Saturday, July 26, 2008

Encouraging better documentation by rewarding it

In a previous comment, Paul Barford suggests that collectors should refuse to touch coins with no documented history as a way to fight looting.

Rather than signalling preferences for documentation perhaps collectors could explicitly pay dealers for details leading back to the source? If a few collectors stop bidding on undocumented coins and start bidding higher on well-documented ones many dealers wouldn't even notice. If I actually offer $10 or 1% on top of of the purchase price for provenance information they might pay more attention.

I'd pay a lot to know where the dealer got many of my coins from, but I'm mostly interested in the coins of uncertain mints. For common coins I'm less curious but I might still pay a little.

In some cases the provenance info might be a photocopy of a Harlan J Berk ticket from the 1980s. Maybe I pay just to learn that the coin came in a zip-lock bag from a gentleman with a Lebanese accent at a recent coin show.

It isn't clear what the social norms on tracing coins back should be. I purchased two coins that were published in SNG Levante from CNG. One had a further history published in Levante's SNG but the more interesting one did not. Mr. Levante is still alive. Would it be appropriate to write to him and ask him if he recalls where he bought a coin in the 1980s? Although you would not know it from my posts here I'm a bit shy about this sort of thing.

Collectors are at the end of a long chain from the soil. It's hard to signal ethical values up the chain with price signals.

I have also heard that I should reward dealers who participate in online forums or write books by steering them business but I'd rather just pay for the books. There is no way to pay for discussion group participation so I share my knowledge in return. When I want a coin it's rare not something that every dealer has a couple of anyway. Expressing moral values though shopping doesn't seem able to provide incentives to change much.


Voz Earl said...

"Expressing moral values though shopping doesn't seem able to provide incentives to change much."

Especially true in cases where demand far outstrips supply--as it does in this instance. Dealers would simply shrug it off and sell the coin one of the scores of other interested parties. This model has zero percent chance of effecting any change in the market.


Ed Snible said...

Voz, you've hit the nail on the head.

Incentives further up the chain should have a big effect. The incentive of offering farmers market rates, or even 33% of market rates, strongly encourages them to fight off looters with shotguns and pitchforks. Me withholding an auction bid causes a coin to go to the underbidder, driving down prices — the lower prices encouraging new collectors.

The fiction that buried coins are 'owned' by nations often means when coins are found, digging roads and after mudslides, that the coins go to the capital city museum. This means no local stakeholders. How about a law saying buried artifacts on public lands are owned not by the 'nation' but by the local school district? Such a law would encourage all parents to report looters, if only to allow the district to seize and sell the coins for schoolbooks. As a side effect the looter cools his heels in jail for a few years and perhaps reveals the location of a site to the archaeology department of the provincial college.

A commercial approach means the collectors money is diverted from looters to anti-looting forces.

It might be possible to get similar effects in a non-commercial framework. Perhaps putting control of coins regional or village micro-museums would at least excite the part-time staff to stop looting. The commercial framework seems best to me though.

Lyndall Huggler said...

A major reason we will continue to see resistance to improved documentation is the insistence on an unrealistic date such as 1970 or 1973 as the date before which otherwise undocumented coins must be shown to have been in commerce. I believe that any prospect for better documentation (which I support) will necessarily have to involve a grant of "amnesty" to all of the undocumented coins that have entered the market over the last 40 years. The genie can't be put back in the bottle; insistence on an unrealistic date will not reverse the damage that has been done to looted archaeological sites.

Jay G said...

Ed: Levante is no longer alive, he died in 2007 according to an obit in THE CELATOR.