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. 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.

1 comment:

Mark Lee said...
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