Tuesday, October 06, 2015

CN 22 from Poland

Yesterday I received a silvered bronze plaquette depicting a WWII event by the Polish artist Bohdan Chmielewski (1927-2014). The medal is interesting but instead of blogging about the medal I will show the Customs Declaration.

The CN 22 form tells us that the item is a 'Podraunek' (gift), a medal, weighing 26 pounds (or 261 grams?). No value is given. The seller paid 18.30 zł (Polish Zloty, equivalent to US$4.83. ) It came in a 9"x7" padded mailer. It was delivered by the US Postal Service and I had to sign for it.

It was not a gift weighing 26 pounds. It was an eBay purchase, costing me $35 plus shipping, weighing 0.22k (about 8 oz.)

Americans usually don't have to pay customs duty for parcels worth less than $200. So I didn't skirt any payment requirement. I believe I am supposed to keep all Customs documentation for five years — so I cut the form 22 off the envelope and put it in the mylar 3.5x3.5 along with the medal.

My understanding is that Customs documents should be correct, but that if it isn't there is nothing I should do about it. I do not believe the US Customs Service expects me to inform them that I actually paid $35 plus shipping, or that the declared weight is wrong.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Grading Parthian Coins

Many Parthian coins in very high grades are available for purchase. I have no data but it seems like dealer inventories are larger than usual. I wondered if this indicated new hoards had been found. I wanted to see if I could measure a change in the average grade of dealer advertised stock.

I was unable to do so because the letter grades given the coins do not correspond well with the coin's actual grades (as measured by the visible dots on the cheek straps of the helmet of Parthian coins.) With ancient coins, the dies degrade during use and some dies are higher relief than others. So unlike modern coins, which can be graded according to rules like 'number of stars visible', ancient coin grading involves looking at the entire surface of the coin for wear. I do not do that here, focusing only on the cheek strap of the Sinotruces' helmet. The grader of the coins below might have considered other parts of the coin that you don't see.

I could find no coins in Fine or lesser condition on acsearch.info. There are some available elsewhere, but acsearch.info shows only coins good enough to make it into auction catalogs.

Here are most of the Parthian Sellwood 33s on acsearch.info, sorted by grade.

About Very Fine

Very Fine

Good Very Fine

About Extremely Fine

Extremely Fine

Good Extremely Fine

About Uncirculated

Mint State

What's important is what we are NOT seeing. There is no more than a weak relationship between the definition of the individual dots and the dealer's chosen grade for the coin.

Because the seller's grades don't seem to line up well with the quality of the cheek strap, it is hard to say if there are better coins for sale or looser grading standers. I cannot therefore make any statistical claims about the true grades of coins being offered for sale. This data should warn buyers looking for a quality specimen to look closely at the photograph rather than trusting a dealer's letter grade.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Conflict Coins

Last Wednesday Ute Wartenberg Kagen spoke on a panel at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I didn't get to see the panel, as the US State Department's live stream was down. The American Numismatic Society has posted a paper in which she gives her views, entitled Collecting Coins and the Conflict in Syria.

You should read the paper. It's good. It is not difficult to read. Graphs are included which show extremely rare types of coins from ancient Syria are on the market in greater numbers since around the start of the Syrian conflict. Mostly likely all kinds of ancient Syrian coins are on the market in larger numbers.

At the same event, Deputy US Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced a US$ 5,000,000 bounty for disrupting ISIL's antiquities trade.

Personally I suspect many of the antiquities come from the private collections of four million Syrian refugees, used as bribes to escape Syria, rather than a few ISIS looters. Yet it doesn't matter what I speculate. Dr. Wartenberg Kagan apparently shared the stage with the general counsel of the auction house Christie's and eBay's head of global regulatory policy. I suspect change is coming to the ancient coin market. What kind of change should we expect?

Germany is considering a law that will make it illegal to see ancient coins worth more than $100 without twenty years of provenance. Companies are free to go further than the law requires. eBay doesn't allow any Cuban coins to be sold on eBay, even ones that left Cuba before Castro's revolution cannot be offered on the site. My fear is that folks who are looking for something, anything, to do are seeing few options besides these kind of blanket bans.

