Thursday, July 31, 2008

Phaistos Disc

PhDiva reports on Jerome M. Eisenberg's condemnation of the Phaistos Disc today.

Most interesting is this reference: “nine of the 32 of Eisenberg’s devised ‘Stylistic Criteria in Ancient Art Forgery’ apply to the work of this forger (Minerva, May/June 1992, pp., 10-15; originally presented as a paper at the 1970 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America”. I wasn't aware of the article; I wonder if it is applicable to detecting forgeries of coins.

PhDiva is also linking to the actual reports on Iraq looting and reporting that Egypt is rewarding some antiquities finders.

On the expenses of photographing a coin

I recently suggested that boxes of junk coins could be photographed at close to zero cost but it might average an hour to enter a coin into a database. Nathan T. Elkins replied
... it is time consuming and expensive to photograph finds and, from my own experience, I can say it is often easier to identify and enter a coin in a database than to properly photograph it. These online databases simply do not have the funding to hire someone to enter the photographs into a database.

How much does it cost to photograph a coin and how can this be reduced?

The ANS charges twenty bucks per coin (both sides). They have a highly skilled staff photographer, Alan Roche, who has a degree in photography and is capable of producing beautiful pictures suitable for glossy annual reports sent to donors.

I'm not talking about those kind of photographs.

To document the basement boxes the biggest expense may not be the camera operator but security. The ANS learned this when Sheldon (the large cent expert and psychologist) demonstrated his deep understanding of kleptomania doing swicheroo thefts from the ANS's trays. I photographed a few coins at the ANS last year and they watched me like a hawk!

I'd like to propose the use of glove boxes to deal with the security issue. Trusted guards can place coins in the glove box and untrusted photographers can manipulate them with very low risk.

We can further reduce the cost by eliminating the camera operator. If we don't worry about orientation or correct lighting coins can be dumped into a hopper and photographed as they ride a conveyer belt. This may seem dumb, but we don't need correct orientation to document a coin for theft, or later restoration, or automatic computer classification. It may even be possible for computers to make very good guesses and orient the images later. Lighting is important, but if we can reduce the cost of taking a single coin image to near-zero then lighting angles can be handled by taking six pictures, using six different light sources, also for near-zero cost.

(Taking multiple pictures of coins under good lighting is a good idea anyway. When buying a coin in person most collectors tilt the coin -- the motion changing the lighting and revealing details. If I buy clothing online most catalogs let me rotate the garment but coin dealer sites don't....)

Perhaps in the future computers will be able to take better pictures of ancient coins than the best human experts? Far-fetched, but this is already the case for ancient cuneiform tablets! Check out the pictures in this paper by Sean Eron Anderson and Marc Levoy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

iArtifact / GoogleArtifact

I applaud Saving Antiquities for Everyone's mission although I disapprove of their strategy and tactics.

Can antiquities really belong to everyone?

Imagine a future in which I own the ancient coins I have today and all of the antiquities that SAFE has saved on my behalf. I'd certainly want pictures of my antiquities for my records. Both the ones in coin folder in my bookcase and the ones SAFE is storing for me in the museums of the world.

I was trying to discuss this with Paul Barford but followup comments were somehow lost.

I don't just want pictures of the ancient coins that some professional has decided are interesting. I want to decide for myself which coins to look at. I literally want every box of coins scanned and put online with a Creative Commons license allowing me to use the image for any purpose. Perhaps some images could be tagged with metadata such as NUDS but it's expensive to gather and maintain that information. Images, which are the most important documentation, can be obtained for nearly free by dropping coins into a hopper for digital scanning. That techology is nearly free. Volunteers placing coins on a flatbed scanner is free. Graduate students might be available to do it cheaply. Internet storage from is free.

Identifying and documenting coins takes time. In the preface to H. C. Lindgren's third volume (Lindgren III (1993)) he estimates 2000 hours for 1500 coins. It will take a long time to document the world's ancient coins at that rate and be very expensive. Perhaps in some places grants could be found for experts but not everywhere, not this century.

Perhaps there is a way to generate metadata for antiquities that doesn't cost any money? I've mentioned automatic classification of ancient coins from scans. Another idea is to use Google Image Labeler-type technology. Imagine a game whose goal is to find all the coins of a particular emperor from a particular dig in a museum's online photo archives. Players create detailed coin records without knowing it as a side effect of competition. Professionals may not understand but some of us enjoy finding and identifying coins. There is even a popular FORVM board where collectors identify each-other's coins. I'm proposing a new hobbies involving images of coins similar to how 'photo safaris' replaced big game hunting during the 20th century as it became expensive to get permits.

