Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Coin database formats

The Vatican Library's coin collection is coming online, with photographs. Many papal coins and medals are already viewable. The Vatican has chosen to use MARC 21 as their metadata format.

A coin database needs fields for the attributes that can be searched. Sebastian Heath and Andrew Meadows have created the Numismatic Metadata Project to determine the ideal fields for numismatic metadata.

Existing databases, like the Moneta, ISEGRIM, and Tantalus Coins (no direct link to their database format) use whatever fields the authors and users wanted.

For librarians and computer scientists this is a problem. It makes it difficult to combine databases when the fields have slightly different meanings. I wish Heath and Meadows success in uniting the field with a single proposal with strictly defined meanings for each field.

Achieving concensus on design is difficult because different users expect different things. For example, I often use coin databases to identify coins from partial inscriptions. I'd like a numismatic database to contain information on individual letter characteristics, such as serif vs. sans-serif, and orientation (vertical, horizontal, clockwise, etc.) Most users won't want to even see that on the screen - so why put it in the database?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Restrictions on Cypriot coins

By now you've read that the government of Cyprus wishes to add 'coins more than 250 years old' to the list of restricted cultural objects making it illegal to import such items without a license from Cyprus and requiring our Customs and Border Patrol to be on the lookout for such coins.

Hopefully you've also read Wayne Sayles' response.

I'd like to see a world where numismatists can send coins across borders for study — a Numismatic Free Trade Agreement — and don't like it when governments try to restrict the sale of old coins.

This agreement is more than just a restriction that burdens coin collectors. Adding coins to Cyprus' list means that our customs agents will need to learn to recognize the coins of Cyprus.

Customs is a hard job. (Here is a nice How Customs Works that explains what the officers do.) It's best if the list of things the agents need to monitor is small. It isn't hard to recognize a gun or a brick of cocaine. Recognizing Cypriot coins is harder than detecting guns. Obviously a smuggler isn't going to write 'auto parts' on a shipment of coins. He is going to write something like 'recent silver tokens'. The Customs agent will need to study the difference, leaving little time to look for guns and bricks of cocaine.

When the Iraqi museum was robbed the state department put out a list of stolen Iraqi artifacts, including coins. This was a problem, because no coins were stolen! The list is still there, but now says 'Present, Stolen or Missing'. (Coins are 'Present', but you wouldn't know it from the site.) Look at the 'Islamic Coins' and 'Parthian Coins' on that website. This is the kind of information that will be given to Customs agents.

There is a pre-existing agreement for Byzantine metal antiquities with Cyprus; the images are here. If coins are added you can expect to see 'Greek', 'Byzantine', and 'Medieval' coins added to that list. Having coins on the list means Customs Agent will be spending a lot of time opening boxes when the X-ray shows coins. Recent and old coins look similar under the X-ray.

More Google

Jeffrey Toobin reports on Google's Moon Shot in next week's The New Yorker.

According to the article, Google plans to scan at least 32 million volumes, and be finished within ten years. The article estimates the cost of this at $800,000,000; elsewhere I've read numbers as low as $100,000,000 million.

“Previously, when people have done scanning, they always were constrained by their budget and their scale,” Clancy told me. “They had to spend all this time figuring out which were the perfect ten thousand books, so they spent as much time in selection as in scanning. All the technology out there developed solutions for what I’ll call low-rate scanning. There was no need for a company to build a machine that could scan thirty million books. Doing this project just using commercial, off-the-shelf technology was not feasible. So we had to build it ourselves.”

A few years ago I was begging Frank Campbell to let me scan some titles at the ANS library. He had so many concerns I hinted that it might be better for me to just wait for Google. Frank seemed surprised that I would believe Google would scan numismatic works and auction catalogs.

As the article implies, Google doesn't have a choice. They cannot afford to decide which books are worthy of scanning. At $30 to scan a book it's cheaper to scan than to pay a graduate student to decide which books are worth scanning! If librarians in any of Google's member libraries thought a title was worth acquisitioning then it'll be on Google.

What won't be there? 20th century auction catalogs? Anything else?

In related news, Google's copyright lawyer has a blog.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Maps from books

Google's blog announced yesterday the addition of automatically generated maps for books.

For example, suppose you are reading the anonymous catalog International Medallic Exhibition of the American Numismatic Society. Click on 'About this book' and a new section, 'Places mentioned in this book' appears. It's a map of the world, with red pins sticking into it.

One of the pins is over Texas. Hover over the pin and a tooltip reading "Sabine Pass, Texas" appears. Click on the Texas pin and a balloon appears with an excerpt showing the details of medal 3395 and a page number. Click on the page number and page 242 appears with 'Sabine Pass, Texas' highlighted.

Not only is the technology amazing, but completely automated. No bibliographer typed in a list of cities into Google. An Artificial Intelligence figured this out on its own.

