Friday 26 June 2020

Coin Collecting and Metal Detecting Dying Hobbies: Going the Way of Bottle Digging

Matt Thompson and his collection
On the 'Dirty Old Coins' blog is an interesting post 'This Dying Hobby' from Sept 16, 2019 that is worth reading in full, here I just want to pull out a few fragments:
Once known as the “hobby of kings”, coin collecting is slowly becoming as passé as monarchy itself. From casual collectors to career professionals, and all levels of dedication in between, numismatics is experiencing a steady decline. [...] Finding relevant data seems tricky. There's certainly no shortage of rosy op ed pieces from auctioneers and trade analysts [...] The most accurate barometer in interest of ancient numismatics is eBay. [...] Privately, many dealers admit to seeing less business than even just a few years ago and more have left the field entirely than new ones entered the fray. [...]  But if one considers that each passing year fewer new coins are found (given that the detectorists repeatedly scour over the same fixed number of archeologically fertile locations) the only logical conclusion is that the bulk of those new coins found on eBay comes from the holdings of recent retirees or their estates. [...] The bottom line in this scenario is that fewer coins will trade hands [sic] both from price and lack of availability (and possibly also harsher global policies that could restrict the commerce in ancient collectibles) all of which results in a progressively less compelling proposition for newcomer and seasoned old-timer alike.
In the middle, he decries the fact that young people don't want to take up this exploitative colonialist hobby (he says it's 'video games'). Note here the awareness that the coins are disappearing because of the metal detectorists stripping the 'fixed number' of accessible 'productive sites', but this is not seen as any kind of a conservation issue, when in many countries such searching and digging (not to mention export) are illegal in order to prevent this happening, but one of 'laws that limit personal freedoms' (see below) ... Look at this:
Uncleaned coins, the longtime gateway for many into ancient coin collecting, might well be the canary in the mine. From the heady days of twenty years ago, following the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc along with its stringent laws limiting personal freedoms (such as owning and using a metal detector, for example), when there was a positive oversupply of new coins entering the market, we see now only an anemic trickle. Quality, quantity and even average size per module have steadily decreased forcing many dealers out of business and newer hobbyists to gripe. A handful of uncleaned coins which may have yielded an interesting variety of copper coinage spanning several centuries is now largely restricted to a narrow selection of coins from the Constantinian, Valentinian and Theodosian dynasties from the 4th century. Fewer neat additions translate into a corresponding decrease in customers looking to place followup orders.
So, again the falling number of sales (see figure below) is caused by the depletion of the archaeological record that is the source of the material (see here too) which is affecting qualitatively the material that is coming onto the market. The coin dealers can see it, policy makers are not being informed by archaeologists.
Dirty coins, at this rate it could even all be over by 2030

The outlook we are left with sees a bleak future for ancient numismatics with a much sparser field of dealers, auctioneers and scholars that serve an ever smaller community with a median age that ticks up year after year. If the trend were to continue unabated one could expect the eventual death of commercial numismatics altogether. If that’s a gloomy assessment there’s some respite in noting that the emerging economies in Asia and Latin America will serve to prop up the declining ranks of aficionados - for some time at least. While the lion’s share of their interest will naturally lie with local coinages, historically a fair number branch out and discover ancients. But - and this but is beyond debate - the number of countries still minting small metal discs meant for currency dwindles annually because it is truly an obsolescent practice out of step in the digital millennium. The day, therefore, will not be very far in coming when the very concept of coins will be history. We should all hope that there will be, at least, some competent custodians left to curate that history.
Huh. So all those millions of coins and artefacts that were dug out of those archaeological sites by "metal detectorists" will be as useless as the thousands of bottles dug out of Victorian dumps when this was a fad (Bottles and Metal, the Early History of Artefact Hunting in the UK PACHI 19 August 2019). If that's the future of ancient coin collecting that caused so much destruction , then good riddance, but what a shame about all those loose coins and sites with a rash of little holes in them where artefacts should have been.

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