Friday 10 April 2020

Good Friday Retrospect: Historic document - "The Saga of an Uncleaned Coin"

This text appeared in the Internet and was available on a number of websites way back in 2005. This was about the time that Bulgarian artefacts started coming onto the market in bulk. For some reason, certain parties decided (it appears) that this account was a bit too candid and a concerted effort seems to have been made to remove it totally from the Internet. I think though that this is a very important part of the history of the trade in antiquities and should not be allowed to simply disappear, I think quite a lot of work went into its writing, and since her bio says "Headley has never been a full-time coin dealer herself, but she has worked for about a dozen different dealers in various capacities and knows the ins and outs of the business", I think we can assume that the account given here corresponds to the true state of affairs as things stood at the time of writing. It is reproduced here in the interests of facilitating criticism of the modus operandi of the international antiquities market.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Saga of an Uncleaned Coin (by Susan Headley)

A while back I made reference to the extremely informative text "the Saga of an Uncleaned Coin" which had been going the rounds of the internet a while back. I gave a link to a page where it was still available. I now see that link is broken, and a Google search suggests that this text is no longer available, not even in Google cache, which is a great pity. Fortunately I downloaded a copy, and have decided to make it available here in unedited form as a record of the openness that once prevailed in collecting circles. The author of the text is Susan Headley.

The Saga of the Uncleaned Coin (by Susan Headley)
found at: [link now appears broken]
FORVM VESTIGIA :: View topic - The Saga of an Uncleaned Coin Nov 27, 2005

This is the story of Constantius "Fel Temp" Reparatio. Reparatio is a coin that circulated in Roman society around 1,650 years ago. He is made of bronze, and has survived all these many centuries only to be sadly abused in modern times.

He was born in a Roman melting pot, where his metal was pounded and cut into a round, coin-sized planchet. Several hammer strikes later, he bore the image of the man who ordered his creation, the Emperor Constantius. He was named Reparatio as a tribute to the ubiquity of his reverse type as found in uncleaned coin lots. Oh, the stories he could tell! Of the people whose hands he passed through on his journey through the years. But this is not the story he tells us today...

He was buried in the ground, (not by soldiers, as is commonly believed) but by peasants. These hard-working farmers and tradesmen generally lived in rural areas outside the city walls, and during the many times of war and civil unrest, they would bury their valuables and coins nearby, so that the marauders and armies ravaging through the countryside would not easily find their tiny bits of wealth when their homes got ransacked. Reparatio laughs at the common misperception that soldiers would have buried most of his kin as ridiculous, because soldiers were paid in silver specie, so any coins that soldiers buried and subsequently lost would most likely be made mostly of silver.

Indeed, being of lowly bronze, Reparatio was rarely held in the hands of soldiers and nobles, unless small change was needed. He was a poor man's coin, and was therefore buried in the ground with several of his cousins and friends by a hard-working farmer, during a time of great strife. Unfortunately for Reparatio, the farmer and his family were captured and carted off to be sold as slaves, and so Reparatio entered a deep sleep, safe in the ground where he would remain for 1,600 years (give or take a decade or two.)

The story Reparatio wants to tell us today begins the day he was rudely awakened from his long slumber by somebody with a sharp instrument poking around in the dirt in which he had lain all these years. Indeed, this dirt is so unforgiving that a shovel would barely dent the ground - a pick-axe is the preferred method of quickly uncovering the sleeping friends and relatives of our poor Reparatio. The searchers work in teams, employing metal detectors, and searching for signs of lost metal from ages past. Many are paid an actual hourly wage for their efforts, and work at this like people in the USA work in factories. Overseers ensure that areas are searched thoroughly, but quickly, and that all finds go into the buckets (and not into pockets.)

After a long day's work, the team members are driven back via van or truck to the collection point, where they are paid their wage and the contents of their buckets is dumped into a central collection tub.
Then the Overseers sit down and sift through the material, sorting out the coins from the artifacts, and from the obvious junk, and picking out anything that looks unusual or particularly valuable to keep for themselves. Watching this from his place on the floor, where he was carelessly dropped, Reparatio sees that these guys aren't too interested in his cousins and friends. They are most interested in the metal objects like fibulas, rings, brooches, figurines, arrowheads, and other items that might bring a price and might be made of something better than base metal. They have very little interest in coins; anyway, nearly all of the coins are covered in millimeters of dirt. A good percentage of them are still encrusted together in little chunks, and since these low-level Overseers have no knowledge of, and no market for single coins, they go basically ignored.

Reparatio can see that the day's haul amounts to a pile of around 700 coins, and about 14 or 15 pounds worth of other encrusted junk. The Overseers, after their brief survey of the day's take, don't set anything at all aside for themselves. They simply put the stuff into cloth bags in this roughly sorted order. The coins will go to one buyer, the "good" metal items to another buyer, and the "junk" metal items to a third source. Someone notices Reparatio and some of his cousins on the floor, and they scoop him up and toss him into the coin bag. He can see that there are a couple thousand other coins already here; apparently the overseers have been saving up a batch of goods for a number of days already.

