Saturday 16 November 2013

"Lost in the Mists of Time" - Careless Coin Collecting More Like

Collector and Numismatist Geoffrey Cope ( has [apparently with Alan Walker] published an article that has dealers rubbing their hands with glee and bringing a smile to the faces of weak-willed coineys ('After 107 years, The Hidden Mystery of the Hadrian Exercitus Britannicus is Revealed', Coin Week November 11, 2013). This concerns a coin sold in the Bank Leu Auction 25 (23 April 1980, lot 305). This was a tooled sestertius of Hadrian with the Exercitus Britannicus reverse with no documented collecting history indicating how it came onto the market and ended up in the seller's stock. The authors stress (three times) that it had the "look" of an "old collection coin" and not a fresh find. So Mr Cope bought it.

Now, 33 years after the purchase, a photograph of a coin just like this was spotted in an old catalogue by somebody working at the coin dealers Nomos (the sale of Roman coins of Prospero Sarti, by G. Sangiorgi in Rome on 7 May 1906, lot 428 illustrated on pl. VII.). Cope and Walker say this is the same coin before removal of the corrosion over quite a lot of the area to reveal (or create?) the present surface relief.* The outline of the flan however appears to differ and some details but this could be bad photography. The happy accident that this coin had been photographed in the past means, the authors suggest, that the coin that has been in Cope's collection already 33 years "now has a provable pedigree going back at least to the second half of the 19th century".

They seem to think it odd that nobody (else) had made the connection between individual coins figured in auction catalogues and those in modern collections because: "in the 1980s such catalogues were still being sent out free of charge to scholars and institutions all over the world" (as if it is the task of those scholars and institutions to service the coin market by making connections the market has obscured!). Not content with being happy that Mr Cope can say who owned that coin in the past, the authors go further:
it also shows how dubious it is to assume that a coin without a known provenance prior to 1970 is ipso facto a recent find.
They suggest that this one match shows that "coins, like this one, which do in fact have clear provenances are deprived of them through lack of information when they reappear generations later". They say that when coins were sold and not photographed in a catalogue there may be no way of identifying them later
"The implications this has for the current debate over provenance should be clear [...] how many other coins of lesser importance that are now on the market have equally long collection histories, but ones that have been lost in the mists of time?" 
It seems that we need to clarify four things here.

First, what is the subject of the debate is not so much provenance (though that matters too) but the collecting history, the record of licit transactions which establishes a particular item as of licit origins.

Secondly, let us make the title of this text more accurate. Instead of talking of his coin's "hidden" history, let us see it in terms of a lost and more accurately discarded history. Since 1906 (leaving aside where Sarti got it from) this coin from a prestigious collection passed through an unknown number of hands, and 74 years later not a scrap of paper was associated with it linking it to Professor Sarti, his collection  and that sale. Somewhere along the line a collector discarded or lost that information. All the coins in those catalogues ("from the 1880s onwards") which can no longer be linked with those sales have had that collecting history wilfully discarded and destroyed by those who were curating them in personal coin collections. Yet, despite this, so-called respectable dealers still acquire them and offer them on "as seen", and could-not-care-less collectors buy them without a second though for what it is they are encouraging by doing so (and not standing firm for items for their collection, documented as licitly obtained).

Thirdly, I do not know where these authors came across people saying that a "coin without a known provenance prior to 1970 is ipso facto a recent find". That is not what the problem is. The authors have  (deliberately or accidentally I could not say) oversimplified a broader issue. In today's thinking, licit antiquities are those which have the documentation which shows that. It's like diamonds, protected species and fair trade coffee, vehicle registration documents, US passports and so on.  An exception is made for items demonstrably on the market before 1970, on the understanding that there might be extenuating circumstances why (before the 1970 UNESCO Convention) that items may not have such documentation, but (whether dealers and collectors accept that or not) for items coming onto the market after that, there is no excuse for them not to have such documentation. That is the point of "1970". An antiquity without clearly associated and unambiguous documentation establishing its licitness cannot be shown in any circumstances as licit, unless it is known (such as being figures in a 1906 auction catalogue) to have been in some collection before 1970. If people have on their hands items that were, in fact, on the market in 1906, but at some stage in the past some jerk has discarded that information should have been be wary of buying things that have passed through the hands of jerks. Caveat emptor. Try and get your money back from the dealer that sold it to you. These orphan items are unfortunate (and we can discuss as a separate point what to do about/with them in a way that does not facilitate the passage of illicit goods onto the licit market) but they should not be allowed to cloud the discussion on licit antiquities.