The flaws in this techology are obvious. Also on page 242 is a Washington medal of New Orleans, but New Orleans doesn't appear on the map. Presumably Google's software is looking for "(city), (state)" and "(city), (country)" patterns. It hasn't yet been taught the "(important city)" pattern.

It's an important start. I look forward to that day when Google can extract the ancient cities - polis - and map Greek coin books.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Counterfeit detection pens

Excellent article on how counterfeit detector pens work.

The pens detect the starch content in money. Regular paper has starch, currency paper doesn't.

Magician and skeptic James Randi uses an ironing product, spray starch, that makes genuine bills appear counterfeit. Then he returns the starched bills to the bank. Eventually someone will attempt to pass the genuine but starched bill, leading to police, siezed money, etc.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Legal and Ethical Issues in Ancient Numismatics

I hadn't noticed this before, but last year the ANS added 'Legal and Ethical Issues in Ancient Numismatics' to the reading list for the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar. (This is the seminar the ANS offers on numismatics to graduate students in related fields like Classics and Archeology.)

It's an interesting list.

The ANS's own statement on cultural property is here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sonic Fingerprints Safeguard Art

A report by Nicole Martinelli, Sonic Fingerprints Safeguard Art, discusses Pietro Cosentino's invention of 'sonic fingerprinting' for antiquities.

Professor Cosentino attached sensors to an ancient funeral url, then tapped the urn with a small rubber hammer. The sensors recorded the vibrations. The idea is to create a 'fingerprint' of the interior structure of the urn.

According to the report, the technique works on stone, wood and ceramics. Not metal, so this wouldn't be a good technique for examining ancient coins.

Ancient coins has a similar technique called the 'ring test'. The coin is struck and a human listens for a ringing sound. Reid Goldsborough explains the test. It's used for detecting cast counterfeits and to check for crystalization.

Could a quantitative test be developed for ancient metallic objects? Perhaps something with a tuning fork and very accurate measurement of sound waves or object vibrations? I suspect such a test would reveal very little about coins of good metal, but perhaps would be of use for measuring crystalization or patina composition.

(via Harvard Art Law News).

Monday, January 22, 2007

“I'd like nothing better than to do a film on the antiquities trade.”

Part 2 of Suzan Mazur's interview with Bruce McNall.

McNall talks about the antiquities market, Hecht, Numismatic Fine Arts, and the Hunt brothers, as well as his new movie Alpha Dog starring Bruce Willis, Justin Timberlake and Sharon Stone.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Right Wing Coin Geek

Dealer Jim McGarigle (Polymath Numismatics) has a new blog, Right Wing Coin Geek. In today's post he explains how he prices ancient coins. He also touches on misattribution and rarity.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Priceless mirror makes smashing TV debut

Ouch! IOL reports that a bronze mirror from the Warring States period, 475-221 BC, fell out of its box while being held by an assistant during taping of a Chinese television program.

Although priceless, the owner Chen Fengjiu had previously been offered $1,000,000 for the mirror.

Freeman and Sear FPL 12

The printed catalog for Freeman and Sear Fixed Price List 12 arrived yesterday. 190 lots. The catalog features coins with fine portraits of rare rulers, including this tetradrachm of Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The famous catalogue of the Burlington Fine Arts Club Exhibition of Ancient Greek Art

Alan Walker of LHS Numismatik gave a fascinating talk on “Famous Collectors of Greek Coins” last Saturday at NYINC on behalf of the ACCG.

Walker told personal anecdotes about several 'name' collectors and described the auctions and catalogs of their coins.

The collectors were Photiades, Rhousopoulos, (Arthur John) Evans, Jameson, Pozzi, Clarence S. Bement, and Charles Gillet & Marion Schuster. Except for the Schusters I had heard all the names before but knew next to nothing about them. I vaguely knew that Evans had excavated linear-B tablets on Knossos and that Pozzi was a doctor who was murdered by a patient. The others were just names.

Walker's research into the people behind the names illuminated the collecting scene in the 19th and early 20th century. I was surprised that a lecture on coin collecting could be as interesting as the coins.

Although these collectors were not or have lost universal fame they are famous enough in numismatics to have only 'one name', justifying the 'Famous' in the title.

Describing Evans's coins, Walker says “... 211 of Evans's coins, all from Magna Graecia and Sicily save for nine from Crete, were published by G. Hill in the famous catalogue of the Burlington Fine Arts Club Exhibition of Ancient Greek Art held in 1904.” [emphasis mine].

Walker might have used 'famous' in jest, but I suspect he believes Hill's catalog is truely famous. Perhaps to the people who were in the room the catalog is famous.

