- On the ground, after plowing, floods, and mudslides
- Metal-detectorists find buried hoards far from anything else ancient
- By tomb raiders digging every mound looking for vases and jewelry
I'm happy that new coins enter the market from the first two sources and irritated about the third. However, many experts are irritated about all three sources and perhaps they are right. More on morality in a future post.
Illegally-exported coins leave their source country without a permit. Often smugglers have the help of a corrupt petty official such as a customs agent. Gangs may receive tacit permission to smuggle in exchange for their patronage of a politician or police officer. There are also independent smugglers. It isn't clear if coins are mostly smuggled by coin specialists or if they piggyback on bigger loads of contraband such as handguns and knockoff handbags.
The fresh coins are cleaned. I have heard they are usually cleaned in Western Europe and not in their source countries. I suspect the cleaners don't take ownership of the coins but clean for smugglers.
Next "runners" for the smugglers sell the coins to small dealers in coin shops but mostly at shows because many of these dealers are too small to have their own shops. Then dealers sell the coins to each other and to larger dealers for a while. Each dealer taking ownership puts the new coins in new holders with his own tag identifying the coin and puts the holders in boxes with his existing inventory. Some dealers may keep the previous dealer's tags but most do not. Some dealers put a 'code' on their tag which indicates how much they purchased the coin for and perhaps from whom and when. (It's possible that giving both fresh finds and coins from old collections similar tags gives the next dealer a feeling that all the coins have the same old good title.) This blending process hides freshly smuggled coins very well in collections of ordinary ancient coins.
Eventually the coins reach a collector. Some collectors hold on to their coins for only a few years. Others sell them or donate them when their eyesight fails.
Efforts to reduce collector demand through essays against looting are likely to fail because collectors are too far from the source. They are removed from crime by too many layers to be able to tell the difference between fresh finds and old collections. Collectors also want, very badly, for their coins to be from the safe old collections.
In the future I'll speculate on incentives earlier in the chain that might reduce looting, get archeologists to sites where hoards are found before the ground is further disturbed, but still allow a flourishing coin market. I am neither a dealer nor an economist so my thoughts are likely to be dubious science fiction — but I hope they will be entertraining.
(If anyone closer to the matter wishes to correct my guesses above anonymously send me an email and I'll post those comments without your name.)