Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How I think fresh coins enter the market illegally

I've never found an ancient coin but my understanding is that they are found in three ways:
  • 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.)


Paul Barford said...

Ed, instead of sitting over the other side of the Atlantic listening to ACCG and Dave Welsh fairy tales about "where ancient coins come from", why not join one of the many metal detectorist forums (most easily one of the UK ones) and talk directly to the people actually taking stuff out of the ground in the source countries? I think you will find that they will tell you that the easiest place to find lots of ancient coins is not graves or isolated hoards, but by hoovering "productive sites" (ie settlements) with metal detectors. Of course in most source countries the really good places are all protected by law (in order to try and conserve them) and so the greedier would-be coin-finder would have to go out at night when nobody can see them, but my guess is you'll find few who will admit to that on a forum, British or otherwise.

You can also look at the PAS database and try and see how many items are fouind in mudslides and grave robbing, and how many come from deliberately metal detecting ancient sites.

Then try and turn that round and look at the other side and see why the totally undocumented removal of this material from sites of that type would be a cause for alarm for those who want to study other aspects of the past than how many die types of a particular issue can be catalogued.

Then try and see why false arguments like ACCG's "where coins come from" and their dumb and undefined "numismatic context" ideas are so galling - seen in the context of the effects on the real archaeological record of the real world over here and not their imaginary one.

Have a look into it, Ed. Finding out for yourself does not hurt.

Paul Barford

Ed Snible said...

The most recent report on the PAS website [pdf] says (page 123) that 90.15% of finds are on cultivated land. I assume that means tilled land (and perhaps a few orchards). I am not sure how to reconcile this with your claim that most finds are on protected ancient settlements. Surely people aren't farming within ancient sites?

It is possible that a few bad apples are detecting on crown land and lying to PAS officials. It wouldn't surprise me if only 80-85% of finds are really on cultivated land but I have no source to back me up. It is also possible that the 90% figures in the UK don't translate to the Balkans, but if so do you have a source for that?

Numismatists care about archaeological context although we call it 'hoard information'. It's clear that it would be illuminating to know what objects are found together (which indicates they are used together) or in different layers (which gives relative chronology).

Let me try to define 'numismatic context'. Numismatists analyze the coin to record the die pair that produced it, the die state (fresh, cracked), overstrikes and amount of wear. A lot can be discovered this way. For example, suppose we have a coin of Handrian with one reverse type we don't understand and another with a reverse that is tied to a particular historical event. If two coins share the same obverse die then we can place the two reverses close chronologically. 'Numismatic Context' is the relationships between a coin and others sharing a die, or a reverse type, and perhaps other coins in the same hoard.

The danger is that corrosion will make it impossible to figure out the dies. If that happens to every coin of a particular die pair that information is forever lost. Fertilizers supposedly contribute to corrosion (I don't have a source for this) thus it would be nice to get coins out of fertilized soil within the next 50 years or so and stabilized.

It would also be nice if high-resolution images of both sides of finds can be made available allowing numismatists to determine the numismatic context of the finds. If the coin sits in a box in a basement this information is lost to the current generation. It isn't lost for good but that is cold comfort to mortal numismatists.

Voz Earl said...

If there was a will or a way to make more legally excavated coins available for sale, then the market could be altered. After all, what collector wouldn't pay a premium for coins with contextual information? Unfortunately, I see little to suggest this will ever come to fruition.

Nathan Elkins often refers to "responsible collecting", i.e., collecting only those coins known to have been legally excavated or to have been on the market before a certain cutoff date. He claims that he himself is such a collector. What I would really like to hear from him is exactly how many coins of this type he has purchased and over what period of time. Given the fact that there are hardly any such coins on the market (thanks to the restrictive cultural property laws backed by academics) it must be an exceedingly small collection indeed. For most collectors, holding to this standard of "responsible collecting" would mean, for all intents and purposes, to cease collecting altogether.