People are already doing 'armchair archaeology' using Google Earth [story by Brian Handwerk for National Geographic News]

I am sometimes told there isn't enough money to scan every box of potshards. Surely it's cheaper to only scan the good stuff than to scan everything? Consider Google Books. The amazing thing about Google Books is that while others were starting pilot programs paying experts to debate which books deserved scanning Google decided to scan everything and let people decide on their own what to read. It turned out to be cheaper to pay folks to turn pages near a digital camera than for experts to argue literary merits!

How much would it costs to put the world's basement antiquities online? The German's are scanning and collating 600 million scraps of shredded secret police documents and estimate the cost will be $30 million.

Even if no one turns out to be interested in the boxes the photos may provide a valuable record when the contents someday are restored. They provide a safeguard against theft. Remember when 11,000 ancient coins were stolen from Veliko Tarnovo museum? A list of the stolen items was promised to be made available by February 6, 2006 but it still hasn't been posted! I know people who would have loved to have spotted a stolen Veliko Tarnovo coin in a glossy auction catalog.

I don't take it seriously when SAFE promises to save antiquities for me because I don't believe they will let me see the antiquities they save.

Remember the Lydian treasure? The New York Metropolitan Museum bought it and had to give it back to Turkey. Much ink was spilled when New Yorkers had to pack it up and send it to a tiny regional museum in Turkey where less than 800 people saw it in five years. It made international headlines when it was stolen from the little museum. No one even noticed that a billion Internet users don't have high-resolution pictures of it.

Kimberley Process Certification Scheme

Is it possible to prevent the looting of ancient sites for coins, and support antiquities as private property, and have ethical open trade in unprovenanced coins without a registry? It works today for diamonds.

The Economic Paradoxes of Contemporary Art

For everyone complaining about the high prices of ancient coins, or the $25 plus 10% fees on the new, Felix Salmon has posted a review of Don Thompson's new book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. (via Marginal Revolution)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Israel's antiquities registry

A citation by Nathan T. Elkin lead me to "From the Ground to the Buyer: A Market Analysis of the Trade in Illegal Antiquities" by Morag M. Kersel (in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade (2006)).

My main interest in the paper is how dealers avoid registries. I've been trying to design a registry and need to understand common attacks.

Background: Israeli antiquities dealers are allowed to buy and sell antiquities registered before 1978. Antiquities not in the registry are the property of the state of Israel.

Kersel claims that dealers re-use the same registration for similar antiquities, using the example of a Herodian oil lamp, 'registry #147'. When the lamp is sold the buyer receives a certificate of authenticity (CoA) from the dealer and perhaps an export license 'issued by the [Israel Antiquities Authority]'. A description and registry number appear on the export license. Kersel claims that if the buyer doesn't ask for the license the dealer can continue using the registry number without fear of detection.

A request to my readers. If any of you have bought a coin in Israel and obtained either the certificate of authenticity or the export license I'd like a scan (and English translation). If any of you have bought a coin by mail from Israel I'd be curious to know if the export license arrived with the coin and if you had to ask for it.

Kersel doesn't say if the CoA includes or excludes the registry number. It must not because if it did a police detective could easily buy similar items from the same shop a month apart and receive proof of the scam. Yet I would think a knowledgeable Israeli collector would insist on receiving the registry number for coins he planned on keeping in Israel, if only to be assured of the legal status and to have the possibility of one day selling or donating to a foreign museum.

The attack Kersel documents makes use of the non-specificity of the registry descriptions. A registry including photographs would be much harder to scam, or one recording weights down to the tenth of a gram (noting that items do gain and lose a bit of weight due to moisture or poorly calibrated scales.)

Kersel includes a colorful story of a shoeshine who moonlights as an illicit antiquities dealer. Kersel claims that Palestinian female herb growers in Hebron find coins while gardening and sell them to the shoeshine for less than 2% of retail. The shoeshine sells them to dealers for 20% of retail.

It should be easy to detect this! A detective could photograph a legally excavated coin and drop it in a Hebron herb garden. If it was a scarce coin it would soon appear in the trays of the dealers who patronize the shoeshine. The detective could then buy it with the bogus registration number.