(Walker makes an error; I believe the exhibition was held in 1903 and published in 1904. The Historia Numorum (1911) bibliography gives 1903 as the publication date. The ANS library catalogue entry holds both dates. Clain-Stefanelli's bibliography doesn't have an entry for the catalog.)

I've never seen a copy. The ANS library has one but it must be in the rare book room — I've never seen it in the regular Greek coinage stacks. I've never seen it offered for sale at a coin show. I don't recall it listed in any auctions of numismatic literature. Google hasn't scanned it. Clain-Stefanelli's bibliography doesn't list it and neither does Kroh's. 'Obscure' is a better description for the catalog.

I only know of the catalog because Historia Numorum cites it twice for tetradrachms of Sicily. For years I've fantasized annotating my Historia Numorum web site with photos, including the two from Hill's Burlington catalog.

If there is a community of numismatic bibliophiles for whom this catalog is famous I need to meet these people and hang out with them.

Hirsch auction catalog online

The Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger auction catalog is now online. Antiquities, ancient coins, and over 600 lots of numismatic literature. (Mostly covering German coins, though.)

The web site is a bit difficult to navigate. I received the printed catalogs in the mail yesterday.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Interview with Bruce McNall on Roman Bronze Boy

Suzan Mazur has a brief interview with Bruce McNall on the Scoop website.

The interview implies the difficulty of forensic testing of bronze antiquities. Robert Hecht is mentioned.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Joseph Eckhel, Doctrina Nvmorvm Vetervm

I purchased two books this week. The first was Broome's A Handbook of Islamic Coins. Spink has reprinted it, and was selling it at NYINC for $50 although I couldn't find it on Spink's web site. (Used copies of the 1985 edition run about $300).

The other title was Antiquarian Books on Coins and Medals by Bassoli. This short book (88 pages) includes a 3 page chapter on abbot Joseph Hilarius Eckhel, author of the landmark Doctrina Numorum Veterum (1792-1798) (in Latin). This chapter begins with an odd anecdote about Eckhel refusing to use his connections to find his newphew a job, saying “anyone who can [read, write, and count] properly needs no other recommendations, and can make his way in life off his own back.”

I can't read Latin, but I can puzzle through basic coin descriptions and a lot of 19th century books cite it. Curtis Clay has praised the work. It was last reprinted in the 1830s, and is expensive. Spink wants $5000 for "a very fine set" "perhaps the very best set we've seen"; I couldn't find another copy for sale. So it's good news that Google has provided us with a digital copy:

[vol 1]
[vol 2]
[vol 3]
[vol 4]

[vol 5]
[vol 6]
[vol 7]
[vol 8]

Bassoli says these books have “some tables of coins”. I couldn't find them on Google's site (but didn't look to hard.) If you are interested in Bassoli you'll have to order it from Kolbe or Spink. Regular online stores don't carry it. Online book searches for Bassoli only yield the original Italian edition, Monete e medaglie nel libro antico dal XV al XIX secolo.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Masked robbers steal $4 million in rare coins

The Miami-Herald reports Masked robbers steal $4 million in rare coins at the FUN show.

A witness told police she saw the Mitsubishi pull into the hotel ahead of her, blocking her from the entrance. Three men wearing dark hooded shirts and surgical masks got out, one holding the victim at knifepoint. He ordered the coin custodian, who worked for a Minnesota man that owned the valuables, to open the sport utility vehicle and slashed its back tire.

The dealer's name was not given in the report.

UPDATE: The Orlando-Sentinal has better coverage including a photo of one of the coins.

Google book search announces new library

Google book search has an official blog, Inside Google Book Search. Announced today: The National Library of Catalonia joins the Library Project.

The libraries' website has a searchable catalog, but it was performing slowly today. The library has a lot of Catalon and Spanish-language titles.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Jewish revolt coinage at Bi-Lo grocery?

WLTX, news channel 19 from Columbia South Carolina tells us Sumter Woman Finds Possible Ancient Coin In Grocery Change.

The coin looks fake, but coin expert Ken Lyles has dated it to Bar Kokhba's revolt.

Friday, January 05, 2007

More books on Google

A bunch of new titles have been appearing on Google. Google's book search engine remains broken. Although I've found four volumes of Eckhel's Doctrina numorum veterum Google believes there is only one! It's frustrating.

DNV is important. It would be a worthwhile project to create an HTML geographical index for it.

Most public domain books can be downloaded but a few can't. Here is an interesting one: The Money of the Bible (1894), by George C. Williamson. I am becoming interested in old woodcuts of ancient coins.

Print your own money

Official PDFs of Monopoly money.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Welcome to 1922!

Robert Nagel welcomes us to 1922.

If Sonny Bono hadn't extended copyrights, the public domain have received the works of 1931 this year. Titles such as the first SNG (SNG Spencer-Churchill), George Hill's Notes on the ancient coinage of Hispania citerior, and 353 other works.