Thursday, 14 July 2011

Take Your Cultural Property Campaign Home: Centres and Peripheries

In a comment to one of my posts, coin collector and dealers' lawyer Peter Tompa taunts:
Why don't you take your campaign against imports of unprovenanced artifacts to your home in Poland if this is so important to you?
One reason is that I simply do not see the scale of looting of archaeological sites here in Poland that we see in other countries. I have had good contacts with the metal detectorists here for coming up to two decades and in my view, the hobby here is quite a different one from that in the UK. Most people with metal detectors in this country are searching sites of the Second World War. That's what turns them on, any metal detecting magazine here (we have three main ones) will show this. Some of my colleagues write very alarmist articles about Polish metal detecting, but - frankly - "they ain't seen nothing yet". They have no idea (because they get most of their information from reading the mollifying pap put out by the PAS) just how what the "black sheep" are doing here to archaeological sites compares with what thousands of run-of-the-mill irresponsible detectorists get up to in the UK.

In Poland, the trade in illegally excavated antiquities is on a minute scale compared to that in the west, and quite often attempts to sell dodgy stuff come to the attention of the police, computers are seized, and sometimes people are locked up. There is a law, and it is comparatively well enforced, though there is not a complete clampdown. There is currently a loophole in Polish law with regard foreign-dug artefacts which is like that in US law, and Mr Tompa is right, one day this problem will have to be dealt with. But we've just had a revamp of the Cultural Property Legislation, a long drawn-out process and modifications will have to wait. But is the problem a severe one?

The Polish antiquities market is an interesting phenomenon, and one I have been studying ... how could it be otherwise? Without going into detail, suffice to say that there are interesting similarities and differences between this and those of "the west". Tompa obviously thinks I should spend my time campaigning against it and leave the Americans and British collectors alone. So, is the Polish antiquities market as serious a problem as those two?

Well, let us have a look at Mr Tompa's favorite collectable antiquity, ancient coins. Poland has a branch of eBay (a pretty dreadful place if you ask me). At the moment Polish dealers here have 63 ancient coins on sale there. Thirteen are Greek (Black Sea area mostly), nine Byzantine coins, 21 Roman, including some which might be local finds (?). What is interesting is that the majority of these 63 coins are being offered by one seller based in Gdansk (German Danzig) and from the range and condition, these look very much like they do indeed come from an old collection.

Alongside eBay is another major auction sitewhich has collectables, Allegro. If you look at the numismatic section you will find that all together there are 170 "Antyczne" (Classical world/Ancient) coins on sale today. Of these 14 are "Greek", 121 "Roman", 28 are "micellaneous (today mostly - and atypically - Indian and Chinese etc "cash"). A closer look shows several of these ancient coins to be fakes (some of them of types well known in the West), many collectors here are a bit green behind the ears and it seems many have much more money than sense or knowledge. There is a fair mix of dugups here, including the usual ubiquitous Balkan-looking stuff. There are some top-end coins offered by a Poznan dealer which I suspect may have "Munich" connections, there is a range of interesting fakes offered by a seller that never seems to run out of them - or people to buy them, and a new fake seller based in Spain trying to break into the Polish market and who mixes genuine cheap Balkan dugups with some pretty egregious pieces of pseudo-ancient numismojunk. There is a smattering of "Biblical coins" which appeal to the religious.

There are one or two smaller auction venues, but they have very few ancient coins on them today.

So, some 230 ancient coins are being sold in Poland today - some of them less ancient than others.
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Let's do the same thing for the USA. Ebay, there are today 15 870 ancient coins on sale in this category sold by US sellers alone. According to the eBay search engine, they fall into the following categories:

Over on V-Coins, 155 Ancient [coin] Dealers are today offering 110,202 Items ($23,355,441 Value).

So, in just those two US venues today there are 126 070 ancient coins on sale.

* * * * * *

Let's just put that in a bit more perspective, looking at, selecting for only sellers based in the UK, we get the following results for "ancient coins" - total 3,603:

the Roman and celtic coins contain a fair number that seem most likely to be local (British) dugups, though it looks as if "Balkan" coins are probably also showing up in some quantities. How many of these coins are instead actually from old coin collections is difficult to say. This would be a great topic for a graduate thesis.

* * * * * *

In answer then to Peter tompa's comments, I think there is quite a substantial difference between Poland's 230 and the US' 126000 coins on sale at this very moment, and this is by no means commensurate with the US being a bigger country (The United States has a population less than nine times the size of Poland, but an ancient coin market 550 times bigger).

So which is the market more worth paying attention to and discussing, Mr Tompa? Which market is doing the archaeological record more damage?

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