Thursday, August 28, 2008

Weight Watchers & Archaeology

Electric Archaeology proposes proposes looking for competitive and game-like experiences in amateur archeology using the ideas of Jane McGonigal.

Problems with Renfrew

Ted Buttrey of the Fitzwilliam recently wrote about Colin Renfew's positions on collecting. Dr. Buttrey's essay is a good one. Here's a sample:
A single example from the real world. In the 1980's a hoard of 5000 later-3rd-century antoninani, found locally in Cambridgeshire, was brought to this museum for examination and offered to us for sale. We cleaned it, and in return were allowed to pick out about 250 pieces for our trays. The rest we did not want -- we would have had to purchase a whole new set of cabinets (no money to buy them, no place to put them anyway) and spent God knows what in the way of man-hours accessioning this material -- and anyhow could not use: the 4750 remaining coins were the same old stuff which we already know of by the thousands. So we kept what we felt to be useful in filling gaps, in studying, and in teaching. The rest of the
hoard was offered to the British Museum who turned it down. Finally the finder took it to a dealer who paid 50 pence per coin and sold them on for a pound.

Be clear about this: the hoard was legally found, legally reported, legally offered to several museums (none of whom wanted it), legally returned to the finder, and legally disposed of by him. No-one anywhere was going to take the time and the trouble (and the expense!) to provide each coin with a ticket (and photo?) guaranteeing its provenience. So there are 4750 perfectly OK coins from this hoard somewhere out there scattered about the market...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Postage stamps and economic development

Which stamp predicts development and which stamp dissension?

I don't normally cover stamps but Michael Kevane's paper “Official Representations of the Nation: Comparing the Postage Stamps of Sudan and Burkina Faso” (African Studies Quarterly, Spring 2008) looks interesting. This is not a stamp collecting magazine but a serious journal on African society.
An analysis of the imagery on postage stamps suggests that regimes in Sudan and Burkina Faso have pursued very different strategies in representing the nation. Sudan’s stamps focus on the political center and dominant elite (current regime, Khartoum politicians, and Arab and Islamic identity) while Burkina Faso’s stamps focus on society (artists, multiple ethnic groups, and development). Sudan’s stamps build an image of the nation as being about the northern-dominated regime in Khartoum (whether military or parliamentary); Burkina Faso’s stamps project an image of the nation as multi-ethnic and development-oriented.
(via Chris Blattman's blog via Marginal Revolution.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mediterrean countries cannot afford to pay finders for coins?

Many commentators understand the lack of market payments for coin finders in source countries tempts them to sell coins on the black market. Risky, but better than no payment! The obvious solution of paying finders market rates for coins is considered too expensive. Source countries are 'too poor.'

Wikipedia gives the GDP of the United Kingdom, 1870, at 100,179,000 'international dollars'. International dollars, also called Geary-Khamis dollars, aren't something that can be collected but are 'equivelent' to 1990 US dollars in purchasing power.

Wikipedia gives the GDP of Bulgaria, 2008, at 92,894,000 (Purchasing Power Parity). I believe that's also in Geary-Khamis dollars but I'm not sure.

So the UK of 1870 was a little richer than Bulgaria now but not by much. In terms of population, the 1871 population of the UK was 31,845,379 and the current population of Bulgaria is 7,640,238. So the per-capital GDP of Bulgaria today is actually three times higher in 1990 dollars than the UK in 1870!

A letter from the Royal Numismatic Society to the Lords Commissioners from 1871 argues that paying the finder less than the market value causes destruction: “... the practice of the Treasury in giving to the finder the intrinsic value of the objects found, virtually concedes the principle of their being his property, but, at the same time, does not prevent the constant concealment and destruction of coins and other antiquities; for the mere fact of a claim to them being advanced, accompanied though this may be by the promise of payment for them of an unknown sum at a period always indefinite and often remote, suffices in many cases to deter finders from openly producing the results of their discoveries, and drives; them to dispose of such relics clandestinely.”

I picked Bulgaria because I've heard they are considering a market system for coins. I hope it happens. They are not poor by historical standards.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What have archaeologists ever done?

A collector I respect recently asked me 'what have archaeologists ever done?'