Barford stated previously on the Unidroit list that he believes all excavated coins should be kept by institutions and that collectors should satisfy themselves with trading back and forth the coins which are already on the market. This position--along with his hasty dismissal of the concept of numismatic context--leads me to believe he doesn't quite grasp the true motivations of most collectors. What may start out as 'the arranging of serried rows of gee-gaws' nearly always gives way to a genuine thirst for deeper knowledge of one's area of specialization. Trading the same coins back and forth may provide some new information, but not much.

Of course, collectors don't necessarily have to own a coin to learn what new information it has to offer. Online forums where photos are posted and discussions ensue are one example of how collectors learn and share new information amongst themselves. If all newly found coins from this point forward were held by institutions, how long would it take for any new information relevant to a given area of numismatics to see the light of day--if it ever did?

I see neither the will, the funds, nor the manpower in academia to match that which collectors bring to the table. When I ask why I can find virtually no information or decent photographs of coins in my area of interest available online from institutions, I get silence or excuses about it costing too much money (or worse yet--suggestions that I fly around the globe from one city to another visiting local museums). Well guess what? Collectors are providing that sort of publicly available information online right now and are doing so out of their own pocket. So until academia demonstrates that it is up to the task, I don't think they can rightly expect the rest of humanity to entrust them with complete and total stewardship of every scrap of cultural heritage in existence.

Voz Earl

Paul Barford said...

“The most recent report on the PAS website says (page 123) that 90.15% of finds are on cultivated land.” Yes, and the vast majority of known archaeological sites in Britain are also in land currently in agricultural use.
“Surely people aren't farming within ancient sites?” Umm, yes. Yes Ed. In Britain, people live on ancient sites (in Roman towns for example), people farm Roman sites, people bury their dead on sites which have ancient remains, take their dogs for walks on ancient sites, throw their litter on ancient sites, gravel quarries are dug through ancient sites, motorways are built across them. Britain is covered in ancient sites.

I did not say that “most finds are on protected ancient settlements”.

"It is also possible that the 90% figures in the UK don't translate to the Balkans, but if so do you have a source for that?” Better still, why not write to my colleagues in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Crimea and so on and ask them what type of sites are being dug into by metal detector users there to serve the antiquities trade? Most of them speak English too, get your information from the source, not second or third hand.

Put yourself in the position of the looter, where would you go with your metal detector and spade to find a bagful of saleable items in a few hours work? An empty field where nothing has ever been found before, or a place you know is chock-full of goodies because villagers remember that the archaeologists did a survey there twenty years ago, or there are upstanding remains of walls? Artefact hunters target "productive sites”. Sites they can go back to time and time again, get lots of things to sell, until there are no more left. For anyone.

“Numismatists care about archaeological context”
No, I really don’t think coin collectors do. It is quite clear the ‘heap of loose coins on a tabletop’ numismatist does not. In fact from what they say on forums like Unidroit-L and all the rest its clear they have not the foggiest idea what it means (though that does not stop them from talking about it).

Your definition of “numismatic context” is just a rehash of Dave Welsh’s. Let Dave Welsh get his “definition” published in a proper peer-reviewed numismatic publication in the US and then we can discuss it properly. My bet is that he’d not get anyone to publish such a text among proper numismatic articles. I’d like to challenge Mr Welsh to achieve this in the next year.

Voz changes the subject from where coins come from to “If there was a will or a way to make more legally excavated coins available for sale, then the market could be altered”. Patrick O’Keefe (Trade in Antiquities reducing Destruction and Theft UNESCO 1997, chapter six ‘changing the market’) discuses this model in some detail, in general I am inclined to agree with the writer cited there who said that this model is a dealers’ ploy to serve as a “smokescreen for inaction”.

Voz wrote: “Barford stated […] that collectors should satisfy themselves with trading back and forth the coins which are already on the market”. I think that is what the dealers in ancient numismata use as the basis of their claim that there is a legitimate market. Isn’t it? Few of them will admit to knowingly handling freshly excavated stuff as this would prompt somebody to ask “show us the export licence”. Awkward question for some I understand (hence the problems with new ebay regulations).