Dr. Wartenberg's paper points out in a footnote that the American Numismatic Society rejects gifts of ancient coins from eBay and other online sites that have have no permanent record of their sales, unless older provenance is available. This has an important financial consequence, as such gifts would have been tax deductible.

Viewed as a purely technical problem, it wouldn't be difficult to create a permanent record of coin sales. A simple way would be create a printable report of newly offered coins, 20 coins to a letter or A4 side of paper. That's 40 coins on a double-sided page. VCoins.com currently offers 140,262 ancient coins, so that means 3500 pages or a nice 10 volume set of 350 page volumes. For perhaps $1000 the entire site, 140k coins, could be printed on demand and with copies sent to the the ANS in New York, the British Museum, and perhaps Paris, Berlin, Athens or Jerusalem. The receiving librarians stamp and catalog the books when they arrive, creating a permanent, personalized, physical record.

Such a record would be very good for resolving future, but not current, legal disputes. The obvious choice is to have sales portals voluntarily do this, but of course anyone with $1000 and HTML skills could do it, perhaps anonymously of copyright concern on sales text was an issue.

Of course, a permanent record isn't going to have a direct effect on the problems of smuggling. Printing out sale and auction catalogs in editions of five has the nice property of making low quality provenance available to collectors for less than one US cent per coin, generating data for future scholars, and making it harder to launder conflict antiquities with established antiquities.

Recently National Geographic ran an amazing cover story about a phony elephant tusk containing a GPS tracker. The mock tuck was acquired by a smuggler, and spent the spring of 2015 reporting on the smuggler's route across Africa.

Ancient coins are too small to hold the batteries needed for GPS trackers. I suspect the smuggling routes for conflict antiquities could be mapped in a different way. Unlike ivory, which is usually carved before being sold, coins get no more than a bit of cleaning. There is no reason anyone couldn't photograph 100 ancient coins and just leave them out near recent digging activity. A few years later photographs of dropped coins could be released publicly, with a contest to find them online. This technique would establish entry and exit points of the smuggling. If a government were interested, subpoenas could then be deployed to explore the route more fully.

I don't think this kind of mapping would be enough to earn the reward Deputy Secretary Blinken mentioned. It might be enough to get a cover story in the major numismatic publications.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Meet me in Atlantis

Mark Adams, Meet me in Atlantis

It's good!

I will depart from my usual practice of covering coins and technology and mention a recent book I enjoyed that has little of either.

Mark Adams' Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City documents the charming cranks and visionaries who are searching for the ruins of Atlantis.

This is a semi-serious book, with a bibliography and index, yet simultaneously functions as a travel book. 300+ pages. No knowledge of Plato is required to understand the book. The author visits Santorini [= Thera], Doñana National Park in Spain, and Morocco. Candidates in Antarctica and Michigan are rejected.

The Atlantipedia website and its operator are also featured.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Blundered inscription (?)

SYRIA, Antioch. Imperial Times, I-II Century AD? AE14 (2.00 gm).
Obv: ...NITOIN (blundered ANTIOXEWN?); Laureate head of Apollo
Rev: A; Lyre.
References: Lindgren and Kovacs, 1949v. SNG Copenhagen Syria #125.

I wanted to briefly mention this coin because when I tried to look it up I only found two examples, one from the Lindgren collection and one in Copenhagen. Neither published the inscription, as it was illegible on their specimens.

The visible inscription seems to be NITOIN, or possible ΛITOIN. I found a larger Apollo/Lyre with the inscription ANTIOXEWN in the BMC catalog.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Jane Jacobs

Mystery novels about private detectives often include a plot element where the detective and police have to work together. Both sides loath the practices of the other side. Unless the private investigator has some useful information or a long relationship with the fictional police no progress can be made on the plot. Often someone’s life is in danger because of withheld information.

Why would two groups looking to catch bad guys dislike each other’s methods so much? A person might think that both private investigators and police detectives have the same goals and should work together.

