Friday 28 November 2014

The Scale of the Problem: "How Many" Undocumented Coins in US and German Collections?

Over on the Chasing Aphrodite blog, the collectors and dealers are still savaging Michael Danti for the way his opinions were represented by journalist Justine Drennan who quoted him as saying that apart from dodgy oil, a second major source of income for ISIL was antiquities smuggling. In the course of the discussion, Peter Tompa sharpens his poison pen and accuses behind the scenes "conspirators" of threatening the interests of dealers in and collectors of Middle Eastern antiquities through proposed new regulations in both Germany and the US. He says:
It’s absolutely critical that government decision makers in both Germany and the United States be making decisions that impact thousands of small businesses and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of individuals honestly interested in preserving the past through collecting based on accurate information.
In the interests of getting that accurate information in front of the public opinion in the two countries (and  holding him to the same standards as he and his dealer mates wish to impose on others), I politely enquired of Mr Tompa clarification of the basis for those numbers. Interestingly, he declined to answer himself, so Wayne Sayles stepped in and then Dr Geoffrey Smith Trustee of the San Diego Museum of Man. The latter seems to regard a question like that a 'flame war' (see his own comments discussed here) and Sayles gave a long rambling reply to my question addressed to Tompa. Sayles boasts that he has sold "60000 copies" of his popular compilation on ancient coin collecting, and assuming its only collectors who buy it, that would be a minimum number of collectors. He adds that he is "personally aware of several ancient coin dealers in the U.S. who have in excess of 15,000 names in their active customer list" though obviously the degree of duplication between those lists he has not ascertained. He goes on:
Almost ten years ago, in an article in The Celator, I estimated that the number of active ancient coin collectors in the United States exceeded 50,000. That number, I believe, was conservative because there are many collectors who trade only at numismatic conventions and local venues—where statistical analysis is virtually impossible. Based on my own experience with new collectors and book sales, as well as more than 50 years as a professional numismatist, I can say with absolute certainty that the private collecting of ancient coins is growing at a rapid pace and with absolute confidence that my earlier estimate was short of the mark. 
So that is far short of the putative "millions" claimed by Tompa, it's not even a tenth of one million. As for the "thousands of small businesses", the best Sayles can do is point readers to "the 133 VCoins dealers in ancient coins". The number of US (and probably, German) businesses, small and large, is likely to be measured - thankfully - in the hundreds and not "thousands".

The failure to justify Tompa's hyperbole (notable in the context of the personal attacks on Danti which we are seeing at the moment from the collectors and dealers' lobby) however should not obscure the frightening scale of the phenomenon in just two countries. Fifty thousand (and growing) collectors even with thirty ancient coins in their trays and coin albums each is one and a half million coins in one country alone. Think - since not all metal objects signalled by a metal detector is a coin, let alone a collectable coin - how many holes in the archaeological record that represents. Yet some collectors have much larger accumulations stashed away. Despite what collectors claim about the literary achievements of the average collector based on the 'study' of the material they accumulate, we have very few published catalogues of  average private collections in the US with which to gain even a sketchy idea what the range is. Some collections however when they come on the market are revealed to have many thousand coins in them (Stephen Album is still selling coins from the private collection one of Wayne Sayles' own collaborators). So how many millions of coins are now stashed away in private homes all over the USA? Maybe Mr Sayles would like to answer that question.

Nathan Elkins ("A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins: A Case Study on the North American Trade," Frankfurter elektronische Rundshau zur Altertumskunde 7 (2008): 1-13 - page 2) has, among other things, to say in an important article freely accessible online that has not yet received any proper response from numismatists ('professional' or otherwise):
In 1993, it was estimated that 80% of all ancient coins openly sold on the market had been dug up within the past 30 years (McFadden 1993; see also discussion in Beckmann 1998: 25). Now, I suspect the percentage is even higher given that the supply of ancient coins on the market surged during the 1990s, particularly from Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In addition, the increasing use of the Internet for commercial activities has allowed dealers and collectors to network as never before and made auctions and dealer inventories easily accessible to a global audience, thus fueling a growth in demand that has outstripped the supply of previously documented and provenanced antiquities, including coins, prompting the search for fresh sources
We see here the aspect of the "absolute certainty" that a fifty years' observation of the industry that "the private collecting of ancient coins is growing at a rapid pace", outstripping the supply of material formerly in the collections of a former generation when there were fewer people participating. These are facts which demolish the "old collection, just lost their labels" model relied on by dealers pushing freshly-surfaced" ("from underground"?) material bought in from suppliers onto the growing market. Another text which should be read by those concerned about preservation issues connected with the no-questions-aqsked trade in dug-up ancient artefacts is Nathan Elkins' chapter "The Trade in Fresh Supplies of Ancient Coins: Scale, Organization, and Politics," [in] P.K. Lazrus and A.W. Barker (eds.), All the King's Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on Our Knowledge of the Past (Washington, 2012), 91-107. Again, this text has been ignored by numismatists ('professional' or otherwise) who probably imagine that by ignoring concerns, they will go away.

Given the totally carefree (not to say careless) manner in which US collectors have become used to treating the documentation of their fresh acquisitions, the vast majority of those millions of coins currently in US collections will have lost all trace of their collecting history and provenance. They are loose and decontextualised geegaws now stripped of any possibility of use for understanding the assemblages, sites and ancient landscapes they came from by the application of archaeological methodology. Instead we have just the picture-comparison 'it-looks-like' fantasising of the amateur enthusiast - imagining he is rewriting history (see here faux numis). This represents an enormous destruction of potential archaeological information. This is especially the case if we extend it over the very many years Sayles stresses that these coins have been ripped out of the ground, year after year, and circulated and mixed anonymously and shunted from continent to continent among no-questions-asking collectors and dealers.

Yet, those are the estimates for one country alone.  On a global scale, and let us remember that coins are only one class of artefact eagerly sought by greedy collectors, the ongoing scale of this destruction must be enormous.

Yet the collectors really do not care. The dealers really do not care. They are going to carry on arguing around and around in circles about what one man might have said to a journalist and stressing that we "don't need to change anything about the coin trade". Yes, we jolly well do.

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