhetoric" you mentioned, in writing about the issues for a wider audience, we have to break them down to the fundamental issues.

Your "side" is no less prone to throw out the labels, I was called a "con-man" on Moneta-L last night, I am labelled a "radical archaeologist", we are all labelled "anti-collecting". Simplification of the arguments.

"collectors who will continue to do what they want in the absence of any sort of dialog"
what kind of "dialogue" are they expecting? A dialogue of the deaf?

Basically they will continue to do what they do while society acquiesces to it, coineys claim some collectors "rights". They are not God-given but what society allows. So if we make the arguments for no-questions-asked antiquity collecting look like those for unrestrained rhino-shooting, then you might find bellowing about your "rights" as effective in the public arena as the rhino-horn merchants.

There is a way collectors and dealers could accept the current modes of doing business are not sustainable and decide to collaborate and we could clean up the antiquities market together, or we can carry on trying to go down two separate paths. I see you are not willing to listen to the reasons for going down the one suggested by preservationists and are turning your back on it the moment it gets rocky. Why not? There's some shiny coins at the end of it - you carry on "enjoying your collection".

Paul Barford said...

Chris Exx wrote: "I made an attempt to open dialog and by your myopic almost automatic response I can see the dialog will not be with you".

Well, I think if you wanted to start a dialogue with me, it might have helped if you’d actually read what I have already said about the topics you raise and not assuming that all your ideas are new and novel ones which I cannot possibly have considered, so you're not going to bother to look. Now THAT is "myopic".

What you basically do is throw out a lot of facile “wh-“ questions, which is why I gave you my answers to most of them above. If you don't like the answers, tough.

Here is the gist of what you said:

- “Can't we talk about these issues any other way?”

- ”Why can't we have an honest discussion about some way of satisfying both our needs?”

- “Why pretend it is not the case that there are reams of collector driven academic numismatic publications, multiple journals, and references such as the SNG series”?

- (“Where are the archeological publications that address these numismatic issues? Why are the coins that are recovered by archeologists not made more available for public appreciation?”)

- “Are there flying squads of archeologists available to quickly do a professional excavation?”

- “Could collectors help finance such teams and extend the British model to more countries?”

- “Is this whole debate just the bloviating of fervid egos?”

No attempt then to "start a dialogue" about the no-questions-asked antiquities market which is the central concern. Just focussing on the differences between archaeologist and collector, but not the source of the problem.


Paul Barford said...


As for the questions...
Certainly, if you look at the development of the debate on collecting since the rise of metal detecting in the 1970s, it is clear that for the most part the naysaying, dishonesty and twisted arguments have consistently been coming from the side of the collectors. Britain had its Stop Taking Our Past campaign, which is widely criticised (but what actually is wrong with that basic idea?) But since the early 1990s, so coming up to two decades, the approach of archaeology over here has been conciliatory, and whether or not I personally think that is the right or wrong approach , it is a fact. Archaeology has held its hand out to the collector, and gets called names by ACCG collectors for its troubles.

Most of what ACCG collectors say “archaeologists say” is their own pars pro toto constructions and fantasies. There is total disregard for the notion of finding out what archaeologists really do do, think and say - or even what archaeology is about.

My blogging (as, it should be noted, is the post above to which you wrote a comment) is a reaction to the twisted arguments we see being trotted out by the advocates of no-questions-asked trading at every opportunity. Ask THEM why we cannot have “an honest discussion about some way of satisfying both our needs”

I do not “pretend” there are no coiney publications. Like most archaeologists I think the past is a far richer topic than can be seen through the “window” of round pieces of metal with pictures and words on them. I question the validity of the ACCG argument and whether this research can only be done through no-questions-asked buying of freshly “surfaced’ material, when there are all those coins from “old collections” unpublished.
There are archaeological publications that address numismatic issues.
What “public appreciation” of “coins that are recovered by archaeologists” would you like to see?

No there are not archaeological “flying squads” . Archaeology today is ideally done as part of long term programmes of sustainable management of the archaeological heritage. It’s an American idea from the 1960s and is about conservation.

As for collectors financing “such teams”, there is quite a lot of discussion of that already on this blog, as this is not a new idea among collectors. If you imagine you could do this to get the finds which interest you, the my question is what about the rest? Do you have any idea how much a professional excavation costs, together with post-excavation costs and archiving of the material? Do you have any idea of the type of material it produces? Why do you think an institution would want to archive the results if the “best bits” have been taken away by collectors from the whole? I really do not see the logic of what you are proposing (and as say, the reasons why are documented earlier in this blog)

“Could collectors […] extend the British model to more countries?” Probably not, but why does the ACCG not actually TRY? The “British system” results from the structure of laws put in place in the 1880s, without them, the “system” would be different. So to introduce it, first you’d have to get the host country to set its laws back to what the UK had in the 1880s. Again, this is something discussed at some length in this blog.

As I said, perhaps if you really wanted to "open a dialogue" it would have been helpful to create conditions to do so by seeing if the answers to your questions were not already given in the blog to which you append them. That way we could go forward, and not me having to repeat for your (unappreciative) benefit what I have already said here (that's why it appears "automatic", you will see these are ALL issues I have covered in posts here - and elsewhere).


Paul Barford said...


You have not taken the trouble to investigate the background to what you want to say, presuming that what you want to say is something novel, so basically are simply confirming the picture I have of coineys as people who cannot see out of - let alone (Reid G. being an exception) think outside - the box, and incapable of exploring the wider context of what they do, think and say. I'm trying hard to find out what collectors do, think and say by reading their blogs and forums (where they are not blocked to outside view), how much of a corresponding effort are they making? I assess collectors from my own attempts at direct observation, collectors on the whole tend to assess their critics by reputation alone. That kind of superficiality annoys me, and collectordom is riddled with it.