If an individual’s “genuine thirst for deeper knowledge of one's area of specialization” is going to encourage more looters to dig more holes into any country’s archaeological sites, and remove more items from the country by less than legal channels, then it surely is WRONG. These collectors are the looters as Renfrew would say, not the ethical ones who collect stuff which has a documented legitimate origin (for example the many thousands by now recorded by the PAS).

The online (illustrated) register idea was as you recall one that I supported and I am glad to see Ed here developing it.

Paul Barford

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Dear Ed,

Paul is likely better informed about the level of the PAS' effectiveness than I and so I'm sure he'll respond in due course. He may have a better idea as to the question about "cultivated land," but I can tell you that some excavations (settlements and forts) I have worked at in the past have been in "cultivated land." If you go through some excavation reports, you will also find that many excavations are in cultivated land.

Have you read my
at FeRA, which is essentially the same as the SAFE feature last year? (On the FeRA version, there is a sentence with some typos on the 1st or second page, but this should be fixed when the next upload of articles is made).

On page 7 of the FeRA version, a section called "common misconceptions" begins and addresses some of the questions you raise about sources. Coins are found in abundance in both hoards and as single finds from archaeological sites, and the two sorts of finds are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Several archaeological sites (which also have extensive archaeological remains, such as forts, towns, cities, etc.) also produce coin hoards in substantial quantities. They are not only (or even mostly) found in isolation. Secondly, how would a dealer be able to make the argument that they are found in isolation, when they don't know (or don't report) the find spot of the coins they are selling? In fact if you look at some of the inventories of coin hoards, it is typical that more than half (such as Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards) do not have a recorded find spot as they simply turned up on the market and those that are recorded are often from archaeological sites, which have other associated remains. Again, please see the "common misconceptions" section of the FeRA article for more detail, and specific examples.

Again, think about some of the major shipments of ancient coins that have been intercepted by customs. The literal ton that was smuggled from the Balkans and "wholesaled" to other American dealers in 1999, consisted of all types of material of varying degrees of quality. This is not the contents of a large hoard, but rather a collection of coins from systematic looting, and we can be rather secure in knowing that dozens or even hundreds of historical sites were destroyed in the process. In the 1990's a similar shipment was intercepted on the Austrian/German border. Again, I make references to these shipments in the FeRA article.

Think about the bulk lots on Ebay, where sellers often even say that the bulk lots come from Balkan or Middle Eastern countries and are metal detector finds. We read disclaimers that coins might be Greek, Roman, Byzantine, or even modern. We often see other metal objects such as fibulae, nails, buckles, and buttons mixed in. These are not the contents of hoards, but rather the fruits of systematic looting over historically important sites with associated ancient remains.

If you read media reports on the seizures of caches of smugglers and looters, you will also see these people are often caught with statuary, ceramics, and other antiquities in addition to coins! See for example
"It's all the same..."
. The suppliers of the market are simply looking for anything that they can sale and get it at the same sources. They may send ceramics and statuary to different dealers than they send coins, but they're obviously getting them all in the same places.

All the best,

Ed Snible said...

Paul, thanks for clarifying! In the US it is rare to build on an ancient site. A popular Hollywood movie depicted the dangers of building on ancient graveyards and it wouldn't have occurred to me that such sites are farmed in the UK. Doesn't the plow disturb the archeological context? Or are the looters digging deeper than a plow normally goes? This metal detector FAQ says quarter-sized objects can only be detected 12 inches below the surface.

Some numismatists care about archaeologic context which is why Coin Hoards is published and collectors have told me it's 'cool' to have a coin from a named hoard. I'm using the word 'care' to mean having a preference, not having an ethical stand.

Is there a better phrase than “numismatic context” for the concept of using the relationship between coins and dies to study the past?

I agree with you that Voz's hope of injecting more coins into the market to even encourage dealers to provide hoard and archaeological context information to collectors seems unfounded. The problem here is economic: a dealer who refuses undocumented "grey" coins is at an economic disadvantage against dealers who accept them.

