Thursday, July 17, 2008

Very Low Cost Antiquities Registries

Peter Tompa asked me about my ideas for using a non-governmental nearly free web site to register ancient coins.

Collectors sometimes need to prove they owned a coin before a certain date. For example, before a law was passed requiring special paperwork for acquisitions, or before a similar coin was was stolen.

There are several traditional ways to prove ownership by a certain date. One way to prove you had a coin (or picture of a coin) at a certain date is to print a picture of it in a book or catalog and get a lot of copies of the book into libraries around the world. This is very expensive!

Another way is to take a picture of the coin and have a Notary Public notarize it. I have known some dubious Notaries and I'm not sure this is a good idea.

Another way to prove a coin existed is to submit it for slabbing to NGC or ICG. The slabbing authority puts the coin in a uniquely numbered holder. The slabbing authority keeps a picture of the coin, knows when they took the picture, and it's probably considered a trusted third party by the US court system. This costs about $20. Whether $20 is cheap or not depends on the coin. There is a lot of human labor involved in sending the coin in and getting it back.

How can we reduce the time and expense of registering coins to nearly instant and nearly free?

I propose creating proof (of access to) a coin using software like that from e-TimeStamp. The idea is that the owner takes a digital picture of the coin and uses the site to 'time stamp' the image file. This costs 40 cents (and there are volume discounts).

According the the companies web site the IETF standard for time stamps and the DigiStamp process do comply with the Uniform Rules of Evidence Code. In the United States, the general admissibility of electronic records is well established, provided authenticity can be proven. There is a lot of legal and technical information on the site.

Forty cents per image might be high to certify one side of a coin but remember that you can stitch together thousands of coin images into a single large image and stamp it all at once so the price is essentially free in quantity.

It should be possible for a collectors organization to link the e-TimeStamp software to a web site allowing online submissions of photos to certify. e-TimeStamp also sells a machine for $30,000. Perhaps such a machine could be combined with a camera and some trustworthy guards that would certify that the coins were physically present near the machine and not pictures of coins still in other countries.

I have no business relationship with e-TimeStamp — I've never even used their service. I just think it is a neat idea and may solve complaints that registries of ancient coins must be expensive to operate and must involve governmental bodies.

There is no need to depend on a single company such as e-TimeStamp. The technology is based on public key cryptography. There are various proposals (like RFC 3029) for letting anyone do such things, and there are US patents on public-key date/time notary software systems that explain how to do it.

For safety reasons collectors' organizations should work with a company that has been around for years and claims (as e-TimeStamp does) that they are unable to fake their own certificates even for a million dollars rather than attempting to recreate a system whose legal authority rests on being flawless!

1 comment:

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Dear Ed,

I'm glad to see you discussing this here. I think this would be an excellent step in the right direction. Certainly, it would be difficult to provide a pre-1970 (UNESCO) date for the vast majority of material, but if we are all concerned about the recently looted material that enters the marketplace, then we could at least setup a deadline by which all existing material on should be registered (for example, one year after the creation of a database). I think this would help prevent recently looted material from entering the market. If the trade community could unite behind such a scheme and have stringent rules against non-registered material that was not legally exported, I think it would go a long towards assuaging the concerns of many. I hope this will be seriously discussed further.

I think you are correct in that it would not be terribly expensive, though perhaps time consuming. Nevertheless, there seem to be other benefits that such a database would offer, such as documentation for insurance purposes or in the case of theft; it could also serve as a good research tool if equipped with a good search engine and consistent entry forms.

All best,
Nathan