I don't know how many antiquities, specifically ancient coins, appear in the pre-1978 registry. I'd be very curious to know! Ten-thousand? A million? Detecting suspicious activity on large and small registries have different problems.

It would also be interesting to know if the export license database is kept digitally. If so, it should be easy to check for re-use of numbers. This wouldn't detect clever dealers but should foil the clumsy or inattentive.

The scam Kersel documents, though somewhat clever, seems easy to unmask. Perhaps Israel's police detectives lack the time or the will. Kersel admits the Antiquities Authority is understaffed and illegal antiquities are a low priority. That's valid. However, Kersel quotes O'Keefe (Trade in Antiquities (1997)) saying that the effectiveness of licensing dealers and having registries is questionable. I think that's unfair. When the pro-collecting community suggests licensing and registries for countries with looting problems we mean ones with enforcement — a least spot checking. We don't mean the paperwork itself solves the problem!

Kolbe auction 106 catalog up

Kolbe's auction 106 catalog is up as a PDF file. 597 lots. Closes September 18th.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Treasure-Trove, its Ancient and Modern Laws

I hope my series on law and ethics isn't boring everyone. (If it is, please suggest topics you'd like me to cover in the future.)

It isn't just coin dealers and the ACCG that think lack of property rights causes looting. a letter from the Numismatic Society to the Lords Commissioners from 1871 makes the same point.

An article by M. Adrien Blanchet, translated into English by Herbert Grueber, “Treasure-Trove, its Ancient and Modern Laws” (Numismatic Chronicle, 1902, p. 148) provides many alternatives to the current scheme:
The old Roman right leaves us to understand that a citizens who unearthed a treasure, even on ground which belonged to him, should hand it over to the fiscus. [2] ....

Nerva, with his accustomed liberal spirit, surrendered his rights to a treasure found by Atticus, the father of the Sophist Herod, on his own lands. [4]

Under Constantine the Great, the public treasury insisted on its rights; and a law of A.D. 315 granted to the finder one-half of the treasure, when duly announced to the fiscus. The same text provides that no enquiry shall follow, if such declaration be made in proper form. [8]

In a mandate of Philip IV, dated 27th August, 1306, it is ordered that treasures without any distinction found on lands or in dwellings belonging to Jews shall be surrendered to the King. [18]

Without going into detail, we may mention that in Denmark, according to the law of Valdemar I, [29] it is enacted that if anyone should find gold or silver in a field or on a hill or under his plough, it belongs to the King; and if he denies that he has found it, let him defend himself on oath before his kinsmen.

In Italy the State possesses also the right of pre-emption, the application of which has greatly fostered the concealment of treasure-trove, as the proprietors are ware of the small indemnity offered by the State. In mediaeval times the law appears to have been different, at least at Padua; for in 1274 we learn "that a treasure of pure gold of supposed value of more than 30,000 livres was found in the garden of the Hospice of the Domus Dei at Padua, which was unfairly divided byeween the finders, the Bishop, and the State and its officials; a fourth part being, however, reserved for the Hospital, but subject to the conditions that it should be devoted towards its repair."

In discussing the question of the origin of the English Common Law of Treasure-Trove, Professor E. C. Clark [34] is of opinion that there is little or no direct trace of a Roman original. The claim for the Crown would seem rather to be derived from some such feudal doctrine as that of ultimate ownership of land being vested in the Lord Paramount. Such a docutrine is not of Italian growth, but much more Teutonic in character. In Anglo-Saxon times the right of the Crown or Lord Paramount appears never to have been questioned ....

In 1886 the discovery of a hoard of gold coins of Henry VI-VIII at Park Street, St. Albans, was the means of bringing about a futher improvement in the conditions of recompense to finders of treasure-trove, and in this improvement was mainly due to the strenuous efforts made by our President, Sir John Evans. On that occasion our President pointed out to the Treasury that the system ... of giving the finders merely the intrinsic value of coins retained, whilst the Treasury received from the Trustees of the British Musuem and other public institutions the archaeological or numismatic value of the coins, was a very unjurious and unfare one....

Already in the country districts the cultivator of the soil is inclined to resent the interference of the State with his personal affairs; and I do not fear contradiction when I state that numerous finds of coins, jewellery, or other small objects of antiquity have been dispersed and even melted down before being studied, and that because the finder imagines that the State has an absolute right over all finds. This feeling is probably the result of the influence of the various customs ... which have been enumerated above.