Fourthly, one swallow doth not a summer make. Mr Cope has identified one hitherto undocumented coin in his collection as having been on the market in 1906. That does not by any means imply that every coin floating around the no-questions-asked market MUST also have been in late nineteenth century collections.

In fact the odds are against it. In 1906 there were fewer collectors, fewer dealers than we have in the post-Internet days. Large numbers of coins from many old collections of this time (if not simply lost) ended up in public collections, and were thus taken off the market. Furthermore, the use of metal detectors (rather rare in 1906) has increased the 'findability' of metallic collectables from 1970 onwards and it would simply be comical of any dealer to insist that this has not resulted in the flow of many tens of thousands of fresh coins (in varying states) onto the global numismatic market.

In the case of post 1970 finds entering the market legally, there is absolutely no excuse for them to reach the market without appropriate documentation of their licit origins. There is no excuse for dealers rejecting such documentation (for example in order not to devalue the coins in their stock that have none). There is no excuse for trying to sell the licit finds without that documentation, there is no excuse for people to buy them without insisting on having access to and copies of that documentation. There is no excuse whatsoever, is there? So what is the excuse for large numbers of finds sold day in day out without such documentation? If dealers want to claim that these are, in fact, old finds and not post-1970 finds which have no documentation because they were either bought from dodgy dealers selling illicit (smuggled and/or looted or otherwise stolen) finds or jerks who threw the documentation away, then obviously they have to prove that.

Dealer Danny when he was a young lad desperately wanted to see The Stones when they came to his city, he saved up for a ticket beginning weeks beforehand and managed to buy one from a street corner ticket tout in the few hours when they were available, he paid a fortune for it. Imagine his horror when the day came and he could not find it anywhere, he may have inadvertently thrown it out when he cleared his desk. Nevertheless he turned up to the venue and pushed his way through the crowd of ticketless youngsters outside. "I had a ticket", he insisted to the stony faced man who barred his way in. "Lots of us did. Can you imagine a Stones fan of my age would not have one? Look, here's my Stones Fanclub lapel badge to prove who I am. I'm a reputable Stones fan. All of us had a ticket, you know how many were sold! But some of us have lost them, my Mum made me clean my desk and I must have thrown it away, it's not my fault, she made me do it, let me in, you can trust me, I had a ticket". The crowd behind him pushed forward crushing him up against the closed gate and closer to the stony gaze of the man behind it. Those with tickets quickly entered by the one next to it and were greeted with a smile from the attendants there. In a plaintive voice and the hint of tears of frustration welling in his eyes, Danny tried again, "I am a ticket owner, honest, why don't you believe me? I paid a lot of money for that ticket". Then as the strains of the support band starting up could be heard, Danny shouted desperately: "I'm a ticket owner, honest, let me in you flatulent fascist!" What do you reckon, with his special pleading and whingeing did he get in without a ticket?  Did Danny learn anything from this experience which he later brought to his professional life selling ancient coins?  

Vignette: getting rid of that awkward documentation

 * I'm a bit puzzled by the current surface of that coin, and in particular the areas under the parts where those 'encrustations' were removed and that greenish 'bloom' on the left of the obverse - including that 'shadow' in front of the emperor's face. There seems to have been some odd jiggery-pokery going on there. Is that part of the "old collection look" so desired here?

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