Building a Bridge between Ancient Coin Collecting and Good Ethical Practice

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by Nathan T. Elkins

October 13, 2016 – The discussion about collecting antiquities among the various stakeholders, specifically archaeologists, academics, museum directors and curators, dealers, and collectors, has been a heated one over the past several decades. At the core of the issue for archaeologists, historians, and many numismatists is the destruction of knowledge wrought by looting to supply a trade that is often, if not mostly, unconcerned with origin of objects. At the same time, collecting can generate an appreciation for the past; I know this firsthand. For many years as a teenager and in my early twenties I collected ancient coins until I became aware – both through study and through my experiences as a collector – of how objects were making it from the ground to the buyer. I am sympathetic to the love for history that drives most collectors. But if we value the past, we do not want to see any information about it destroyed and so we must be sensitive to the issues. After all, it is the knowledge of the past that objects impart that interests us so much as collectors and as academics, and so we must take steps to ensure our actions do not erode historical information or cause destruction. As I have stated in print multiple times, most collectors collect ancient coins because of a love for ancient history and the immediate connection to the past that these objects present. It is this love for the past that and a passion for antiquity and ancient history that archaeologists, academics, and collectors share.

Unfortunately, there has been too much extremism in demagoguery in the “debate” on ethics and ancient coins; for some, profit may take precedence over a love of history. I have never advocated an end to collecting, only that ethical considerations should play a role in collecting so that those of who do collect and who love learning about our past do not knowingly contribute to the loss of historical information (on the need for dialogue, engagement, and empowerment of collectors for change, see N.T. Elkins, “The Trade in Fresh Supplies of Ancient Coins: Scale, Organization, and Politics”, in P.K. Lazrus and A.W. Barker (eds.), pp. 104-107). And so, at the invitation of Ursula Kampmann, I have been asked to write this and to suggest what some steps towards ethical collecting might look like.

1. Refuse to make excuses for inaction

Making excuses for doing nothing to change the status quo is endemic in our political culture. This is a complex issue and there is no single “magic bullet.” We must instead consider what we as individuals can do to contribute to the betterment of the situation. Be wary of people who suggest that just because we don’t like some nation’s “retentionist” law, or because they haven’t adopted a PAS-like scheme, it is their fault and nothing can or should be done. Those same people might speculate “if I don’t buy ancient coins, finders will just melt them down,” characterizing themselves as saviors of ancient art. These are excuses for inaction. Furthermore, consider that nations are sovereign states with their own laws, and their laws do matter. Collectors and dealers have been burned in the past for disregarding the laws of nations from which objects originate and in the United States the National Stolen Property Act has been used to recover objects claimed by foreign nations. (On the importance of the laws in which the ancient objects that we might collect originate, see A.-P. Weiss, “Caveat Emptor: A Guide to Responsible Collecting”, ANS Magazine (fall 2012, issue 3), pp. 35-41).

2. Refuse to buy bulk lots of ancient coins and to do business with anyone handling them

Bulk lots of ancient coins with the dirt still on them, or lots marketed as “metal detector finds,” are loot. They come from one or more archaeological sites and represent significant damage and loss of information. Buying such objects rewards those who loot or who deal with looters, encouraging them to do more of it.

3. When buying ancient coins, keep a record of the sale and all details of their collecting history

There are increasing regulations in Europe and in the United States concerning ancient coins and antiquities. Being able to document when a coin was bought and who sold it, as well as any known details of its collecting history, will be important when it is resold or donated to a museum, which will request documentation of its collecting history. Coins with old collecting histories tend to command higher premiums at auction, perhaps owing both to higher ethical and legal standards and also to the increasing risk of acquiring forgeries.

4. Create an ethical guideline; implement a “cut-off date”

Archaeologists and museums often use 1970 as a benchmark for ethical acquisitions, as this is the date of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Many museums will not acquire an ancient object that does not have a verifiable collecting history before 1970. Obviously, a lot of time has passed since 1970 and a lot of ancient coins have entered the market since then, making 1970 an impractical date for most collectors. But this should not be an excuse for doing nothing. Choose a date and insist on a verifiable collecting history attesting it was already in the trade by that time before electing to buy it. At the very least, one can start today. This will help ensure that one is not inadvertently contributing to more recent and future looting.

5. Be mindful of foreign laws, your own laws, international agreements, and world affairs

While many types of ancient coins circulated broadly in antiquity, many circulated locally. Therefore, if a bunch of Roman provincial coins from Syria, which circulated locally, appear on the market and they do not have a verifiable collecting history, be weary of them as they might be looted objects owing to the political destabilization there (see Ute Wartenberg-Kagan’s essay on “Collecting Coins and the Conflict in Syria” on the need for awareness and vigilance). There has certainly been an uptick of Egyptian material on the market owing to the problems there. In the United States, several Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) have been implemented with various foreign countries restricting the import of ancient objects from certain countries into the United States. Collectors should be mindful of these agreements, and the classes of objects covered. To import a coin protected in the agreement of one of these countries, there must be a verifiable collecting history that it was in trade prior to the implementation of the agreement. So, for instance, a Roman provincial coin from Serdica (modern Sofia) would be covered in the agreement with Bulgaria, which was implemented on January 14, 2014. That means that anyone importing a coin protected in the agreement with Bulgaria into United States would need to document its existence in the trade prior to that date.

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