For numismatics in particular it is of the highest importance that the treasures should be preserved in the entirety and also that their provenance should be known.

Encouraging better documentation by rewarding it

In a previous comment, Paul Barford suggests that collectors should refuse to touch coins with no documented history as a way to fight looting.

Rather than signalling preferences for documentation perhaps collectors could explicitly pay dealers for details leading back to the source? If a few collectors stop bidding on undocumented coins and start bidding higher on well-documented ones many dealers wouldn't even notice. If I actually offer $10 or 1% on top of of the purchase price for provenance information they might pay more attention.

I'd pay a lot to know where the dealer got many of my coins from, but I'm mostly interested in the coins of uncertain mints. For common coins I'm less curious but I might still pay a little.

In some cases the provenance info might be a photocopy of a Harlan J Berk ticket from the 1980s. Maybe I pay just to learn that the coin came in a zip-lock bag from a gentleman with a Lebanese accent at a recent coin show.

It isn't clear what the social norms on tracing coins back should be. I purchased two coins that were published in SNG Levante from CNG. One had a further history published in Levante's SNG but the more interesting one did not. Mr. Levante is still alive. Would it be appropriate to write to him and ask him if he recalls where he bought a coin in the 1980s? Although you would not know it from my posts here I'm a bit shy about this sort of thing.

Collectors are at the end of a long chain from the soil. It's hard to signal ethical values up the chain with price signals.

I have also heard that I should reward dealers who participate in online forums or write books by steering them business but I'd rather just pay for the books. There is no way to pay for discussion group participation so I share my knowledge in return. When I want a coin it's rare not something that every dealer has a couple of anyway. Expressing moral values though shopping doesn't seem able to provide incentives to change much.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Kolbe auction 106

The catalog isn't up yet, but CoinLink is carrying a press release for Kolbe sale 106, to be held September 18th. The release also promises a Kolbe auction in New York on January 10th 2009.

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.)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Microsoft Photosynth

Here is something unrelated to coins that I think is extremely cool: Microsoft Photosynth. It's not something you can buy today, but a demo from Microsoft's labs. Check out the videos!

Currently it takes Photosynth days to create a 3D model from photographs. The author's hope is to make it fast enough that a user can search for pictures of a location, feed the results into the Photosynth software, and quickly get a 3D model of the location in the photographs.

It's very impressive.

There is a paper explaining how it works here.

The first step, detailed in section 4.1 of the paper, is finding feature points in the images and matching them. The authors (Noah Snavely, Steven M. Seitz, and Richard Szeliski) use the SIFT algorithm citing D. Lowe, “Distinctive image features from scale-invariant keypoints” Int. J. of Computer Vision 60, 2, 91-110. I'd like to point out this is the same algorithm, Scale-invariant feature transform, the Image Based Recognition of Ancient Coins proposed.

That paper reported little luck identifying the kind of ancient coin in the photo, but perhaps the technique could be used to find different pictures of the same coin, in the same way the Photo Tourism paper finds different pictures of the same buildings?

If we could match a photo against a database of hundreds of thousands of coins and it was able to identify either exact matches or other coins from the same die it would be of great help to catalogers.

There are a number of interesting ways to use computer coin matching software. One way is to have a database containing scans of every coin auction catalog, 1870-1970, and match coins against it for exact matches. A success rate of even 25% would help find many coins that had lost their pre-1970 provenance. Obviously it's expensive to scan every catalog, but perhaps the ANS could persuade Google to do it for free to their library...

A second way to use computer matching is to do die-studies, finding coins in existing catalogs that share the same dies, or better yet just obverse or reverse dies.

A third way to use computer matching is to find forgeries. Coins would be checked against a database of fake coins. Getting the human out of the loop would save a lot of time for authenticators, museum professionals, and dealers. This is very important! Just recently it was discovered that a metal detectorist at a competition in England 'found' a modern Bulgarian aureus forgery (here and here).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Image Based Recognition of Ancient Coins

Image Based Recognition of Ancient Coins is the title of a 2007 paper by Maia Zaharieva, Martin Kampel, and Sebastian Zambanini printed in Lecture Notes in Computer Science: Computer Analysis of Images and Patterns. Eight pages. The paper may be downloaded for $25 from SpringerLink.

The authors attempted to use computer programs to recognize Roman Imperial coin images. A database of 3000 Roman Imperial coin images was used (from the International Numismatic Commission; I don't think the database is online).