If you can't be bothered to acquaint yourself with what the other has to say and why, then there can be no dialogue, can there?

Jakob said...

One thing I really have a hard time understandig is the weird claim that private collecting promotes scientific studies and so benefits society as a whole, not just the collectors.

I trained as a historian some years ago and didn't for a minute think that it would benefit anyone if I started a collection of archival material. Such things belong in public archives where they can be studied by anyone. And found by someone looking for it! Same with coins (or for that matter archeological artefacts in general).

At least here in Denmark it's no problem for people (even without any formal training) to visit The Royal Coin Collection and study the coins they want. Many studies has been published here by "amatuers" working that way and has been a great supplement to the studies made by the professionals at the Coin Collection.

If the majority of the Danish material had been spread in 100 private collections (just to take a random number) most of this studies would have never been possible.

I guess some of it has to do with different ways of looking at the relationship between state and society. Here we look at the archeological record as something that belongs to all of us (the society) and the state take care of it on behalf of us all. Other places in the world the state is seen as someone who steals from society and as such should steal as little as possible. They might also see the archeological record as something that belongs to everybody but not as much as something that belongs to the society, rather it belongs to whoever get their hands on it. And you better not take it from them!

Chris Exx said...


I appreciate the more measured response. I came to this blog after reading a lot of angry name calling on Moneta-L. I joined ACCG but much of the rhetoric I have heard from collectors did not seem constructive. My post there also recommended dialog as well as distinguishing what collectors do from looting.

You are right. I am woefully undereducated on this issue, but I have started to learn more. I have only read sections of your blog and, as a collector, it is hard not to be distracted by the vitriol. I will check out some of your links. If you can point me to one of your posts that might serve as a FAQ or an overview of your arguments I would appreciate it.

I do feel that you do not have a very clear picture of collecting, the roles of different collecting organizations (ACCG vs ANA/ANS) and our methodological concerns. For what is worth, your characterizations do not speak to my experience.

I realize that I am out of my depth here, surrounded by people who know more than I about these issues. I do appreciate your answers but I will cede the argument to the experts.


Chris Rose

Chris Exx said...


I believe I botched a previous comment so I will try again.

I appreciate the more measured tone of your last responses. I admit that I am just learning about these issues. Also, as a relative newbie I am certainly not in a position to speak for collectors as whole.

That being said: I think it is silly for collectors to be dismissive of your concerns. I also think it is very parochial to ignore the needs of collectors. Your cartoonish characterizations of collectors do not resonate with my experiences and certainly will make it hard for collectors to hear your concerns.

I have been following your links and reading back posts and there is much there of significance. I will continue learning.

I hope that some workable system of site preservation, artifact provenance and export licensing can be established in the interest of all involved.

For the time being I will leave further argument to the experts.



Chris Exx said...


The Copenhagen collection is terrific. It is documented in the SNG (Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum) which is a major reference.

Collectors applaud making collections available to the public (although the movement to ban new ancient coin finds certainly puts a damper on this tendency). Collections often end up being donated to museums. Isn't the Royal Family collection the source of the Copenhagen collection? Please let me know if you can find a major public collection that was NOT built from private collections.

I believe that unique or very scarce cultural objects SHOULD be accessible in public collections. But coins were created by the billions in the era before paper and electronic money. 99.99% of the varieties of collector coins are already well represented in public collections, though difficulties and cost of display often make them hard to access.

Collector possession of coins does not have to limit public availability. There is no possibility for more than a fraction of existent coins to be publicly available because of space and cost limitations.

The idea that states should intrusively control every aspect of anything is not acceptable to anybody. If you listen to music, why should society waste electricity on this frivolity? Why should we allow archeology at all, which to most people is an arcane waste of time? etc.

Why? Because we have built our civilization and all its advances around the curiosity of individuals. Certainly some regulation is in order, but disallowing whole areas of any interest is a totalitarian solution to a problem that can be addressed in other ways.

Collectors have money. We are benefactors of museums and universities. What if we acted to suppress YOUR university departments in the same way that you wish to stamp out our hobby? How would you assess that?

Everybody thinks they are right. Things that benefit us always appear to be obviously the best option. Social psychologists call it self-serving bias. It is inescapable. Either we are willing to co-exist with people with other interests or we waste our time and resources in pointless warfare.

Can't we get beyond this ALL GOOD vs ALL BAD thinking? I address this question to both collectors and people concerned with site preservation, because a lot of collector discourse on this topic makes no sense to me either.


Paul Barford said...

Thanks to Chris Rose for his comments. Among other things he said:
"Can't we get beyond this ALL GOOD vs ALL BAD thinking?"

So how about getting beyond this superficial thinking about preservationists wanting to BAN collecting instead of what we really want which is for the antiquities market to clean itself up so it is not supporting looting. Its the dealers (who for commercial reasons do not want the market cleaned up) who perpetuate the alarmist myth that this will "end collecting".

This thread was about a clever satire by Reid Goldsborough which showed that some coin collectors are capable of thinking outside the box which was encouraging. This aspect has become a little lost in the subsequent commentary (though nice to see Chris too is trying to think "yes we can" rather than the usual coiney/ACCG "no we can't").

Unless there are any remarks specifically about what Reid said, I'd like to close this lengthy thread which is getting off the original topic, if people want to discuss these points further, please do so under other more suitable posts. Thanks.

Paul Barford said...

To the person who said they were not sure how to contact me outside the comments system, the same system does not allow me to mail you.

If you want, send me an email in another comment, which I will likewise not publish and I'll send you my email address.

Thanks though for the information and kind words.

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