I believe this antagonism is related to the Systems of Survival concept of Jane Jacobs. In her 1992 book she explains that there are two styles of organization. Wikipedia explains:

One system is the Guardian Moral Syndrome and contains 15 precepts, like “Shun Trading,” and “Adhere to Tradition.” This system arose primarily to satisfy the needs of organizing and managing territories. It became the code for warriors, governments, religions, and some private organizations.

The other system is the Commercial Moral Syndrome and also is made of 15 principles like, “Shun Force,” and “Compete.” It came into being to support human activities around trade and the production of goods.

This mutual antagonism is in so many detective novels that I assume it is real. I haven't verified this idea with detectives of either syndrome. I have seen the principal in play among people interested in ancient coins. Today there is antagonism between coin dealers (who have a commercial moral code) and archaeologists (who follow the guardian moral code.) Archaeologists believe honor comes from publications and training grad students. They want to guard ancient coins for the future and aren’t above requesting the force of law. On the other side we have collectors and dealers who want everything to be voluntary, who shun fancy titles and seek profit through efficient business practices.

It should be expected that the two groups interested in ancient coins dislike the methods and organization styles of the other. We should not expect collectors and scholars to praise each other’s practices. If one side does something that indirectly helps the other, such as putting thousands of images online or deducing a clever attribution for an enigmatic ancient coin, respect from the other camp will not always follow. Neither side will willingly bind its own conduct to help the other.

My hope is that scholarly organizations that accept both guardian-style and commercial-style attitudes will continue recognizing the achievements of both kinds of member. Eventually out of these one-on-one interactions perhaps some new ways of collaborating will be discovered.

Retoning recommendation

I recently acquired this Indo-Greek AE tetradrachm from a dealer in Missouri.

I love the detail, but the cleaning method left some really ugly colors. It looks much worse in hand than the picture.

I was wondering what folks would recommend for fixing?

  • Leave it on a window sill for six months
  • Darken using a product such as Deller's Darkener
  • Artificial patination product such as JAX Green Patina

Leaving it alone is also an option, but I feel this particular coin could be very beautiful with an even tone. I am asking because I have never retoned a coin.

I am also curious to know if people feel this coin was cleaned chemically or by electrolysis.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A new way to profit from counterfeit coins

This story is three months old and was discussed by Paul Gilkes on CoinWorld.com but otherwise I haven't seen much on it.

Thomas Zambito, writing for NJ.com, reported on March 24th that federal investigators discovered metal recycling companies attempted to turn in over $5,000,000 in counterfeit but corroded dimes, quarters, and half dollars to the US mint to be redeemed at nearly face value.

The US government pays $19.84/pound for dimes, quarters and half dollars that are bent, broken or corroded. For example, a Kennedy half dollar weighs 11.34g. $20 face in these coins is about a pound, thus the broken coins are redeemed at nearly face value.

“A metallurgical analysis by a [Customs and Border Patrol] laboratory from a sampling of mutilated coins taken from circa 2010 and 2011 shipments by one of the suspect firms determined that not only was the percentage of copper and nickel off from genuine U.S. coins, the composition also included aluminum and silicon, neither of which has been used in a circulating U.S. coin.”

The counterfeits were “uniformly mutilated by mechanical means, before being subjected to chemical treatment to corrode” them. What was the scale of this counterfeit operation? Approximately $5.4 million in face value for 2014. This has been going on since 1999, when the mint started scheduling quarterly melts because of the vast amounts of coins being turned in by Chinese recyclers. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lakshmi Srinivasan Herman wrote a forfeiture complaint claiming that “There would have to be approximately $900 in coins in every vehicle ever exported to China as scrap metal in order to account for the total amount of waste coins imported from China for redemption.”

Counselor Herman also is quoted as claiming “more half dollars have been redeemed by China-sourced vendors in the last 10 years than the United States Mint has ever manufactured in its history.” In the 1970s the mint cranked out hundreds of millions of half dollars each year. I have a hard time believing the Chinese are counterfeiting on that vast a scale. It is also difficult for me to comprehend $900 of fraud at US Treasury expense for every car scrapped to China.

If a reader finds any photographs of these mechanically mutilated Chinese fake coins please let me know.