He wasn't asking me to name books and reports written by archaeologists. He was asking why modern societies value the professional archaeologist so highly.

Most societies seize land and treasure if an archaeologist reports that antiquities lie beneath the surface. In the United States it's a little different; here municipalities attempt to buy land to protect it. We sometimes declare a monument to have 'landmark status' meaning the owner cannot remodel it without governmental permission. In most of the world, including some rich democracies of Europe, the state owns almost all of antiquity. Only items found before the mid-20th century remain in private hands.

That's surprising. Other professions don't have this power. We don't give electrical engineers the right to size land containing magnets. We don't give chemists the right to seize rare chemicals or drug designers the right to nationalize rare plants.

These professions have given the world amazing boons such as the electric light, plastic, and penicillin. Yet we expect these folks to join corporations or universities that pay for research materials. There is public outcry when the legal principal of eminent domain is used to transfer property for the benefit of these helpful sciences.

What archeology does, in my opinion, is the measure and test history. The study of history is necessary in democracies which depend on educated voters and judiciaries. The historian and the classicist tell us what life was like in other times. It's important that some citizens know history for the same reason that it's important that some folks travel. We need to understand how other societies work so that we can make good decisions for our own. Archaeology tests the results of the ancient authors and the modern interpretations of historians.

The names of the dynasts of ancient Egypt are not interesting to me. I'm interested in how those societies worked and faced problems.

Accounts of ancient times give people a national identity. People sneer at nationalism as outmoded beliefs that lead to many 20th century wars but nationalism also inspires good struggles such as the end of colonialism.

Society should encourage young people to become archaeologists and interpret the past for us. Societies should acquire ancient relics for scientific study. I believe socities should pay the landowner. Societies need votors and jurists who understand history but few will pay for their own education in this field! Like schools, fire departments, and the military archeology is a public good that can't easily be privatized.

Sometimes people tell me that the poor countries of Eastern Europe can't affort to pay for culturally important relics. Other folks have suggested state auctions of antiquities to raise the money for some to keep. Another idea is to pay the land owner in lottery tickets.

Becker the counterfeiter

The upcoming Jean Elsen auction includes 18 Beckers including the Akragas dekadrachm pictured here. There is also a lot that includes a reprint of George Hill's book Becker the Counterfeiter.

These are the tin restrikes, not the original silver pieces that Becker aged by putting them in a bag attached to the wheel of his wagon. The auction includes some of Becker's Roman pieces too.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hispanic Society and intellectual property

I had a fantasy of the ANS e-publishing Hispanic Numismatic Series 4: Raw SQL and image dump of 38,000 coins but that looks to be impossible.

The HSA coins were well cataloged as Curtis Clay pointed out on Moneta-L. I had thought the ANS cataloged them; in his Spring 2004 column Michael Bates claimed to have finished the Islamic pieces.

It turns out the HSA claimed to have cataloged the coins. The revised complaint of March 6th says the HSA loaned photos and labels to the ANS. Coin catalogs are mostly collections of facts and thus cannot be copyrighted but the original labels must be returned. It's also easy to make the claim that the ANS' excellent cataloging is somehow a 'derivative work' in the copyright sense of earlier cataloging by the Huntington's people. The coin tickets lack copyright claims (I assume!) but perhaps they are considered 'unpublished works'.

All the court records for the HSA coins case are available as PDF downloads from SCROLL. Links and case index numbers were published on the e-Sylum back in March but I've been having trouble receiving the e-Sylum and missed that notice.

In Defense of Tomb-Robbing?

An old article by Adam Young, In Defense of Tomb-Robbing, presents a radical view: the Elgin marbles rightfully belong to Lord Elgin's feudal tenants!
First, the Ottoman empire gained control over the Greek mainland by conquest and thus cannot legitimately given (sic) Lord Elgin any permission .... Assuming that no one homesteaded the Parthenon before Lord Elgin, we can conclude that these artifacts were unowned at the time that he and his workmen labored to plan and excavate their removal. Presumably, therefore, Lord Elgin was the legitimate homesteader and was perfectly within his rights to remove, display, and ultimately sell his antiquities to the British government (leaving aside the illegitimate origin of the funds that the government used to pay him with).
Young takes the extreme Libertarian position. The Libertarian philosophy is partly based on the idea that groups cannot have additional rights beyond the individual rights of the members. If you believe that then Young's position on antiquities has merit. I'm not coming out in support of Young — he is taking an extreme fringe position — merely pointing out the difficulty of obtaining agreement on moral rules.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Israel Antiquities Authority nabs coin seller; seizes "motley collection"

The Jerusalem post carried a story by Etgar Lefkovits yesterday, Man posing as J'lem tour guide nabbed for selling ancient coins to tourists.
A 43-year-old Arab resident of east Jerusalem has been arrested for allegedly posing as a city tour guide and selling tourists various rare antique coins...