The authors attempt to use the techniques to automatically recognize modern coins (country of issue, denomination) from computer images that performed well at the “MUSCLE CIS Coin Competition 2006” (ERCIM News reports on that competition here).

The coin image database was manually divided into 106 'classes'. The authors don't say what a 'class' is; I'm guessing the class was the name of the emperor or empress. Classification software quality is usually measured by first setting it up using training database with information (the 'class', such as emperor name) to teach the system what to look for. Then a second test database of similar images is then fed into the software which must guess the 'class'. The guesses are checked against the classification done by a human expert. (The authors don't come out and say that is what they tried to do for ancient coins but I assume it was. That's how the MUSCLE competition was done.)

The paper's Abstract makes it sound like the authors hope to use computer analysis of coin images to fight commerce in the illegal antiquities market. They don't mention that automatic classification (to emperor, reverse type, etc) would be useful for numismatists in general!

The paper presents details on the mathematical techniques they tried.

The author's conclusion is negative: “features that achieve good classification ratio with modern coins easily fail with the classification of ancient coins.” (In other words, their software couldn't figure out which emperor was on their test database, if my reading of the paper is correct.) They were getting 4% success rates. Since they had about 100 classes chance would be about 1% so perhaps they were 4x better than chance.

The authors claim preliminary tests using a computer vision technique, Scale-invariant feature transform [wikipedia], shows promising results for medieval coins and they intend to attempt it against the medieval collection of the Fitzwilliam.

The authors have a follow-up paper, From Manual to Automated Optical Recognition of Ancient Coins, which is another $25. I haven't read it; if anyone buys it a summary would be very much appreciated!

Lake Books sale #94

Lake Books sale #94 is up. 383 lots, mostly modern, but a few rare items like Foy-Vaillant's Achaemenidarum Imperium sive Regum Ponti, Bosphori, et Bithyniae Historia from 1723.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Speculation on why few collectors insist on proof of pre-1970 commercial history

I was born in 1967 and don't remember the 1970 debates about the UNESCO antiquities convention. Presumably in 1970 it seemed like a good idea that any antiquities not 'known' before 1970 were fresh finds. Everyone agreed not to buy them, and it was assumed that since everyone would keep their word the tomb robbers, unable to find customers, would take up new professions.

In 1972, Thomas Hoving (director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) sold a marvelous collection of ancient coins with 19th century provenances to buy a very nice Greek vase called The Euphronios Krater.

Hoving was in control of a gigantic collection of antiquities in 1972 when 99% of known antiquities probably had pre-1970 'provenances'. He wasn't able to resist buying the Krater even though he suspected it looted. He spent $1,000,00 for the dubious Krater, which had been looted, and 36 years later the museum had to give it to the government of Italy.

  • The fact that he already had a huge collection of antiquities did not stop him from acquiring new ones.
  • His high moral fiber did not stop him from acquiring.
  • The many pre-1970 antiquities available in 1972 did not distract him from his collecting fever.

It's now 2008. No one knows the percentage of ancient coins in collections are pre-1970. Perhaps 25%, perhaps 75%. Only a tiny fraction (Nathan Elkins says 1.15%) of coins for sale claim to be old enough for museums to acquire them—many more are but no one thought to track cheap coins four decades ago.

Hoving couldn't resist when 99% of antiquities were at two years old. It is hard for me to resist when only 1% are declared such. This doesn't make me a bad person, just typical.

I bought five coins this year. Perhaps they were all found pre-1970 but I can't prove it. I see a coin, it's already out of the ground. If I don't buy it the dealer will keep reducing the price until someone buys it.

Even if a coin seems to have a provenance should I trust it? One coin in my collection has as it's provenance “Acquired from C. Holm in December 1974, as a duplicate from the Copenhagen cabinet.”. How am I going to check that? If I cannot easily verify claimed provenance it is difficult to treat claims as being necessities for acquisitions.

More on photo-notarizing antiquities to prove ownership

Peter Tompa and Nathan T. Elkins have both weighed in on my suggestion to use timestamp notary services to register coins cheaply (here and here)

Mr. Elkins likes the idea so much he thinks that there should be a deadline for entering coins into the registery and after that 'regulations' against selling coins without provenance. (I disagree—not everyone who has an ancient coin has a computer!)