I'm trying to encourage speculation on what kinds of ethical incentives would encourage coins to be better documented and discourage looting. Let's try to come up with strategies that don't provide an economic benefit to scofflaws who don't get caught because under such schemes there will always be scofflaws who ruin it for everyone.

For example, if the VAT or sales tax on antiquities was lower the longer the object had been in commerce then dealers might find the time to pass along documentation. Or perhaps antiquities registered in the PAS could be sold more easily than unregistered pre-1970 ones?

Paul Barford said...

Ed, thanks for the comments.

"Is there a better phrase than “numismatic context” for the concept of using the relationship between coins and dies to study the past?" why not "die studies" which worked well enough in the past before people like Welsh came along and tried to make an ideology of it.

I am very enthusiastic about tax incentives to encourage good practice in antiquity trading. Your idea about VAT is a good one, worth exploring.

> Or perhaps antiquities registered in the PAS could be sold more easily than unregistered pre-1970 ones?<
But this is up to the clients of the dealers to dictate. Ethical collectors should dictate what the trade is expected to supply, rather than merely making do with what it offers. I think if ethical collectors took a stand and refused to touch the more dubious items some dealers have in stock, we would soon find that what was said to be "impossible" actually starts happening. Where there is a will there is a way, if the dealers don't demonstrate the will, perhaps its time for the collectors to start setting the agenda. After all, it is they that suffer in the long run fgrom the criticism that the unethical trade atrracts and will continue to attract until it cleans its act up. Where are the responsible collectors willing to take an ethical stand to force change?
Paul barford

Voz Earl said...

Actually Ed, the coins I had in mind were those you referred to as 'sitting in a box in a basement'. I'm hardly the first to suggest it and I won't be the last.

Since these coins would have presumably been properly excavated and documented, Paul's concern about them serving as an inducement for looting would be unfounded. My point was that if there was a source of properly documented coins available, collectors would naturally prefer those and the market would change accordingly--it would theoretically be a disincentive for looting.

As far as the PAS is concerned, I can't recall specifically seeing any of those "many thousands" of coins for sale on the market--Paul--have you? Surely, you're not suggesting that as a serious option available to "responsible collectors"?

Voz Earl

Anonymous said...

For a newbie trying to learn about these issues, can someone sketch a parallel between ancient coins and Indian arrowheads in the US? These are often found in cultivated fields and at random locations. Do archeologists object to amateurs collecting them? What are the laws in the US regarding this?

(Just trying to learn the issues.)

Ed Snible said...

Nathan, thanks for reminding me of your article. I had glanced at it but had not read it closely. Your reference to falsifying pedigrees on coins from Israel is interesting. Are the Israeli dealers doing anything more complex than forging or reusing receipts and tickets? I can't make it to the library for a few months; could you summarize [Kersel 2006] for me or send me a few pages?

Anonymous, arrowheads can be collected with permission of the landowner. When I lived on a farm in Michigan people would ask to look and I would let them although I was only renting! It's generally illegal on Federal lands but an article by Tom Mast in the Jackson Hole Star Tribune says president (and arrowhead collector Jimmy Carter) got a clause added that may allow surface finds. I don't know what archaeological opinion is and don't have any arrowheads myself.

Ed Snible said...

I wanted to follow up on the farming thing. 90% of PAS finds are on cultivated land. The other 10% are on the other categories: Grass&heath, Woodland, Coast, "Open fresh water", Wetland, and Other.

The CIA World Factbook entry for the UK says that 23% is "arable" (suitable for plowing).

A lot of land suitable for plowing isn't plowed, so the UK is less than 23% farmed. Yet 90% of finds are still on farms. Wish I had better numbers but it seems like farms are turning up a lot of coins.

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Hi Ed,

Kersel's article is based on her doctoral dissertation at Cambridge, in which she examined how antiquities make it from source countries to dealers and collectors in market countries and how antiquities are 'laundered,' turning 'illicit antiquities' into 'licit antiquities.'

I didn't bring the collection of essays with me to Germany, but fortunately I had the foresight to copy Kersel's contribution. I've made a pdf scan and will send it to your email address which I found on your personal webpage. If it doesn't come through, please let me know.