About 300 archeology thefts are detected each year in Israel, with the illicit antiquities trade on the black market in the country estimated to be in the millions of dollars annually.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Posner's Skeptical Observations

I found this paper interesting: The International Protection of Cultural Property: Some Skeptical Observations by law professor Eric A. Posner.
... it is not clear what it means for a “people” to “possess” cultural property. In practice, proponents of this idea mean that the cultural property should be stored in museums located on the territory of the state in which the people live; but why should this satisfy the requirement of possession? Is it necessary for the people to be able to see the cultural property? What if, as a practical matter, a state can only store its cultural property, or most of it, in warehouses, or must leave it in the ground? Is it sufficient if some (or many) people in the relevant population own the cultural property and keep it stored in their houses?


Similarly, we should consider the possibility that antiquities are treated poorly today because they are so heavily regulated. Looters fear detection by the police; that is why they remove antiquities without taking care. If it were legal to remove cultural property and sell it, then professionals would take over, and use care because antiquities are worth more when their provenance is known, and when they are undamaged.

... recipient states should stop respecting the export restrictions of origin states, and should encourage origin states to eliminate export restrictions and decriminalize the ownership and trading of antiquities. ... If the market were legal, then prospectors could extract cultural property from the soil in the open, more slowly, in daylight, with more care, and with more attention to context. Because antiquities are more valuable when their provenance is known, prospectors would be more likely to hire professional archeologists to remove and record objects...
Posner believes that land owners would hire archeologists to dig for them, so as to maximize the economic value of unearthed antiquities. Perhaps. The recording of precise positions and fills is something that only archeologists care about. Perhaps land-owners will charge archeologists to dig for them and record those fills! The archeologists will pay because they need data to write papers about.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Zimbabwe returns to coins and barter

Angus Shaw reports on Zimbabwe for the Associated Press.
Auctioneers Hammer and Tongues announced the first "auction by barter" to be held Friday. Dozens of cars and other goods will be up for bids payable in gas coupons instead of hard currency...


Obsolete coins also have been revalued, sending Zimbabweans hunting for coins they squirreled away in recent years... Shops battled to count heaps of coins... One enterprising Harare business on Tuesday advertised coin weighing machines that even banks had discarded after coins went out of circulation in 2002.


Since the new money came out, it already has fallen in value against hard currencies by about 20 percent. "The petrol coupon has a more stable value and barter works," Robertson said.

ACCG benefit auction raises $45K

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is reporting that we have raised $45,811 in funds to fight regulations on ancient coin collecting.

I won Who Owns the Past? This copy was donated by one of the co-authors.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

OPEC for antiquities?

Larry Rothfield's blog The Punching Bag speculates on nations with antiquities forming a cartel to deal with market countries.

(This is from two weeks ago)

Finding Paths through the World's Photos

Finding Paths through the World's Photos, the followup to Photosynth.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fake Karystos didrachms in Harvard collection

An article by Christopher Reed in the September-October 2004 Harvard Magazine on fakes includes two fake Karystos didrachms. Both got past ANS past president Arthur Dewing. One got past three top authenticators.

The rest of the article covers other kinds of art fakes: paintings, an antiquity, photographs and even a pillow cover.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Money Controls, UK

Tom Shelley reports for Eureka on counterfeit detection for modern currency and coins.
...The infrared is crucial, because many notes employ areas that absorb infra red light, instead of reflecting it, in order to easily distinguish genuine notes from photocopies. A side benefit apparently of particular interest to casino owners is that images of notes can be retained, so that if a gambler believes he or she has not been credited with the correct denomination, the image of the last note can be instantly displayed...
Positions of coins in the machines are located optically, but surfaces and the constructions of the coins are examined by pairs of coils on each side of the coin – five each, in most of the company’s machines, running at a range of frequencies and phase relationships.... Forged one-pound coins, in one well established example in wide circulation, are made of white metal, sprayed gold, which reproduces the electrical behaviour of genuine coins. So accepting equipment strikes them against a piezo device, mounted on a special anvil...