Peter Tompa thinks the idea needs goverment blessing. Although I'd like to see a centralized searchable archive for research purposes, perhaps supported by National Endowment for the Humanities grants, but I think the strength of the idea is that no govermental blessing or registry is needed! These certificates prove something in a court of law without needing an organization to administer anything.

The ability to create proveably old photo-receipts is a boon because some folks fake proveances. The ability to do it without a central registry means that folks who are hiding their collection from their ex-wife's divorce lawyer have no excuse not to certify their photo-receipts.

There are technical flaws with the idea. It certifies a digital file, not the coin. One attack against it is create a cast fake, legally export the fake from country X as a replica, create a video of yourself holding the fake up in Time Square and timestamp notarize the video. Then go back to country X and take the original out. If anyone questions you at the border, the video seems to imply the the genuine coin wasn't being illegally exported...

I think extremely hi-resolution pictures protected against this attack, but I just wanted to point out timestamp notarization of physical objects is not 100% unbreakable.

Rather than regulations making it illegal to have unregistered antiquities I want to create an incentives to track provenances. If there are incentives more and more coins will carry histories, and the ones without will start to seem dubious.

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!

Pacific island nation finds minting coins too difficult, returns to dolphin-tooth standard

I don't know how I missed this important story.

A story by Richard Giedroyc in World Coin News reveals that the Solomon Islands [wikipedia] is informally returning to the practice of using dolphin teeth for spare change (as previously reported by a story by Yaroslav Trofimov in the Wall Street Journal.)

The reason? “The Central Bank of Solomon Islands has called on citizens of the island nation to cash in their coins.... Part of the problem, according to the [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], is that 'The low value of coins in Solomon Islands' currency has led many there to either hoard them, or to give them as gifts to children.' [Radio New Zealand] added, 'However, the number of people doing this is starting to affect businesses.'”

Monday, July 07, 2008

List of Subject Headings for Specialized Collections in Numismatics

A recent e-Sylum summarizes Rick Witschonke's “Frank Campbell: An Appreciation of Five Decades of Service”. The summary mentions Frank Cambell's Subject Heading List; the full article says the List “ultimately contained nearly 20,000 items.”

I've never seen the List. The ANS card catalog entry reveals it was seven pages long and published in the 11th International Congress of Numismatics.

Perhaps I'm missing something. How can 20,000 items be printed on seven pages? Do 20,000 “items” correspond to 20,000 headings? The Library of Congress sells a five volume set of all their headings in every subject — there are 280,000 in total, for all knowledge in the world. So 20,000 seems high for Numismatics. I'm merely guessing though. I'm not even quite sure what a subject heading is, although this Wikipedia page tries to explain it.

The Library of Congress also has a classification system. Coins are in CJ.

1-4625 Coins

153 Finds of coins
161 Symbols, devices, etc.
201-1397 Ancient
1509-4625 Medieval and modern

To get more information about this range one apparently has to subscribe to Classification Web for $325.

Not all books on coins are in CJ. The Library's Numismatics and Philately page points out, for example, that a book listing all coins and banknotes of a country will be found under HG.

Google Book Search Targeting More Books for Public Domain?

Information Today article by Barbara Quint on US copyright renewal, 1923-1963, and Google's new free 390MB database of copyright renewals.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Spink on YouTube

English coin auctioneers Spink are uploading numismatic auction promotional videos to YouTube.

Unlike a lot of YouTube coin videos, the coins are well-photographed and scroll in interesting ways. YouTube's compression is still irritating, but at least these coins aren't blurry saturated blobs.

The video is narrated by Richard Bishop and William MacKay.

Abbreviations of book and journal titles

I often have difficulty upon encountering the abbreviated titles of obscure numismatic sources. Google Book Search doesn't know the 'obvious' abbreviations.

Yesterday I spent time looking up “Lenormant, Rois Grecs”, a citation in a book by Imhoof-Blumer. Eventually I realized the title refers to a volume, Numismatique complète des Rois Grecs (1849), in the 13-volume work Trésor de numismatique et de glyptique ou Recueil général de médailles, monnaies pierres gravées, bas-reliefs, etc. (1834-).

Using Google Book Search, Google, and the ANS library catalog in different windows helps.

For modern journal titles, the Harry Bass foundation has a list of the full titles of 930 numismatic journals and the abbreviations used by the Numismatic Literature journal.

Elsen list 245 up

Jean Elsen's list 245 is up, with 250 ancient coins. 50 lots of numismatic literature are promised to be added to the list by July 8th.