The next time Reparatio sees the light of day is a couple of weeks later, when his bag (which is now full) is opened and dumped out into a large, flat pan. Two men are bickering about price and condition; a few of Reparatio's cousins are picked up and scraped with pocket knives.

Eventually, some cash exchanges hands and Reparatio finds himself back in the sack. He has been purchased by a regional Wholesaler, who will combine his lot with that of many other Overseers and single detectorists, and sell them to the Man. The price paid for Reparatio was based on weight, quantity, and quality, (not by a coin count) but it averages out to 6 American cents per coin. Before driving into the City the next day, this local wholesaler will take his purchases home and sort through them somewhat. He won't dare to do any cleaning; the Man insists on "fresh" goods, but he picks through the sacks, hefting some of the coins, trying to guess if they're silver, looking for unusual items that might not be coins at all, but medallions or pendants, but mostly just looking. He can't tell very much through the heavy dirt and encrustations that 98% of the coins are still covered in.

Reparatio's next stop is in the back of a shop in a major Eastern European city. They are selling meat out front, but in the back, many different items are bought and sold. After all, meat must be bought and sold fresh, so the constant comings and goings of packages and people is no real anomaly. Reparatio and his kin are first weighed, and then once again dumped out, this time onto a large metal table. Once again, men bicker (but not nearly so harshly), and a price is agreed upon. Money changes hands, and Reparatio has a new owner. This time he has been bought by the Man, for about 15 American cents each. The Man knows quite a bit about Reparatio and his friends Denarius, As, Drachma, Follis, and others. The Man has very good friends in high places, and belongs to a tight-knit family-oriented social group, and it is the Man who will take Reparatio on his journey outside the country in which he was found. Well, maybe not the Man himself, but surely someone in his employ.

The Man has many employees, in fact. Some of these employees have scooped up Reparatio and his friends, and placed them in sinks that have high-pressure water jets above them. Reparatio and his coin buddies are subjected to the water equivalent of sand blasting, with the intent being to eliminate much of the dirt and encrustation that currently protect the coins from the light of day (and analysis...) Once the coins are stripped of their detritus down to about a half centimeter or so, they go into the ovens for drying. Once dry, they find themselves back on the large, brightly lit table, where men sitting on high stools divide them into piles. The piles are sorted through by hand.

Occasionally, a chisel is employed to break clumped coins apart into their singles. From time to time, a small blade is used to extract some of the dirt or crust, usually when silver is suspected. Silver is very easy for these men to detect because it is heavier than equal-sized bronze. Most of the silver is picked out of the coin lot in a matter of a couple of hours. The men work fast, and they miss things sometimes, but over all, they're pretty efficient. They count the coins into bank bags, and when they are finished the silver is in one sack, and the bronze is in the others. Approximately ten percent of the lot has been set aside as silver, and it's journey from here is very different from that which Reparatio will take.

Later that afternoon, the sacks Reparatio is traveling with are loaded into the trunk of a car owned by an employee of the Man. There are several of these bags now, each containing approximately 5,000 coins.

The next time the coins are sold, they will be sold by the piece, rather than by weight. After a long journey on the highway that includes a brief stop at the source country border (to say hello to a relative of the Man who happens to supervise the checkpoint there), Reparatio and company eventually find themselves in Munich, Germany. Reparatio might just as easily have wound up in The Netherlands or Spain, or perhaps even France; it just depends which wholesaler he found his way to, or which Man the wholesaler went to that week.

Upon arriving in Munich, the coins once again see the light of day.

They are simply delivered to the buyer this time, as the buyer has prepaid the Man for them. Ten bags of 5,000 coins each are passed across the counter of a clothing store in a better part of town, and from there they are taken home that night by the shop's owner, who is also an ancient coin wholesaler and hobbyist. In fact, he doesn't usually work in his store; he's only there today to accept delivery of this month's batch of coins. Nearly all of them are destined for the United States, but only 75% of them will be going across the ocean as "uncleaned bulk." Reparatio has finally met the Dealer. This fellow knows his coins very, very well. Although he has paid 35 cents a coin, his average return will be at least ten times that, depending on how well the coins clean up. Because this is the point at which most uncleaned coins are truly cleaned.

The Dealer has an industrial sized rock tumbler in his basement. He dumps all ten bags of coins into the large tumbler, adds some plastic media, and lets the tumbler run overnight. By the next morning, about half of the coins will be showing detail; the rest will go back into the tumbler for a few more hours. Once the coins are out of tumbling, they are not clean yet, but the layer of dirt is now thin enough that the six workers that are employed by the Dealer can easily pick through the piles of coins and remove those that appear to be in extremely fine (EF)

condition. Any silver that is found is set aside. By this point, it will be about 5% of the lot, most of it lighter because it was debased or clipped in antiquity (which is why the Man's employees missed it.)