Counterfeit Coin Newsletter #10 up

Robert Matthews has posted Counterfeit Coin Newsletter #10. There is much material on forgery of modern and ancient coins.
... John H. Green, owner of AAA Coin and Jewellery... was arrested and charged with selling counterfeit coins. ... Green's shop was ... raided and thousands of coins and a 900 pound hydraulic press and die stamps [were] seized.... In a plea bargain at a trial in July, Green agreed not to carry out any business in the three Florida counties of Polk, Hardee or Highlands while serving eight-years probation....

Once I saw this guy on a bridge...

A joke by Emo Philips may explain why ancient coin collectors and archaeologists can't get along. (It was voted world's funniest religious joke.)

Warren Esty suggests that 'archaeologists' and collectors should get along on Moneta-L.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Morton & Eden to sell 38,000 Hispanic Society coins

Peter Tompa comments upon Matthew Russell Lee's Inner City Press story on the upcoming sale of Archer Huntington's 38,000-strong collection of Hispanic coins.

The Hispanic Society's paintings make it worth a visit no matter what happens with the coins. (There are some mediocre ancient coins on display at the museum as well.)

I will be very grateful if Morton & Eden's catalog of the coins includes photographs of all 38,000 specimens — but somehow I doubt it. I expect unphotographed group lots for the non-star pieces. More important than the break up of the collection is the loss of the chance to photograph it. 38,000 photographs with Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licenses could have done a lot for future scholars. I don't think the ANS asked its membership to consider the desirability of contributing to such a project. It's possible the Hispanic Society did (or that it's being done anyway by Morton & Eden or out of a general fund.)

Friday, August 08, 2008

400,000 gold farmers earning an average US$145 per month

Andrew Leonard discusses gold farming on

Gold farming is the term for accumulating play money in online computer games with the intention of exchanging the game money for traditional government-backed paper currency.

Leonard's topic is a new 87-page research paper, "'Gold Farming': Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games" by Richard Heeks of the University of Manchester. Apparently 400,000 folks make their living doing this with a global market between $500,000,000 and $1,000,000,000 for game gold.

(via bOING bOING)

I'm not sure if a numismatist could collect and display game gold. It only lives in the game and doesn't actually have an appearance. Buying farmed gold on an exchange merely means you'll get a game-world visit from a stranger who will give you game money. The game money will merely increase your bank account balance on a server somewhere.

CNG 79

The catalog for CNG auction 79 is now up. 1296 lots of ancient coins. Also note 331 lots of numismatic literature. The auction closes September 17th.

Monday, August 04, 2008

sale: Ancient Numismatics And Its History

The David Brown Book Company is selling Ernest Babelon's Ancient Numismatics And Its History, recently translated into English by Elizabeth Saville, for $25. This is a big reduction from the usual $69 price. This book is probably the only good one on the 19th century literature on ancient coins and it also covers the formation of the national cabinets of Europe. I recommend it highly to everyone who hopes to understand the history of numismatics.

For details on the work see the publisher's page.

ACCG benefit auction

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is hosting a benefit auction to raise funds. The ACCG lobbies on behalf of ancient coin collectors against new laws and regulations on coin collecting (importing, paperwork, etc).

Bidding is open. The auction closes on August 17th. This is a benefit auction so consider making wildly high bids to support the ACCG's efforts.

Colored sculpture has a slideshow Greek statues colored as they would have been in ancient times. There is an accompanying article by Matthew Gurewitsch.

The bright colors make the statues, which we regard as elegant in their pure white form, garish. They remind me of sentimental cherubs and the Xtian figurines sold in gift shops.

Gurewitsch doesn't mention coins at all. He makes it sound like the ancients always experienced art with crazy colors. Coins have always been without color. Vases only used black and white pigment. Much ancient art would have been upon a coin or a vase, not marble or wood.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

More on COINS

I've been thinking more about the EU's COINS project to find stolen coins (which I previously discussed.) I think it has a chance of success and will strongly incent collectors to keep better records.

There aren't a lot of details on the COINS site so I imagined myself as the EU's experts implementing a theft-detector. There are two key computer image algorithms that can be used. The first is an algorithm to tell if two images depict the same coin (or two mated cast fakes). This is a hard problem because of lighting and angle variations. Yet computers can look at things we would never look at, though, like tiny variations in edge geometry and centering. I predict a good chance of success for the Technische Universit├Ąt Wein group designing this algorithm or algorithms.

The second key algorithm is one to attribute a coin to a mint. This is much harder than the previous problem. I can think of three approaches that seem feasible (which I won't give today). One approach requires significant expert human time to train the algorithm. Numismatists used to be expensive, but now that Mumbai University in India is offering a 1-year Masters Degree in Numismatics for the equivalent of US$71 it shouldn't be hard to find experts.

Even without the second algorithm the COINS project could have a big effect. The second algorithm, which might have been applied to tell if a coin is from Iraq or Cyprus, is probably not needed in practice.

Imagine a COINS server spidering all commercial numismatic web sites to create a coins in commerce image database. The spider would save every image of every coin forever and associate it with the seller's ID. For some sites, like eBay, the buyer's ID could also be recorded.

When a coin is stolen police would upload pictures of the stolen coins into a registry (similar to VCoins' Stolen Coin Registry.) The duplication checking algorithm would run all stolen coins against all previous and future images in the commerce database. Running against older sales helps with cases like the Veliko Tarnovo museum heist, where it is alleged the stolen coins were sold on eBay before the theft was detected.

If the algorithm is fast it could be used by customs agents during routine checks. Agents would just wave a camera over a traveller's coin trays and if a match is detected it would beep. In this variation it's important that false positives be kept very low! ... but it is OK if not every match is caught.

Computers never sleep and might find stolen coins years or decades after humans have forgotten the theft. There are also old, unsolved thefts to find. I suspect collectors will start to only buy from sites and auction houses certified as “pre-spidered for buyer protection by the COINS system” — or from very trusted offline dealers. Even when buying person-to-person, many collectors will check against the COINS web site as part of due-diligence to ensure their new acquisition won't land their heirs in hot water.

It should also be possible for forgery fighters such as the ISBCC to load their database of fakes and casts instead of a database of stolen images upon their own servers with the open-source COINS software. The algorithm would then detect fakes and could alert authorities if the fakes aren't being sold with the word 'replica' in the online description. Forgery fighters could charge for the service of guaranteeing an online sale didn't match a known fake.

At first I thought a simple matching algorithm wouldn't help much against looting. I suspect was wrong... Currently when looting is reported the antiquities police send guards to the site. Guards are expensive, can be bribed, and sometimes fall asleep. A new approach is to deal with looters by taking a handful of mid-grade coins, entering them into the database as stolen, and leaving them at ancient sites! It's a lot cheaper to put $500 worth of coins on a site than guard it. No looter will be able to resist the salted coins, which will soon appear online or at a customs check point, be flagged by the comparison algorithm, triggering traditional police work to trace back to the looters.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The COINS Project

The COINS Project is named for it's purpose: “Combat On-line Illegal Numismatic Sales”. It's funded by the European Commission. The General Presentation says that the project is getting €820,000 of funding (equivelent to US$1,277,000) to create a data model, open source software, thesaurus for numismatics, digital reference collections, and web tools to trace stolen coins and apply the 1970 UNESCO convention and 1993 UNIDROIT convention. A lot of the research is being done by the Pattern Recognition and Image Processing Group at Technische Universit├Ąt Wein.

As I mentioned before when discussing the previous work of the researchers although they plan to use the software mostly to aid police in fighting coin smuggling the tools will be very useful to collectors and researchers. It's wonderful they are making the software open source.

The group is hosting a Coin Recognition Workshop in Vienna on August 27th. I can't make it but if any of my readers go I'd love to hear of the details.

I missed a story by Martin Kugler on the project in Die Press. If any readers can understand it I'd appreciate a summary.