The workers also know their coins fairly well, and anything unusual or valuable, regardless of its condition, is also set aside for closer analysis. Most of the larger coins are picked out at this point, too, unless they are in really worn condition. This sorting and picking process will result in the removal of approximately 15 percent of the coins, and another 10 percent or so is picked out, by most ethical dealers, as total junk. The mildly chipped, holed, and blank coins are still present; usually only the most egregious examples of garbage are removed, along with any non-coin items that made it this far.

Remember the dirt (now in dust form) that was removed from the coins in the tumbler? That dirt is sifted (removing any chunks of plastic media still remaining) and then placed in a large plastic tub. The non- picked out coins are also dumped in the tub, along with a small amount of a waxy oil substance designed to help some of the dust re-adhere to the coins. Some dealers forego this step, and frequently you know their coins because all you have to do the clean the coin is rub your thumb across the surface and the dirt comes off! And yet, our friend Reparatio is truly baffled by the fact that people would even accept such coins as "uncleaned" since it should be patently obvious to anybody with half a noggin that coins that laid in the ground for 16 centuries shouldn't be so easily cleanable! Nevertheless, before the coins are sold to the next person in the chain, (the Seller), they can sit for several months in the Dealer's basement. They might be combined with other batches; some of their kin may require many, many tumbler treatments before they pass muster, but ultimately Reparatio and his relatives are shipped across the Atlantic. The batch Reparatio travels in is of average size; it contains five thousand of his closest allies.

The price paid for Reparatio at this step of the journey is about average: 50 American cents.

Reparatio's newest owner is a Seller of uncleaned coins on the major online auction sites. This Seller buys a batch of 2,500 to 5,000 coins at a time, every few months, and he, too, will sort through the coins and retain anything interesting that he finds. Depending on how closely picked the silver was by the previous owners, he will find anywhere from 3 to 5 percent that show any silver. Most of these will be bronze coins that have a thin silver wash on them, and the few "pure" silver coins he finds were probably passed over by the Dealer ahead of him because they were too worn to be worth much, or perhaps they are holed, or bent, or drastically clipped. It is at this point that most of the very fine (VF) graded coins get picked out (as well as any extremely fines (EF) missed by the last pick-through). But it is also at this point that the majority of the "junk" is removed, as well. Sellers have learned that people paying a premium price (a dollar or more) for uncleaned coins get very upset when they get outright crap. This culling process usually depletes the lot by around 15%, depending on how ethical the Dealer who sold it to him was, but the majority of the remaining coins will be sold in lots of 100 or fewer to individual collectors.

Reparatio, of course, ended up in one of the lots I bought last month, which is why I can so faithfully recant his sorry tale. I never realized that among my lesser talents I had the ability to channel ancient coins, but so be it...I haven't had any rest since Reparatio began screaming, and now that I've told his entire horrific tale I realize he is screaming because he is suffocating in that little two by two flip I put him in.


Some facts emerged from this little tale, that the buyer of uncleaned coins would be wise to take heed of:

(1) If there is less than about a millimeter of hard dirt on the coins, they have been cleaned (probably by rock tumbler or high pressure air/water) somewhere along the way. Such coins are invariably picked through.

(2) It is not realistic to expect to find decent silver coins in these lots. If you really think otherwise, you are deluding yourself. The coins have been picked through a minimum of five times before they get to you.

(3) Your best chance of finding anything in very fine (VF) or better condition (other than ridiculously common Constantine era coins) is from cleaning heavily encrusted coins. The coins have been picked through many times already, but nobody can see under that heavy lime-like crust.

(4) If you think you'll avoid some of the picking-through by going up the food chain a dealer or two, just remember that the price of this is (a) having to place a large order; (b) Accepting the fact that 20% of the lot will be culls; and (c) you expose yourself to great risk, both of being ripped off altogether, or of being caught up in some illegal antiquities export ring. And anyway, the coins have already been picked through by the best, back in the source country.

(5) Some of the more conscientious dealers will actually improve the lot for you (if you buy 25 or so coins or more) by throwing in a nice coin or two because their conscience bothers them about all the money you're paying for what they know is crap. But they probably got those nicer coins by picking through the uncleaned batches they buy.

(6) Having said all that, I have found both nice silver and rare coins in uncleaned coin lots. So maybe everything Reparatio is telling me should be taken with a grain of plastic media
"Headley has never been a full-time coin dealer herself, but she has worked for about a dozen different dealers in various capacities and knows the ins and outs of the business. She has become an ardent consumer advocate for collectors as the numismatic marketplace moves to online venues".

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